Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic Socialists in Congress don’t seem afraid to pick fights, but
they pick the content and timing based on serious political calculation.
By Sam Lewis
In the aftermath of the elections, various forces are vying to establish a dominant orientation for the left under the neoliberal Biden administration. Left-wing leaders in Congress have made key interventions around the stimulus and the attempted coup as part of an inside/outside strategy, in which they marshal social movements behind them to advance key demands. In contrast, Force the Vote attempted to test what we might call an outside/outside strategy. Largely led by podcasters and executed on Twitter, the Force the Vote strategy failed – but the left needs to assess it at face value and take what lessons we can from it.
Force the Vote aimed to create a sharp political dividing line in Congress – and within the Democratic congressional conference – by bringing Medicare for All to a floor vote. As the left seeks to build a majority bloc along class lines that can advance a working-class agenda, a Medicare for All vote would provide a huge opportunity to align the left with a broadly popular demand and isolate both the Republicans and centrist leadership of the Democratic Party in opposition to it.
Even though proponents recognized that Medicare for All would probably not pass the House (and regardless, have no chance of passing in the Senate or being signed into law by President Biden), the strategy correctly identified that such a vote could be a powerful way to push the issue further into the public consciousness, and help provide the basis for future primary challenges like those that put Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman into office.
Some on the left have suggested that losing a vote would be an automatic setback for Medicare for All, but Force the Vote proponents made a compelling argument that anything that raises the salience of already-popular Medicare for All is laying the basis for a future majority bloc that could push it through and implement it.
PELOSI AS AN OBSTACLE
While there was a compelling legislative strategy behind demanding a floor vote, things ran aground on Force the Vote’s proposed mechanism. The thesis of the movement was that because the Democratic majority relies on a margin of fewer than 15 votes in the House of Representatives, a small group of Democrats could have denied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the majority she needed to be re-elected unless she agreed to bring Medicare for All to the floor.
One obstacle was the absence of any announced progressive challenger for the speaker position. If a group of congresspeople had delayed the speaker vote to try to get a commitment for a floor vote, it would surely have created embarrassment for Pelosi, but her re-election was a foregone conclusion. And while Force the Vote proponents objected to progressives voting for Pelosi in return for “nothing,” in fact it seems the progressive caucus had already coordinated to guarantee rules changes that would be necessary to pass key priorities like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
RISK OF MARGINALIZATION
Perhaps the biggest political problem with “forcing” the vote was that while a floor vote for Medicare for All would align the progressive left in Congress with a popular majority and divide the centrists in the party from the base, holding up the speaker election would very possibly have accomplished the opposite. Participating in a disruptive effort to delay the inevitable election of the Democratic speaker would isolate leftist legislators from even progressive forces in the party, would lack any obvious popular appeal, and could totally marginalize participants within the Democratic conference.
The Democratic Socialists in Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, don’t seem afraid to pick a fight. They have made key interventions to demand $2,000 stimulus checks, the removal of President Trump and investigation of the Capitol Police, and received enthusiastic support for those interventions from the social movement left.
Yet Force the Vote tested an “outside/outside” strategy executed without support in Congress. It was perhaps the most organized expression yet of a political approach that has been tried with some regularity on the left, in which largely online actors establish a line in the sand on which they wish to create a polarizing political divide, and then orient the left to attacking the left-most legislators who cross the line. This approach is particularly effective when mobilizing online outrage and has surely paid some dividends over the last few years in convincing progressive legislators to adopt increasingly left-wing language or occasionally take protest votes. Force the Vote tested this approach as a governing strategy. It failed dramatically, with Pelosi ultimately receiving unanimous support from the Democratic conference.
INSIDE/OUTSIDE WITH LEADERSHIP FROM THE OUTSIDE
But the left isn’t wrong to think that legislators should be looking to organizations and movements on the “outside” for strategic direction instead of dictating it from their congressional offices. The alternative, then – largely absent from US politics at the federal level – is an inside/outside approach in which organizations play a leading role in setting strategy.
For this to be feasible, we need mass organizations that have relationships with elected officials, can take strategic input from those officials, can democratically debate and decide on a legislative strategy among their own members that incorporates that input, and can then organize those officials into executing the strategy that is ultimately decided on.
In an alternative universe where Force the Vote was a strategic approach developed in the context of both an organized base and the elected officials needed to make it work, it might have been successful. If enough members of Congress were publicly on board to hold up the speaker election, it might have been an exciting and strategic confrontation for the left. But those legislators didn’t embrace it!
UNDERSTAND THE POLITICAL CALCULUS
This could be, as Force the Vote proponents would have it, because they are spineless sell-outs, each and every one, but it could also be because they were making some fairly simple political calculations. Based on the current composition of forces in Congress, it’s likely that there weren’t actually the votes to force Speaker Pelosi to bring Medicare for All to the floor, that voting against her would be a politically costly and self-marginalizing effort that wouldn’t accomplish the goal, that the Force the Vote movement asking them to bear that political cost could not necessarily be counted on to have their backs in future struggles, and that those outside advocates were not even aware of or interested in what those costs were going to be and whether they were worth it.
If the left wants to move a bloc of elected officials into a confrontational strategy that is set by social movements, which we do want to do, then we need to systematically incorporate an understanding of political pressures legislators face into our own decision making.
One group that certainly has an ambition to become a mass organization with affiliated legislators who will advance a democratically decided strategy is Democratic Socialists of America, which has grown to 85,000 members and chapters in all 50 states in the last few years. DSA members have at times been inclined to the outside/outside approach, but with a few exceptions the Force the Vote effort was met with a shrug. Despite their ideological diversity, DSA members value participation in an organization that makes political decisions democratically. Force the Vote’s failure to have currency in the organization was likely due to a developing (and healthy) commitment not to take strategic cues from podcasters or Twitter accounts.
CHANNELING ANGER INTO POWER
Force the Vote may be over, but conflict over this type of strategy is likely to continue. While the movement’s online expression veered towards angry and conspiratorial, it is worth thinking about who took part. Outside of the clique of podcasters who led it, the participants probably included many formerly passive consumers of left media being activated around a legislative demand for the first time. Their motivation should be obvious – the US healthcare system is an immoral monstrosity that kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. People they trust asked them to take action to advance a righteous cause and it’s good, not bad, that it produced some real activity.
If the left continues to grow, we will see millions more taking political action and coming into contact with the organized left for the first time. Most of those people will arrive on the left angry and inexperienced. It’s not enough to dismiss them as naive or uncouth or disorganized. Surely, we will need to isolate some irredeemable cranks, but we have a responsibility to create real and meaningful avenues for regular people to make political change. These include opportunities to join organizations, debate strategies, and build the strength to execute those strategies in the halls of power. Force the Vote was a flawed and ultimately failed strategy, but leftists who opposed it should strive to treat the participants with grace and compassion, evaluate strategies on their own terms, and challenge ourselves to provide ways for newly politicized leftists to engage in effective and meaningful political work.