What Will New Leadership In Congress Mean For Democrats?

What Will New Leadership In Congress Mean For Democrats?

House Democrats officially elected New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries to be their leader this past weekend, coalescing around a fresher face as the new Republican majority took control. The new top three leaders will consist of Jeffries, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, who will serve as the new minority whip, and California Rep. Pete Aguilar, who will chair the Democratic caucus.

While all of these changes are noteworthy, Jeffries, in particular, makes history as the first Black politician to lead any major party in Congress. At 52, he also marks a stark generational shift for House Democratic leadership following two decades under Nancy Pelosi, who is leaving the position at 82 years old. 

This switch-up is a big deal. For the first time ever, the top tier of a major party’s House congressional leadership side is devoid of white men. But changes of the guard, no matter how historic, don’t always lead to big practical changes, and I’m skeptical whether this power shift will shepherd a new direction for the Democratic Party — either in the form of a new focus on the progressive policies that younger voters care about, or the issues that Black voters prioritize. One big difference from the end of Pelosi’s reign, of course, is that Democrats have lost control of the chamber, so Jeffries is coming in with much less power than his predecessor held during the past several years. His primary responsibility will be marshaling unified opposition among an ideologically diverse caucus since there’s not a ton he’ll be able to do legislatively. But, even then, Jeffries still has a choice to make: Will he use his new mantle to advocate for more progressive policies or continue the unspoken tradition of past rising Black political leaders and move more toward the middle?

The evidence I’ve gathered so far suggests that we shouldn’t expect a big pivot for the party under Jeffries. Yes, he has previously advocated for the passage of more racially progressive policies and that’s likely to continue given the Democratic Party’s embrace of these issues. But, overall, his rather traditional political resume (including his start as a lawyer, stint in New York’s state Assembly and now 10 years in Congress) and his sometimes-antagonistic relationship with members on his left flank suggests that his leadership will be more in the mold of Pelosi, whose true politics are a bit of an enigma, but is largely grouped with the party’s establishment wing by Democratic voters. That’s probably not a coincidence. In fact, I’ll go as far as to argue that America’s political structure primarily rewards a certain kind of Black leader: one who is constrained — if not less apt — to push beyond the status quo.

Various studies and research show that Black people who are the “firsts” in leadership roles often get there because of their facility for accommodation or because there’s an understanding that they’ll work under the system they’re in rather than try to transform it. There’s evidence, too, that Black leaders can become more moderate once in positions of power or even “deracialized,” meaning they downplay their racial identity in favor of more race-neutral policies.

That doesn’t mean Jeffries will ignore the issue of race — both because Jeffries has shown he cares about these issues and talking about race is now en vogue on the left. Indeed, given the party’s standing on issues dealing with race and racism, especially following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Jeffries may find it easier to talk about racial issues more broadly. But as Jeffries ascends into leadership, there is a caveat: Appearing too progressive on race-specific policies is politically risky. According to Christopher Stout, an Oregon State University professor and author of a 2015 book on Black politicians, one of the unspoken institutional constraints of even being considered for a leadership role is that politicians often have to moderate their views — particularly on issues dealing with race — for fear of alienating certain (oftentimes white) voters. Stout added that members of Congress, and particularly those in leadership positions, are oftentimes wary of potential Black leadership so, “at least early on, [Black leaders] have to demonstrate that they’re not different from the other leadership that people are used to.” 

Jeffries has attempted to toe that line throughout the years, too, taking certain progressive stances while simultaneously distancing himself from that side of the party. For instance, he’s served as a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and promoted issues like addressing police brutality, but did not sign on to the Green New Deal. And while he’s more liberal than most fellow House members, according to DW-NOMINATE, a political-science metric that uses roll-call votes to measure the ideology of members of Congress, Jeffries has tried to assert his independence from the party’s left wing, saying in 2021, “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.”

A scatterplot shows the members of Congress on a scale from conservative to liberal and establishment to anti-establishment. Black Democratic leaders fall largely within the center of most Democratic members of Congress.
A scatterplot shows the members of Congress on a scale from conservative to liberal and establishment to anti-establishment. Black Democratic leaders fall largely within the center of most Democratic members of Congress.

It’s also possible that his position could shift as time goes on. As the visualization above shows, the Black leaders in the last Congress, at least according to their legislative records in the last session, were more politically moderate and closely linked to the establishment, and it’s likely that Jeffries will move in their direction.1 Moderating his politics would arguably make his job easier because he’d be able to reach more members of his caucus.

And according to Katherine Tate, a political science professor at Brown University, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’d have to cut back on representing Black voters, whose interests are nearly identical to that of the party’s, in part, given their “captured” status. And, to be clear, Jeffries’s legislative record shows that his priorities have been on issues important to Black voters in particular, such as voting rights and addressing police brutality. So it’s possible that he continues working in that same vein while in leadership. It’s also possible that unlike just ten or fifteen years ago, when some scholars contend that former President Barack Obama used universal rhetoric to advance his agenda to keep from alienating racially conservative white voters, Jeffries might actually have an easier time discussing issues of race because mainstream Democratic messaging is more in-line with the priorities of Black voters. 

Chryl Laird, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park who has contributed to FiveThirtyEight, predicted that we may see Jeffries tackle issues related to race. “It may be less than he did in the past, but I don’t think there will be a complete disregard for issues dealing with race because doing that doesn’t necessarily help the Democratic Party,” she said.

The trouble is that there’s a Catch-22 in pushing for policies that have Black support. Despite gains in participation and representation, Black Americans continue to fare worse than whites in converting policy preferences into law. One 2015 study found that federal policies with no white support had only about a 10 percent chance of getting enacted versus one with universal white support which had around a whopping 60 percent chance of adoption. On the flip side, a proposal with no Black support had a roughly 40 percent chance of becoming law, while one with unanimous Black approval had only around a 30 percent chance of enactment. In other words, as more Black people begin to support a policy, the chance of that policy being achieved actually declines.

So Jeffries has his work cut out for him. A cynic (like myself) might even say that this change of the guard is mostly cosmetic. While I’m willing to be proven wrong, radical change is hard for any “first” to deliver, especially considering the fact that the older group of former leaders is still in Congress and very much dominates the operational fabric of the Democratic Party. That said, I’ll wait to see what Jeffries actually does before pooh-poohing his new role. What constitutes “progress” means different things to many people. At the very least, I’d expect him to continue his work on issues important to Black communities. That might not be the radical change some Democrats are looking for. But it still matters.

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