This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
The Democratic Party is at war with itself. Across the country, and at all levels of government, a vision of the party anchored in the interests of everyday people is challenging the centrist establishment coalition that has long tethered itself to Wall Street and corporate donors instead. Nowhere is this power struggle more visible than in the U.S. House of Representatives, where insurgent Democratic candidates are declaring victory in key races across the country tonight. This marks the second straight election in which voters who demand more responsive representation in Washington have elected new lawmakers who are not shy about promising to deliver it.
This movement burst on the national scene in 2018, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset Representative Joe Crowley, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and went on to win the general election in New York’s 14th Congressional District. “I’m not running ‘from the left,’” Ocasio-Cortez said during the primary. “I’m running from the bottom. I’m running in fierce advocacy of working class Americans.”
Along with Ayanna Pressley, who ousted longtime incumbent Representative Mike Capuano in Massachusetts’s Democratic primary, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both of whom won primaries for seats vacated by Democratic incumbents, the foursome known as “The Squad” have since emerged as prominent voices within Democratic politics, their relatively junior status in the House of Representatives notwithstanding.
“It’s not just about dismantling—we’re also intentional about building and fostering,” Pressley told The Guardian last year. “The reality is anyone who is interested in building a more equitable and just world is a part of The Squad.”
Tonight, The Squad expanded its membership in dramatic fashion. In New York, educator Jamaal Bowman will become the next representative of the state’s 16th Congressional District, four months after beating incumbent Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary. Engel currently leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and has served in Congress for more than three decades.
Bowman’s race is one of many this cycle defined by generational change, elevating new leaders whose experiences and interests more closely resemble those of their constituents than their predecessors who entered politics in a different era. In Missouri, nurse and activist Cori Bush ousted William Lacy Clay in the First Congressional District’s Democratic primary, ending five decades of Clay family dominance. (The younger Clay took over in 2001 for his father, Bill, who spent 32 years in the House.) Bush handily defeated Republican Anthony Rogers in the general election, and will become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress.
Joining Bowman in New York’s congressional delegation are Mondaire Jones, elected to represent the 17th District after Representative Nita Lowey announced her retirement last fall, and Ritchie Torres, who replaces the retiring Representative José Serrano in the 15th District. Jones and Torres will share the distinction of being the first openly gay Black members of Congress. Like Bowman, they ran on their support for policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
In Illinois, Medicare for All proponent Marie Newman will replace Dan Lipinski as the representative for the Third District. Like Bush, Newman took down a political dynasty: Lipinski inherited the seat in 2004 from his 11-term representative father, Bill Lipinski, who won that year’s primary and then announced his retirement. And like Bush, Newman’s victory came despite opposition from the party establishment: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had maintained its official support for Lipinski, effectively blacklisting organizations and consultants working with challengers like Newman.
What these winners have in common are platforms that center the issues that younger voters and working families care most about: healthcare, job creation, economic inequality, and a willingness to treat climate change as an immediate, existential threat to the planet rather than an esoteric subject of political debate.
With one Congress under its inaugural members’ belt, the next challenge for this rapidly growing Democratic coalition is to translate their electoral successes into substantive legislative accomplishments. Historically, in a heavily hierarchical and seniority-based institution like the House, this has not been a simple task, says Daniel Schlozman, political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. “The influence in the broader public sphere is often thought of as a negative quality, because you are not ‘waiting your turn,’ and because members of other districts don’t want to be tarred with a brand that they think is bad in their district,” he said.
Schlozman points to climate, however, as an issue where the House’s progressive wing has an opportunity to assert itself, since the Green New Deal has yet to be distilled to a package of specific proposals for lawmakers to consider and vote on. There is, in other words, not an entrenched consensus Democratic position that Squad members would run up against while making their pitch to voters. “That’s where there’s uncertainty—where there’s the most promise and peril, and the most opportunity for political leadership to frame things in different and creative ways,” Schlozman says.
The expansion of this group beyond its most prominent members could also have significant implications for the future of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has become unwieldy as Democrats seeking to co-opt the “progressive” label have decided to buy it—literally—for a $4,000 annual dues payment. The elections of more prospective members willing to challenge party leadership, however, could make the caucus a more disciplined unit. Ryan Grim reported in The Intercept that a proposed set of reforms for the upcoming Congress could help rid the caucus of, in the words of one member, the “free riding members that claim CPC membership but aren’t actually progressive.”
Ethan Porter, a political scientist at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, points to Squad members’ prodigious fundraising talents as likely to help them further develop their relationships with colleagues. And their recent signaled willingness to build coalitions with party establishment figures—even those with whom they disagree—is a promising sign for their political futures, he says.
“If they merely take an oppositional stance, they’re less likely to be influential. I don’t see them doing that.”
Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.