2020 feels a lot like a repeat of 2008. A president-elect has won office largely due to an economic crisis – this time joined by a pandemic – and is bringing many familiar faces with him into the new administration. Then as now, he promises to bring both sides together even though Congressional Republicans show little to no interest in reciprocating his entreaties.The similarities between Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s paths to office, however, end there.
Unsurprisingly, Biden has nominated many centrists and neoliberals to his administration. Bernie Sanders himself has lamented the absence of progressives among the leading cabinet appointments. As of this writing, only one cabinet-level recommendation from the left-liberal think tank Data for Progress, Deb Haaland for Interior Secretary, has actually happened. Haaland would be the first indigenous American to hold a cabinet-level post and has much respect among liberals, but she also backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Still, Biden’s early moves have also signaled some important concessions to the Left that would have been unimaginable under Obama. For one thing, Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff who is universally hated on the Left, was unable to secure any post. Bruce Reed, an austerity architect and one of Biden’s close confidants, also landed a less senior post than expected, likely due to left-liberal pressure. These are small but important signals that establishment Democrats like Biden have learned some important lessons from the Obama era. This becomes even clearer when we look beyond White House appointments to the broader political developments that have taken place since the last time the Democrats held the White House.
In 2008, the Blue Dog Caucus, an organization of conservative Democrats in Congress, held 59 seats in the House of Representatives. Many Blue Dogs were swept away in the 2010 Tea Party wave, and their numberat sits at just 18 today. At the same time, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), which has historically been much weaker than their more moderate counterparts, has grown to nearly 100 members. Just as important, recent internal reforms will bring a greater level of discipline and unity to the CPC. Moving forward, CPC members who don’t vote the caucus’ position at a rate of two-thirds of can face expulsion. The caucus plans to use this discipline to leverage demands from a Democratic House leadership that tends to be more centrist and enjoys only a slim majority. The consolidation of the Squad, who are now joined by a new crop of progressive primary winners (bringing the democratic socialists total to four) means that the parliamentary Left will play a real role in the new Congress.
The growth of left-wing power is not just limited to the halls of Congress, especially when we take a longer look back to the early 2000s. In 2008, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was excited to announce that we reached about 6,000 members. Today, twice that number joined in our most recent membership drive, bringing our total membership up to nearly 90,000. A number of other progressive coalitions and left-wing organizations are also growing and demonstrating a new level of influence and dynamism.
The new level of grassroots Left strength can also be measured by comparing the presidential campaigns of Dennis Kucinich, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004 and 2008, and Bernie Sanders. Dennis Kucinich’s two presidential primary campaigns captured only 64 total delegates. He didn’t win any national attention, nor did he threaten the establishment the way Bernie Sanders’s two campaigns, which won over 2,800 delegates, did. DSA’s growth and Sanders’s breakthrough to national prominence reflect the growing popularity of the Left’s program. To take just one example, at the beginning of Obama’s presidency support for single-payer healthcare was in the low 40s – today support stands in the high 60s.
There is also a marked difference between the Left’s orientation toward the incoming Biden administration with its position during the early days of the Obama administration. Barack Obama’s historic stature as America’s first Black president, his charisma, and the general exhaustion with George W. Bush’s two-term administration limited progressive pressure on Obama and his agenda. By contrast, the Left is not likely to give Biden a honeymoon period. The new president not only lacks Obama’s personal attributes, but faces a mobilized Democratic base that does not share his wariness toward serious student debt relief and Medicare for All. This progressive shift among Democratic voters might make some on the Left excited about the prospects of challenging Biden or Vice-President elect Kamala Harris in 2024 or 2028. As exciting it would be to rekindle the magic of a Sanders primary candidacy, he seems uninterested in a third try. What’s more, it’s unclear if the Left can put up a candidate who can unite and capture the imagination of such a large block of voters, at least for now.
Prior to Sanders’s 2016 run, Will Emmons and I argued in Jacobin that the Left should not even bother to endorse presidential campaigns, let alone run our own candidates. Some of our arguments from the last decade still hold true. The Left doesn’t make or break Democratic candidacies; minor party presidential candidates are doomed to irrelevance; and, most importantly, the local level provides the Left with the best opportunities to build strength and make gains through electoral politics. The Sanders campaigns, occurring as they did against a general backlash against neoliberalism, created an opportunity to reach a mass audience with democratic socialist politics through a presidential race in ways not possible in a century. Bernie was unique because his stature as a US Senator, his long standing commitment to left politics as a Left figure, and his credibility as an incorruptible politician made him a serious candidate in ways it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing. His two presidential campaigns built the Left through his emphasis on collective struggle and his insistence that his supporters join specific organized Left groups at the end of his 2020 race. It appears unlikely Sanders will run again, and there is not yet anyone else who can generate the same level of support among progressives, left-populists, and democratic socialists.
Instead of finding the next Bernie for 2024, DSA and the broad Left should use our new strength and popularity to focus on down ballot and local candidates. These electoral campaigns should be tied to broader movement demands, organizations, and leaders. Another reason to focus on lower-level elections instead of a presidential campaign is because of the transformation of the Republican Party into a largely far-right political formation. General Washington dysfunction, which is both cause and consequence of the GOP’s radicalization, means good federal policy will be harder and harder to come by.
To understand the importance for the Left in the coming period, we need to examine what happened to the Republicans since 2008. The George W. Bush era marked a GOP that set the stage for Donald Trump, but mostly unintentionally. Bush’s lies on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq undermined the existence of a “reality-based community” and made it possible for people to shape their perceptions of reality according to their partisan loyalties. The Bush administration’s economic and trade policies continued to hollow out the Rust Belt while rejecting right-wing militias patrolling the US border. Years later, Trump would champion, cynically or not, the people of these regions and adopt aggressively anti-immigrant rhetoric to make himself into a nationalist hero.
Trump’s “America First” campaign was grounded in a move away from the cultural and ”wedge” issues central to Bush’s victories. Trump, of course, dutifully appointed anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ judges to reward his evangelical base. Replacing sanctimonious Bush-era rhetoric with schoolyard bully insults, Trump’s ire tended to focus less on abortion or gay rights and more on white supremacist themes on immigration, racial equality, and trade policy. Trump also moved away from the bellicose foreign policy of his Republican predecessors, even though he was openly hostile to Iran, China, and other perceived threats to US world domination. He was something of an anti-Teddy Roosevelt, a president spoke loudly but carried a small stick.
Trump’s agenda was, in many ways, quite in line with typical Republican policy goals. One of his only major successes was, for example, a huge tax cut bill. But Trump’s manner of governing did constitute a break with the past, and marked the logical conclusion of the attack on democratic norms starting with the Supreme Court’s intervention in the 2000 election, as well as the all-out Republican effort to undermine Obama’s presidency from day one. Trump took this de-legitimization of government to another level. He is leaving office as one of the most unpopular presidents in modern history, with a final approval rating of just 34%. The gap between Republicans and everyone else, however, is very stark. He still enjoys the support of over 80% of Republicans, even after the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Twice as many Republicans believe this election was stolen compared to voters of both parties in previous elections. Despite his obvious lies, not to mention his utterly disastrous management of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s support within his party has not significantly declined.
Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election ultimately did not succeed. But the support he had from a dozen US Senators and 140 US House members – even after the attack on the Capitol, shows that many elected Republicans only see an advantage in attacking the most basic democratic principles. Over the long term, this will undermine the federal government’s ability to function and deliver policy reforms – how could it do so when so many Americans reject it as fundamentally illegitimate? In this scenario, the failure of government to improve people’s lives becomes a self-fulling right-wing prophecy. While some Republican leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may push back on Trump, they also know their power rests on the undemocratic nature of the Senate, gerrymandering for US House seats, and other features of the country’s counter-majoritarian political system.
The Republican Party faces an uncertain future. Many leading corporations are pledging to end support for those Republican officeholders who supported the attempted putsch and the attempts to throw out the election results. Republican state parties in places like Arizona are doubling down on Trump-style politics, but this may only make it harder for them to win statewide and presidential elections. At the same time, however, the federal courts and many state legislatures are fully in their hands. The GOP is not dead, its base will not automatically decline, and a “new American majority” is not guaranteed. Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to break 70 million votes, and he even increased his vote share with people of color despite his open racism. The party will continue to be a roadblock to change in Washington. The Left should continue to support the Squad and to try to increase the progressive base inside and outside of Congress. But it’s also important for socialists to recognize the Republicans don’t need Democratic votes to win. They were able to push through tax cuts, right-wing Supreme Court justices, and other reactionary measures without a single Senate Democratic vote.
Washington Democrats alone will not be an effective bulwark against the creeping neo-fascism of the Republican Party. As Matt Karp has noted, the coalition that makes up the Democratic voting base is getting whiter and wealthier. While overwhelming proportions of people of color and working people still vote for Democrats, labor unions and progressive organizations are far weaker than organized corporate interests Democratic voters support Democratic candidates not because of their attachments to intermediate organizations, but because of their partisan identification. In a recent interview with Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara, Ezra Klein quipped that the current state of sharp partisan polarization coincides with weak institutions and party organizations. With little to gain in Washington, democratic socialists, Berniecrats, and other progressives should look back to an earlier failed campaign as an example of how to use a loss at the presidential level to build toward a new round of gains at the state and local levels..
President Lyndon Johnson soundly defeated the libertarian and anti-civil rights Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Johnson took this as a mandate for his Great Society program, which sought to build something resembling the welfare states of northern and western Europe. Ultimately, the war in Vietnam and blackash against the civil rights movement undermined the Democrats’ chances of holding onto the White House. Richard Nixon won the presidency twice by using coded racist language against civil rights and winning over former Democratic strongholds in the South. But Nixon, while no progressive, did continue to expand the regulatory functions of the US government – both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were established during his administration. While he used racist appeals for political gain, there was still something of a national consensus that the government could and should protect its citizens. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan did the GOP finally elect a candidate that shared both Goldwater’s distrust of government and Nixon’s ability to use white racist backlash as a governing strategy against positive state intervention.
Reagan’s resounding victories in 1980 and especially 1984 signaled a profound transformation of the nature of the Republican Party. But presidential elections only tend to express the political and social changes that have occurred below that level. The death of liberal Republicanism and the domination of the Republican right did not occur just because of Goldwater’s and Reagan’s presidential primary campaigns. The Republican right turned to the grassroots to focus on electing their own to party positions and local offices. This strategy centered where the most conservative had not only had leverage in down ballot races but also strove to define what the Republican party meant to its base.
Some leading US right-wing thinkers even used the work of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, particularly his emphasis on the need to shape the “common sense” of the population at large, to shape their strategy. Through these local and grassroots efforts, the far right built a national base that almost took the Republican nomination from incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976 and then elected Reagan in 1980. As historian Scott Farris noted in Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation: “Reagan completed with Goldwater started by greatly broadening the appeal of conservatism, most particularly in the South where, by the end of his term in office, 45 percent of white Southerners identified themselves as Republican and just 34 percent still called themselves Democrats.”
Of course, the Goldwater-Reagan insurgency as well as today’s far right enjoyed the financial and organizational support of reactionary oligarchs. The Left cannot expect a similar level of funding and support from even the most generous unions and progressive funders. We will have to rely on our own members instead. Even so, it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of right-wing activists themselves were working- and middle-class people, not corporate titans. Furthermore, their focus on “everyday people” in their neighborhoods and communities gave them legitimacy in building the conservative movement. The Left should do the same in our communities to build a multi-racial working-class base that can sustain our political project over the long term.
This grassroots focus cannot be solely electoral in orientation. It’s important for DSA chapters to be involved often in coalition efforts and issue campaigns around housing, racial justice, gender equality, reproductive rights, and of course, the labor movement. At their best, these efforts can strengthen and reinforce each other. In Chicago, all but one DSA alderman (the equivalent of a city council member) voted against the mayor’s austerity budget and Chicago DSA rightfully criticized the alderman who supported it. DSA chapters were instrumental in passing a universal childcare ballot measure in Oregon and a minimum wage increase in Maine. DSA elected officials and members, including congressional representatives,stood by demands to defund the police and to change the debate about not only how law enforcement works in this country, but how we fund social services.
My view is that DSA should have been deeply engaged in anti-Trump work in the 2020 general election. The fact that there was so much interest in DSA’s position on the election (it even got some play on the New York Times op-ed page) shows that what we say and do matters. But we’re not yet strong enough – nor is the broader Bernie Left – to win many meaningful concessions from even a Democratic president we helped to elect. But we do have a growing ability to meaningfully improve the lives of working-class people, especially at the municipal level. We focus our energies there and build a bench of democratic socialists to eventually elect to higher offices such as the US House, statewide offices, and eventually the presidency. Since the presidency is the fulcrum of US politics, it is understandable that presidential campaigns receive a disproportionate amount of attention and energy. At the same time, we need a smarter Left that is building the base to win, not just to engage in performative acts in Congress or in the streets. That work is long, hard, and often invisible, but it is the only real path to victory.