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What's Left for the Left in Washington?

Osita Nwanevu
13 min read
A head and shoulders shot of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez looking to her right in front of a black backdrop.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Wikimedia Commons)

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


It’s been a while since I’ve done a straight-up politics post and I suppose that’s reflective of my state of interest in most of what’s been going on. There were some exchanges worth thinking through about a piece last week, though. AOC endorsed Biden on Pod Save America the other day; Freddie deBoer responded with a critique of her current standing as a political figure. “To deliver that particular endorsement while appearing on that particular podcast — where former Obama-administration staffers define the limits of acceptable left-of-center opinion — was to send a very deliberate message,” he wrote. “It was AOC’s last kiss-off to the radicals who had supported her, voted for her, donated to her campaign, and made her unusually famous in American politics, the beneficiary of a wholly unique cult of personality that is now starting to come undone.”

Some of the critique is about her diminished attention to and forthrightness on certain policy issues ⁠— including immigration and Israel— since Biden took office. But deBoer is first and foremost an analyst of vibes. So the critique that’s leveled and that lands the hardest is about AOC’s approach to protest votes ⁠— or rather, her seeming lack of one:

Consider the debates within the Democratic Party about using the 2021 American Rescue Plan COVID relief bill to raise the federal minimum wage. Adjusted for inflation, the 1970 federal minimum wage was more than $12 an hour; the 2023 minimum wage stands at $7.25. Under the auspices of a federal Democratic trifecta, some left-leaning Democrats proposed raising that meager minimum. There was nothing nefarious about this effort; ramming through favored legislation as part of major packages is a bog-standard element of congressional practice. Republicans do it all the time. And yet, predictably, centrist Democrats fought against the effort.
Ocasio-Cortez, at first, looked like a champion of the minimum wage increase. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Take Minimum Wage Fight Directly to Joe Biden,” read a Newsweek headline that was typical of the breathless style with which AOC has been covered. “There are progressive Democrats that have that muscle in the House,” Ocasio-Cortez was quoted as saying. “If we as a party decide to stand down on our promise of elevating the minimum wage, I think that’s extraordinarily spurious and it’s something that as a party we could have a further conversation about how to fight for it.”
Would it surprise you to learn that they did not, in fact, use that muscle? When the time came, she voted for the ARP bill anyway. Of course she would have lost if she had voted against the bill, but then why not do so as a symbolic gesture? She clearly has no issue with making such gestures, given that some 18 months later she would stand as the only Democrat to vote against an omnibus spending bill supported by the president. This has been a maddening element of her tenure in Congress: There’s no rhyme or reason to when she will and won’t buck party leadership, no internal logic to which hills she’s willing to die on and which she isn’t.

That may be so, but ultimately, symbolic votes are symbolic. Though they offer up opportunities to draw attention to and take rhetorical stands on important issues, it makes little material difference whether AOC takes a vote she’s sure to lose on or not. Taking some protest votes is better than taking none at all and presumably more practically feasible and meaningful than trying to take as many contrary votes as possible and making each one an event. But here deBoer asks a broader question ⁠—if AOC can’t do much on her own on the Hill than take a few protest votes when the roll call comes around, “what have we been celebrating her for?” “We might, if we’re asking what exactly AOC has accomplished, or why her reception has been so rapturous if we aren’t allowed to expect anything of her,” he adds, “have the same conversation about Sanders.”

For years, the standard line has been that Bernie and AOC and the Squad have value beyond their votes because they serve as a symbol of what’s possible on the far-left of partisan politics, and their visibility will inspire more people to vote for left candidates, donate to their campaigns, or run for office as socialists themselves. In 2016, I was told that, win or lose, Sanders’s primary battle was generating a permanent infrastructure for left organizing within the Democratic Party, that the email lists and donor corps would live on past that primary and beyond Bernie and become a tool for durable lefty muscle within the Democratic system.
Well, I think the jury has come back in: The increased visibility of a few socialist politicians has not made far-left Democratic power any more achievable or scalable. The radical wing of the party can still fit our representation in Congress in a three-row SUV. And perhaps we’ve waited long enough to recognize that there’s no reason to expect better in the near future. it’s been three years since a Democratic presidential primary in which candidates professed, so briefly, to care about the left wing of the party, including making broad promises about desperately needed health-care reform; five years since Ocasio-Cortez was elected after making constant self-aggrandizing statements about her revolutionary potential; seven years since the Bernie Sanders primary run in 2016, when it briefly seemed like real change might be coming to the Democratic Party; 12 years since Occupy Wall Street, which demonstrated the organic demand for radical change; and 15 years since the financial crisis that convinced so many Americans that the system is broken and that the wealthy broke it. What do we have to show for all of the noise that’s been made in that time? Where are the next-generation champions who were supposed to emerge from the Bernie for 2016 machine? Where is this much-ballyhooed wave of socialist agitators who were going to win office? We might, finally, have to admit that the too-pure-to-live lefties who insisted that nothing would ever come from all of this noise were right and that the Democratic Party is simply structurally resistant to socialist change. There is no more fruit to pick here.

As is often the case, deBoer’s picture of reality here isn’t really recognizable to me. There are more socialists in public office today than there have been in generations; there are more socialists in this Congress, specifically, than ever before in American history. The fact that candidates felt the need to make promises on health-care reform and other appeals to the left in 2020 is an indication, in itself, of how much more influence the left wields within the Democratic Party today than it did in before 2016. And while most of those promises were discarded immediately once the primaries were over, it’s plain that the left’s influence is nevertheless shaping policy under Biden ⁠— partially because, as I wrote five years ago, the party’s center is out of policy solutions for our most significant challenges and was poorly equipped, in particular, to offer economic prescriptions in the aftermath of the pandemic. It’s obvious to most analysts left-of-center – even non-leftists – that the Obama administration gravely undershot its response to the Great Recession. And determined not to make the same mistake again, Democratic policy hands turned leftward this time around, as Eric Levitz detailed in his comprehensive response to deBoer:

One of the left’s principal indictments of the Obama administration was that it mismanaged the post-2008 recovery. Instead of fully replacing all of the economic demand lost to the financial crisis, Democrats sought to keep their stimulus bill from exceeding the arbitrary threshold of $1 trillion. In doing so, they prioritized an essentially superstitious fear of large numbers over minimizing joblessness. As a result, four years into Obama’s presidency, the U.S. unemployment rate remained above 8 percent.
Between 2009 and 2020, many left-wing Democrats agitated for their party to embrace a “full employment” macroeconomic policy. AOC was among them. Then, when the COVID crisis hit, Democrats did as these progressives advised.
In 2020, congressional Democrats insisted on increasing unemployment benefits to a level that left many laid-off workers with more income than they’d previously earned at their jobs. Under Biden, meanwhile, Democrats enacted a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill on a party-line vote. The party’s decision to pursue stimulus on this scale — after Congress had already appropriated trillions of dollars in relief spending — was explicitly motivated by the left’s critique of Obama.
[...] Notably, in putting such a high premium on full employment relative to price stability, the Biden administration sided with the left over erstwhile members of the party’s economic Establishment, Obama White House alums Larry Summers and Jason Furman.
Taken together, the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan enabled poverty to fall during the COVID recession and triggered one of the fastest labor-market recoveries in history. Biden’s economic management yielded tight labor markets that have increased the bargaining power of low-wage workers and abetted union organizing. As a result, lower-income workers have recovered roughly 25 percent of the increase in wage inequality that accrued between Ronald Reagan’s election and Biden’s. The employment rate among disabled Americans is at a record high, while the overall unemployment rate is near record lows.
Of course, Biden’s macroeconomic policy did also contribute to inflation. But again, it was the left that implored Democrats to take that risk for the sake of minimizing joblessness.

Levitz goes on to recount the administration’s leftward moves on climate, student debt, and foreign policy; the antitrust policy reboot might have taken up another article on its own. All of that’s federal policy, of course. Levitz also makes room to talk up progressive gains in states like Minnesota, where Democrats

have established paid family and medical leave, invested $1 billion into affordable housing, provided a refundable tax credit (i.e., cash aid) to low-income households with children, prohibited non-compete clauses in labor contracts, barred employers from holding compulsory anti-union meetings, strengthened workplace protections for meatpacking and Amazon workers, empowered teachers’ unions to bargain over educator-to-student ratios, empaneled a statewide board to set minimum labor standards for nursing-home workers, directed $2.58 billion into improved infrastructure, made school breakfast and lunch free from all Minnesota K-12 students, and increased taxes on corporations and high earners, among other things.

Good things are happening thanks substantially to the work the left has put in over the last decade or so, and deBoer should recognize it. But I don’t think that deBoer is wrong to suggest that there’s a ceiling to all this. After all, ARP, the IRA, and CHIPs aside, the Democratic Party has failed to enact the vast majority of its stated non-COVID, non-crisis legislative priorities ⁠— immigration reform, the voting rights and democratic reform bills, the PRO Act, increasing the minimum wage, an assault weapons ban, another healthcare bill, reams of child and family policy, and so on. For reasons that ought to be obvious to readers of my previous writing and my letter, it is extraordinarily hard to make liberal policy in Washington, let alone left policy; the most salient challenges for the left here have less to do with the machinations of Democratic Party elites, real as they often are, than with the structures of American governance and the bare fact, as Levitz reminds those who might need reminding, that most Americans…still aren’t leftists:

The United States is one of the wealthiest societies to have ever existed. The median U.S. household earns more than $70,000 a year and owns their own home. Only 6 percent of private-sector workers are unionized. Over 70 percent of U.S. voters identify as moderate or conservative. More than three-quarters of Americans say they are satisfied with their “standard of living.” The three most trusted institutions in the United States — by far — are the military, Amazon, and the police. In April, 60 percent of U.S. voters told Gallup that their federal tax bill was “too high,” this despite the fact that contemporary federal tax rates are low by modern standards.
In their electoral behavior, Americans routinely evince a bias toward the status quo, and a tendency to punish parties that pursue radical policy change. Thus, when Democrats in deep-blue Vermont tried to enact state-level single-payer health care, Vermont voters responded by electing a Republican governor. (When the GOP imposed its own radical fiscal visions on Kansas, that deep-red state responded by putting a Democrat in charge.)
This is not a favorable political landscape for those who wish to abolish private property, and concentrate economic authority in a democratic state. Of course, public opinion does not emerge ex nihilo from the will of the people. But it is implausible that the American public’s suspicion of radical change derives primarily from the Democratic Party’s refusal to boldly advocate for socialism, rather than the facts that (1) the median U.S. voter is prosperous by both global and historical standards, (2) human beings in general evince a status-quo bias, (3) America’s racial divisions have historically inhibited class solidarity and consciousness, and (4) capitalists enjoy considerable influence over American culture and common sense.

If we aspire to more than holding second-order influence over a party that will increasingly struggle to win elections in the years ahead ⁠— and I think we should ⁠— the left is going to have to find ways to reach and appeal to the broad unconverted electorate despite those conditions. I don’t know that taking a bunch of protest votes in the House is going to be a particularly important part of that effort. In fact, as I’ve written before, it would probably be wise to shift our focus away from federal politics; we ought to invest more fully in building power closer to ground. States and localities are heating up as policy battlegrounds anyway; it might make sense to try winning control of a state ⁠— which might serve as a proof of concept for the political and substantive viability of left proposals ⁠— before we try our hands again at winning the country.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t send more AOCs to Congress when solid opportunities arise or that all we can expect from them are speeches and the occasional protest vote. After all, most of the power wielded in Washington is invisible, even to pundits. I’ve often said that the left has a lot to learn from the right; The New York Times offered up another reminder of that yesterday in a piece by Mike McIntire on the legislative history of gun control that I haven’t seen widely discussed. It’s based substantially on the recently unearthed papers of the late Michigan Congressman John Dingell ⁠— a Democrat, actually ⁠— best known to most who’ve heard of him as the longest serving member of Congress in American history and better known to me, specifically, as perhaps the highest-profile politician in recent times to have called for the abolition of the Senate. He was also, unfortunately, on the board of directors for the National Rifle Association and one of its main advocates on the Hill for most of his career.

As public agitation about gun violence grew in the 1960s, culminating in the Gun Control Act of 1968, Dingell was among those who recommended that the NRA pursue a novel rhetorical strategy:

The debate over the Gun Control Act agitated Mr. Dingell, his files show. He asked the Library of Congress to research Nazi-era gun confiscations in Germany to help prove that regulating firearms was a slippery slope. He considered investigating NBC News for a gun rights segment he viewed as one-sided. At an N.R.A. meeting, he railed about a “patriotic duty” to oppose the “ultimate disarming of the law-abiding citizen.”
As Mr. Johnson prepared to sign the act in fall 1968, Mr. Dingell was convinced that gun ownership faced an existential threat and wrote to an N.R.A. executive suggesting a bold strategy.
The group, he said, must “begin moving toward a legislative program” to codify an individual’s right to bear arms “for sporting and defense purposes.” It was a major departure from the Supreme Court’s sparse record on Second Amendment issues up to that point. The move would neutralize arguments for tighter gun restrictions in Congress and all 50 states, he said.
“By being bottomed on the federal constitutional right to bear arms,” he wrote, “these same minimal requirements must be imposed upon state statutes and local ordinances.”

In my book, I’ve written a fair amount about how the broad public’s understanding of how influence works in Congress ⁠— shared by perhaps most on the left ⁠— isn’t really right. There’s not much evidence that dumping money on candidates reliably changes votes; those who’ve studied money in politics closely have found instead that policymakers, interest groups, and corporations work together to shape policy in wonky, subtle ways and often well before votes are even cast. And that was true of Dingell’s work on gun policy:

In a private letter in October 1978, the N.R.A. president, Lloyd Mustin, said his “insights and guidance on the details of any gun-related matter pending in the Congress” were “uniformly successful.” Just as valuable, he said, was the congressman’s stealthy manipulation of the legislative process.
“These actions by him are often carefully obscured,” Mr. Mustin wrote, so they may “not be recognized or understood by the uninitiated observer.”
As chairman of the powerful House commerce committee, Mr. Dingell would send “Dingellgrams” — demands for information from federal agencies — drafted by the N.R.A. Other times, on learning of a lawmaker’s plan to introduce a bill, he would scribble a note to an aide saying, “Notify N.R.A.”
Beginning in the 1970s, he pushed the group to fund legal work that could help win court cases and enshrine policy protections. The impact would be far-reaching: Some of the earliest N.R.A.-backed scholars were later cited in the Supreme Court’s District of Columbia vs. Heller decision affirming an individual right to own a gun, as well as a ruling last year that established a new legal test invalidating many restrictions.
[...] Mr. Dingell’s legislative acumen proved indispensable to the gun lobby.
The 1972 Consumer Products Safety Act, designed to protect Americans from defective products, might have reduced firearms accidents that killed or injured thousands each year. But the N.R.A. viewed it as a backdoor to gun control, and Mr. Dingell slipped in an amendment to the new law, exempting from regulatory oversight items taxed under “section 4181 of the Internal Revenue Code” — which only covers firearms and ammunition.

It should be said too that the relationship Dingell forged with the NRA allowed for the occasional pro-gun control vote or compromise. “While Mr. Dingell’s office was publicly boasting in 1974 of his bill to restrict ‘Saturday night specials,’ cheap handguns often used in crimes,” McIntire writes for instance, “C.R. Gutermuth, then the N.R.A.’s president, confided in a private letter that the congressman had only introduced it to ‘effectively prevent’ stronger bills.” And twenty years later, after Dingell was pressured into supporting the Assault Weapons Ban, he immediately started working towards its repeal. He would try making up for his vote after Columbine too, with amendments that weakened background checks in a proposed gun control package ⁠— so much so, in fact, that the bill collapsed after liberal Democrats pulled their support. “At the N.R.A., the collapse of the bill was seen as a victory,” McIntire writes, “An internal report cited Mr. Dingell’s ‘masterful leadership.’ A year later the group honored him with a “legislative achievement award.”

I’d really recommend reading the whole piece not just as an informative look at gun policy but, again, as a look at how Congress actually works. I rarely see people on the left talking at this level of sophistication about what figures like Sanders, AOC, and others have done or could be doing. We think in big and often meaningless gestures; we pine for moments of confrontation where everyone learns where everyone else stands on Medicare for All or climate policy or what have you, as though we didn’t know already, and not much generally follows but a few often doomed primary campaigns. Discipline and careful attention to the slow, dry, and boring bits of politics have served the right extraordinarily well. Ask the NRA or the lawyers who spent the last few decades working towards the repeal of Roe. The Democrat Dingell’s record and the conservative policy infrastructure as a whole demonstrate, in a way that ought to be reassuring to people on the left, that building power as they have does mean building an ideological movement outside and above a particular party. But it’ll take more than protest votes and posturing to do it.

A Song

"PROBLEMZ" – Jungle (2022)