But leaders who disregard insurgent voices do so at their peril. Progressive Democrats are modernizing a strategy popular with social movements to try to shape the political agenda by exploiting the new tools of social media. Senior party leaders in Congress may still hold the formal levers of power. But my research shows that a new generation of lawmakers may succeed in getting out their message — and limiting presidential authority.
1. Here’s how I did my research
To study the influence of younger members of Congress, I conducted interviews in Washington in 2017 and 2018. I used these conversations to develop case studies of how some newer lawmakers emerged as leaders willing to take political risks to achieve their goals.
My discussions with dozens of experts, congressional staffers and activists reveal a pattern of advocacy by policy entrepreneurs. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers recognize that a potent way to change the political agenda is by using both “inside” efforts in the legislative process and “outside” efforts to build support for their initiatives. These entrepreneurs also use social media to try to shame establishment politicians into supporting policy change.
Some of the most effective legislators are those who work closely with coalitions of interest groups and activists on the outside, who can help drum up support for new initiatives. For example, liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) arrived on Capitol Hill in 2013 with a powerful personal story and a commitment to protecting U.S. workers. She became a member of the Senate Banking Committee and formed coalitions with interest groups against the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal. Her efforts helped delay its consideration until President Trump killed it.
2. These tactics are becoming more common
Generational turnover in Congress, a rise in party polarization and the advent of new technologies provide opportunities for lawmakers to exploit these tools.
First, the face of Congress is changing quickly after some of the highest turnover rates in decades. Congress is also more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before. Many younger lawmakers know they are unlikely to be selected to chair major committees soon, so they have eagerly grasped alternative tactics to help them make a difference more quickly.
Second, U.S. politics are more polarized, highlighting divisions between Republicans and Democrats. Even as Trump tries to tack right, studies show that the broader American public mood is more liberal and tolerant on social issues. Rising partisanship, even on traditionally bipartisan foreign policy matters, means that lawmakers on the ideological margins look for windows of opportunity to push for change.
And there’s an important third point: Newer lawmakers have mastered social media and effectively exploit Twitter and Facebook to draw attention to issues. As I describe in my recent book, lawmakers also monitor algorithms to boost readership and “get an echo chamber going.” Ocasio-Cortez, popularly known as AOC, interacts daily with 4.8 million Twitter followers, for example, and they can help further pressure Congress into action.
3. These strategies can be highly effective
Determined congressional entrepreneurs can make a difference. For example, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in 2013 helped block a bipartisan immigration reform initiative by rallying tea party colleagues and carrying her advocacy campaign to the airwaves.
Similarly, Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) helped to coordinate federal responses to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The freshman lawmaker worked with colleagues on the Hill, as well as nongovernmental organizations and executive agencies, to help fight the epidemic.
The ongoing campaign by progressives challenging Trump’s border policies is also gaining traction. In early July, AOC and other Congressional Hispanic Caucus members traveled to border facilities in Texas to see the effects of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) secretly recorded conditions and posted videos and images on social media. Later, four first-term lawmakers literally turned the tables in a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing. Instead of lobbing a few questions from the dais, they offered emotional public testimony of what they witnessed — exploiting the power of prolonged media attention.
Conditions at some border facilities remain dire. But the government has sped up its transfer of children separated from family members from poorly equipped border posts to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, which provides a wider range of services and support.
In recent weeks, outlets such as ProPublica exposed a secret Facebook group maintained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection members that demeaned child detainees, as well as AOC. This move pushed the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general to open an investigation. As lawmakers ramp up their visits to border facilities and committee challenges, they will continue to help draw media attention to dire conditions.
4. The tactics of the ‘Squad’ remain a challenge for Nancy Pelosi and other leaders
At the moment, party leaders run the risk of being outflanked by public pressures stoked by their colleagues — although the four freshman congresswomen would probably need expanded support in the House if they hope to force Pelosi to recognize their demands.
We’re just halfway through the group’s first year in office, and there is little indication they are likely to back down. At a recent Netroots Nation conference, the mention of Pelosi’s name drew scattered boos from the crowd. As AOC put it, “It has taken us 240 years to have this unique composite in the Congress, in this moment, and we will not go back.”
The bottom line? Fissures within the House Democratic Caucus are likely to persist, as younger lawmakers have refined their methods for influencing the political agenda. These voices will continue to influence the political agenda and the party platform for the 2020 elections.