The 2020 Democratic National Convention exposed the progressive-moderate split within the Democratic Party in a more ironic and absurd way than ever before. During the convention, Senator Bernie Sanders, still licking his wounds from a devastating defeat in the primaries, reassured progressives that former vice president Joe Biden supports many progressive policy priorities. At the same time, in an almost comical reversal, former Republican governor of Ohio John Kasich praised Biden as a reasonable person who will not “go hard left.”
Kasich’s predictions seem likeliest. Biden is falling far short of the expectations of the progressive wing of the party, from healthcare to climate change, from economic growth to America’s forever wars.
How Will Biden Govern?
In terms of economic policy, the Biden administration offers little to progressives, both in terms of spending and regulation of Wall Street. If COVID-19 stimulus talks continue to break down, which appears increasingly likely, Americans can expect little refuge from a future Biden administration. Former Delaware senator Ted Kaufman, one of Biden’s more progressive and closest confidants, said that, “When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare.” He further explained, “When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit…forget about COVID-19, all the deficits that he built with the incredible tax cuts. So we’re going to be limited.” Eric Levitz from New York Magazine compares Kaufman’s comments to those of Republican and Democratic deficit hawks in 2008, where fear of deficits severely limited the much-needed stimulus bill. A similar situation is all too likely under a Biden administration, where progressive policies are flatly rejected due to their cost. Worse still, progressives won’t be happy to hear that the Republican, union-busting Kasich is being floated as a potential Biden cabinet member.
On healthcare reform, Biden has begun backing away from his already-inadequate healthcare proposal. Biden has proposed a public option, which would create a government-provided health plan that people could enroll in for free. The public option is a deeply insufficient policy that even the Biden campaign acknowledges would still leave millions of Americans uninsured. During both Biden and Sanders’ speeches at the Democratic National Convention, there was no mention of the public option. Biden now rarely mentions the public option unless explicitly asked about it. Furthermore, Congressional aides stated that, after a Biden win, Congress will start 2021 “with a more modest package of fixes to ObamaCare that did not include a public option.” The aides claimed that the retreat was because of unnamed moderate Democrats—even though “every single Democratic challenger running in a competitive Senate race this cycle has publicly campaigned on a public option.” It is also no coincidence that Biden’s retreat on the public option coincided with healthcare interest groups spending millions of dollars on anti-public option advertisements and campaign donations to Democratic lawmakers.
On the issue of America’s endless wars, Biden’s potential cabinet appointments are particularly telling. Two of the names floated for Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State–Michèle Flournoy and Tony Blinken—founded a consulting firm dedicated to helping defense contractors “navigate the complex bureaucracy of winning Pentagon contracts.” This is particularly concerning because, as journalist Jonathan Guyer observes, there is no unifying “Biden doctrine” for foreign policy. In other words, Biden is likely to follow the directions of his cabinet and advisors, almost none of whom have discussed or disclosed their connections to the military-industrial complex that plagues American politics. Additional sources of concern include Biden’s comment to Stars and Stripes that he will likely increase military spending and his inability to defend himself on his record of voting for and defending the Iraq war. It seems like the pantry is only “bare” when it comes to economic and healthcare policy that can help everyday Americans, not when it comes to boosting America’s military budget, which is already larger than the next ten countries combined.
On climate change, Biden is certainly more progressive than he is on other issues, proposing a $2 trillion climate plan in July. However, there are multiple areas of concern. First, Biden and Senator Kamala Harris have made it painfully clear that they will not ban fracking, much to the chagrin of climate activists. Some estimate that the methane emissions from fracking are just as damaging to the environment than coal. Second, journalist Miranda Litwak argues that campaign proposals “aren’t the best indicator of a candidate’s direction, nor of what will actually influence a Joe Biden White House. There is a better gauge: personnel.” And Biden’s climate advisors should be extremely concerning to progressives. Heather Zichal, an informal climate advisor to the Biden campaign, has directly profited from liquified natural gas production as a board member of a Texas natural gas company; she has also worked as a lobbyist and consultant for American energy companies. Jason Bordoff, Ernest Moniz, and Brian Deese, who are informal climate and energy advisors to Biden, all have their own stakes in the success of the carbon economy. No matter how progressive Biden’s proposals may be, the presence of pro-fossil fuel advisors in his campaign places doubt on Biden’s willingness to fight for and implement these proposals once in office.
Even on the issue of immigration, Biden has backtracked. While Biden promised a 100-day moratorium on deportations following his election, this campaign promise has evaporated into thin air. Biden did not mention it once in his platform for helping Latino communities.
Some defenders of Biden argue that his populist rhetoric and policy platform represent a shift away from corporatism and towards an ambitious economic project; some even compare Biden’s economic program to FDR. Biden is clearly using populist rhetoric to capitalize on a populist moment—namely the deadly combination of COVID-19 and America’s economic recession. However, there seems to be a discrepancy between Biden’s public rhetoric and the impression he gives to his Wall Street donors, who believe that he will not significantly take on corporate power.
What explains this gap in perceptions? A comment from an investment banker who was on multiple fundraising calls with the Biden campaign summarizes the situation in one damning sentence: referring to economic and climate proposals from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, the banker claimed the campaign “basically said, ‘Listen, this is just an exercise to keep the Warren people happy, and don’t read too much into it.’” Biden talks like a populist—emphasizing his humble Scranton roots and talking up working class voters—but his campaign’s private messages to donors make it clear that he will not fight for progressive policies.
The Progressive Response
Thus, it is clear a future Biden will not satisfy the demands of progressives. He will likely govern with a standard-issue, neoliberal agenda, rarely going against the will of his Wall Street donors.
Dissatisfied with Biden’s policy agenda, progressives are searching for methods to push him—and the overall Democratic party—to the left. There are four potential ways that progressives are considering to hold Biden accountable and ensure that he puts the needs of the American people over the needs of corporations: withholding their votes, pressuring him after he is elected, supporting robust and adversarial journalism, and using the power of progressive lawmakers to directly influence legislation. After examining these options, it appears that the future of progressives is bleak under a future Biden administration. Few of the options would be particularly effective, and many would even be counterproductive.
The Role of the Progressive Voter
One option commonly discussed in progressive circles is progressive voters withholding their votes for Biden. However, progressives sitting out the 2020 election, voting third-party, or otherwise contributing to Biden’s loss would not be particularly effective in moving the Democrats to the left. This is for two reasons. First, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, in part caused by dissatisfied Sanders supporters sitting out the election or even swinging to Trump, did not move the party to the left. In fact, Biden is less left-wing than Clinton in some respects, such as his position on lowering the Medicare age. Second, especially in light of Trump’s targeted ad campaign decrying Biden as a Trojan Horse for the radical left, the party could view a Biden loss as evidence that his policies were too far to the left. As a result, Biden’s defeat could move the party’s balance of power even further to the right.
Furthermore, even if leveraging the progressive vote against Biden may lead to a leftward shift in the Democratic party in the long-term, it is not immediately clear that making such a tradeoff is worth it. Noam Chomsky argued in mid-October that “helping Trump win would mean four more years of destruction of the environment, getting possibly to tipping points…which would be irreversible.” Most progressives would prefer a solution to this problem that doesn’t involve another four years of Trump.
Can Progressives Push Him Left?
If progressives can’t prevent Biden from getting elected, then can they pressure Biden to the left after the election? As argued by Washington Post columnist Katrina Heuvel, “progressives will have to push hard” to move Biden to the left.
It is here that the FDR analogies return. FDR supported fiscal austerity but was ultimately “pressured” to the left by progressives; the same can happen with Biden, the argument goes. Unfortunately, the FDR analogy fails for two reasons.
First, progressives might be remembering FDR in a better light than is accurate. As argued by Barton Bernstein in The New Deal: The Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform, FDR never really strayed from his original ideology despite immense pressure from the left, popular will, and the Great Depression. In fact, rather than representing a shift in a progressive direction, “the liberal reforms of the New Deal...conserved and protected American corporate capitalism.” Before providing needy families with much-needed assistance, the federal government’s first priority was to bail out the financial sector. FDR let the banks off easy, relying “upon collaboration between bankers,” something mirrored by the Obama administration’s 2008 bailout and Biden’s own statements to donors in 2020 about Wall Street regulations. Furthermore, Bernstein argues that the New Deal simply “excluded too many” Americans, as its benefits did not extend beyond the middle class. While it was “vigorous in rhetoric and experimental in tone, the New Deal was narrow in its goals and wary of bold economic reform” because FDR never quite got over his fear of “unbalancing the budget,” which is reminiscent of Ted Kaufman’s fear of deficits.
The second reason it’s unlikely that Biden will give in to the post-election pressure of progressives is the influence of his corporate donors, neoliberal advisors, and his floated cabinet. The “Biden campaign has raised almost $200 million from donors who gave at least $100,000. The campaign is also refusing to reveal the names of so-called bundlers who organize and collect checks from other major donors.” While Biden has told his donors “I need you very badly,” he has repeatedly distanced himself from progressive voters. Thus, if progressives are pushing him in one direction, but his donors and advisors are pushing him in another, it is unlikely that he will buckle to the will of progressives.
If progressives will not be able to sway a future Biden administration, what is the role of the media? Journalists are traditionally regarded as a check to the government, holding politicians accountable when they act against the interests of the American public.
Unfortunately, what we have seen so far from the media throws cold water on any hopes of the media holding Biden accountable. Everyone seems to think that the media treats them unfairly, but one man that very rarely faces criticism from mainstream left-leaning networks such as CNN and MSNBC is Biden. As observed by columnist Andrew Malcolm, Biden very rarely receives questions about his record; instead, journalists’ questions for Biden usually center around how bad Trump and Republicans are. In a more blatant example, after an NBC Town Hall with Biden, it was revealed that two of the so-called “undecided voters” had appeared on MSNBC just a few weeks prior and had stated that they were voting for Joe Biden.
Not only does Biden escape criticism and tough questions from the mainstream liberal media, but the media actually exhibits bias against progressive candidates such as Sanders. An analysis of CNN by the magazine In These Times found that “In the 24 hours following his massive win in Nevada, Sanders received 3.26 times the proportion of negative CNN coverage than Biden did following the latter’s South Carolina win — despite the two wins being by similar margins.”
The media’s radically different standards for reporting on Biden, Trump, and Sanders, respectively portend a terrifying lack of accountability for a future Biden administration. Pundit Saagar Enjeti constructs a telling scenario: “There is literally no telling what lies Biden’s administration will be able to get away with if they ascend to the presidency...All they have to do is frame a story in a so-called ‘anti-Trump way,’ and...the media will just give him a pass. Imagine a scenario...where Biden decides to keep troops in Afghanistan with an opaque deal with the Afghan government. All they have to say is that they’re reversing Trump’s policy.” Enjeti describes multiple possible situations—ranging from trade policy to hawkish policies against Russia—in which the media’s clear bias towards Biden could give the administration a free pass to pursue anti-progressive policies while escaping criticism.
It is difficult to understate the outsized influence of MSNBC on Americans because MSNBC is the second-most-watched cable news network after Fox News. Furthermore, “the median age of MSNBC’s audience is 65—and older voters turn out in high numbers” in elections.” If this immense influence was leveraged to criticize the Biden administration’s corporate ties, the impact would certainly be profound. Obviously, given the media’s display of bias, such a display of pressure is unlikely.
Defenders of the liberal media argue that the media is avoiding negative coverage of Biden for fear of helping Trump’s re-election. Thus, the argument goes, once Biden is elected, the media will be more willing to criticize him. I reject this claim for two reasons.
First, corporatists are given media platforms to criticize the Biden administration. Ironically, one of the only times MSNBC criticized Biden was because of his “divisive” choice to frame the election as “Scranton versus Park Avenue.” The host lamented Biden’s rhetoric, claiming that she “worked her butt off” to work her way to Park Avenue. This is not an isolated incident; journalist David Sirota writes that Rahm Emanuel, another corporatist, was interviewed on CNBC and “used the platform to demand that...a prospective Biden administration must reject” the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Progressive criticisms are silenced in the name of unity against Trump, but this standard is not equally applied to corporatists. In other words, the lack of left-wing criticism against Biden cannot simply be explained by a fear of helping Trump.
Secondly, this defense of the media creates an extremely slippery slope. The job of the media is not to worry about the downstream implications of their reporting; their job is to provide the unfiltered truth to the people. In its coverage of Biden, the media has abandoned this standard. Today, the media holds back criticism because they hate Trump. Tomorrow, the justifications for journalists biting their tongues are endless.
Here are a few: First, moderate Democrats could claim that criticizing Biden from the left could divide the Democratic Party. Second, they could argue that progressive critiques of Biden would depress turnout in the midterms; in fact, Obama recently shamed progressive voters for sitting out during previous midterm elections and handing Congress to the Republicans during his presidency. And third, before you know it, criticizing Biden could help the Republican presidential ticket in 2024. These excuses are by no means an exhaustive list. As observed by David Sirota, it is “always the wrong time to criticize Democrats from the left.”
However, just because the media isn’t holding Biden accountable, progressives should not stop fighting for news organizations to use their platforms to call out politicians when necessary. Additionally, progressives should share, discuss, and promote news sources which are willing to criticize corporate power. Examples include Jacobin magazine and Rising with the Hill’s Krystal and Saagar, both of which criticize both Democrats and Republicans for serving the needs of corporations over people.
The Responsibilities of Representatives
Finally, what is the role of progressive members of Congress in promoting progressive policies and checking Biden?
A recent letter signed by progressive representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (also known as AOC), Katie Porter, Ayanna Pressley, and Raúl Grijalva is representative of the larger failure of progressives in challenging the power of corporatists. The letter demands that “no C-suite level corporate executives or corporate lobbyists ought to have Senate-confirmed positions in a Biden administration.” First of all, the letter is not even addressed to Joe Biden. It is addressed to Senate leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell: an odd detail, considering the letter is about Biden’s cabinet appointees. Second, the letter is utterly unenforceable; it does not impose any cost on Biden for ignoring the demands of the letter. It is simply a statement of opinion. As observed by Enjeti, the letter’s backers have “four votes–maybe six votes–in the House. How many votes d’you got in the Senate? Like two, maybe? Why listen if there’s no power behind it?” More “stern letters” are unlikely to push Biden to the left. Progressives have to make it so that the costs of Biden going against their demands outweigh the benefits of keeping the favor of his Wall Street donors.
We can see just how effective similar letters and memos have been through an April letter from various progressive groups, which demanded that Biden “appoint zero current or former Wall Street executives or corporate lobbyists, or people affiliated with the fossil fuel, health insurance, or private prison corporations” to his transition team, advisory roles, or to cabinet: unsurprisingly, just two weeks later, Biden appointed Larry Summers, a neoliberal who fought for slashing infrastructure spending under Obama and repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, as an economic advisor. Summers also opposes a wealth tax.
Letters and floor speeches won’t work. Progressives, however, do have a weapon that can be effective: their movements. Figures such as AOC and Sanders command a strong social media and grassroots following. By leveraging their respective movements, progressives could help shape the national discussion and spotlight the Biden administration’s shortcomings. This would require direct, aggressive, and specific language about key decisions that Biden’s administration makes. It would also require aggressively backing new primary challenges to moderate members of Congress, something which AOC seems to be shying away from. It remains to be seen, though, whether prominent progressive politicians will be willing to use this power to hold Biden accountable.
The Brutal Reality
Progressives should not delude themselves about a potential Biden administration. I predict that progressives will not be pleased by how Biden governs, and that progressives will likely fail to push him to the left. Voting against Biden or post-election pressuring is unlikely to push the party left as the mainstream media caters to his needs and pressure from congressional progressives is likely to fail without significant tweaking. Effectively, every solution being discussed in progressive circles will most likely fail to push Biden from his centrist, corporatist platform.
The future of the progressive agenda, at least within the next four years, is bleak.
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