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Opinion | How ‘The Squad’ and Like-Minded Progressives Have Changed Their Party

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When the far-left politicians Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley were first elected to Congress roughly half a decade ago, many moderate Democrats saw their unapologetically progressive vision for America as an albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party.

That certainly seemed to be the view of Democratic leaders, who seemed intent on making “the squad,” as the progressive caucus is known, a group of permanent outsiders.

“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the House, told Maureen Dowd in 2019. “But they didn’t have any following,” Ms. Pelosi said of the squad. “They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” At the time, Ms. Pelosi was bristling from criticism the progressive members had levied against her over her support for a funding bill the progressives said failed to protect migrant children, a major issue during the Trump presidency.

Five years later, Ms. Pelosi has stepped down from the leadership position she long held. The House progressive caucus has grown to nearly 100 members and has become a significant force within the party. The progressives have outlasted not only Ms. Pelosi, but also moderate Democrats who once led the party, like Representative Steny Hoyer, who has also bowed out of his role leading House Democrats. Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the new minority leader, isn’t a member of the progressive caucus. (He left the caucus when he became leader of the House Democrats.) But he has been far friendlier to the group’s members and their agenda than his predecessor, Ms. Pelosi, a nod to the blossoming role of progressive politics within the Democratic Party and its voter base.

And in recent months, the insurgent group of unapologetic leftists has gained even more sway within the Democratic Party. Some of this is clearly a reaction to the extremism of Trumpism and far-right House Republicans. But the progressives have gained power in Washington amid rising anger over the U.S. role in Gaza.

For the first time in decades, possibly since the anti-Vietnam War and environmental movements, the left wing has led the center of the Democratic Party in a new political direction on a major issue — one sharply critical of the Israeli government, impatient with the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and increasingly willing to use American leverage to curb Israel’s military plans.

In recent weeks, Democratic leaders have begun inching closer to the progressive view that it is against U.S. interests to continue sending unconditional U.S. military aid to Mr. Netanyahu’s government in an asymmetrical war that has killed thousands of innocent civilians in Gaza. And they have recognized that anger among Democratic voters — especially young voters — over the U.S. role in Gaza is a serious threat to Mr. Biden’s re-election that cannot be ignored.

In March, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a staunch supporter of Israel, signaled an increasingly unified view of the conflict within the Democratic Party when he called for Israeli elections to replace Mr. Netanyahu. “The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after Oct. 7,” Mr. Schumer said in a March 14 speech that stunned the political world.

Progressives have cheered the shift.

“We stood our ground on this issue since day one,” Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts told me. “Today our vision is a part of that mainstream political discourse, and the party is responding.” Ms. Pressley said it was not only Gaza but other issues, including student debt relief, that have contributed to the rising influence of progressives on Capitol Hill. “People want a Democratic Party that fights,” she said.

Shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, such a transformation within the Democratic Party looked extremely unlikely. In the first days after Israel invaded Gaza last fall, progressives like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez were calling for a cease-fire, a position that, in the wake of the horrific attacks on Israelis, seemed far out of step with much of the Democratic Party.

Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, another progressive Democrat, accused Israel of threatening actions that amounted to war crimes. Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a progressive Democrat and the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, has described Israel’s longstanding approach to the conflict as apartheid. For months, President Biden and the mainstream of the Democratic Party treated these views as unwelcome and extreme. Outside Biden campaign events, protests against the war were also largely ignored.

Six months later, though, the political landscape looks drastically different. When Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, speaking on the House floor on March 22, described the war in Gaza as an “unfolding genocide” against the Palestinian people, the Democratic House leadership barely blinked.

“A lot of what I was trying to do was legitimize this position,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez told me in a recent interview. “That it’s not just like some fringe-activist thing.”

The Democrats who are now openly talking about putting conditions on aid to Israel are hardly on the fringe. They include mainstream senators like Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Chris Coons of Delaware, Peter Welch of Vermont, Tina Smith of Minnesota and Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Representative Gregory Meeks of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a longtime supporter of Israel, said he would not support the sale of F-15 fighter jets and munitions to Israel until he received assurances Israel would do more to reduce civilian deaths and increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Even at the White House, it’s clear the rhetoric surrounding the conflict has shifted. In a phone call with Mr. Netanyahu on April 4, the day after the killing of seven World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza by Israeli forces, Mr. Biden told the Israeli leader he would attach conditions to U.S. military support if more were not done to protect civilians and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Partly, the drift away from decades-old American foreign policy is a reflection of the enormous death toll and suffering in Gaza, where tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed, as well as the intransigence of the right-wing Israeli government. But it is also a mark of the growing influence of American progressives on the Democratic Party.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, for example, wasn’t taking on only the role of organizer in recent months, but also of fund-raiser: She gave $260,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this year; a spokesman said her PAC, Courage to Change, has more than $500,000 on-hand it plans to put toward the campaigns of progressive House Democrats facing serious challenges this cycle. It was her first contribution to a central core of the party, moving her from an outsider to an important influencer. This kind of fund-raising, if it continues, could put progressives in a position to play a growing role within the Democratic Party, displacing the aging centrists.

On Israel, the pressure from the left has been clear: protests by young Americans and many others against the American role in the conflict; an “uncommitted” movement that led thousands of Democrats to cast protest ballots instead of voting for Mr. Biden, especially in Michigan, a key swing state; and an intense, behind-the-scenes lobbying effort at the White House and in Congress by progressive Democrats.

One reason this had seemed improbable was divisive rhetoric on the left, including phrases like “from the river to the sea,” which some view as a call for Palestinian rights but others see as an antisemitic call for the erasure of the state of Israel.

This language was at best unhelpful. In the shadow of the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust, and amid rising antisemitism on and off campuses, it often felt deeply offensive. If American progressives are serious about driving foreign policy on Israel, they will have to find a way to strongly confront any antisemitism within their coalition.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged that antisemitism was on the rise, but said the progressive movement is operating in a “tinderbox situation” in which groups like AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby, have used unfair accusations of antisemitism to silence any criticism of the Israeli government.

“Two things can be true at the same time,” she said. “You have a lot of cynical weaponization of false accusations and conflating of criticism of Israel with antisemitism, alongside the fact that antisemitism is very real and on the rise.”

The long-term political strategy behind the uncommitted movement remains unclear. If it continues into the November election, it could help put Donald Trump in the White House, imperiling American democracy, never mind the progressive agenda.

Allies of the movement, though, say the U.S. role in Gaza has become too personal to ignore. “I have constituents who’ve lost dozens of their family members,” Ms. Omar said. “They’ve been killed with weapons provided by their own tax dollars.”

In classified briefings, at the White House and in scores of private conversations with other Democrats, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez pushed hard for a permanent cease-fire and conditions for military aid.

“There was no lack of outside organizing, but I don’t feel like there were enough inside voices that were able to get through these halls of power, particularly to people who disagreed with us,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said. “And so I decided to dedicate a lot of time and energy to really spending a lot of time in those spaces.”

She also said she sat with families of the Israeli hostages and was alarmed by the rise antisemitic attacks, especially in New York City, part of which she represents.

On the campaign trail and at the White House over the past six months, decades of fixed American foreign policy on Israel was suddenly tested like never before. In swing states across the country, large groups of antiwar protesters stalked campaign events. In Washington, Biden administration officials began receiving phone calls from members like Ms. Pressley, who for weeks pestered the White House with constant requests for aid on behalf of a single Palestinian-American family, the Okals, that was trapped in Gaza.

Representative Sara Jacobs of California, the youngest Jewish member of Congress and a Democratic member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has also lobbied her colleagues. She said the administration should enforce the Foreign Assistance Act, which bars the United States from giving arms to any country that impedes humanitarian aid, as Ms. Jacobs said she believes Israel has done.

“A lot of people think that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic,” Ms. Jacobs told me, adding that she has family in Israel. “I have been working very hard to try and carve out that space where there are legitimate criticisms.”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said her decision to publicly call the war in Gaza a genocide was driven largely by reports of imminent famine among Palestinians in the enclave amid what she said she believes to be the intentional blocking of humanitarian aid by Mr. Netanyahu.

Before giving the speech on the House floor, she said, she carefully considered other factors as well, including rising antisemitic attacks and the history of genocide against Jewish communities. She also said she spoke with a close childhood friend who is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

“I said, you know, ‘What do you think would have been helpful?’” the congresswoman recalled. “And my friend told me that people need to see these folks as human. That’s why I chose to use the images and in my speech to discuss what famine means.”

Much is at stake at home as well, where U.S. policy toward Israel could sap the Democratic Party of its moral force — among its greatest assets in the battle against Trumpism — ahead of an existential November election.

But if progressives and mainstream Democrats can continue to find common ground, that policy might really change. That may save lives, and heal a painful and politically dangerous fracture in the Democratic coalition.


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