The crises of the past year have stressed the need for sweeping change. Millions globally have lost their lives to a completely avoidable COVID crisis, entire life savings have been depleted, and we’ve seen first hand the devastating consequences of climate change. 

At the same time, the potential is wide open for organizing to win pro working-class demands like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and a federal $15/hr minimum wage. The powerful Black Lives Matter protest movement, alongside the revival of labor organizing shown in Bessemer and in the ongoing campaign for the PRO Act, present the raw material for a fighting movement to take shape. Biden is hard-pressed to signal his willingness to spend big and to posture himself as progressive on workers’ rights and the climate. Public pressure is having an impact: Biden was forced to walk back his plans to maintain Trump’s refugee cap because of outcry against this barbaric rule. 

The newly expanded Squad and progressive Senators like Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey could put up a fight for lasting gains, but they have yet to take a real stand in Congress. The Democratic leadership is maneuvering to co-opt the Squad on the condition that they play nice and go along with the “bipartisan,” incremental, and wholly insufficient measures being pursued by the establishment. Between the opportunity to “Force the Vote” for Medicare for All legislation, and the chance to demand inclusion of a $15/hr federal minimum wage in Biden’s stimulus package, progressives and the Squad have backed away from fights that were not only winnable, but had the power to mobilize a mass base. 

This crisis of confidence affecting progressives in Congress is out of touch with the real possibility for struggle. The payoffs of their current approach of “keeping the peace” in Congress have been dubious at best, and worse, have cost them credibility among many of their supporters on the left. There are battles on the horizon, and the Squad could play a crucial role in helping lead the coming struggles to victory. 

Winning what we truly need will take serious determination and courage at all levels of society, from the streets, to our workplaces, and within the halls of power. Now is not the time to play nice. 

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em?

Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns and progressive victories at the federal and local level, including AOC’s 2018 upset victory over incumbent Joe Crowley, were expressions of the growing mood to fight the political establishment. In the electoral realm, key issues that the Democratic Party has historically opposed like a federal $15/hr minimum wage, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, abolishing ICE, and student debt cancellation have proven power to fundraise, drive turnout, and win elections. 

AOC has tirelessly raised these points with the establishment, advising them to adopt her progressive program as a means to win elections. They have summarily ignored her. Despite this, she has not given up attempts to prove her loyalty to the party in exchange for getting a hearing. As part of this effort, AOC sent campaign cash to a number of swing-district Democrats. Because she does not pay dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the campaign arm of Democratic Party House races, these contributions were made directly in her name. Showing just how hostile the conservative wing of the party is to progressive outsiders, several Democrats who received these contributions ran to the media to denounce the “unwelcome surprise.” Association with AOC’s “poisoned” political profile is a liability to the centrist elements of the party who want nothing to do with the Squad’s politics. The Squad continuing to bury their efforts in the futile task of climbing the party ranks could spell death for the movement for key demands. 

AOC raised $1.1 million for her most recent re-election, more than any other House Democrat, overwhelmingly from individual donations under $200. This grassroots donor base gives her important leverage to fight against big business politics. Many supporters are astonished that she instead wired campaign cash to corporate Democrats — people who would become her political opponents in office — in violation of the very principles that led her to withhold DCCC dues in the first place. 

While the stated purpose of the DCCC is to campaign against Republicans and for a Democratic House majority, it also serves an important role in marginalizing left-wing views. Elected Democrats are expected to pay a minimum of hundreds of thousands in “dues” to the DCCC, in addition to being assigned “targets” for fundraising directly for the Committee. The DCCC has huge authority within the party: its internal points system awards committee assignments and floor votes for legislation on the basis of members’ financial contributions. Under the DCCC’s influence, representatives’ ability to have an impact is not based on the constituencies who voted for them, but their willingness to court big money donors. This is just one of many undemocratic mechanisms within the party that will make it near impossible for progressives to “take over.”

What Is The Squad’s Strategy?

We have repeatedly warned that the full weight of the establishment bears down the moment a progressive candidate assumes their seat. As the most high profile among the young women of color who entered the House in 2019, AOC in particular immediately faced a war on multiple fronts. The far right waged war with nonstop vicious, racist, and misogynistic attacks.

But her own party was just as quick to marginalize her. Nancy Pelosi has not missed an opportunity to publicly vilify Squad members, presenting them as naive and ineffective, most recently imitating them in a “baby voice” to her biographer, saying, “See how perfect I am and how pure?” While the party leadership is clearly not afraid to make fools of themselves in viciously mocking the Squad, they understand that getting progressives to play ball in exchange for toning down the vitriol would be a more desirable outcome. 

Over the past two years since the Squad entered office, lesser-evilism around Trump and the GOP was the Democratic establishment’s key tool to stamp out opposition from their left. The DCCC nixed its blacklist of progressives who challenge incumbent Democrats, at least formally, in exchange for progressives falling in line behind Biden ahead of the 2020 elections. This “party unity” message has been repeated by progressives themselves, particularly Bernie in his role as a Biden campaign surrogate. It is worth noting that the likes of Joe Manchin are not placed in this category as enemies of party unity.

We Still Need to Fight the Establishment

With Trump finally gone, progressives should be freed from the lesser-evilism trap. The Squad made good on their promises to the establishment: they played a huge role in helping to deliver a Biden presidency, a Democratic majority in both chambers, and even gained a handful of new progressive legislators in the House.

The slim majorities in both chambers mean that a handful of progressive defectors could hold up establishment priorities. Rather than use their power, the Squad is playing into the Democratic leadership’s carrot-and-stick tactics, dangling committee assignments and progressive legislation over their heads, only to snatch away key measures — particularly those that would benefit the working class.

In December, AOC had been denied a seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which would have offered her formal influence in climate and healthcare policy. Later, at the start of the legislative term, AOC and Squad members resisted pressure from the left to withhold their vote for Pelosi as Speaker to demand a floor vote on Medicare for All. New committee assignments have rained down on them since. The House Progressive Caucus resolved to vote as a bloc on all future legislation. Far from giving the likes of AOC, Ilhan Omar, and Cori Bush the chance to organize together for their demands, this new rule binds their votes to the will of the caucus’ 90 members, the vast majority of whom are not “progressive” in any real sense.

The more the Squad concedes ground to the party establishment, the more opportunities they present for the opposition to intensify and ultimately win out. 

While the Squad sees winning over the corporate establishment as key to passing progressive legislation, the establishment sees the Squad as a pain in the neck. This dynamic has been punishing. Rep. Ilhan Omar spoke endearingly to the media of her “Auntie” Nancy Pelosi. In the primary, Bernie sung praises of his “friend” Joe Biden, only for Biden to trash Bernie’s platform in the general and brag that he “beat the socialist.” Since Biden took office, Bernie has all but dropped Medicare for All as an immediate demand, instead championing “Medicare for More” by lowering the age of eligibility for the program. 

Numerous times, AOC has come out swinging against the left on behalf of the establishment, from her staunch opposition to “Force the Vote,” her characterizations of Biden critics as “privileged” and “bad faith actors,” to her halfhearted defense of Biden’s concentration camps. Straddling the fictional middle ground between the interests of the Democratic elite and those of working people will go nowhere. The middle ground doesn’t exist. 

Organize the Working Class, Not the Democrats

Events will test the Squad’s theory of change that appealing to the establishment while accepting half-measures in the meantime can win results. What are the implications of this approach? The midterm elections could potentially add more progressive representatives, but not enough to overpower the conservative majority or to overtake Pelosi’s leadership, especially if incoming progressives are unwilling to take a fighting approach. 

The Sinemas and Manchins of the party aren’t going anywhere. Neither are fossil fuels, Big Pharma, Silicon Valley, and real estate — just some of the big business interests that that corrupt the party, and that working people are eager to fight. By carrying out the fight within the halls of power instead of involving their mass of supporters, the Squad is passing up their most important tool to win. 

To overcome the corporate Democrats and force their hand on key reforms, we need mass protests, occupations, and demonstrations. In reality, we need a new party. AOC was right when she said, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” She was right to point out to the New York Times that the key obstacle to pursuing a progressive program was not voters in swing districts, but hostility from the Democrats. Instead of trying in vain to mitigate this hostility, how can the left truly challenge it? 

Nancy Pelosi has pointed out that AOC and the Squad’s “public whatever and their Twitter world” are meaningless by themselves. AOC seemed to agree with this herself when, when asked if she’d mount a challenge to Pelosi’s or Schumer’s leadership, said, “That’s a lot to put on one person.” This is disappointing when, in fact, AOC’s following of workers and young people give her enormous organizing potential, but only if she chooses to use it. 

Her aim should not be to gain the favor of her “colleagues” in the Democratic leadership like Pelosi, but to expose their role as opponents of the working class. If AOC took this kind of stance, and organized the Squad to do the same, hundreds of thousands of people would back her up. A new left party based on the interests of working people presents the ideal model to carry out this course of action, and to truly realize the “organizer-in-chief” model that Bernie advanced. This model can’t be won by either blindly dismissing AOC’s mistakes on the basis of her good intentions, or by simply rejecting her as a traitor to the movement. It will require organizing from below.

But the Squad’s role should serve as a warning for democratic socialist candidates across the country who run as Democrats, including in City Councils and state legislatures. Far from being a neutral “ballot line,” Democratic Party affiliation has real consequences. It’s not enough to refuse corporate cash and echo left-wing demands. It is concretely necessary to stake out a clear opposition to the corporate establishment. 

The main reason the most prominent figures on the left are now caught with their backs against the wall is the absence of a working class-centered political party. If progressive representatives and candidates, unions, and left organizations took steps to form an independent party, we would never have to deal with the DCCC again. Grassroots donations would belong to the movement, and which campaigns we support would be the product of democratic discussion. Most importantly, the left could escape its abusive relationship with the Democrats and set our sights on our real goals. 

The Coming Battles

There are big battles on the horizon where the progressives in Congress would need to dramatically change their strategy in order to win. While Biden has continued his “big spending” with two upcoming infrastructure bills, we need to be clear that this has been motivated by a need to avoid total economic collapse as well as the need to reassert the interests of U.S. imperialism globally in its struggle to contain the power of rising Chinese imperialism. In reality Biden’s infrastructure bill codifies an utterly inadequate approach to address impending climate disaster. How far Biden will go in providing relief to working people has limits, and there is an inevitable reckoning coming which we need to prepare for now. 

This presents an opportunity for progressives to expose the establishment’s intentions and potentially win real reforms. If trillions can be spent on saving capitalism, why can’t trillions be spent on healthcare, housing, and debt cancellation?

AOC, Bernie, and Ed Markey have reintroduced Green New Deal legislation in the form of two bills, one for towns and cities to fund Green New Deal projects, and another which would retrofit and expand public housing nationwide. It is extremely positive to see progressives putting this forward, clarifying the distinction between what Biden is proposing and measures that are closer to what we truly need. The key question now is, how do we win? 

It will be crucial that they not only present these as stand-alone bills, which would doom them to sudden death-by-filibuster, but aggressively campaign to incorporate them into Biden’s infrastructure package. This will give them more leverage as they can threaten to hold up Biden’s priorities unless the establishment accepts their demands. They should also demand dramatically increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy to pay for it. Bernie has suggested a 35% corporate tax rate as opposed to Biden’s 25-28% proposal. He should formally force this demand onto the table. To push back against the threat of a filibuster from Republicans, and the insistence on “bipartisan” solutions from the Democrats, we must resume tactics like in 2018, when AOC occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office with the Sunrise Movement to demand the Green New Deal’s passage, alongside the growing momentum of the climate strike movement. 

Winning substantive change will bring the left up against the Democrats and Republicans, and also capitalism itself. Progressive politics are a step in the right direction away from decades of neoliberalism, but as long as the system survives, the billionaire class holds countless tools at their disposal to stamp out the working class’ ambitions. Only socialism presents an alternative to the corruption, crises, and rot at the heart of profit-driven capitalism. We urgently need to build organization and leadership from the ground up, not only to overpower the obstacles ahead, but to open the door to a better world.