Progressive victories in Wisconsin and Chicago have injected new momentum into the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But those recent electoral successes are masking deeper internal tensions over the role and influence of progressives in a party President Biden has been remaking in his moderate image.
Interviews with more than 25 progressive and moderate Democratic leaders and strategists — including current and former members of Congress and directors of national and statewide groups — revealed a behind-the-scenes tug of war over the party’s policy agenda, messaging and tactics. As the party looks toward next year’s elections, its key constituencies have undergone a transformation. Once mostly white, working-class voters, Democrats now tend to be affluent, white liberals, Black moderates and a more diverse middle class.
On some fronts, progressives — a relatively young, highly educated and mostly white bloc that makes up about 12 percent of the Democratic coalition and is the most politically active — have made inroads. Their grass-roots networks, including several headed by Black and Latino leaders, have grown sharply since the heights of the widespread resistance to the Trump administration. Beyond the high-profile victories in Chicago and Wisconsin, they have won under-the-radar local and state races across the country. And many of their views have moved into the mainstream and pushed the government to expand the fight against child poverty, climate change and other social ills.
“We as a movement helped articulate these things, to do these things,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, the Washington State Democrat who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Yet at the same time, the activist left wing remains very much on the defensive.
The negotiations with the White House on some of the most sweeping legislation fell short of the bold, structural change many of their members sought. And progressives remain locked in an old debate with their moderate counterparts — as well as themselves — over how to communicate progressive ideas and values to voters at a time when slogans like “defund the police” have come under attack by Republicans and moderate Democrats.
“In 2018, our party seemed to react to Donald Trump winning in 2016, and the reaction was to go further and further left,” said Cheri Bustos, a former Illinois congresswoman who is a moderate and was a leader of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “When politics swings far to the left or far to the right, there always seems to be a reckoning.”
As Mr. Biden has signaled that he plans to run for re-election in 2024, he has been emphasizing the moderate roots he has embodied throughout much of his roughly 50 years in politics. He has replaced a key ally of the left in the White House — Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s former chief of staff — with Jeffrey D. Zients, who some progressive groups see as too friendly to corporate interests. And he has been clashing with activists who have accused him of backsliding on his liberal approaches to crime, statehood for the District of Columbia, climate issues and immigration policy.
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