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But now that Trump has vacated the Oval Office, the Left should resist the temptation to position ourselves as a pressure group within a permanent coalition with centrists. If we see our role as “pushing Biden to the left” inside the mainstream Democratic fold rather than offering a robust alternative, we risk ceasing to exist as a distinct political current.
The Left After Bernie Sanders
When Bernie Sanders announced his first run for president in 2015, he spoke to a handful of reporters outside the US Capitol. After he unfolded the piece of paper where he’d written down his statement, he cautioned reporters that he didn’t have an “endless amount of time” because he had to get back inside soon.
The total membership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) that year was a little over six thousand people — and that made it by far the largest socialist group in the United States. The only time the word “socialist” was spoken on cable news channels was when conservatives hurled the accusation at centrist liberals. The phrase “Medicare for All” was entirely absent from mainstream political discourse.
What’s happened since then has been at least a minor political earthquake. After dramatically outperforming expectations in 2016, Bernie came heartbreakingly close to clinching the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. DSA is almost twenty times bigger than it was in 2015. Multiple federal lawmakers are members of the organization, and scores more serve as the local officials.
What “democratic socialism” means to either these politicians or most of their grassroots supporters is often a bit vague, but their adoption of the label signals a widespread openness to deeper and more systemic critiques of the status quo. While obviously insufficient to achieve major policy goals like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, the emergence of a democratic socialist wing of US politics, to the left of liberalism, is certainly a necessary condition for achieving those aims.
Still, we can’t be complacent, about the possibility that all of this progress could be lost. Before the first Bernie campaign and Black Lives Matter, the last time left politics broke through in a big way was Occupy Wall Street. There were Occupy encampments in every major city, and a lot of minor ones, too. The phrases “99%” and “1%” seemed to be on everyone’s lips. Occupy seemed poised to become a movement with staying power. By the fall of 2012, it was little more than a vague memory, adding a bit of populist juice to Barack Obama’s campaign against Mitt Romney.
The Left post-Bernie is more durable than a largely disorganized movement like Occupy. It won’t disappear as quickly. But that doesn’t mean it can’t vanish.
In terms of electoral politics, the primary danger for the “Squad” is that instead of growing from its current single-digits membership to a new major force within Congress, it will either stagnate or gradually become less distinguishable from the rest of the Progressive Caucus — a left-liberal body that despite its often-decent policy positions has proven incapable of changing the terms of political debate.
Similarly, although we should be vigilant about new threats to civil liberties after the right-wing riot on January 6, the greatest danger for DSA isn’t that it’s going to be ground under the heel of state repression a la McCarthyism or COINTELPRO. It’s that DSA’s branches will occupy themselves more and more with small-scale local activism and will never grow into a real threat to the Democratic establishment.
Some left-leaning readers might dismiss this as an unimportant concern. Why should we care whether democratic socialists have a well-defined existence separate from progressive Democrats? Isn’t the most important thing that we advance important reforms that can meet the material needs of workers? Why should it matter whether we’re doing that as democratic socialist opponents of the new administration or as the most progressive edge of Biden’s coalition?
The problem is that our most important goals can’t be accomplished through the pressure group strategy. For example, Biden said on the campaign trail that he would veto Medicare for All. There’s no plausible scenario where he would willingly support nationalizing the same health insurance industry he befriended decades ago. Even if he followed through with his campaign promise of a public option, it’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine Biden and his centrist allies holding strong in the face of massive industry resistance.
The only way to win social democracy in the United States — never mind anything more ambitious — is to elect hundreds of AOCs and Rashida Tlaibs to Congress and build a massive working-class movement.
We’ll never get there by acting like loyal foot soldiers of the Biden administration, focusing our fire only on Republican obstructionists, and treating social democratic policies as friendly suggestions for the Democratic leadership.
One of Bernie Sanders’s greatest assets was his ambiguous partisan status. As his enemies never ceased to remind us, he was an independent who caucused with Democrats in the Senate — he wasn’t a “real Democrat.” This was sometimes a liability in Democratic presidential primaries, but it contributed to his massive popularity with the wider public.
To get from where we are now to where we need to go, the Left will need to generate the same perception of relative independence from the political establishment — even as the practicalities of American electoral politics force us to use the Democratic ballot line.
What Biden Won’t Say at the Inauguration
The only way to do this is to draw clear bright lines between what workers desperately need and what the Biden Administration is willing to give them. We can’t deny the obvious reality of Republican obstruction, but instead of fixating on it, we should emphasize what the new administration could do if it wanted to.
If Biden embraced Medicare for All tomorrow, it’s unlikely it would pass the House — where it’s opposed by all Republicans and about half of Democrats — and certain that it wouldn’t get through the Senate. But if Biden used his inaugural address today to advocate it as an urgent necessity during the pandemic, the kinds of arguments Democrats and Republicans would be having for the next two years, ahead of the midterms, would be very different. He won’t do that because he doesn’t want to do it.
Similarly, if Biden followed through on his campaign promise to introduce “card check” legislation to make it easier to organize unions, it wouldn’t become law. But if he used his inaugural address to talk about how powerless workers are when they don’t have unions, it would be a boon to organizing campaigns in “blue” states and cities — harkening back to the 1930s, when CIO organizers told workers “the president wants you to join a union.” It would also make life less comfortable for Republicans who pretend to want to bring back good jobs but don’t like to talk about the strong unions that made those jobs “good” in the first place.
The reason that Biden won’t engage in this all-out attack on the power of the bosses isn’t that Republicans are somehow stopping him. It’s that he doesn’t want to do it.
Nor would this alternate version of Biden have to limit himself to rhetorical gestures. He could copy and paste the entire suite of executive orders Bernie Sanders floated at the end of January, which ranged from directing the Justice Department to legalize marijuana to canceling federal contracts for firms paying less than $15 an hour. He could order the Department of Education to stop collecting student loan debt. He could even issue an order to extend Medicare to every resident of the United States.
To be sure, Republicans would issue a flurry of legal challenges to these ambitious reforms. Biden would lose at least some of these battles. But Biden being Biden, he won’t even try.
To achieve the reforms we need, we must focus our energy not on lobbying centrists to be more social democratic but on building a Left that can beat them in the near future — and govern in our own name. If that goal is our lodestar, our task is clear: to draw unambiguous contrasts at every turn.
Ben Burgis is a philosophy professor and the author of Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left. He is host of the podcast Give Them An Argument.