Donald Trump’s election defeat to Joe Biden came as a relief to the Democratic party’s left flank – but for most progressives, the centrist’s White House win ends one battle and launches another.
“We aren’t in a free fall to hell anymore,” congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the American left’s most visible face, said in a recent interview with The New York Times.
“But whether we’re going to pick ourselves up or not is the lingering question.”
During Biden’s campaign, Democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders – the runner-up in the 2016 and 2020 primaries – buried the hatchet with the party’s moderates and helped get out the vote.
But as the dust settles it is clear that the tensions that arose during the primary over health care, student debt, and combating climate change and inequality haven’t gone anywhere.
“Biden ultimately stands for a continuation of the status quo,” said Chi Anunwa, co-chair of New York City’s branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.
“Which is not to say we aren’t relieved that Trump is gone, but I think it’s important to remember that Trump in many ways was a very extreme symptom of various systemic problems that have been plaguing the United States for a long time.”
Anunwa, 31, said victories for Ocasio-Cortez – and fellow progressives including Cori Bush in Missouri, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan – shows that voters are open to progressive platforms.
But an expected “blue wave” of Democratic gains failed to materialize in the House and the party establishment, as well as centrist Republicans, were quick to blame the left.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn said the summer’s calls to “defund the police” – a slogan of mass anti-racism protests against policy brutality – hurt congressional candidates and even Biden.
Ocasio-Cortez and others have dismissed that notion, asserting that progressives in crucial Midwestern battleground states helped Biden by building multicultural coalitions with strong canvassing and digital operations.
Sanders has pointed to progressive gains in down-ballot referendums, such as a $15 minimum wage in Florida, traditionally Republican states legalizing marijuana and expanded family leave in Colorado.
Arizona meanwhile voted to increase income tax on the wealthy to pay for public education.
“I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Times. “And that their base is not the enemy.”
Her argument is that moderates chip away at their own relevance – “setting up their own obsolescence,” as she puts it – when they don’t embrace progressive goals that actually enjoy mainstream support.
Refocus the base
For Ben Burgis, a philosophy professor and writer focused on leftist strategizing, it’s inaccurate to blame the left for turning off voters with ideas some view as bold.
Votes for Trump don’t necessarily reflect a coherent right-wing worldview, the 40-year-old said, and are often no more than a “middle finger to the establishment” Democratic party that many see as “well-heeled.”
Democrats could score more ballots by prioritizing an agenda focused on people’s basic material needs, he said, a view Anunwa of the DSA echoed.
Other voters are simply never going to back a party they see as lacking solutions to their racial grievances and concerns about immigration.
“There are going to be people who just do not agree with our political program at all…it might be racial animus, it might be something else,” Anunwa said.
The goal for the left must be to activate “the politically unactivated,” she added, expanding the Democratic focus beyond “the urban moderate voter.”
Anunwa said the case of Florida, which went for Trump while also rubber-stamping a $15 minimum wage, offers an example of a blindspot. Biden does support that initiative, but it wasn’t central to his platform.
“I think that our job as the left is to funnel frustration with the economic and political status quo…into a positive vision for what a more just society, what a more just United States, could look like,” she said.
Anunwa acknowledged a Biden presidency alongside a likely Republican Senate poses a steep challenge – but she remains optimistic.
“I think this is a scary moment, but I think there is opportunity, if we are able to build a strong enough grassroots mobilization, to pressure a Biden administration,” she continued.
“Just because Biden has won does not mean that you can rest easy, does not mean that we should get complacent.” – Rappler.com