What Progressives Need To Learn From Republicans About Forcing Concessions From Party Leaders

Power concedes nothing without a demand, as holdout Republicans demonstrated by demanding concessions for their vote for speaker. Progressives should have done the same in 2021.

For the first time in 100 years, the House majority wasn’t able to decide on a speaker in the usual fashion. Representative Kevin McCarthy had to make numerous concessions to holdout members of his party who refused to vote for him. After 11 rounds of voting, McCarthy had still fallen short of the 218 votes needed to secure the speakership spot and even had even lost votes. Because the Republicans hold a narrow majority in the House, McCarthy could only lose four of his own members. Finally, after 15 rounds of voting and negotiating, McCarthy managed to “claw[ed] his way to victory,” wrote the New York Times.

Despite the historically rare nature of a failed speakership vote, the events of the past week have been far from unexpected. First, a vocal anti-McCarthy faction had been signaling its intent not to vote for McCarthy without significant concessions for weeks, as I’ve pointed out on Rising. Second, as many progressives know, we’ve been here before.

In 2021, a movement known as Force the Vote advocated for progressives in the House to do precisely what a rogue faction of Republicans did, but to use their leverage to fight for the people. They declined to do so. Now, Republicans have shown how much power coalition politics can garner. And despite coping on social media with selfies and gags about eating popcorn while Republicans flailed, progressives, as they’re so called, are the ones who have egg on their faces.

The fact is that the rogue Republican plan to secure concessions from the Republican establishment worked. For example, McCarthy agreed to a rule that would make it easier to oust a sitting speaker as well as a concession that gives “the ultraconservative faction approval over a third of the seats on the powerful Rules Committee, which controls what legislation reaches the floor and how it is debated.”

Other asks included reopening the Capitol and getting rid of pandemic protocols. But I don’t want to spend too much time in the weeds here. What you need to know is this: A political faction of the Republican Party that objected to Kevin McCarthy identified that they had real leverage to demand basically whatever they wanted. And the Republican establishment couldn’t do anything about it. 

Some critics say this was stupid because the rogue Republicans had no plan for an alternative speaker, and that it’s highly unlikely that Jim Jordan could have possibly whipped enough votes to present a credible challenge to McCarthy. Left establishment toadies made a similar argument in 2021, saying that a similar plan for progressives to withhold their votes for Pelosi’s speakership wasn’t feasible absent a viable speaker candidate. This week’s events prove how idiotic that contention really was. The Republican defectors didn’t need a specific alternative candidate to gum up the works. Republicans were forced to negotiate for as long as it took.

The longest speaker vote ever in 1856 took two months and 133 rounds of voting.

And during that historical vote, which featured violent fist fights and a caning between congressmen, legislating came to a standstill. As Majorie Taylor Greene, who is firmly in the pro-McCarthy camp, pointed out, “We can’t even swear in as members of Congress until we elect a Speaker. We can’t form committees until we elect a Speaker. We can’t investigate anything, [like the Hunter Biden scandal] until we have a Speaker.”

Heavens to Betsy! That sounds a lot like leverage to me. And isn’t that the point?

The entire Republican agenda was in the hands of a handful of opportunistic congress members. And Republicans weren’t sure what to do about it.

Some of McCarthy’s supporters tried to paint this “force the vote” effort as a self-interested hostage-taking mission—ginning up antagonism against the rogue Republicans in the public eye and, ultimately, in their districts, where they might really feel it. Here’s Rep. Dan Crenshaw on Fox News recently:

“It’s a shame. It makes us look foolish. If I didn’t know any better, it’s like the Democrats paid these people off. … Let’s make it look like the Republicans can’t govern. … That’s what it makes it look like. Their demands are foolish … inside, baseball procedural issues. … Their demands are things that the average American doesn’t care about at all.”

In this clip Crenshaw is articulating what has become a common refrain for Republicans: that these 20 obstructionists are standing in the way of substantive policy for the sake of administrative asks that don’t matter to the voting public. He cites the Republican plans to defund the IRS and to secure the border as priorities that are getting stalled, and jokes that it’s almost as if the Democrats paid Republicans to act this foolishly. He goes on to say that these rogue Republicans have no plan. And as I listen to him, I can’t help but think: God, he sounds an awful lot like establishment Democrats.

Let me explain.

In 2020, the situation was reversed. Democrats had a small majority in the House, such that a handful of progressives—Squad members alone—had enough votes to hold up Nancy Pelosi’s nomination to lead the House. There were plenty of reasons to do so. For one, AOC had previously gestured to the fact that she found it incredible that Pelosi had never faced a real speakership challenge. Moreover, we were at the start of the COVID pandemic and at the tail end of a progressive presidential campaign that delivered unprecedented public support for Medicare for All along with other progressive policies.

Did Bernie’s loss mean that the movement representing a majority of Americans was supposed to die? And during a pandemic?

Since Trump was still president, Democrats were still pretending to care about COVID deaths, and before the vaccines, when even young and healthy people were finding themselves hospitalized with or dying from COVID, there was genuine energy around using the public health crisis as a springboard for improving our healthcare system, which, despite yielding worse results than peer nations, is the most expensive in the world.

Disgruntled progressives who made up a significant part of the Democratic Party base had dutifully voted Biden into office—despite warnings from people like myself that doing so without conditions would mean that he would ultimately betray most if not all of his campaign promises.

And in the weeks after the election, progressive YouTube politico and comedian Jimmy Dore floated a simple idea to get something in return for those voters, an idea he had gleaned from the DSA’s own handbook: That is, Force the Vote. Progressive Squad members could leverage their speakership vote to extract concessions from Nancy Pelosi.

Unlike Republicans now, the left’s asks were to be substantive, not just procedural. One key ask was a vote on Medicare for All, which was intended to keep the fight alive and draw contrasts between Democrats’ claims that they want to improve healthcare for Americans and the fact that they repeatedly kill Medicare for All legislation as quickly as they receive money from the pharmaceutical industry.

If you want to understand why the vote for Medicare for All was such an important ask, look at what’s happened over the last two years. Look at how California, with its Democratic supermajority legislature, killed a statewide Medicare for All bill. Or consider how silent all of the Squad members have been about Medicare for All since the end of the Bernie campaign. Did 68,000 people a year stop dying from a lack of health insurance? Or is it just not cool to talk about it outside of a fundraising cycle?

Now, some of us, fearful that this would happen, rallied over the holidays in 2020— furiously calling progressive congress members about the plan and planning rallies. As left media figures debated the merits of the plan, people like David Sirota offered constructive additions to the ask, including a suggestion that Pelosi be forced to oust corporate democrat Richie Neal from the ways and means committee, where he was poised to stop progress on healthcare reform.

What should be clear is that specifics of the ask were much less important than the following fact: Nancy Pelosi was an obvious enemy to the left, and progressives should not have voted for her without gaining something significant in return. After AOC’s historic election to congress, she protested with climate activists in Pelosi’s office. The longtime speaker then made quick work of bullying the Squad members into submission.

“An iron fist in a Gucci glove,” is how POLITICO described Pelosi. And over the course of their first two years in congress, the Squad members largely submitted to said fist. But here was an opportunity to draw attention to the corruption that paid for the proverbial Gucci glove. The Squad members could have demanded important committee assignments, as the current rebel Republicans have done. They could’ve forced a vote on banning stock trading by congress members. After all, Pelosi’s personal wealth has ballooned during her decades in office, wildly out of proportion to her congressional salary. This is a woman who has famously defended congressional stock trading despite the clear conflict of interest and insider knowledge that congress members possess. This is a woman who just presided over the quiet death of a bill to end congressional stock trading—one that was arguably designed to fail.

But instead of progressives choosing that moment to fight, to highlight the corruption of the Democratic Party, and to lead a genuine populist movement that stood a chance of waking people up to the limitations of the two party duopoly, something curious happened.

A call seemed to go out to leading figures in progressive media that they should drop Force the Vote. Although I first heard of the idea from Sam Seder, host of the YouTube show The Majority Report, who said he supported Jimmy Dore’s idea despite having a long standing feud with Jimmy, he quickly changed his tune—alluding to a call he’d received that discouraged this approach. A call from whom? We can only guess. The “legacy left” media all quickly turned against the idea, with large accounts like The Young Turks, The Majority Report, and others spreading outright misinformation about the risks of what might happen if the Squad declined to vote for Nancy Pelosi. They repeatedly claimed that Kevin McCarthy would become speaker of the House by default. But, of course, as we have now seen, that was never true. Hakeem Jeffries is not magically speaker of the house despite earning more votes in the first count than McCarthy. You need a majority of the house—not a bare majority—to be speaker. And yet the lie was so pervasive that Pramila Jayapal herself lied directly to former Rising host Ryan Grim’s face when he asked her during an interview why she voted for Nancy Pelosi without demanding real concessions. Jayapal responded:

“Well I’m sympathetic, obviously, as the lead sponsor of the bill, to people who are frustrated that we have not moved to a single payer system yet. But the reality is, this is a very slim margin. The vote for speaker was between Kevin McCarthy and Nancy Pelosi, and throwing the entire chamber into chaos would have been very detrimental for the electoral college vote and everything else, but more importantly from my perspective as the lead sponsor of the bill who’s done so much to try and build momentum and gain sponsorship and move the bill forward in the legislative process, I didn’t think it was a smart idea. I mean, for us to force a vote on Medicare for All before we are sure that we have the support, I think is a bad strategy. … You already know [who’s for Medicare for All].”

I later confronted Ryan on my podcast about his failure to push back against Jayapal’s claim, and we had a constructive conversation about how things could have been handled differently. But since Squad members rarely open themselves up to questioning from anyone in progressive media outside of Ryan Grim at the Intercept, that missed opportunity was one that carried far and wide the lie that Kevin McCarthy could become speaker if Democrats forced the vote.

Sam Seder was one of the most vocal opponents of Force the Vote, after, of course, he supported it, and following a three hour debate with me on my podcast, it was incredibly demoralizing to hear that he didn’t understand the basic facts of how the congressional vote even worked. I recommend everyone listen to that debate at Bad Faith podcast if you haven’t watched it already.

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All this was as obvious as the nose on my face two years ago. But major left media figures like Sam have been loud and wrong about this for years without any apology. This issue became the source of a major fissure in left politics. For years, I’ve been the subject of personal attacks from opponents of Force the Vote. Sam, for one, argued after our debate, which ended on a friendly note, that I “yelled” at him for 3 hours while Cenk Uygur referred to me as a “fake” leftist just a few months ago, in part because of my advocacy for Force the Vote and my perceived “alliance” with Jimmy Dore, who shared my support of this tactic.

Now, of course, both the left media and mainstream media are perfectly clear on how this all works. Now that there’s no pressure on progressives to actually be adversarial to the Democratic Party—outside of wearing tax the rich sweatshirts—now they get it.

While Democrats have bent over backward to pretend that the Force of the Vote strategy was emblematic of a Republican Party in disarray, what this really showed is how fully progressive Democrats are controlled by their corporate party.

Republicans Gone Wild

What the rogue Republicans were fighting for is not what I would’ve asked for. But the point is that progressives in 2021 could have asked for anything. My former colleague Ryan Grim, along with progressives like AOC and Pramila Jayapal, bragged back then about securing relatively minor procedural changes like PAYGO exemptions: They lauded these “gains” so much you would’ve thought PAYGO was esperanto for student debt cancellation, a $15 minimum wage, or a classic Oprah car give away. In 2021, these progressives celebrated wins much smaller than the wins already secured by the Republican holdouts last week, but now they’re taking smug selfies from the House floor—as though McCarthy’s concessions aren’t proof that they gave up an enormous amount of leverage without a fight two years ago. And for what? What happened after they decided to play the game and make nice with “mama bear” Pelosi?

AOC tweeted that she wouldn’t be forcing the vote because she was negotiating on the inside for committee appointments, and was reserving leverage to fight for a $15 min wage.

But how did that go? Biden and the corporate Dems killed the $15 minimum wage when Schumer stripped it from must-pass COVID legislation that only needed a bare majority to pass—converting a 51 vote issue into a filibuster-proof vote. And it was reported that Pramila Jayapal whipped votes to make sure the progressives didn’t threaten to vote down the COVID relief bill in protest. I guess that sort of move is only allowed if you’re Manchin or Sinema fighting for corporations, not progressives fighting for the people. 

Moreover, Squad members ended up with even worse committee assignments than they’d had the previous year. Katie Porter was kicked off the financial services committee, reportedly because her popular white board presentations exposing corporate corruption made it tougher for committee chair Maxine Waters to do the real work of the financial services committee: fundraising from banks.

And this is what’s so absolutely disappointing about progressives. It’s why so many people who were once willing to fight with Bernie are no longer willing to engage in electoral politics at all. It has become clear that as performative and goofy as some of the right’s posturing is right now, people like Matt Gaetz are still willing to demonstrate more fight against the establishment than Squad members, who once claimed that they would rather be one-term congress members than forgo their principles. Gaetz said:

“Maybe the right person for the job of speaker of the House isn’t someone who has sold shares of themselves for more than a decade to get it.”

Matt Gaetz was talking about Kevin McCarthy there, but he could easily have been talking about Nancy Pelosi. The difference is, you won’t hear a peep out of the Squad about Nancy Pelosi’s corruption, her unpopularity, or the fact that after a 30-year reign, she’s allowed to choose her own successor without any real contest whatsoever, even from the progressive flank.

We’ve learned that leveraging power in small numbers works. It comes with media backlash, but it is an effective mechanism that can be used to get a whole range of important concessions and deliver for the people. That being the case, every single person who opposed it in 2021 has to answer the question: was it worth it?

AOC made an interesting admission this week. While doing the media rounds about the Republicans struggle to nominate a speaker of the House, she made an explicit reference to the Washington coercion machine that is mostly only alluded to. AOC makes explicit reference to herself as “independent in certain ways” from the Democratic party, and that as a result, “sometimes the leadership of your party, in this case, the Republican Party, will be making claims in order to try to twist arms and get people in line.”

Now, AOC was clearly making reference to the Republican holdouts, who were being whipped like a French meringue into backing McCarthy as speaker of the House. AOC is also revealing more than she might have intended about her own personal experiences with Democrats. 

Remember, AOC offered a range of excuses for her inaction in 2021, excuses which have only grown more stale over the years: She claimed she needed to reserve political capital for the fight for fifteen, which failed, and to secure committee positions, which they did not get. In fact, by failing to show they meant business, it seems obvious now, in retrospect, that progressives taught establishment Democrats that they could be walked over and demeaned with impunity. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen during the Biden administration. 

For example, Biden began his term by immediately walking back his commitment to a $15 minimum wage. If you think I’m being unfair and that Republicans, Kyrsten Sinema, and Joe Manchin are to blame, recall that despite assurances from veteran congress members that the minimum wage satisfied the requirements of budget reconciliation, and could be passed as part of the American Rescue Plan with only 51 votes in the Senate, Joe Biden started signaling as early as February that he thought that his parliamentarian would decide the matter differently. And lo and behold, she did. Even though the parliamentarian’s advice has no binding authority, and past presidents have fired parliamentarians who didn’t advise in accordance with their policy priorities, Biden’s administration seemingly jumped at the opportunity to scrap the wage raise. Chuck Schumer stripped it from the American Rescue Plan, Bernie tried to get it back—but doing so took 60 votes, not 51—and we all remember how that went down (recall the footage of Sinema, masked and in a pleated skirt, giving a thumb’s down).

But let’s not forget that some progressives considered withholding their votes for the American Rescue plan entirely as a form of leverage to force the establishment Democrats to finally raise the wages for America’s worst paid workers—wages that hadn’t been raised since 2009. But as TIME reported, Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Pramila Jayapal talked them out of it. “Progressives have been sort of pushed to the margins so often in politics that I think we may have gotten used to that,” Jayapal explained. “And so people are very inclined to say, ‘Oh, this happened again—we didn’t get everything we wanted.’” But she taught her colleagues to realize, “We should take the win.”

We should take the win?

Did progressives have to have their arms “twisted” to get them in line? Or was Jayapal able to get by with a softer touch?

AOC in Tears

Five months later, Pelosi demonstrated unambiguously aggressive coercion techniques which left AOC crying on the House floor. It happened after AOC voted against funding Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system on the grounds that Israel stood accused of human rights abuses and war crimes against Palestinians. But in stunning C-SPAN footage, you can see Nancy Pelosi, in pink, engaging AOC in a spirited conversation. 

When the vote was retaken, AOC had switched her vote from no to present. You can see her appearing to wipe away tears in this clip of her being comforted by Barbara Lee.

No one knows exactly what Pelosi said to AOC, or how hard she “twisted her arm” to “get her in line.” But something happened here. And I’m guessing the tools Pelosi used were more stick than proverbial carrot.

When asked to explain her tears, AOC wrote,

“Yes, I wept. I wept at the complete lack of care for the human beings that are impacted by these decisions, I wept at an institution choosing a path of maximum volatility and minimum consideration for its own political convenience. And I wept at the complete lack of regard I often feel our party has for its most vulnerable and endangered members and communities.”

But at the end of the day, she fell in line, and she never revealed what Pelosi said to her—in effect, protecting Pelosi from having to be judged for whatever threat made the young congress member cry. That’s a choice.

Later that year progressives were steamrolled again when another piece of must-pass legislation, the Build Back Better bill, was bifurcated with all the social safety net parts of the bill that progressives wanted in one half, and all of the establishment friendly infrastructure projects in the other. There was no reason to do this, of course, other than to dam the human infrastructure projects, and strip progressives of their leverage. But once again, Pelosi and Jayapal were on the scene, whipping progressives into submission. For a while, progressives claimed they would “hold the line,” and not vote on the traditional infrastructure bill without Build Back Better. But in a move that surprised no one, Manchin killed the human infrastructure bill. “We have been saying this for weeks that this would happen,” Rep. Cori Bush told MSNBC. “Having [the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better] coupled together was the only leverage we had. And what did the Caucus do? We tossed it.”

Bush League

I’d feel sorry for Bush if it weren’t all so predictable. It was clear to many of us on the left that the last moment of real leverage the progressives had was the Force the Vote moment, during which they held Nancy Pelosi’s gavel in their hands. Having not acted on that threat, they spent the next two years being dismissed and bullied like the powerless empty suits they were. Power concedes nothing without demand, after all. And from the start of Biden’s administration, the progressives made it clear that they would not be demanding anything at all. 

The disrespect progressives have suffered as a result is incredible. AIPAC and its allied pro-Isreal fund DMFI worked overtime to fund corporate candidates to run against progressives. And the Progressive Caucus—not just the Democratic Party but the Congressional Progressive Caucus led by Pramila Jayapal—endorsed those DMFI candidates against frontrunners like Nina Turner in Ohio. Keep in mind that Jayapal and Turner worked together on the Bernie campaign. What a betrayal. 

Whereas once, the Democratic Party prioritized protecting all of its members—saying it would blackball vendors who worked for insurgent candidates that dared to challenge Democratic incumbents—once progressives became the incumbents, the rules seemed to change. Now, the litmus test for party protection is no longer “are you the front runner?” in an open contest, or “are you the incumbent?” but “are you the right kind of Democrat?”

Hakeem Jeffries has a pattern of backing establishment opponents to progressives in primary contests. He started a PAC with conservative representative Josh Gottheimer to protect incumbent Democrats from primary challenges from their left. Jeffries actually stumped for Nina Turner’s opponent Shontel Brown on the campaign trail. And he has been openly hostile to progressives for his entire career.

But despite all of this, powerless progressives have been clapping, tweeting, and giggling enthusiastically as they vote again and again for Hakeem Jeffries during the house speaker proceedings—with no sense of irony at all. Congressman Bowman tweeted, “McCarthy must be as red as a tomato right now from the embarrassment of getting fewer votes than Jeffries.” But aren’t you, as a progressive, embarrassed to be uncritically supportive of a man who has worked so assiduously to undermine your colleagues, or prospective colleagues, in the Progressive Caucus? Instead of selfies, shouldn’t this be a moment for stolid reflection over how you ended up merely a spectator of a power struggle waged by those much less principled than you, but which could result in more power than you’ve ever leveraged in congress?

As one journalist put it on Twitter,

It’s rather pathetic to watch Democrats and leftists gloating about the fact that the Republican Party seems to still allow for a tiny amount of dissent and debate while their own party is an absolute authoritarian borg that demands lockstep allegiance from its members.”


A Lesson for the Left?

The power that Republicans showed this past week is literally the power that progressive media figures like myself were begging progressive electeds to understand they had back in 2021. Back when Democrats held both chambers and the White House. Imagine what progressives could have gotten if they were the ones dominating a news cycle for days, or weeks, demanding popular benefits for the American people? What if they—not Lauren Boebert—had been the ones demanding the country’s attention? What could they have achieved? We can only imagine.

This piece is an adaptation of several recent “Radar” segments delivered by Briahna Joy Gray on The Hill’s “Rising.”

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