The Message from this Election? Bring the “Ruckus on the Democratic Party.”

Don’t believe the establishment: The 2020 election results are a vindication of the Left’s inside-outside strategy.

Joel Bleifuss

Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Ilhan Omar (Minn) and Rashida Tlaib (MI) at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 15, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

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.” 

It is essential that our insiders be strategic and aggressive. Meanwhile, those on the outside must organize the unorganized and build a 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.

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