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Lessons from American Progressives: Pramila Jayapal, ‘Rising Star’ of the Democratic Caucus

Robert Borosage profiles why the Democratic Representative’s ‘inside-outside’ approach to politics puts her in pole position for taking on the conservative-corporate wing of her party

US Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal. Photo: Sipa US/Alamy

LESSONS FROM AMERICAN PROGRESSIVESPramila Jayapal, ‘Rising Star’ of the Democratic Caucus

Robert Borosage profiles why the Democratic Representative’s ‘inside-outside’ approach to politics puts her in pole position for taking on the conservative-corporate wing of her party

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Introduction by Anthony Barnett

As a massive crisis unfolds in the domestic politics of the United States, one quiet and modest figure who is little known to the outside world will emerge with increased influence: Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives.

At the same time as the Trumpite majority on the US Supreme Court goes on the offensive, voting intentions point towards the Republicans gaining a majority in the House of Representatives.

Carefully plotted by Nate Silver and his colleagues at FiveThirtyEight – in which they aggregate and geographically locate all forms of polling – the gerrymandering of districts will probably lead to a right-wing victory. The latest outrage being the Supreme Court’s permission for Louisiana to squeeze most of its one-third black population into a single district, confining them to one-sixth of the state’s representation.

If the Democrats are indeed reduced to a minority, Nancy Pelosi will almost certainly step down as their House leader. If, however, revulsion at the insanity of the Supreme Court becoming an undemocratic, right-wing conspiracy inflames sufficient turnout to ensure the Democrats retain the majority, it will be in radicalised circumstances.

Either-way, the role of the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus will be enhanced in shaping the politics of the House of Representatives, the future of the Democratic Party across America, and the left around the world. I believe she is one to watch

In a Washington Post profile of President Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, a number of more conservative elected Democrats complained about the influence of Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal. One, under the cover of anonymity, “accused Klain of creating ‘a monster’ by empowering Jayapal, using an expletive to underscore the point”. Why does this intelligent woman with a friendly smile spark such fear and loathing from the more traditional politicians from her own party?

Jayapal was elected to Congress in 2016, in the same election that brought Donald Trump to the White House. She personifies and helps to lead the growing progressive movement in the United States. 

She is the first Indian-American women ever elected to the US House of Representatives. She is also a movement leader who went from protest to power – as chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, she is the leader of a left that now wields increasing influence inside Congress.

Born in Chennai, India, Jayapal came to America aged 16 for college, achieving a BA at Georgetown University and an MBA at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. 

Following 9/11, she founded an immigrant action organisation in Seattle called ‘Hate Free Zone’, later renamed ‘One America’. Its remarkable organising to protect immigrants from discrimination and violence included a successful lawsuit that stopped the George W. Bush administration from summarily deporting 4,000 Somalis. 

After years of such efforts, Jayapal decided it was time to move into elected politics and run for public office, winning a seat in the Washington state senate. 

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Her initial success reflected broader currents then sweeping US politics. 

The disastrous Iraq War and the 2008 financial collapse exposed the bankruptcy of the bipartisan neo-liberal establishment in Washington. The centre could not hold. 

On the right, the Tea Party erupted, preying on racial discord in reaction to the election of Barak Obama, stoking a reactionary, nativist anger. On the left, citizen movements – Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, the growing climate movement, MeToo – challenged the limits of the political debate in the Democratic Party.  

In a European system, these fractures would be expressed in the emergence of new parties. In the two-party system of the United States, they were expressed by populist challenges within each major party – Donald Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ movement taking on the Republican establishment and Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign the Democratic Party.

Jayapal endorsed Sanders in 2016. The Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020, as well as the Elizabeth Warren presidential campaign in 2020, set out a project focused on completing America’s unfinished social democratic agenda, while addressing the climate crisis with the Green New Deal.  

Jayapal’s skills as an organiser and communicator quickly put her at the head of the class, hailed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a “rising star in the Democratic caucus”. By 2019, she had become co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – an independent caucus in the House now numbering nearly 100 legislators.  

Traditionally, the Caucus had acted largely as an informal gathering that provided a platform to help legislators gain attention. Under Jayapal’s leadership, it became a joint enterprise, as she describes in an understated way in ‘US Progressives on a Knife Edge’.

The Caucus was consolidated, it raised fees to support an independent staff, and members committed to vote collectively on the critical issues it adopted. “We have to be able to say this is what the progressive caucus stands for, this is what we’re fighting for,” she said. “This is not a litmus test, this is not a purity test, but we do want people to generally be in line with the caucus on votes.”

Jayapal drove those reforms and provided the leadership to activate them. Her skills as an organiser – providing clear objectives, gaining consensus around priorities, providing cogent messaging and communications – made them credible and augmented the Caucus’ power. 

When Joe Biden took office, he put forth a far bolder agenda than many had expected. 

With a 50-50 party divide in the Senate, and a very small margin in the House, Democrats had to unify to pass legislation to law. By remaining unified within the wider Democratic membership, the core of the Caucus exercised immense influence in the internal jockeying between progressives and the more conservative-corporate wing of the House Democrats. This put Jayapal at the centre of the negotiations.

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It also meant that the powerful House Speaker had to negotiate with the “rising star”.

Jayapal blocked Pelosi’s effort to pass a bipartisan Infrastructure bill without a commitment to also pass the core of the progressive/Biden agenda – the Build Back Better Bill, which included funds for child poverty, education from pre-kindergarten to college, renewable energy and more. 

Twice, progressives stayed unified against great pressure, forcing eventual agreement from the corporate Democrats and succeeding in passing both the Infrastructure Bill and the Build Back Better Bill through the House. (That triumph was sabotaged largely by one Senate Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who defied his President and an otherwise unified Democratic Senate caucus to torpedo Biden’s agenda).

In my view, Jayapal has developed the inside-outside politics vital to reform. She retains close contacts with citizen movements, leveraging their energy to help build support inside the legislature. She understands the importance of putting forth clear and bold reform ideas and pushing hard for them. She rejects the pre-emptive concessions that have become a habit among liberal Democratic legislators. 

“Saying you’re at 100, I’m at zero, so we should end up at 50 – that doesn’t really work if you’re talking about kids in cages,” she says. 

At the same time, she understands that, after standing strong and pushing for bold reform, compromises are necessary to make real progress. 

Those skills – inside-outside organising, sustaining credibility with citizen movements and with fellow legislators, standing on principle and understanding the need to compromise to gain a majority – make Jayapal a rare and valued leader.   

With Pelosi and her leadership group on the verge of retirement, the Democrats are gearing up to elect new leaders in the next Congress. Representative Pramila Jayapal will certainly be one of the progressives who will vie for a leadership position. 

The battle will come down to a fight between the corporate wing of the party and the rising progressive wing; between big money and popular movements. But, whatever the immediate outcome, it is clear that the progressive wing of the party is winning the argument over what the future Democratic Party agenda should be and, if it continues to build power inside Congress, this will be in no small part thanks to Pramila Jayapal.

Bob Borosage is a contributing editor of the Nation Magazine. He advises progressives in both the House and Senate, and chairs the board of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, a non-profit organisation dedicated to furthering progressive reform

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