The Squad Is Only Getting Stronger
But can it wield real power in a Democratic Congress?
Out of all of the attacks on the Squad over the past year and a half, probably the most vicious and salient one came from Nancy Pelosi.
In June 2019, the four freshmen Democrats—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar—put up a protest vote against a horror show Senate bill backed by the overwhelming majority of the Democratic caucus to send more money to the Trump administration for border funding without attaching strings to its treatment of migrant children in cages.
Pelosi seems to have taken personal offense that the four most visible freshman legislators in the modern history of Congress were so publicly opposed to her bit of non-dealmaking. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she told Maureen Dowd, who brought her chocolates. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
Harsh as it was, Pelosi’s “they’re four people” line reflected both the reality of the situation and the conventional wisdom from the Democratic establishment of how that situation would remain. The Squad was “four people” because the Democratic Party’s left flank had been operatively dormant for so long that it was essentially starting from scratch again, and the party was banking that they wouldn’t get any further:
Pelosi backed both Tlaib and Omar in their 2020 re-election bids, which is in line with her general tendency to endorse incumbents against challengers without consideration for ideology and, not for nothing, gives her some leverage in dealing with them in the future. One can assume that despite this choice, her general contempt for the left remains.
But as we’ve seen throughout the primary cycle, the Democratic establishment shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss what happened in 2019 as a one-off fluke, because leftist candidates keep winning, and taking down entrenched incumbents in the process.
It happened again on Tuesday night. The most stunning result came from Missouri, where activist Cori Bush was successful in her second run against the legacy case of Lacy Clay. Clay had inherited his St. Louis congressional seat from his father; combined, they had represented the district for over 50 years. Now, Bush—who made her ties to the Black Lives Matter uprising a core theme of her campaign, and who was targeted with anti-Palestinian smears by her opponent—is likely to become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress.
Michigan brought more good news. In Detroit, Tlaib didn’t just win in a rematch against city councilwoman Brenda Jones, whom she beat by just 900 votes in 2018 (weirdly, Jones also beat Tlaib in a separate special election that same night and was in Congress for just eight weeks before Tlaib was sworn in). She crushed her, winning two-thirds of the vote. In Kalamazoo, Jon Hoadley, a state representative backed by a plethora of both establishment and insurgent progressive groups and officials and candidates, won his primary to take on Republican Rep. Fred Upton.
How many times does this have to happen before you can call it a trend? So far, Democratic progressives have already ousted more incumbents than they did in 2018, with wins by Marie Newman in Illinois, Jamaal Bowman in New York, and now Cori Bush in Missouri. Progressives have also been successful in open primaries, with candidates like Mondaire Jones in New York, Teresa Leger Fernandez in New Mexico, Mike Siegel in Texas, and Kara Eastman in Nebraska making it out of their primaries, others like California’s Georgette Gomez and potentially Washington’s Beth Doglio making it to November, and the ones who’ve come up short—most notably Jessica Cisneros in Texas and Morgan Harper in Ohio—laying the groundwork for another run in 2022.
There are still a few more big races to go. Most notably, Ilhan Omar is defending her Minneapolis seat against the plethora of Republican and pro-Israel money pouring into her anti-labor opponent’s coffers. In Massachusetts, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse is trying to take down corporate stooge Richard Neal. And still more potential future targets have popped up on the board, like Bill Foster in Illinois and former Republican Tom O’Halleran in Arizona—essentially anonymous moderate-to-liberal members of the caucus whose challengers, both progressive women, got essentially no institutional backing and yet held them to under 60 percent of the vote.
To make a long story short, the Squad is becoming a full-fledged group of people who prioritize policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All and have principles that are generally anti-poverty and redistributive in nature, even if they don’t necessarily call themselves Marxists.
Contrary to popular belief, these are not principles that have been completely absent in the Democratic Party forever, but the members who have aligned with those principles have either learned how to play the game or been isolated from power. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has been around for decades but is just beginning to build out its infrastructure, partially owing to the emergence of co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
Whether you believe progressives have been too conciliatory or that they simply haven’t had the numbers to flex their muscles, the fact remains that Congress has functionally not had anything remotely resembling an antagonistic left-wing in a very long time.
2021 will give the growing Squad its biggest opportunity yet to show that it can flex its muscles, especially if Joe Biden wins in a landslide, the Senate flips, and the House majority is increased. Medicare for All is not coming anytime soon, but there will be enough progressives in Congress to put the brakes on the legislative process if Biden, Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer pull the same sort of shit that the Democrats did in 2009: whether watering down legislation, just abandoning it altogether in a doomed effort to coax Republicans and right-wing Democrats to join them on the ride out of fear of losing “frontline” seats, or—worse—attempting to restore norms.
We are going to be dealing with the damage of the last four years (not to mention the long decay wrought by the conservative movement going back to Reagan) for decades, and the growing numbers of young leftist or leftish people getting to Congress is an indication that the people are ready to get a move on with things. If the Squad and the broader progressive left in Congress have any chance of becoming a force for political and social change, they’ll have to do what recent progressive movements haven’t had the numbers or willingness to do: exercise power.
Tlaib, for her part, seems ready to push all of those buttons. In a roundtable with Bernie Sanders, Bush, and Bowman on Wednesday night, she recounted the story of a woman in her district whose water got shut off and then lost her kids because she wasn’t living in a house with running water.
“Being poor in our country right now is criminalizing. It’s so dehumanizing,” Tlaib said. “And so for all the corporate bullies and corporations who think they’re gonna make government about them, there’s a bunch of us coming, and our squad is getting bigger and bigger. And we’re going to continue to fight back against that and show people what they deserve."