Soon after her victory against the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called for the formation of a caucus of like-minded progressives.
“If you can even carve out a caucus of 10, 30 people it does not take a lot, if you operate as a bloc vote, to really make strong demands on things,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Intercept.
She was quickly criticized by Bloomberg writer Jonathan Bernstein, who compared her proposal to the Freedom Caucus and declared that “members on the ideological extremes can never dictate to the rest of the House, and certainly not to the entire government, no matter how determined they are.”
But Ocasio-Cortez’s strategy to take on corporate-backed members of the Democratic Party establishment is nothing new in American politics. There’s a long tradition of radicals who used their legislative power, alignment with social movements, and bully pulpit to push moderates in their own parties to embrace firm principles.
In a political system where presidents and party leaders are incentivized to bargain with moderates in order to achieve majorities necessary to pass legislation, radical legislators will always have leverage—if they choose to use it.
Perhaps the most powerful example of this strategy comes from the Republican Party’s early history. In the mid-to-late 19th century, Radical Republicans, the left-wing faction of the party that came together to end slavery, seized upon a national crisis and provided unwavering leadership.
The radicals not only discovered that they were unable to govern without compromising with President Abraham Lincoln’s incrementalism, but also that Lincoln could not keep his own party together and govern without concessions to their powerful caucus.
The radicals “are nearer to me than the other side, in thought and sentiment, though bitterly hostile personally,” Lincoln said in 1863. “They are utterly lawless—the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with—but after all their faces are set Zionwards.”
Amid rebellions led by enslaved people on plantations and organizing efforts by abolitionists, Radical Republicans aligned themselves with a growing movement demanding full emancipation.
“There is now an opportunity to establish our political system on a permanent basis of liberty and justice,” a radical reflected in 1866. “If we fail to embrace it, the golden moment will have escaped for years, if not forever.”