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The Biden Era Will Put the New Left to the Test

Progressives have gotten all they can out of the election season. After November, they will have to raise a ruckus to secure victory.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

All eyes this week have been focused on the Democratic National Convention, which should probably be considered the formal kickoff of this year’s general election campaign. Although the coronavirus pandemic forced Democrats to move to virtual proceedings, it should be said that the convention wasn’t all too different in substance from conventions past. There were lofty speeches, moments of canned drama, and, of course, a set of ideologically driven controversies over the future of the party and the convention itself.

For all the energy and interest progressives have invested in matters such as the length and content of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech for Bernie Sanders, the presence of Bill Clinton and Republicans like John Kasich, and the inclusion or exclusion of certain provisions within the party platform that was approved on Wednesday, no one should be under the illusion that any of this really matters or that the convention realistically could have played out any other way. The season of gestures to progressives is over; less than three months out from the general election, the Democratic Party has no political incentive to take the left’s concerns seriously. Electorally, a small and unhelpfully distributed portion of the electorate doesn’t matter. And the vast majority of progressives are always committed to whoever the Democratic nominee happens to be, whatever the platform happens to be, anyway⁠; Biden won most over the day the primary ended. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the left that cost Hillary Clinton the election in 2016. Likewise, the left will not be responsible for what happens this November. What happens afterward might be another story: Progress under Biden will depend in large part on whether the left makes itself ready for a once-in-a-generation wave of activism and advocacy.

The fear of progressive defection was among the factors that convinced so many primary candidates to reach leftward on policy, and the discourse around their proposals helped move the electorate in a more progressive direction. But the promises those candidates made were, obviously, just words; by the end of the primary, the co-sponsors of Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill, for instance, had abandoned it. This is one of the reasons why the project of extracting progressive commitments from Biden between now and November seems dubious, as nothing would actually hold him to his promises.

And his own stated positions on the policies in question will not, in and of themselves, determine what his administration manages to accomplish, if anything. A progressive president might be a powerful public advocate for progressive policy and ideas. And certain progressive goals could be advanced through executive action and federal agencies. But if a President Biden were to hit his head one day and come out as a supporter of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and all the rest, Congress—the Senate in particular—would remain an obstacle. A president can propose legislation, and a president can be a key party to negotiations. But functionally, if any significant and positive legislation happens over a Biden term at all, it will come from Congress to the White House, and Biden will be significantly pressured to sign those measures into law. As given as we are to pretending otherwise in presidential elections, this is how the presidency actually works.

It should be well known by now that even if Democrats take the Senate, a number of moderates in the chamber would oppose not only the substance of the major items on the progressive agenda but also the structural reforms that would be necessary to pass and defend them. As such, the major task ahead isn’t only, or even primarily, pushing Joe Biden to the left but rather pushing Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and other similarly positioned senators to the left on certain proposals quickly enough that major legislation can be passed before Republicans have a shot at retaking a chamber of Congress in 2022. There’s been little active discussion about how this might be done if it can be done at all.

It’s entirely possible that it can’t. But if there’s to be any chance of progressive legislative success during a Biden administration, it can only be the product of pressure and influence campaigns aimed at Congress and set in motion the very second it becomes clear Biden has won the presidency and Democrats have taken the Senate.

The past several years have given us many examples of what that might look like. The physical occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s office by the Sunrise Movement in support of the Green New Deal, the throngs that descended upon Congress to protest the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and the government shutdown, the demonstrations and public challenges to elected officials that took place this summer after the killing of George Floyd—the movement behind progressive legislation under Biden should resemble and surpass all of these. We will need targeted nonviolent action at a scale and intensity without recent precedent. The technocratically minded will continue to talk about campaign finance and electoral reforms. Writers and activists will continue debating how we might unify and activate the working class as a mass constituency. But progressives also need to plan actively for whatever moment they’re collectively thrust into just after the election—strategies not only for the next six years but for the next six months. And it seems plain that organized direct action will be one of the few real tools the left will have at its disposal.

It should be said that direct action will be just as important if Democrats don’t take the Senate or if Trump wins. In the former case, activists can continue building public support for progressive proposals until elections make passing them plausible. In the latter case, massive resistance to Trump and the right should amount to more than angst broadcast on social media or purely symbolic marches. As many groups did after the 2016 election, organizers can plan for the defense of immigrants and vulnerable communities. Disruptive demonstrations can be planned against fossil fuel, health care, and other industries as well as the political and commercial institutions sustaining the conservative movement and the GOP. And win or lose in November, labor actions might extract meaningful concessions directly from corporations to the American worker.

All of this should be preceded by an attitudinal shift: Progressives should be through waiting and begging to be taken seriously by the Democratic Party. It’s not terribly relevant, in the present, whether the party might be made more progressive as a demographic inevitability or through left’s strategizing. It isn’t where it ought to be now. And the only thing that might move Democratic legislators in the near term is a progressive resolve to wear them down into submission. That’s it. If the left can generate noise and anxiety far in excess of its size in the electorate—as they managed to in the 1960s in the movements for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War—the country will have a shot at change. The country may well be doomed. But we won’t have a fighting chance if we don’t start planning the fight.