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.”
While the crises of today are distinct, we are in fact at a major turning point on par with the crises of the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. The New Deal consensus to quell runaway capitalism and the Great Society’s efforts to tackle systemic racism and poverty are crumbling under the weight of a billionaire class that wants to divide and conquer America.
The Radical Republicans of the 19th century offer insight how ideologically driven politicians—like Ocasio-Cortez—can use their power to successfully push their own parties and force sweeping changes to the racial, economic, and gender hierarchies of this country.
Legislating a Political Revolution
Most famous among the hard-line radicals of the Civil War era was Thaddeus Stevens, the elderly Congressman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Stevens was described by observers in his own era as a singularly cunning politician—with the zeal of a French revolutionary, a “Robespierre…of the Second American Revolution,” and possessed the tactical skills of a general in congressional combat.
“[He] was at heart the greatest and most uncompromising of abolitionist-democrats,” writes W.E.B. Du Bois in his work Black Reconstruction.
When Lincoln proposed a bipartisan bill that would provide federal compensation to the governments of border states in exchange for the gradual abolition of slavery, Stevens retorted, “It is about the most diluted, milk and water gruel proposition that was ever given to the American nation.”
For years, Stevens’s role in Congress was not as a party loyalist but as a movement leader fighting to destroy Slavocracy—and with it the existing legal edifice of white supremacy.
“Stevens would stake out a position, confidently predicting that the nation would move leftward and adopt it within a year or two, and usually he was right,” writes historian Eric Foner.
He used this strategy to slowly build consensus on radical legislation. One newspaper observed that “no man was oftener outvoted,” and another described Stevens in terms that could describe Bernie Sanders’s career in the Senate: “In all the leading questions of the late war, Mr. Stevens has been in advance of his compeers, but the Government has eventually seen the necessity of giving practical effect to his views of the national policy.”
Stevens was one of the first members of Congress to declare that the federal government had the right to abolish slavery when most believed this was legally impossible. When this move stalled in Congress, Stevens reintroduced a long-standing bill to abolish slavery in Washington, DC. He gained support from moderates and thwarted numerous attempts to derail a vote. The bill passed the House, 92 to 38.
As a junior coalition partner in the moderate Republican government, Stevens and his fellow radicals compromised when necessary while pulling their party’s leaders as far toward their revolutionary vision as they could.
A Caucus Might Matter More Than the Nominee
The Radical Republicans made themselves indispensable to their party. When radical Owen Lovejoy defeated a moderate Republican in an Illinois party primary, Lincoln remarked, “it turned me blind…seeing the people there, their great enthusiasm for Lovejoy, considering the activity they will carry into the [general election] contest with him.”
In recent weeks, Barack Obama has been out on the stump encouraging young people to register and vote in the upcoming midterms by pointing to the successes of Philadelphia’s radical District Attorney Larry Krasner and even touting Medicare for All, a policy Hillary Clinton said just three years ago would “never, ever happen.” Like Lincoln, Democratic leaders are seeing the grassroots energy of progressives and young people as key ingredients of a winning coalition.
“In a chaotic time, people who have a clear program often exert more influence than their numbers might suggest,” says Foner.
While the radicals never enjoyed majority support, most Americans do support the major tenets of the progressive platform of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. It is for these reasons that perhaps finding the left’s perfect candidate for president in 2020 is less critical than fashioning a forceful caucus. If a Democrat is elected to the White House campaigning on a platform similar to that of Sanders in 2016 and Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, then hard-liners will be needed to carry that platform to the finish line.
As with any junior coalition, increasing the number of seats held by like-minded radicals and strengthening their positions by keeping the winds of public opinion a their backs will be critical to their success. Imagine what might the first two years of the Obama presidency looked like with more Democrats in Congress embracing the tactics of Thaddeus Stevens?
In an era where the modern Republican Party embraces more explicit forms of white nationalism and the Democratic Party becomes a ideological big tent ranging from Mike Bloomberg to members of the Democratic Socialists of America, Ocasio-Cortez and like-minded political revolutionaries like Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley can play an instrumental role in shaping how the Democratic Party governs.
The relationship between these new electeds and the existing Congressional Progressive Caucus remains an obvious question. The CPC has over double the members of the Freedom Caucus (75 versus 33). But for what the Freedom Caucus lacks in numbers, they have made up for with ideological discipline and an appetite for confrontation.
The CPC does not have stringent guidelines of participation and encompasses a range of perspectives within the Democratic Party, ranging from Ocasio-Cortez, who rejects corporate money, to Representative Joe Kennedy (MA), who has taken PAC donations from Goldman Sachs and Bank of America and has yet to co-sponsor key progressive priorities such as single-payer health care, free college, or abolishing cash bail. CPC member Representative Matt Cartwright (PA) has even gone as far to support legislation cracking down on sanctuary cities. Representatives Jared Polis (CO), Lisa Rochester (DE), Andre Carson (IN), Don Beyer (VA), and Adam Smith (WA) are somehow part of both the CPC and the centrist, corporate-friendly caucus called the “New Democrat Coalition.”
Stevens’s faction of skilled and veteran Radical Republicans was built over many years. Whatever relationship emerges between newly elected firebrands and the CPC, a disciplined caucus with enough numbers to withhold votes as a bloc can push the limits of political possibility. There are obvious limits to what Ocasio-Cortez can forge in her first year in Congress. An initial step may be to explore how a disciplined caucus can be built within the CPC, with support of its new generation of leaders Pramila Jayapal (WA), Mark Pocan (WI), and Jamie Raskin (MD). Any caucus would also have to maintain an openness to the kinds of painful, yet necessary compromises—such as Stevens’s finally giving up on voting rights in order to pass the 13th Amendment—that deliver reform when all other tactics have been exhausted.
The Radical Republicans show Ocasio-Cortez and a rising group of left-wing elected officials across the country a philosophy of governing in yet another era where radicals are assessing how to bend the tools of democratic institutions that structurally favor moderation and compromise in order to create a country that belongs to all its people.
As The Nation put much more directly in its eulogy of Thaddeus Stevens in 1868:
Any young politician who proposes to get on in the world by being a cowardly sneak, as thousands of young politicians do, cannot help profiting by the study of [Stevens’s] life. He will see by it that, even under the shadow of an irresistible popular will, the road to the highest success lies through courage and self-assertion, and not through base compliance.