NOTE: Web links to DSA and Progressive Caucus updated 14oct2001

The text here is still valid. However, please see
for the latest Progressive Caucus members of the U.S. Congress

"... on one side of the debate you have the belief in the American way predicated on the rule of law, individual rights, guarantee of property and a common American identity. And on the other side are those who prefer a European socialist model predicated on the pursuit of social justice, group rights, redistribution of entitlements and multiculturalism. It is important to realize that there is no third way. Every political position on a given issue derives from either one or the other."

Extremism in Defense of Virtue
By James P. Lucier

Progressive Democrats have a strategy of labeling GOP conservatives as extremists, but the ideology of the House Progressive Caucus may be the most extreme in Congress.

Immediately after the impeachment of Bill Clinton last December the president called together a private gathering of supporters at the White House. Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, a denizen of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the House's Progressive Caucus, emerged to tell the New York Post that Clinton himself told the meeting that "the Constitution was being trashed by Republican extremists."

And California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, another fiery-tongued Judiciary member who also is on the Progressive Caucus, said, "Bill and Hillary are the real targets, and the Republicans are the vehicles being used by the right-wing Christian Coalition extremists to direct and control our culture."

The word "extremist" comes easily to the lips of many House Democrats, particularly as a term of nonendearment describing their Republican colleagues. But it is more than that; it is part of a calculated strategy to marginalize Republicans and the kind of mom-and-pop, family individualism that polls show is the core support of the GOP.

As a confident president moved to the left in his State of the Union address, he outlined a massive program of federal spending that would bring the federal government even closer to the doorstep of every American. Stephen Moore of the Washington-based Cato Institute has estimated that Clinton's programs would suck up the surplus created by tax overcharges to the tune of $100 billion during the next five years (see "A Second Coming of the Era of Big Government," p. 28). And Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Clinton's scheme for the government to invest Social Security revenues in the equity stocks of private corporations was, to use a word that is out of fashion in the United States, "socialism," pure and simple.

Friedman's criticism is not so far-fetched. The doctrine that the government can do it better than the ordinary citizen was never so clearly outlined as by the president himself when he told an audience in Buffalo, N.Y., that "we could give [the tax surplus] all back to you and hope you spend it right. But ... if you don't spend it right, here's what's going to happen. In 2013 -- that's just 14 years away -- taxes people pay on their payroll for Social Security will no longer cover the monthly checks." The president's rhetoric places the central tenet of socialism, that government knows best, on the one side, and on the other are, well, the extremists.

Although some Democrats, such as California Rep. Henry Waxman, were calling Republicans "extremists" as far back as 1991, the practice intensified when Democrats were outraged that Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. House Minority Whip David Bonior of Michigan laid down the battle lines. "We will make our points on behalf of middle-class families," the bearded Bonior said on Feb. 21, 1995, as the new Congress got down to business. "We will point out that the Republicans are extreme." He began by becoming the self-appointed tormentor of Speaker Newt Gingrich, leading Democrats to file more than 70 ethics charges against the speaker -- all but one of which were dismissed by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (Ethics) as frivolous.

Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank also jumped on board the "extremist" strategy. "There's a sense of common purpose," he said of the Democrats on Nov. 14, 1995. "The Republicans' extremism has done that for us." Michigan Rep. John Conyers stated in July 1996, "Democrats are clearly ready for the fight that Republican extremists want to have." In October 1996, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, in her hot election campaign against Republican challenger John Mitnick, told her voters: "Our best days are yet to come as long as we don't surrender our future to the clouded vision of Newt Gingrich and the extremists."

Waxman became the tormentor of Republican Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, taking every possible step to delay, obfuscate and ridicule Burton's investigation into the Clinton administration's fund-raising practices and mismanagement. Frank and Conyers took on the same role against Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde during the Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearings.

All this might be dismissed as ruthless partisan politics in which ideas and programs are displaced by a Machiavellian, no-holds-barred grab for power, were it not for the fact that the members of Congress quoted here, including Bonior, all are members of the Progressive Caucus in the House, a group dedicated to an ideological reconstruction of society.

Its statement of purpose says the caucus "is organized around the principles of social and economic justice, a nondiscriminatory society and national priorities which represent the interests of all the people, not just the wealthy and the powerful." It sets out a 12-point "Fairness Agenda" which includes a nondescript leftist menu of cutting military spending, reinstating progressive taxation, requiring profitable companies to compensate workers and communities affected by job cuts, reinforcing affirmative action and the integration of class-based criteria into such programs. It opposes free-trade agreements, the imposition of International Monetary Fund structural adjustment criteria on shaky economies and international protection of workers and women's rights. It also opposes privatization of Social Security, seeks to expand Medicare to all ages and incomes and wants to prohibit private campaign contributions to candidates.

While some observers might dismiss such a statement as the product of a fringe group whose view of "extremism" is colored by their own alienation from mainstream political philosophy, including mainstream Democrats, the Progressive Caucus numbered 58 in the last Congress, nearly a quarter of the Democratic membership in the House. A more sobering thought is the power of caucus members. If the Democrats had won six more seats in the House last November, giving them a majority, the Progressive Caucus could have boasted that its ranks supplied the putative majority leader (Bonior, now minority whip), and eight of the chairmen of the major committees -- that is to say, nearly half. If the Democrats recapture control of the House in 2000, the Progressive lineup would be:

  • David Bonior of Michigan, Majority Leader;
  • Charles Rangel of New York, Ways and Means Committee;
  • Henry Waxman of California, Government Reform Committee;
  • John LaFalce of New York, Banking and Financial Services Committee;
  • John Conyers of Michigan, Judiciary Committee;
  • Lane Evans of Illinois, Veterans' Affairs Committee;
  • George Miller of California, Resources Committee;
  • George Brown of California, Science Committee;
  • Nydia Velazquez of New York, Small Business Committee;

The recent discovery that the Website of the Progressive Caucus is hosted by a group called the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, has created a rush to dissociate the caucus from the dreadful s-word, even though the Website is the only place that lists all the members, their addresses, their e-mail addresses and the statements issued by the group. 

Only caucus founder, and until January, chairman, Bernard Sanders is proud to call himself a Socialist. Elected as an independent from Vermont, Sanders was a Socialist mayor of Burlington. According to the Almanac of American Politics, he is only the third Socialist elected to the House, after Victor Berger of Milwaukee (1911-13, 1923-29) and Meyer London of Manhattan's Lower East Side (1915-23). But in the House, "Sanders has actually functioned as a liberal Democrat, with committee slots and seniority, plus plenteous contributions ... from PACs," says the Almanac. Only two other caucus members on the Website, Major Owens of New York and Ron Dellums of California, were listed as members of the DSA in the 104th Congress. Dellums actually was the vice president of the DSA before he retired from Congress in 1998.

It's easy to see why no one else wants to be tagged as a Socialist. The DSA describes itself as the largest socialist organization in the United States, and the principal affiliate of the Socialist International, or SI, a worldwide organization of 120 socialist, social democratic and labor parties and other groups dating back to 1864. Rooted in the Marxist analysis, the SI nevertheless disagreed with the tactics of the Leninists. Historically a powerful engine for the spread of socialist ideas, the organization has become more important with the rise of socialist and labor parties in Europe in the last two years. It includes every range of the left from copycat Clintonistas such as Tony Blair's Labour Party to groups founded in radical revolution such as the Peruvian Aprista Party and Colombia's M-19 Democratic Alliance, famed for its armed takeover of the Colombian Senate (although it now pursues a Senate takeover by electoral process).

In January, a new Caucus chairman, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, took over. DeFazio describes himself as a "progressive populist" with some libertarian leanings. One of the five organizers of the Progressive Caucus, along with Illinois Rep. Lane Evans, Dellums, Waters and Sanders, he plans to tighten caucus operations and "get members more deeply involved on core issues such as trade." He tells Insight, "We are in numbers nominally a large caucus, but we are not a monolith. If there is a unifying theme to the Progressive Caucus, it is as antidote to the corporate bent of the DLCers [members of the Democratic Leadership Conference] and the Blue Dogs [a group of Democratic moderates]. Our principal orientation is toward policies and issues that would benefit average working people and the less well-off in society. We played a major role in fighting fast-track trade authority because we believe we have a misbegotten trade policy."

He likens his own position to Western-state populists from the turn of the century such as Bob La Follette. "The early Progressive movement grew out of disaffection with the policies of both parties, particularly with the oppression of a much more agrarian society by the railroad trust, the banks, the dominant corporate interests," he says. "Obviously we are a much more diversified economy today, but more and more the Democrats have become indistinguishable from the Republicans in terms of corporate welfare."

DeFazio states flatly that the Progressive Caucus has nothing to do with the DSA. "Nobody I know had any contact with them. I found out about it from some constituents in the southern part of my district, where it caused a great flurry of letter writing and activity. The Democratic Socialists of America put something about the Progressive Caucus on their Website. They can do whatever they want -- there is still free speech. We don't have a Website yet. My staff is working on that. What I will ask [DSA] to do is to provide just a link to us and not put in any of their own commentary or analysis."

Despite DeFazio's intent to rejuvenate the Progressive Caucus, his rivals, "the DLCers," say they are not about to relinquish the term "progressive" to the far-out wing. The DLC was founded in 1985 by Democrats who wanted to draw up a new strategy suited to what they called "the New Democrat." Their views and/or rhetoric were adopted by Clinton as he moved to the center under his adviser Dick Morris' "triangulation" concept. In the House, the New Democratic Coalition numbers 57, almost exactly the same size as the Progressive Caucus. Moreover, the DLC frequently has the ear of Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri -- potentially a House speaker in a Democratic majority and widely viewed as possible presidential material. In 1989, the DLC spun off a think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, or PPI, under the presidency of Will Marshall.

"There's a difference between the old progressives and the new progressives," Marshall tells Insight. "The old progressives are the lineal descendants of [the elder Sen. Robert] La Follette of Wisconsin. They have a tremendous faith in the central government and see economic justice through redistribution. We don't think that the old progressivism is attuned to the new realities. They faced the rise of the national industrial economy. We face the transition into the information global economy. We want to expand the winners' circle to help people get ahead."

Marshall believes that new progressive ideas are at the center of the Clinton administration. "In some respects, almost all Democrats have bought into the changes the New Democrats brought. The New Democrats have realigned the party. The new fault lines are trade, global integration and modernization of the entitlement programs. A Third Way has emerged across the whole spectrum of issues. That's the New Progressivism."

And indeed, Marshall can point to the fact that the president, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal spoke at a "Third Way" conference last October in New York, sponsored by the White House, PPI and New York University. They were joined by another proponent of the Third Way, Blair.

Nevertheless proponents of progressivism and the Third Way carefully avoid mentioning the word "socialist" in polite company. Balint Vazsonyi, a concert pianist and philosopher who grew up under socialism in Communist Hungary, is director of the Center for the American Founding in McLean, Va. Vazsonyi says that American socialists have taken pains for 30 years to sweep the name "socialist" under the carpet because "they know that Americans have an almost visceral dislike of anything connected with socialism." He says that if Republicans would be brave enough to apply the word "socialist" to big-government programs -- in the mode of Friedman's recent comments -- support for the programs would dissolve like "Dorothy pouring water on the Wicked Witch of the West."

"The way I see it," says Vazsonyi, "is that the national debate in the United States is no longer between the traditional opposing sides of Republicans and Democrats, or even conservatives and liberals -- and almost certainly not between right and wrong. No, on one side of the debate you have the belief in the American way predicated on the rule of law, individual rights, guarantee of property and a common American identity. And on the other side are those who prefer a European socialist model predicated on the pursuit of social justice, group rights, redistribution of entitlements and multiculturalism. It is important to realize that there is no third way. Every political position on a given issue derives from either one or the other. And we are fast approaching the time when an irrevocable choice will have to be made."

Here is an update for the 111th Congress

Click HERE for the latest on the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC)


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