The Democrats' Opposition to Progressives Is About Power Too

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Audio posted by the Intercept on Thursday of a conversation between Steny Hoyer, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House, and a progressive candidate in Colorado only served as confirmation of what we already knew: the Democratic establishment believes that progressives are getting in the way of their mission to take back the House.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House who has about a 50-50 shot of taking back the speaker’s chair after November, defended Hoyer’s assertion that if the party didn’t interfere in primaries, progressives would win in swing district primaries and be unelectable in the general. (In the audio, Hoyer brought up Roy Moore while trying to make the case to congressional candidate Levi Tillemann that he should drop out so the moderate establishment pick, Jason Crow, had a clearer path to the nomination.)


“I don’t see anything inappropriate in what Mr. Hoyer was engaged in conversation about,” Pelosi said at a news conference on Thursday. “If the realities of life is that some candidates can do better in the general than others, then that’s a clear-eyed conversation that we should be having.” Pelosi added that she was “more concerned about” whether or not Tillemann could legally release an audio recording to the press without Hoyer’s consent (he could, since Colorado law doesn’t require both parties to consent to a recording).

Progressives can’t be blamed for reading this as just another example in a long line of Democrats shutting down left wing voices. It’s a problem that goes back decades but has only intensified along with an increasing hunger for an alternative to the centrism that has defined the party since at least the 1980s.


But the Democrats’ opposition to left wingers isn’t just ideological. It’s also about power.

Pelosi is a savvy politician, and no doubt wants to avoid the fate of John Boehner, who worked with his right flank in the Tea Party to build a House majority in 2010 and was later deposed by those same forces five years later. But for all of the talk of a “Tea Party on the left,” no group has been a bigger pain in the ass for Pelosi and the Democrats than the right wing of the caucus.

Democrats largely owed their sweep in 2006 to anti-Bush sentiment and increased their margins in 2008 thanks to the Obama wave and frustration with the hell wrought by neoliberal economics. But conservative Democrats in the House and Senate promptly watered down some of the most ambitious initiatives of the first two years of the Obama administration, including healthcare reform. They then ran from Obamacare in the 2010 midterms, presumably in order to win re-election; they lost their seats anyway, and blamed Pelosi and Obama for it. Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat elected in that Rahm Emanuel class of 2006 that Democrats love so much, ended up challenging Pelosi for the leadership after Republicans won the House.

The conservative Blue Dog Democrats might be all but dead in the House, but they are very much alive in the Senate, lending right wing Republicans a “bipartisan” veneer to some of the absolute worst decisions of the last year and a half, making it clear that they’d much rather work with Donald Trump than Obama. (If there are any Democratic Party litmus tests, it should be that one.)


Should they win a majority, the Democrats are going to have to deal with more of that: a small but influential group that criticizes the leadership often and can use its power as a voting bloc to make or break legislation. But Democrats have made it clear that they’d much prefer that group to be more like Dan Lipinski and less like Barbara Lee.

Considering the deep distrust of the party, the grassroots anger at Trump, and the emerging alternative on the left, it seems rather short-sighted to go down this road again. Then again, the Democratic Party has never been great at predicting the future.