2018 Democrats Veering to the Left
The 2018 congressional elections are over, and the new slate of diverse, young Democrats in the House have hit the ground running. While the majority of first-time representatives are from red-leaning districts, a few from blue districts have become social media superstars. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman-elect of New York’s 14th congressional district, made waves when she unseated the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Joe Crowley, in June. Since her election, Ocasio-Cortez’s media profile has exploded, and she is using her popularity in an attempt to leverage Democratic leadership to the left. Ocasio-Cortez’s election is emblematic of the leftward shift that the Democratic Party has been experiencing since 2008 — and she’s not alone.
On November 13th, activists from the Sunrise Movement, a group of young people lobbying for immediate action on climate change, protested in the office of Nancy Pelosi, who is likely to become Speaker of the House in January. Joined by Ocasio-Cortez, the protesters are calling for Pelosi, likely the next Speaker of the House, and her colleagues in the chamber to get on board with the creation of a Select Committee for a Green New Deal, which would be similar to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming the California congresswoman established in 2007. The idea is not a new one, having been consistently suggested by the Green Party and included in Jill Stein’s presidential platform in both 2012 and 2016. The proposal aims to create a New Deal-style program in which the government invests broadly in policies related to fighting climate change. Theoretically, a program in this vein would both aid the economy and stave off climate change-related damage to the country and the planet.
The endorsement of a Green New Deal by Ocasio-Cortez has brought new light to the movement. Now, fifteen House Democrats have signed onto the effort to create a new select committee, including big name progressives like civil rights icon John Lewis. Just the idea that such a bold policy related to climate change is being proposed lends itself to how much the Democrats have lurched leftward since the late 2000s. The draft resolution blows previous attempts out of the water. One comparison that comes to mind is the lukewarm Cap and Trade Bill of 2009, which Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) famously shot in a campaign ad and which never made it to the Senate floor. While it’s likely that such a proposal as the Green New Deal would also not prevail in the Senate, the message it would send, if passed in the House, is clear: climate action is needed immediately.
In addition to championing bold climate policy, both rookie and veteran Democrats are amplifying calls for progressive legislation and action. H.R. 676, the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, has received a record number of cosponsors in the 115th Congress with 123 cosponsors. Its sister bill in the Senate, S.1804, has 16 cosponsors. The list includes several 2020 presidential hopefuls: Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, an impressive group when examined against Senator Bernie Sanders’ similar bill that garnered zero cosponsors. Moreover, in about half of contested House races in 2018, Democratic candidates supported Medicare for All legislation. Even those who did not support Medicare for All typically ran on protecting the Affordable Care Act, something that would have been political suicide in the Republican wave years of 2010 and 2014.
While Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives in the House and Senate call for bold action, others are urging caution. The head-butting between the establishment and corporate side of the Democratic Party and the progressive side has been playing itself out since 2016, and now is no different. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat and incoming chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has pushed back on calls for a new select committee. Pallone, who has accepted financial contributions from oil and gas PACs, claims his committee should have the authority on climate change legislation. Even so, the conflict between progressive and conservative Democrats is not a battle of whether to move left; it’s a battle of how far left to go.
The Democratic Party of 2018 is considerably more progressive on the whole than it was a decade ago. Record numbers of elected officials are calling for bold action on climate change, healthcare, immigration, and human rights, and they’ve seen support from veterans and even some wanting to lead the party and the country come 2020. The coming months should reveal if a Democratic-controlled House is enough for these policies to pass and just how concrete these calls to action are.