One of the big wins for progressives in 2020 is not electoral but organizational.
Since its founding in 1976, In These Times has championed a political organizing principle known as the “inside-outside strategy.” It posits that, to effectively build power and enact policy, progressives should work inside the political system, building footholds in the system of representative government. Simultaneously, to challenge power from the outside, they should build popular movements in the streets, on the shop floors and on the National Mall.
We first wrote about the inside-outside strategy in a June 1977 story about the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Caucus members, initially lacking power in Congress, worked on the outside as a kind of leadership group for the Black community. As their seniority in the House increased, so too did their influence within the Democratic House leadership.
As CBC members have gained rank and picked up committees, however, their focus has increasingly turned toward raising corporate donations to fund Caucus infrastructure. Today, for example, one of the most powerful members in the House is CBC member Majority Whip James Clyburn (DS.C.), a darling of Big Pharma who, in the past 10 years, has taken more pharma money than anyone else in Congress. All told, 33 corporations are represented on the CBC Foundation’s Corporate Advisory Council, including Exxon Mobil, Walmart, Eli Lilly and JPMorgan Chase.
With all this corporate backing, is it any wonder that Clyburn has become a leading knocker of the progressive reps who remain committed to playing inside-outside politics? Two days after the election, the New York Times reported that, during a Democratic House caucus meeting, Clyburn “cautioned against running on ‘Medicare for All or defunding police or socialized medicine,’ adding that if Democrats pursued such policies, ‘we’re not going to win.’ ”
Perhaps it would have been more accurate for Clyburn to say that if Democrats continue advocating things like Medicare for All, his corporate benefactors might turn off the money spigot. His post-election campaign coffers, which include significant corporate donations, have ballooned to $2 million cash on hand.
The Friday before the election, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined an online public discussion hosted by the Squad — Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.). Pressley thanked Sanders for “ushering [in]” the inside-outside strategy. “Forever, there was the movement versus elected officials,” Pressley said. “The truth is, there is an inside-outside [strategy], but if you are getting it right, it’s all one movement.”
Ocasio-Cortez thanked Sanders for “normalizing” the “ruckus on the Democratic Party.” “Every single one of us got our seats challenging the Democratic establishment,” she said. “And now, from a grassroots perspective, people are realizing, ‘Oh, we can hold our party accountable and we can put the fire on our own party. It doesn’t just have to be Republicans.’ And in that way we prevent the rightward drift of the Democratic Party.”
Let us hope this commitment to the inside-outside strategy is replicated in the soon-to be-restructured Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). Long a caucus with many members but little cohesion, the CPC is set to centralize leadership behind Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and require its members to vote as a bloc more regularly.
At a time of crisis for our nation, it is essential that insiders be strategic and aggressive. Meanwhile, those on the outside must organize the unorganized and build a movement to apply necessary external pressure. This commitment to championing progressive values is not just the moral choice — it is the effective one. One that just might save the Democratic Party from its electoral misdiagnoses and corporate inclinations.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.