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The evident defeat of Donald Trump would not have been possible without the grassroots activism and hard work of countless progressives. Now, on vital issues — climate, healthcare, income inequality, militarism, the prison-industrial complex, corporate power and so much more — it’s time to engage with the battle that must happen inside the Democratic Party.
The realpolitik rationales for the left to make nice with the incoming Democratic president are bogus. All too many progressives gave the benefit of doubts to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, making it easier for them to service corporate America while leaving working-class Americans in the lurch. Two years later, in 1994 and 2010, Republicans came roaring back and took control of Congress.
From the outset, progressive organizations and individuals (whether they consider themselves to be “activists” or not) should confront Biden and other elected Democrats about profound matters. Officeholders are supposed to work for the public interest. And if they’re serving Wall Street instead of Main Street, we should show that we’re ready, willing and able to “primary” them.
Progressives would be wise to quickly follow up on Biden’s victory with a combative approach toward corporate Democrats. Powerful party leaders have already signaled their intentions to aggressively marginalize progressives.
“Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants,” Politico reports, “had a stark warning for Democrats on Thursday: Swing too far left and they’re all but certain to blow their chances in the Georgia runoff that will determine which party controls the Senate.”
Also on the conference call with congressional Democrats was House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who reportedly declared that if “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win.”
Such admonitions were predictable and odd, coming from House Democratic leaders who just saw shrinkage of members of their party due to the loss of “moderate” incumbents as well as the losses of avowedly “moderate” and widely heralded Democratic senatorial candidates in Maine, Kentucky, Iowa and elsewhere.
At the core of such conflicts, whether simmering or exploding, is class war. When Pelosi & Co. try to stamp out the genuinely progressive upsurge in congressional ranks that is fueled from the grassroots, they’re “dancing with those who brung them” — corporate elites. It’s an extremely lucrative approach for those who feed out of the troughs of the Democratic National Committee, the Senate and House party campaign committees, the House Majority PAC and many other fat-cat political campaign entities. Consultant contracts and lobbying deals keep flowing, even after Democrats lose quite winnable elections.
Biden almost lost this election. And while the Biden campaign poured in vast financial resources and vague flowery messaging that pandered to white suburban voters, relatively little was focused on those who most made it possible to overcome Trump’s election-night lead — people of color and the young. Constrained by his decades-long political mentality and record, Biden did not energize working-class voters as he lip-sunk populist tunes in unconvincing performances.
That’s the kind of neoliberal approach that Bernie Sanders and so many of his supporters were warning about in 2016 and again this year. Both times there was a huge failure of the Democratic nominee to make a convincing case as an advocate for working people against the forces of wealthy avarice and corporate greed.
In fact, Clinton and Biden reeked of coziness with economic elites throughout their political careers. To many people, Clinton came off as a fake when she tried to sound populist, claiming to represent the little people against corporate giants. And to those who actually knew much about Biden’s political record, his similar claims also were apt to seem phony.
It’s clear from polling that Biden gained a large proportion of his votes due to animosity toward his opponent rather than enthusiasm for Biden. He hasn’t inspired the Democratic base, and his appeal had much more to do with opposing the evils of Trumpism than embracing his own political approach.
More than ever, merely being anti-Trump or anti-Republican isn’t going to move Democrats and the country in the vital directions we need. Without a strong progressive program as a rudder, the Biden presidency will be awash in much the same old rhetorical froth and status-quo positions that have so often caused Democratic incumbents to founder, bringing on GOP electoral triumphs.
In recent months, Biden showed that he knew how to hum the refrains of economic populism when that seemed tactically useful, but he scarcely knew the words and could hardly belt out the melody. His media image as “Lunch Bucket Joe” was a helpful mirage in corporate medialand, but that kind of puffery only went so far. Meanwhile, the Biden strategists decided to coast on the issue of the pandemic, spotlighting Trump’s lethally narcissistic insanity.
But when it came to healthcare — obviously a central concern in people’s lives, especially amid the coronavirus — Biden largely fell back on Obamacare rather than advocating for a genuine guarantee of healthcare as a human right. Likewise, Biden talked a bit about easing the economic burdens on small businesses and families, but it was pretty pallid stuff compared to what’s desperately needed. To a large extent, he surrendered the economic playing field to Trump’s pseudo-populist blather.
Looking ahead, we need vigorous successors to the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society programs of the mid-1960s that were asphyxiated, politically and budgetarily, by the Vietnam War. Set aside the phrase if you want to, but we need some type of “democratic socialism” (as Martin Luther King Jr. asserted in the last years of his life).
The ravages of market-based “solutions” are all around us; the public sector has been decimated, and it needs to be revitalized with massive federal spending that goes way beyond occasional “stimulus” packages. The potential exists to create millions of good jobs while seriously addressing the climate catastrophe. If we’re going to get real about ending systemic and massive income inequality, we’re going to have to fight for — and achieve — massive long-term public investments, financed by genuinely progressive taxation and major cuts in the military budget.
With enormous grassroots outreach that only they could credibly accomplish, progressive activists were a crucial part of the de facto united front to defeat Trump. Now it’s time to get on with grassroots organizing to challenge corporate Democrats.
Norman Solomon is the national director of RootsAction.org and the author of many books including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He was a Bernie Sanders delegate from California for the 2020 Democratic National Convention.