Joe Biden will be the next president, but liberation is not yet at hand. The election wasn’t the landslide liberals had longed to see. With Democratic control of the Senate now hanging on runoff races in Georgia, and a underperformance in the House, Biden’s party knocked out Trump. But the reactionary nationalism that Trump used his celebrity to sell is now mainstream opinion, and stands between Biden and his ability to govern. There’s little sign Biden truly understands the danger that still grips us.
“To make progress,” he tweeted Wednesday, “we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. We are not enemies.” Congressional Republicans say otherwise, and have done so for years; Biden can’t address a threat he won’t even acknowledge. His commitment to an older, more regressive era of politics leaves an opening that the left will have to fill. The protests will continue until policy improves.
Trump’s brutalities provoked an outpouring of progressive protest, as Rebecca Traister recently reported for the Cut. Encapsulated within this movement are the forces that made Biden president. An extremely unpopular Republican president took existing horrors and fed them until they became monsters that could devour a nation. People responded in kind. A series of labor strikes and walkouts, women’s marches, and protests against police brutality helped generate the rage that later elevated Biden to the presidency. A reasonable person may thus conclude that voters have handed Biden a mandate. His task is twofold: Not only must he undo the damage of the Trump presidency, but he’ll have to build something better in its wake.
The success or failure of that mandate, though, may depend on activists themselves, not Biden or his party. The left understands this. “I’m sorry to tell you, you’re not going back to brunch,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently warned Instagram Live viewers. (As if to reinforce her point, a piece in the Federalist later urged liberals to ignore her.) One of a handful of democratic socialists in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez expressed a view that ought to be familiar to anyone on the left. A Biden victory was necessary; the alternative, unthinkable. But electing Biden was the first step toward progress, not an end in itself. The battle for a fairer country continues. In it, Biden will inevitably become an antagonist.
There are no saviors in politics; there are only people who are useful, and people who are not. Biden is useful to the left, to an extent. He defeated an aspiring authoritarian whose sins are extreme even by the low standards of presidents before him. The Biden administration will handle COVID-19 more sensibly than Trump did. The superspreader rallies and attacks on masks and lockdowns and doctors will soon be painful memories. This new president will listen to scientists. He has promised us that much.
But Biden’s commitment to evidence-based public policy is not universal. Though a revelatory moment raised him to power, the former vice-president still denies the proof before his eyes on a variety of issues besides the pandemic. He looked out at a nation threatened by rising temperatures, an increasingly unequal economy, and a health-care crisis and pronounced a failing structure to be sound. In Biden’s world, climate change is real, but fracking is fine and the Green New Deal is too radical. The police need more money, not less. Millions of people have lost their health insurance this year, but Medicare for All is unattainable. A public option that could still leave millions uninsured will suffice.
His views on Wall Street regulation remain murky, and reports of his possible Cabinet picks don’t offer either progressives or leftists much reason for optimism. If Biden’s transition team has actually considered Republicans like ex-Quibi CEO Meg Whitman and the anti-abortion John Kasich for Cabinet slots, trouble awaits.
If Biden brings trouble, though, it is trouble of a familiar kind. Being a leftist in this country is an exercise in managed disappointment. Bernie Sanders lost two successive presidential campaigns to more conservative Democrats. Your causes lack funding, and your institutional allies are scarce. Neither major party wants you to win. Republicans will demonize you outright, but at least they’re straightforward. They represent one side of the age-old equation, socialism or barbarism, and they know it. Meanwhile, Democrats dither, offering a concession on health care here, a bipartisan commission there. With certain rare exceptions, they ask the left to settle for the most tolerable option on a dismal ballot; complaints are met with scolding. Their incrementalism, labeled misleadingly as major progress, is a keen insult. The Republicans are what they are, as four years of Trump reminded us. Only the Democrats pretend to be something else, something less timid and more egalitarian than they are in reality.
But the American left is also more numerous, and more influential, than it has been in decades. Reality has a radicalizing effect, which has helped activists pull the Democratic Party gradually to the left. Positions that were rare, if not outright unthinkable, in the 1990s and early 2000s are now more common. Medicare for All isn’t a fringe idea anymore. Even Biden, always a moderate, ran to the left of his old record. For instance, he says he no longer supports the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of public funding for abortion services, and has endorsed the PRO Act, which would dramatically expand organizing rights for workers. In some cases, Biden is running to the left of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 platform: He has backed a $15 minimum wage and called for higher taxes on the wealthy. But in other respects, he will be a typical Democratic president, which means he will be a threat to progress unless he’s pushed, tirelessly, to the left.
Biden’s stated commitment to bipartisanship is typical for senior members of his party. But the conservative posture they share has already cost the party’s base a great deal. Democrats are happy now to take credit as the party of the future — of millennials and Zoomers, women and people of color. But Barack Obama’s deportation record dealt immigrants a major blow before Trump came along and made everything worse. The Affordable Care Act has almost certainly saved lives, but it left a broken privatized system largely intact and contained weaknesses that Trump officials would later manipulate. The ACA’s problems can’t all be blamed on Obama, either. This was a group effort: As Obama proposed it, the ACA originally included a public option. Though it’s hardly an ideal health-care policy, it would have been superior to the ACA’s complicated, and often expensive, system of marketplace subsidies, and it would have made Americans less reliant on employer-provided benefits they could easily lose. But right-wing Democrats killed the public option, and used the ACA to knock a hole in abortion rights at the same time. It was a telling moment for the party. On abortion rights, now a feared casualty of our newly ultra-conservative Supreme Court, Democrats have willingly compromised for a long time. Even Nancy Pelosi, the great liberal of San Francisco, campaigns for anti-abortion Democratic incumbents and praises the party’s “big tent” strategy as a testament to its savvy pragmatism.
But she doesn’t have much to show for herself. The party actually lost two House seats in Florida the same night the state’s voters approved a $15 minimum wage. Cheri Bustos, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, barely held onto her seat, after dedicating most of her tenure to punishing leftists for primarying incumbents. Rather than inspect their own tactics and policies, centrists once again punched left. If the party runs on “Medicare for all or defunding police or socialized medicine,” Congressman James Clyburn just warned members on a call, they’ll lose those Senate runoffs in Georgia. No one ran on defunding the police, of course; and hardly anyone runs on socialized medicine, though national polls suggest it’s hardly the poison pill that Clyburn and others want it to be. The red-baiting is instinct. It’s not rational.
If this is the direction Democratic leaders are going to take, Biden should ignore them. The president-elect can’t afford to listen to people who conceded so much ground to the right that they’ve barely left themselves a safe place to stand. Trump is gone. The party has to stand for something else in his place. Unless it convinces voters that it stands for workers, for the poor, for everyone the Trump administration has systematically marginalized over the last four years, it won’t develop the coalition it needs to govern.
You cannot throw moderate solutions at radical problems and hope they work. It hasn’t worked in the past, and it isn’t going to work now. After four years of Trump, and an economic crisis that lays bare the inadequacies of laissez-faire dogma, Democratic pragmatism looks more like naïvety. The left critique of the party simply looks accurate: It is too often a partner to the right wing; it is too influenced by monied interests; it is not in any way a party of the people. There are exceptions, of course. The party is still a home to progressive stalwarts, and its ranks are about to grow stronger, too, with a freshman congressional class that will include Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Mondaire Jones, Marie Newman, and others.
But the left isn’t going to wait for Congress to act. The primary challenges will keep coming. The marches, hopefully, will keep happening. And the slow radicalization Trump inspired in some corners of the liberal commentariat and consultancy worlds must continue. Biden’s first term in office will shape the next several decades of American life. The only way forward is a break with the past and a commitment to ongoing agitation. Nobody on the left is going back to brunch. Not for a long time.