The Right Fearmongers About Progressives, But the Democratic Party Remains Neoliberal

The Left’s beachhead in Congress has grown in the last few years. But at the current rate of expansion, the Left will remain a minority in the Democratic Party’s congressional caucus until 2091. We can’t wait that long for change.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi answers questions during her weekly press conference on May 13, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Turn on Fox News or look to any right-wing media outlet, and you’ll be fed a constant diet of stories claiming that progressives and the Left have taken over the Democratic Party. On paper, they seem to have a point: the Democratic Party’s progressive and neoliberal wings in Congress are almost evenly balanced. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has ninety-nine voting members in the House of Representatives, and the New Democrats (the home of the party’s neoliberal hard core) claim ninety-eight as of August 2022.

But that picture is a serious distortion of the real balance of power in Congress and inside the Democratic Party. In truth, the membership numbers of official caucuses do a poor job of capturing the strengths of the Democrats’ factions. Despite efforts by progressives to tighten caucus rules, for example, the Democratic Party’s Congressional Progressive Caucus still claims as members many representatives who oppose progressive priorities like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. The party’s other two ideological caucuses — the Blue Dogs and the New Democrats (whose political differences seem fairly minor at this point) — are somewhat more ideologically consistent but do not include all members who could reasonably be classified as “neoliberal Democrats.”

In order to develop a realistic sense of the party’s factions, as well as their respective strategies and opportunities for growth, we need to ignore affiliation with ideological caucuses and go straight to the positions congressmembers have taken on key internal party debates. Doing so reveals that the party’s neoliberal wing still holds the dominant position and also exposes the unreliable nature of many in its progressive group.

Counting Factions

This article looks specifically at the factional composition of the Democratic Party in the 2021–22 session of the US House of Representatives. It groups Democratic members of Congress into four core factions: a left faction, a progressive faction, a center faction, and a neoliberal faction. Additional members who occupy gray zones between these factions are placed in two groups of leaners, one leaning toward the progressive/left wing and the other toward the neoliberal wing.

Democratic members of Congress are grouped according to the positions they’ve taken on four ideologically charged and divisive debates inside the party: 1) whether or not to support Medicare for All, 2) whether or not to support the Green New Deal, 3) whether or not to support the nation’s “defense” (war) budget, 4) and whether or not to weaken aspects of the system of mass incarceration. (For the last question, I’ve used as a proxy members’ votes on a failed amendment to the For the People Act, proposed by Cori Bush, which would have restored voting rights to those convicted of a felony, regardless of whether or not they were currently incarcerated.)

Members were scored for each position they’ve taken on these issues that align them with the party’s progressive and left factions. Four points (taking a progressive/left position on all four issues) placed a member in either the party’s progressive or left faction (more on the distinction between the two below), three points in the party’s lean-progressive group, two points in the party’s center faction, one point in the party’s lean-neoliberal group, and zero points in the party’s neoliberal faction.

The Neoliberals Are Still in Charge

The party’s neoliberal faction, including neoliberal leaners, consists of 115 members and makes up about 52 percent of the total Democratic caucus. The party’s progressive and left factions, including progressive leaners, consist of seventy-two members and make up about 33 percent of the party’s caucus. And the party’s center faction consists of thirty-three members and makes up about 15 percent of the party’s caucus.

In internal party debates the party’s neoliberal wing clearly dominates, a commanding position reflected in party leadership. All three of the party’s top officers in the House — Speaker of the House, majority leader, and majority whip — are neoliberal Democrats: Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn, respectively. On the party’s powerful internal Steering and Policy Committee, which decides committee assignments for party members, the neoliberals hold 48 percent of the committee’s sixty seats, giving them a near majority on critical internal party personnel decisions.

In coalition governments between center-right, center-left, and left-wing parties in multiparty systems, a dominant center-right party will almost always corner the most important ministries covering economic issues and international relations. It usually denies those positions to their partners on the Left. The same is true for the factional distribution of committee seats in the Democratic Party. The party’s neoliberal wing has a well-defended monopoly over key House committees.

Neoliberal Democrats (including leaners) command outright majorities on three of the four committees widely thought to be the most powerful and important when it comes to economic issues. Neoliberals hold 64 percent of Democratic seats on the Appropriations Committee, which makes critical decisions about funding government programs. They hold 53 percent of Democratic seats on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which determines government policy for telecommunications, consumer protection, public health, energy, and interstate and foreign commerce, among other issues. And they hold 54 percent of Democratic seats on the Ways and Means Committee, which determines tax policy and oversees Social Security, unemployment benefits, Medicare, and welfare programs.

Only on the powerful Financial Services Committee, where regulatory policy for Wall Street is determined, do neoliberals hold a minority (45 percent) of Democratic seats, though they can rely on support from the center faction to steer committee policy.

Neoliberals also hold majorities on the powerful House Rules Committee (56 percent), which sets the agenda for the House, as well as all four committees focused on international relations and military policy — Armed Services (65 percent), Foreign Affairs (59 percent), Intelligence (54 percent), and Homeland Security (53 percent).

The party’s neoliberal wing guards entry into these committees. Going into the 2019–20 congressional term, both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib were snubbed by the party leadership for positions on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. And in the lead-up to the 2021–22 term, AOC was again denied a spot she sought, this time on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Progressive Minority

Political observers are not wrong to note that the Democratic Party has a substantial progressive minority within its ranks, though its size is often exaggerated. United around key demands like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, shrinking the defense budget, and reducing mass incarceration, progressives have helped put a more left-wing platform forward for the first time in decades. Nevertheless, the progressive faction is not as distinct from the party’s neoliberal faction as one might think.

To begin with, progressives, centrists, and neoliberals all come from similar class backgrounds. Based on available biographical information, somewhere between 85-90 percent of progressives and centrists come to politics from professional occupations — mostly lawyers, but also some doctors, professors, and so on. Slightly fewer members of the neoliberal wing (in the low-70 percent range) come from professional backgrounds. That is due to a higher representation of members from occupations that could be categorized as capitalist (14 percent of neoliberals) or managerial (12 percent of neoliberals). An insignificant number of members of any of these factions come from working-class backgrounds, either from white-collar or blue-collar jobs.

Moreover, for members we have data on thanks to the Center for Responsive Politics, the median Democratic member of the House in 2018 (excepting the left faction — more on them later) had a net worth of about $1 million. Median net worth does not differ substantially across these factions. Progressives and lean-progressives had a median worth around $831,000, while neoliberals and lean-neoliberals had a median net worth of $1.3 million. (That figure is certainly influenced by the fact that the party’s wealthiest members — like Pelosi, who had an estimated net worth of $114 million in 2018 — are concentrated in the neoliberal and lean-neoliberal camps.)

Progressives, centrists, and neoliberals alike therefore share very similar class backgrounds. All three factions are made up overwhelmingly of millionaire or near-millionaire professionals.

Even more important, progressives, centrists, and neoliberals all share a similar dependence on big donors and PACs. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics for the 2020 election cycle, progressives on average only got about 10 percent of their donations from small donors giving less than $200. That’s indistinguishable from centrists and neoliberals who both got on average about 8 percent of their donations from small donors. And while business clearly plays ideological favorites — centrist and neoliberal Democrats received on average $470,000 and $597,000 from business respectively — progressives raked in on average about $305,000 from business PACs.

These similarities point to an uncomfortable fact. While progressive Democrats take the right positions on a number of left-wing and progressive priorities, their class backgrounds and dependence on corporate donors and wealthy benefactors set definite limits on their ability to really champion left-wing causes.

Their commitment to causes like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal has never really been tested, for example. It’s far easier to cosponsor a bill than to actually vote for it once the party leadership and one’s donors start to turn the screws. And in the 2020 Democratic primary, one of the few real tests of progressives’ commitment to their own professed politics, only 20 percent of progressives and zero lean-progressives endorsed Bernie Sanders. That’s compared to 10 percent of progressives and 31 percent of lean-progressives who endorsed Joe Biden. (I count here only endorsements made before the primary was settled.)

To their credit, progressive organizations like the Justice Democrats implicitly recognize this. In 2022, the organization — which is one of the most credible and effective national groups dedicated to boosting congressional primary challenges from the left — endorsed six primary challengers in this current election cycle. One Justice Democrats candidate took on a member of the party’s neoliberal wing (Jessica Cisneros challenged Henry Cuellar in Texas). But another two challenged members who are at least nominally part of the party’s progressive faction (Kina Collins challenged Danny Davis in Illinois; Rana Abdelhamid challenged Carolyn Maloney in New York before dropping out after redistricting).

Justice Democrats’ attention to replacing these progressive Democrats with more reliable left-wing candidates points to just how compromised a good portion of the party’s progressive faction really is.

The Squad Is Really Different

While the party’s progressive minority is a questionable ally for working-class politics, the Squad — including Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — really do stand out.

When it comes to class backgrounds, for example, the uniqueness of the Squad comes into sharp relief. The median net worth of a member of the party’s left wing (based on estimates for Tlaib, Omar, Pressley, and Ocasio-Cortez) was negative in 2018: -$28,750. And while half of the Squad comes from what I would categorize as professional or semiprofessional backgrounds (Bowman was a principal, Tlaib a community organizer, and Pressley a political staffer before being elected — though the last two occupations are hard to classify), Bush was a nurse, AOC a bartender, and Omar an educator.

Most notable, the Squad stands out for its relative independence from corporate and wealthy donors. The average Squad member received 56 percent of their donations in the 2020 election cycle from small donors giving less than $200. The congressional left wing’s ability to champion working-class issues is bolstered by the independence they gain from relying on regular people to support their campaigns.

Of course, even on the congressional left, it must be said, there are clear weaknesses — especially on key issues like the national liberation struggle in Palestine. The decision last year by Jamaal Bowman to vote for US funding of Israel’s Iron Dome was a grave mistake, as was his indefensible decision to tour Israel’s apartheid regime. On the Iron Dome, AOC first voted no, then changed her vote to present, and then apologized for not voting no. (The rest of the congressional left — joined by a handful of progressive Democrats and one centrist — stood strong and opposed funding the Iron Dome.)

The Future of the Congressional Left

The road ahead for the Democrats’ left-wing faction is a long and uncertain one. Starting with four members in 2019, the Left added an additional two members in 2021 (Bowman and Bush).  This year, two more Justice Democrats–endorsed candidates look set to join the Squad — Summer Lee in Pennsylvania and Greg Casar in Texas. (Odessa Kelly will also run in the general election, but her odds look long in a solidly Republican district.) Even if all three of Justice Democrats’ candidates who are still running this year win, that will bring the Left up to nine members. At that pace, adding an average of three left-wing Democrats each election cycle, it would take until 2091 before the Left would make up a majority of the Democratic caucus (assuming the party’s total caucus hovers around the 220-member mark), and many more years before it would make up a majority of the House.

Of course, the hope for the Left rests on its ability to dramatically scale up its organizational capacity so that it can field many more candidates each cycle. Doing so will require overcoming two limitations.

First, the Left will need to be able to mobilize considerably more volunteers across the country and raise significantly more money. Left challengers have done a commendable job of doing both, but only in a couple of districts. And left-wing candidates have drawn from a similar national left-wing donor pool, which has the capacity to support a handful of races each year but may quickly become tapped out as the Left’s ambitions grow.

Support from the labor movement would be immensely helpful in pushing the Left’s project forward. Unfortunately, while business plays ideological favorites among the Democrats’ contending factions, labor does not. Labor seems to have adopted a “make no enemies” strategy with regard to internal party conflicts. In 2020, labor PACs gave about equally to progressives ($147,000 on average), centrists ($158,000), and neoliberals ($163,000), with a slight bias to the party’s right perhaps reflecting the fact that its candidates were more likely to face contested general elections. Labor’s contributions to the Squad paled in comparison, clocking in at $57,000 on average.

Critics of the existing labor leadership who accuse it of being too quick to line up behind corporate Democrats clearly have a point. At best, the data suggests that labor doesn’t prefer one wing of the party to the other, at least as far as campaign contributions go. Progressives and leftists who’d like to see the labor movement more solidly back progressive and left-wing politics should give the rank-and-file strategy a look.

Second, the Left will need to show that it can effectively contest races outside of solidly left-wing districts. Currently, the partisan lean of the districts, measured in terms of the Democratic Party’s performance in recent elections (from the website 538), varies considerably and in predictable ways. The Left and even progressives represent districts that are much more Democratic than neoliberals do.

Neoliberal Democrats are not wrong to argue that they have figured out how to win in closely contested districts in ways that progressives have not. This represents a critical challenge for the party’s left and progressive factions. If they are ever to capture a majority of the congressional Democratic Party, let alone a majority of the House, they will have to find ways to fight in the nation’s “purple” districts. Otherwise they will be limited to the roughly 100 or so districts in the country that are most reliably Democratic. (Jessica Cisneros’s campaign in Texas could have set a precedent for this. Her district was closely divided between Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, with heavy support from the party’s right wing, Cuellar narrowly defeated her.)

The Left, therefore, faces daunting odds in building a real bloc in Congress. Republicans and the mainstream media may warn of an impending takeover of the Democratic Party by democratic socialists, but that false image is created by a radical overestimation of the strength and ideological firmness of the party’s progressive faction. It is nowhere near as strong or as solid as is often described. And the party’s neoliberal faction remains very much in control.

What comes next, of course, is a major question of debate on the Left. Some remain committed to a strategy of realigning the Democratic Party by a protracted campaign of primary challenges, the goal of which would be to slowly replace the party’s neoliberal, centrist, and unreliable progressive members.

Whether that strategy will be enough to allow the Left to win in less solidly Democratic districts and wrest control of the party is another question. It’s hard to imagine how the Left could reach the tens of millions of working-class voters it will need to win using such a strategy — people for whom the Democratic Party is an irredeemably toxic brand. To reach them, we’ll need a separate party identity that is widely recognized in the public, one that puts as much distance between us and the Democrats as possible. And we’ll need a proportional representation system that makes having multiple parties possible.

Until then, faction fighting in Congress will continue. The absence of clear party identities or even ideologically consistent caucuses makes understanding the balance of power difficult and almost impossible for most people. The Left’s beachhead in Congress has certainly grown larger, but for now and the foreseeable future the neoliberals still call the shots.