Activist Jan Rivers was surrounded by “WORK NOW” signs as she sought to garner support for a massive progress-backed infrastructure and climate proposal.
It was a simple task, yet Rivers’ recent day on the Atlanta Beltline, a ride through the city’s fastest growing liberal neighborhoods, ended up as a free for all. Voters who stopped wanted to talk about hate crimes, labor law, institutional racism and the climate crisis, among other issues.
“It’s a galaxy of things,” Rivers said, noting that his main themes are immigration and criminal justice reform. He then clarified that, “Right now, I think the voting rights bills are the most important thing that needs to happen.”
The exchanges reflect the next challenge for the progressive movement: settling on its top priorities. After successfully passing a pandemic response bill, President Joe Biden made a $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure and public works proposal his next clear legislative goal. But the Democratic left flank, who worked closely with Biden on the COVID-19 bill, is selecting a list of issues they want to address next.
The spotlights often shift. After the Republicans of Georgia passed a new electoral law, many progressives declared a democratic countermeasure the number one goal. The murder trial of Derek Chauvin has resurrected calls for criminal justice legislation. Some liberals want an immigration overhaul. Sixteen more on the expansion of the Supreme Court. This week, the Democrat-led House voted to make the District of Columbia a state. And progressives have their own version of climate and public works spending that would go beyond Biden’s.
Everyone faces long odds in a tightly divided Congress where a 50-50 Senate could become a legislative graveyard for the Democrats’ agenda. This puts increasing pressure on the left as party leaders and activists look to the 2022 midterm election, when Democrats will have to throw voters on what they’ve accomplished by controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I am proud of what we have done” on the COVID-19 bill, said Rep. Pramila Jayapal D-Wash., Chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But, he added, “we can’t go back to voters and say we can’t approve” additional measures on environmental protection, voting rules and labor law due to Republican obstruction in the Senate.
Progressives’ preferred answer is to eliminate the filibuster, which effectively requires 60 votes for major free bills. But beyond that procedural solution is what Maurice Mitchell, leader of the Working Families Party, calls “a sort of list of ideas”.
“There is a window that has been opened with all efforts to defeat (former president) Donald Trump,” Mitchell said. “We know that window won’t stay open forever.”
The so-called Thrive Agenda is perhaps the most organized push on the left, backed by an umbrella of trade unions, environmental organizations and civil rights organizations that calls itself “The Green New Deal Coalition”. As for policy, it’s no different from Biden’s pending infrastructure and public works package, which will mark a major shift in climate policy through clean energy investments. But progressives want to spend closer to $ 1 trillion a year and adopt an even more aggressive timeline to achieve a zero-emission economy that doesn’t contribute to new pollution that warms Earth’s atmosphere.
Furthermore, progressives support a series of changes to the electoral law that has passed the House but has an uncertain path for the Senate: national standards for voter registration, early voting, and voting by mail; request a non-partisan process to design legislative and congressional districts; expand public funding of elections; and the reinstatement of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act, gutted by the Supreme Court, which gave federal officials more power over how states conduct elections. They group it as “democratic reform”.
Labor activists want a range of worker-friendly proposals: paid family leave, student loan forgiveness, a minimum wage hike that was thrown away by the COVID-19 aid package, a labor law overhaul to make more easy unionization. There have been pressures for a few quarters for a wealth tax, in addition to the income and investment tax increases proposed by Biden.
It is enough to feed a daily diet of Republican attacks on Biden and the Democrats in Congress because they are too extreme.
“I knew it would be to the left of center, (but) I didn’t know it would be to the left of Lenin,” the Senator from Louisiana. John Kennedy recently joked on Fox News, referring to former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.
Progressives do not apologize for the ambitious agenda, with Mitchell insisting that Democrats should not be distracted by “Republican arguments” and “bad faith arguments”.
Jayapal said the 2020 election results and public support for the COVID-19 bill demonstrate a “country ready for bold, progressive and populist solutions.”
Biden used the new political environment to his advantage, Jayapal said, keeping the line on a hefty COVID-19 bill rather than cutting the price for Republican votes.
“The president has built up some goodwill,” he said.
Mitchell and Adam Green, co-founders of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, described a progressive movement that blossomed since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 and the Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid in 2016. What began as a riot now mixes the pressure of the base from outside the room with the presence of legitimate power players inside the room.
“Democrats and progressives are aligned on the need to go big,” Green said. “If the argument is mostly excessive, then that tension and any debate on the order of priorities hardly qualifies as civil war.”
There is also the recognition that a 50-50 Senate with a filibuster is not the same as having the kind of majority that gave Biden’s Democratic predecessors Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson their signature legislative successes: the New Deal, the social security, Medicare, Medicaid.
This means that Green’s group is having conversations on the back channel with Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia moderate Democrat who opposes any change of filibuster. At the same time, Mitchell’s group, the Working Families Party, is encouraging Manchin voters to pressure the senator over the merits of the proposals, especially electoral laws and economic measures targeting the poor and middle class, which would not pass. with a 60-vote threshold. And both groups are pushing Democrats to use Senate spending rules to approve as much as possible with their 50 votes, plus Vice President Kamala Harris as a playoff.
Jayapal, meanwhile, said Biden has committed to an early White House meeting with members of the progressive caucus.
This kind of inside-out strategy, he said, is how Democrats can reach their “minimum” threshold for action ahead of the August legislature break: pass infrastructure law with climate provisions, major changes. the electoral law and a package of aid to families.
It’s also the kind of approach that keeps activists like Jan Rivers involved.
“We watched the tea party just say no to everything and win,” he said of the conservative movement that formed in the Obama era. “I keep telling my friends that we can’t go back to our lives because the elections are over.”