For Progressive Democrats, New Momentum Clashes With Old Debates

Progressive victories in Wisconsin and Chicago have injected new momentum into the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But those recent electoral successes are masking deeper internal tensions over the role and influence of progressives in a party President Biden has been remaking in his moderate image.

Interviews with more than 25 progressive and moderate Democratic leaders and strategists — including current and former members of Congress and directors of national and statewide groups — revealed a behind-the-scenes tug of war over the party’s policy agenda, messaging and tactics. As the party looks toward next year’s elections, its key constituencies have undergone a transformation. Once mostly white, working-class voters, Democrats now tend to be affluent, white liberals, Black moderates and a more diverse middle class.

On some fronts, progressives — a relatively young, highly educated and mostly white bloc that makes up about 12 percent of the Democratic coalition and is the most politically active — have made inroads. Their grass-roots networks, including several headed by Black and Latino leaders, have grown sharply since the heights of the widespread resistance to the Trump administration. Beyond the high-profile victories in Chicago and Wisconsin, they have won under-the-radar local and state races across the country. And many of their views have moved into the mainstream and pushed the government to expand the fight against child poverty, climate change and other social ills.

“We as a movement helped articulate these things, to do these things,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, the Washington State Democrat who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Yet at the same time, the activist left wing remains very much on the defensive.

The negotiations with the White House on some of the most sweeping legislation fell short of the bold, structural change many of their members sought. And progressives remain locked in an old debate with their moderate counterparts — as well as themselves — over how to communicate progressive ideas and values to voters at a time when slogans like “defund the police” have come under attack by Republicans and moderate Democrats.

“In 2018, our party seemed to react to Donald Trump winning in 2016, and the reaction was to go further and further left,” said Cheri Bustos, a former Illinois congresswoman who is a moderate and was a leader of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “When politics swings far to the left or far to the right, there always seems to be a reckoning.”

As Mr. Biden has signaled that he plans to run for re-election in 2024, he has been emphasizing the moderate roots he has embodied throughout much of his roughly 50 years in politics. He has replaced a key ally of the left in the White House — Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s former chief of staff — with Jeffrey D. Zients, who some progressive groups see as too friendly to corporate interests. And he has been clashing with activists who have accused him of backsliding on his liberal approaches to crime, statehood for the District of Columbia, climate issues and immigration policy.

Progressive is a label that encompasses various factions within the American left and can mean different things to different people. Broadly, progressives tend to believe the government should push for sweeping change to solve problems and address racial and social inequities. Like moderate and establishment Democrats, they support strong economic and social safety net programs and believe the economic system largely favors powerful interests.

But points of tension emerge between moderates and progressives over tactics: Progressives tend to call for ambitious structural overhauls of U.S. laws and institutions that they see as fundamentally racist over incremental change and more measured policy approaches.

In an interview with the socialist political magazine Jacobin, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of the most prominent progressive Democrats in the House, highlighted the tension by criticizing the president for making a “lurch to the right.”

“I think it is extremely risky and very perilous should the Biden administration forget who it was that put him over the top,” she told the magazine, referring to the high turnout in the 2020 presidential election of young people and communities of color.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is the rare Democratic member of Congress to publicly criticize the president. Several other progressives said they had accepted their role as having a seat at the table, though not necessarily at the head of it. Some said they believed Mr. Biden would serve as a bridge to new generation of progressive leaders, even if for now they are caught in a waiting game.

“Right now, the progressives are sort of building power — it is like a silent build that is just going to explode in a post-Biden world,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California, a co-chairman of Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. “I just can’t conceive of a situation where progressives aren’t dominating presidential elections over the next 15 years after Biden.”

The victories in Wisconsin and Chicago followed a similar playbook: Thousands of volunteers knocked on doors, made calls, wrote postcards, fired off mass texts and canvassed college campuses. They shied away from slogans and divisions among Democrats and emphasized the threat of an anti-democratic, Trumpian movement on the right. They turned out diverse coalitions of voters.

In Chicago that allowed progressives to propel Brandon Johnson, a once little-known county commissioner and union organizer, to clinch a narrow victory in the mayor’s race over his more conservative Democratic opponent, Paul Vallas, who ran on a tough-on-crime platform and was endorsed by a police union. In Wisconsin, where Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal Milwaukee County judge, won a high-stakes race for a seat on the state’s Supreme Court, it allowed Democrats to lean into issues that the establishment wing of the party once tended to avoid in Republican and heavily contested areas: increased access to abortion and collective bargaining rights.

“I couldn’t feel more proud or feel more vindicated that the type of politics we argued for are where more Americans are at,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, a grass-roots organization that often works with progressive Democrats and mobilized voters in Chicago and Wisconsin.

Progressives have also been increasing their ranks in other places. Members of their wing now hold the mayor’s office in Los Angeles and a majority on the board of aldermen in St. Louis. They have swept into statehouses in Colorado, Connecticut and Wisconsin, where two Democratic Socialists this year revived a socialist caucus inactive since the 1930s. At the federal level, the House’s Congressional Progressive Caucus added 16 new members, bringing the total number of the organization to 102 — one of the largest ideological caucuses in Congress.

But as they build their organizing power, progressives are contending with a financial framework at the mercy of boom-and-bust cycles. Major gifts from donors or progressive attention to a cause du jour can draw sudden revenue windfalls and then dry out. In the Trump years, some grass-roots groups had explosive growth as progressives rushed to combat Trump policies, elevate a younger and more diverse crop of candidates and help fuel a national reckoning with racism. By the 2022 midterms, some progressive candidates and groups were having to rewrite budgets, considering laying off staff members and triaging outreach programs and advertising as donations slowed.

In Georgia, the Asian American Advocacy Fund, which focuses on mobilizing Asian American voters, went from having six full-time employees and a budget of roughly $95,000 in 2018 to a staff of 14 and a budget of $3 million in 2022. Its executive director, Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, said the boom allowed the group to run better programs but also made those projects harder to sustain when donations ran low. The group was among several in swing states that struggled in 2022 to get political canvassing efforts off the ground as major Democratic donors cut back on their political giving.

“We lost momentum, and we lost the vast majority of people who tuned into politics and tuned into elections, many maybe for the first time in their lives, because there was this villain who needed to be defeated,” Mrs. Yaqoob Mahmood said.

Political analysts also warned against reading too much into progressive gains in areas that already lean liberal. During the midterms, the candidates who won tough midterm contests in purple places like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada largely adopted more moderate positions. And more progressive nominees who beat moderates in a number of House primaries lost in the general election.

“The whole name of the game is creating a majority, and the majority makers are the moderates,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a centrist organization. Referring to progressives, he said: “They can win occasionally. But for the most part, they lose because what they’re selling isn’t what Dems want to be buying.”

As Mr. Trump vies for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, with multiple investigations hanging over his campaign, both moderate and progressive Democrats said they were forming a united front against a common foil and on issues where there is less division within their party, like abortion and protecting democracy. But for progressives, that has still meant a delicate dance about who they are.

In Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, successfully campaigning for Senate last year, argued that he was not a progressive but “just a Democrat.” In Virginia, Jennifer McClellan, who became the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress, has called herself a “pragmatic progressive,” emphasizing her decades of working across the aisle.

The stakes are especially high for progressives in Arizona, where a fierce race is expected over Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s seat, after she left the Democratic Party in December to become an independent. Ms. Sinema flipped a Republican-held seat by hewing to the center and relying on progressive groups that turned out a large coalition of Democratic and independent voters.

Now, Representative Ruben Gallego of Phoenix, a member of the progressive congressional caucus, is running for the seat.

In some ways, Mr. Gallego is a bona fide progressive. He has been promoting policies like expanding affordable health care, enacting a permanent child tax credit and increasing wages. In other ways, he is reluctant to openly embrace the progressive brand, preferring instead to talk about his vision for Arizona or his experience as a Marine combat veteran and former construction worker as a way to help bring those working-class Latinos who now vote Republican back into the Democratic fold.

Asked if he sees himself as a progressive, Mr. Gallego said, “I see myself as someone who has been a worker and a fighter for working-class families.” He added, “We are not going to be focusing on D.C. labels.”

Susan Campbell Beachy contributed research.

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