ATLANTA – Activist Jan Rivers stood surrounded by “JOBS NOW” signs as she tried to round up support for a massive infrastructure and climate proposal backed by progressives.
It was a straightforward task, but the last day of Rivers on the Atlanta Beltline, a trail through the city’s fastest growing liberal neighborhoods, ended up being a political jack-of-all-trades. The voters who stopped wanted to talk about hate crimes, labor law, institutional racism and the climate crisis, among other things.
“It’s a galaxy of things,” Rivers said, noting that its own main problems are immigration and criminal justice reform. She then clarified, “Right now, I think the voting rights bills are the most important thing that needs to happen.”
The exchange reflects the next challenge for the progressive movement: setting its top priorities. After successfully passing a pandemic control bill, President Joe Biden made a $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure and public works proposal his next clear legislative goal. But the Democrats’ left flank, who worked closely with Biden on the COVID-19 bill, is sorting a list of issues they want to address next.
The spotlight often shifts. After Georgia Republicans passed a new electoral law, many progressives declared a Democratic countermeasure to Target # 1. The Derek Chauvin murder trial has rekindled calls for criminal law. Some liberals want immigration to be overhauled. Others take up the expansion of the Supreme Court. This week the Democratic 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.
All face great opportunities in a tightly divided Congress where a 50:50 Senate could become a legislative graveyard for the Democratic agenda. This is putting increasing pressure on the left as party leaders and activists look to the 2022 midterm elections, where Democrats will have to keep voters informed of what they have accomplished while controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I am proud of what we have done,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Chair of the Progressive Caucus of Congress. But she added: “We cannot go back to the electorate and say we cannot adopt additional measures on environmental protection, electoral rules and labor law because the Republicans are disabled in the Senate.”
Progressives’ preferred answer is to scrap the filibuster, which effectively requires 60 votes for important non-issuing bills. But beyond this procedural solution, Maurice Mitchell, chairman of the Working Families Party, mentions a kind of laundry list of ideas.
“There is a window that has been opened with every effort to defeat (former President) Donald Trump,” said Mitchell. “We understand that the window doesn’t stay open forever.”
The so-called Thrive Agenda is perhaps the most organized push of the left, backed by an umbrella of trade unions, environmental groups and civil rights organizations calling themselves “The Green New Deal Coalition”. Politically, it is no different from Biden’s upcoming infrastructure and public works package, which would mean a major change in climate policy through investments in clean energy. But progressives want to spend more than $ 1 trillion annually and set an even more aggressive schedule to achieve a climate-neutral economy that doesn’t create new pollution that warms the earth’s atmosphere.
In addition, Progressives advocate a number of changes to the electoral law that the House passed but have an uncertain path in the Senate: national standards for voter registration, early voting, and postal voting; Need for a non-partisan process to draw legislative and congressional districts; Increase public funding for elections; and restoring the provisions of the Suffrage Act that were gutted by the Supreme Court and that gave federal officials more power over how states conduct elections. They group it as “democracy reform”.
Worker activists want a range of worker-friendly proposals: paid family leave, extensive student loan forgiveness, an increase in the minimum wage that has been removed from the COVID-19 aid package, a revision of labor law to facilitate union formation. There have been moves for a wealth tax from some quarters that go beyond the income and investment tax increases proposed by Biden.
It is enough to feed a daily diet of the Republican attacks on Biden and Congressional Democrats as being too extreme.
“I knew it would be left of the center, (but) I didn’t know it would be left of Lenin,” Louisiana Senator John Kennedy recently quipped on Fox News, referring to the former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.
Progressives do not apologize for the ambitious agenda as Mitchell insists that Democrats should not be distracted from “Republican talking points” and “evil arguments”.
Jayapal argued that the 2020 election results and public support for the COVID-19 bill show a “country ready for bold, progressive, populist solutions”.
Biden took advantage of the new political environment, Jayapal said by keeping the line on a hefty COVID-19 bill rather than lowering the price to get Republican votes.
“The president built goodwill,” she said.
Mitchell and Adam Green, co-founders of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, described a progressive movement that flourished since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 and Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid in 2016. What began as an insurrection now mixes grassroots pressures outside of space with legitimate power players inside.
“Democrats and progressives are focused on the need to make it big,” said Green. “If the argument is largely exaggerated, then these tensions and any debate about the order of priorities hardly qualifies as a civil war.”
There’s also the realization that a 50:50 Senate with a filibuster isn’t the same as the majorities that gave Biden’s Democratic predecessors Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson their legislative achievements – New Deal, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.
That means the Green group is having back-channel conversations with Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia moderate Democrat who opposes any filibuster changes. At the same time, Mitchell’s group, the Working Families Party, encourages Manchin voters to put pressure on the Senator to make proposals, particularly electoral laws and economic measures for the poor and middle class who would fail with a 60-vote threshold. And both groups are urging the Democrats to use Senate bill-issuing rules to get as much off as possible with their 50 votes, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris as a tiebreaker.
Jayapal, meanwhile, said Biden would soon commit to meeting members of the progressive caucus at the White House.
That kind of inside-outside strategy, she said, is how Democrats can hit their “minimum threshold” for action before the legislature’s August recess: passing an infrastructure bill that includes climate bills, major changes to the electoral law, and a family support package.
It’s also the kind of approach that includes activists like Jan Rivers.
“We saw the tea party just say no to everything and win,” she said of the conservative movement that formed during the Obama era. “I keep telling my friends that we can’t just go back to our lives because the elections are over.”
Bill Barrow, The Associated Press