How Progressives Influenced Democratic Party Policies

Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016. He lost, but his run inspired a movement to continue his “political revolution.” In 2018 and 2020, about 100 progressives ran in the Democratic primary for the House; they ran on Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, supported by progressive organizations such as Justice Democrats. About 8% were elected, the most prominent of whom are known as the “Squad”.

The 2022 congressional primaries recently concluded. About 70 Sanders-style progressives showed up, fewer than in previous years. Seven won primaries in heavily Democratic ridings. However, only one defeated an incumbent Democrat. That’s the least since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory over Joseph Crowley in 2018.

Some argue that the progressives’ primary losses show that their momentum is waning. But my research reveals that even when they lose, progressive insurgents influence the political positions and priorities of the incumbent — and the broader Democratic Party. Post-Sanders progressives have a lot to do with the ambitious Democratic agenda under President Biden.

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Who are the post-Sanders progressives?

To identify the progressive insurgent candidates who ran in 2018 and 2020, I compiled the names of those endorsed by the main groups in the post-Sanders movement: Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, Brand New Congress, Sunrise, Democratic Socialists of America and Working Families Party. From there, I looked at candidates backed by more peripheral progressive groups, like Blue America and 350 Action. Where mentions did not overlap, I removed all applicants who did not explicitly support Medicare-for-all. In 2018, 103 candidates met these criteria. In 2020, 96 did.

Challengers increase the likelihood of incumbents to co-sponsor with the team

In 2018, incumbent Democrats saw their challengers defeat their colleagues. In 2020, in the face of such a progressive challenge, the incumbents significantly increased their sponsorships of bills introduced by the Squad, which in 2018 consisted of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn .), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and has since expanded to include Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (DN.Y.).

To calculate sponsorship rates, I started by listing post-Sanders progressives in the House, from those on the team to others like Rep. Katie Porter (D-California) and former Congresswoman Deb Haaland (DN.M.). Together, they sponsored approximately 700 bills during the 116th Congress and the first year of the 117th Congress, which was from early 2019 to late 2021. I then calculated the proportion of those active bills that each incumbent main was co-sponsoring before the announced challenger; from this announcement until the primary election; and then after.

Strikingly, half of the 44 Democrats who made it to the primaries but kept their seats increased their endorsement rate by more than 59% between the challenger announcement and the aftermath.

I then looked specifically at incumbents in New York and Massachusetts, states where, in 2018, progressives defeated incumbents, who might take the threat even more seriously. When challenged, these incumbents increased the proportion of bills they sponsored with the most prominent progressives by 90 percentage points more than other challenged incumbent Democrats.

Research reveals that members of Congress use sponsorship extensively to make their political positions known to colleagues, constituents and donors. In other words, sponsorship is a way to build their intraparty brand. Here, once challenged, the incumbents recognized the appeal of progressive politics and literally signed on – what political scientist Tracy Sulkin called “problem embracing”.

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Fingerprints of progressives are on Build Back Better, though their influence has diminished with each legislative stage

The influence of progressive insurgents on politics can be seen through the Democratic agenda. I continued my research by conducting semi-structured interviews with more than 40 unsuccessful progressives who came forward in 2018 and 2020. Many said they had observed incumbents adopting their ideas or redefining themselves as progressives. But they have seen their greatest overall impact in the policies proposed by President Biden.

The progressives’ electoral and political pressure on the main incumbents pushed the progressive wing of the party to the left and, through this, changed the political positions associated with being a moderate.

Biden has had a reputation as a moderate throughout his career. Yet his Build Back Better program contained sweeping proposals that would dramatically expand American social programs and the redistribution of wealth. As some progressives have noted and taken credit for, its first iteration, although not called the “Green New Deal”, drew on ideas from that resolution to inform its environmental policies. and work. They also saw their influence in the scope and number of new programs included, such as paid family leave.

In a narrowly Democratic Congress, as these ideas flowed from campaign proposals to Democrats’ initial $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill to the $1.75 trillion version passed by the House, the influence of progressives has diminished with the scope of the proposals. But they saw their impact in the fact that the main Democratic fault line was not between Biden and Sanders but between Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.).

Although Build Back Better did not pass, the recent Cut Inflation Act resurrected the reduced climate provisions of that bill. Biden further used his authority to write off $10,000 to $20,000 in student loan debt, as promised in his campaign. Although progressives wanted much greater action on both fronts, they understood their movement had helped push these pressing issues into legislative priorities for Democrats.

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The dynamics of progressive primary challenges and progressive politics have changed since 2018

On the one hand, progressives had an easier time winning in 2018, before Democrats and affiliated groups began to take their challenges as seriously as they have this year. On the other hand, their ability to influence policy, even if most losers, depends on the incumbents taking their challenges seriously enough to try to minimize their chances by adopting their ideas.

Despite their influence, post-Sanders progressives have not transformed Democrats as much as the Tea Party movement has transformed Republicans. Only one has successfully beaten an incumbent in this year’s primaries. Democrats may take less of their policy positions when challenged in the future.

But the number of progressives in Congress will increase because of this year’s primaries. Progressives are in Congress in part because their ideas have gained new relevance over several tumultuous years of democratic, economic, racial, climate and health crises. With their increased presence in Congress and the increased popularity of their ideas, some proposals that seemed politically impossible just a few years ago have become viable among Democrats. How many more become law depends in part on how Democrats fare come November.

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Amelie Malpas (@ameliamalpas) is a pre-doctoral fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University and a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College.

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