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The Squad Is Growing: A New Crew of Left Challengers Is Bringing Movement Politics to Congress

It’s not just AOC, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib. This crop of organizers-turned-politicians—alongside the Squad—plans to usher in a progressive revival in the House of Representatives.

Move­ment politi­cians under­stand that real change comes from peo­ple demand­ing it in the streets. (Photo: Ryan Olbrysh/In These Times)

Move­ment politi­cians under­stand that real change comes from peo­ple demand­ing it in the streets. (Photo: Ryan Olbrysh/In These Times)

America’s grow­ing pro­gres­sive move­ment has slow­ly been light­ing up nation­al pol­i­tics. While Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and the Repub­li­can Sen­ate blocked left-lean­ing bills and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship remained reluc­tant to ful­ly embrace real change, the ​“Squad”—pro­gres­sive House Democ­rats Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayan­na Press­ley (Mass.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Rashi­da Tlaib (Mich.) — won office in 2018. This band of orga­niz­ers-turned-con­gress­peo­ple has helped reen­er­gize left-wing elec­toral pol­i­tics. Now, they are get­ting reinforcements. 

Pro­gres­sives and demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists scored vic­to­ries up and down the bal­lot in the 2020 pri­maries — includ­ing in con­gres­sion­al races. Four chal­lengers from the Left, who took on entrenched incum­bents, are like­ly to join the left-lean­ing Squad in the House: Jamaal Bow­man and Mondaire Jones of New York, Marie New­man of Illi­nois and Cori Bush of Mis­souri (see side­bars for indi­vid­ual pro­files). By bring­ing an insur­gent mind­set to the halls of pow­er, this bur­geon­ing group aims to shake up main­stream Demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics by putting social move­ment demands at the fore­front of the nation­al agenda. 

A defining moment in the 2020 New York Democratic primary was picked up by a hot mic in the Bronx in early June. Rep. Eliot Engel—who since 1989 has represented the area straddling the city’s northernmost borough and Westchester County—begged Black Lives Matter rally organizers to squeeze him onto the list of speakers. “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” Engel said in what he believed was a private moment. Engel later tried to spin the remark, but the damage was done. The incident was widely regarded as evidence of Engel’s indifference to the lived realities of his constituents, whose neighborhoods Engel reportedly steered clear of as he rode out the pandemic in his Maryland home.

This more dis­rup­tive approach debuted on Capi­tol Hill in Novem­ber 2018. Weeks before being sworn into Con­gress, Oca­sio-Cortez threw tra­di­tion and deco­rum out the win­dow and joined an occu­pa­tion with the Sun­rise Move­ment out­side the office of Rep. Nan­cy Pelosi (D‑Calif.), who was angling to regain her role as House speak­er after Democ­rats won a new major­i­ty in the cham­ber. The Sun­rise Move­ment, a youth orga­ni­za­tion push­ing for action on cli­mate change, was pres­sur­ing Pelosi to cre­ate a new com­mit­tee on cli­mate change with sig­nif­i­cant pow­er — unlike tooth­less cli­mate com­mit­tees of the past. The spec­ta­cle of a soon-to-be con­gress­woman stand­ing along­side youth activists to con­front a top-rank­ing offi­cial of her own par­ty lent urgency and cred­i­bil­i­ty to the orga­niz­ers’ demands.

Jour­nal­ist Ryan Grim cov­ered the scene as it unfold­ed. As he recounts in his book, We’ve Got Peo­ple: From Jesse Jack­son to Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, the End of Big Mon­ey and the Rise of a Move­ment, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Ham­mill, was ​“red in the face, livid” as he asked Grim, ​“Can you tell them we sup­port every sin­gle thing they’re protest­ing us for?” Oca­sio-Cortez lat­er told Grim, ​“That is absolute­ly true … what this just needs to do is cre­ate a momen­tum and an ener­gy to make sure it becomes a pri­or­i­ty for leadership.”

The episode reflects the promise and strat­e­gy of an ascen­dant left-wing elec­toral move­ment striv­ing to replace ho-hum Democ­rats with bold can­di­dates fund­ed by small-dol­lar dona­tions and run­ning on uni­ver­sal pro­grams. By embrac­ing move­ment pol­i­tics, the log­ic goes, these offi­cials can push the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty left while rack­ing up wins. With Bow­man, Bush, New­man and Jones like­ly to win in their heav­i­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic dis­tricts, it’s becom­ing clear this par­ty-wide shift is already in motion.

In the summer of 2014, Cori Bush—then a pastor and nurse—joined street protests against the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., not far from her home in St. Louis. Bush wanted to be of use, and she quickly became a fixture in the protests that wound up continuing for months.

While Grim’s book fol­lows the U.S. elec­toral Left back to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 pres­i­den­tial run, the new move­ment picked up full steam after Ver­mont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, which direct­ly chal­lenged the Demo­c­ra­t­ic establishment’s cozy rela­tion­ship with cor­po­rate inter­ests while ele­vat­ing broad redis­trib­u­tive poli­cies like uni­ver­sal health­care, free pub­lic col­lege, tax­ing the rich and rais­ing the min­i­mum wage. While Sanders lost his 2016 pri­ma­ry to Hillary Clin­ton, his coalition’s fin­ger­prints are all over the move­ment: Oca­sio-Cortez was a 2016 Sanders cam­paign vol­un­teer, an expe­ri­ence that helped inspire her to protest the Dako­ta Access Pipeline at Stand­ing Rock and lat­er run for office.

The founders of the Jus­tice Democ­rats — an orga­ni­za­tion at the heart of the new pro­gres­sive elec­toral infra­struc­ture — were Sanders orga­niz­ers and staffers. Both of Sanders’ pres­i­den­tial runs helped swell the ranks of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca — of which Oca­sio-Cortez, Tlaib, Bow­man and Bush are all dues-pay­ing members.

But if the left-most flank of House Democ­rats dou­bles its mem­ber­ship in 2021, it does so in a very dif­fer­ent world than exist­ed dur­ing pri­ma­ry sea­son. Months into a pan­dem­ic, nation­wide upris­ings for racial jus­tice and crises in evic­tions and unem­ploy­ment, the expand­ing Squad is tak­ing pow­er at a tumul­tuous moment — one that demands unabashed pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics more than ever. As Grim tells it, the small-but-grow­ing left flank already has had a dis­pro­por­tion­ate impact on Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. ​“With­out them, you don’t have a Green New Deal — that sim­ply wouldn’t exist,” Grim says by phone. ​“And giv­en that the Green­land ice sheet is melt­ing and Cal­i­for­nia is turn­ing into ash­es … they’re at least giv­ing Democ­rats the pos­si­bil­i­ty of com­ing up with some mea­sure of a solu­tion that meets the scale of the problem.”

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This pro­gres­sive upsurge has pres­sured oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic elect­ed offi­cials to adopt more left-lean­ing posi­tions—par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pared with the party’s pre­vi­ous stan­dard-bear­ers. In 2016, Sanders famous­ly fought intran­si­gent Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship to include a $15 min­i­mum wage in the par­ty plat­form, after Clin­ton argued $12 was enough; by 2019, 206 of 235 House Democ­rats vot­ed for a $15 wage bill. In 2018, 58% of run­ning Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates sup­port­ed sin­gle-pay­er health­care, com­pared with only 27% in 2010. Arguably, Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Biden is run­ning on a more left-wing plat­form than Clin­ton did just four years ago, includ­ing more exten­sive pub­lic fund­ing for health­care and cli­mate change mitigation.

Just five days ahead of her March 17 primary, Marie Newman made a necessary but distressing campaign decision. Because of the escalating Covid-19 pandemic, Newman pulled more than 1,000 volunteers off of door-knocking and in-person get-out-the-vote efforts, reassigning them instead to phone banking and texting. It was nerve-racking for the campaign, which relied heavily on canvassing in Illinois’ 3rd District in southwest Chicagoland.

For Alexan­dra Rojas, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Jus­tice Democ­rats, this evo­lu­tion is a proof of con­cept that a for­mi­da­ble left pri­ma­ry strat­e­gy can change the par­ty not only by replac­ing mem­bers but just by threat­en­ing to. ​“I know, for a fact, [Sen­ate minor­i­ty leader] Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) would not be endors­ing the THRIVE Agen­da along­side dozens of oth­er pro­gres­sive groups if it wasn’t for fear of a pri­ma­ry chal­lenge,” Rojas says. THRIVE is a pro­posed stim­u­lus pack­age cen­ter­ing invest­ments in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, curb­ing cli­mate change and cre­at­ing union jobs. ​“This move­ment is pow­er­ful enough to get him and oth­ers out of office,” she says.

Sean McEl­wee, co-founder of polling firm Data for Progress, argues that even los­ing pri­ma­ry chal­lenges — like the 2020 cam­paign of pro­gres­sive May­or Alex Morse against incum­bent Rep. Richie Neal (D‑Mass.) — can have a pos­i­tive effect. ​“Hav­ing two mil­lion spent against you in a pri­ma­ry chal­lenge is an unpleas­ant expe­ri­ence and a lot of [incum­bents] would seek to reduce the pain of that,” McEl­wee says. 

If Morse runs again, as he has sug­gest­ed he will, he would be in good com­pa­ny: New­man and Bush won their rematch­es against incum­bents, hav­ing more name recog­ni­tion and strength­ened coali­tions. More­over, McEl­wee notes, redis­trict­ing stands to make incum­bents more vul­ner­a­ble than usu­al in the next cycle as their vot­ing bases shift, open­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for challengers.

If the move­ment has proven strong enough to knock out incum­bents, it also has proven capa­ble of pro­tect­ing favored law­mak­ers. Tlaib, Omar and Oca­sio-Cortez hand­i­ly beat their pri­ma­ry chal­lengers this year, despite breath­less news reports that their seats were in per­il. Press­ley ran unop­posed. In Mass­a­chu­setts, Sen. Ed Markey — a Demo­c­rat who’s recent­ly tak­en on more pro­gres­sive posi­tions, includ­ing co-spon­sor­ing the Green New Deal—eas­i­ly fend­ed off a pri­ma­ry chal­lenge from mod­er­ate Rep. Joe Kennedy III. That race began with polls show­ing Markey down 14 points in a state where a Kennedy had nev­er lost but end­ed in a 10-point vic­to­ry for Markey, thanks in large part to ener­getic sup­port from pro­gres­sive groups, includ­ing more than a mil­lion phone calls made by the Sun­rise Move­ment. ​“Our allies worked their ass­es off to make that hap­pen,” Rojas says. ​“That was impor­tant to show incum­bents that if you lean into the pro­gres­sive move­ment, we are pow­er­ful enough to have your back if you have ours.”

In the summer of 2019, Mondaire Jones—a 32-year-old Obama-era Justice Department employee—launched his long-shot primary campaign as a challenge to powerful, long-time Rep. Nita Lowey. It’s a decision he largely ascribes to his soon-to-be colleague, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Still, even if Biden defeats Trump and the Democ­rats retake the Sen­ate, pass­ing a Green New Deal or Medicare for All will remain a tall order in Con­gress, where the sta­tus quo reigns supreme. As the fight over the vacan­cy cre­at­ed by the death of Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg illus­trates, Democ­rats already have their hands full sim­ply beat­ing back pow­er grabs from the Right. 

Ulti­mate­ly, a pow­er­ful left flank in Con­gress is only as strong as the move­ment it’s behold­en to — and that pow­er can’t be built through elec­tions alone. The grow­ing Squad plans to lever­age their ties to move­ment pol­i­tics—such as Black Lives Mat­ter and labor orga­niz­ing — and, like Sanders, have used their plat­forms to encour­age turnout at protests and pick­et lines. 

Move­ment politi­cians under­stand that real change comes from peo­ple demand­ing it in the streets. And accord­ing to Rojas, these new faces in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic coali­tion are stick­ing around. ​“The base of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is increas­ing­ly look­ing like Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, Jamaal Bow­man, Cori Bush and Ayan­na Press­ley,” Rojas says. ​“If we want to build the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty of the future, you’ve got to embrace the future. And I think that’s what these pri­maries are show­ing. In many ways, I think they’re inevitable.”

Natalie Shure

Natalie Shure is the Head of Research for Adam Ruins Everything on TruTV. She writes about health, history and politics.

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