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The Election Is Over. Here’s a Vision From the Left for the Next Four Years.

Organizers and thinkers on where we are in the major fights of our moment—from prison abolition to climate justice and the housing crisis—and where we go next.

Illustration by Sarah Wilson-Austensen

We have a new president, but little else has changed in terms of the work ahead. A Biden administration may be more vulnerable to pressure from the left, but its positions on climate disaster, police and private right-wing violence, mass precarity and poverty, and other compounding crises of our moment will do little to pull us out of the fire. Our elite institutions are largely incapable of responding to the urgency of the moment or the left movements rising to meet it.

As a way to help map the terrain we’re standing on, we spoke to organizers, legal experts, and thinkers to explore what the next four years might look like from the ground up. One, the executive director of an abortion fund in Alabama, told us, Sure, there is going to be a Democrat in the White House, but what good is that going to do for those of us in the South, who will continue to do the work to unravel systemic racism and poverty in our communities mostly untouched by federal policies?”

That’s where we are—much as we were before Trump. Here’s where we might go now.


Abolition Versus the Empty Spectacle of Criminal Justice Reform

Mariame Kaba, organizer and educator, researcher in residence on “Interrupting Criminalization: Research in Action,” Barnard Center for Research on Women’s Social Justice Institute:

The folks who already have been in the nonprofit industrial complex and criminal punishment reformer complex will technically have “audiences,” if not directly with Biden, [with] administration officials who will be back in power again. So people at the Department of Justice who were very much behind pushing consent decrees and things like that will likely be back again in office, maybe even in positions that are higher up than they were in the previous Democratic administration, and maybe with some more power.

I think you will have a scramble around Kamala Harris and others who will feel some sort of need to burnish their criminal punishment bona fides in some way, to make gestures toward some forms of reform.

Biden has already suggested that he is going to give more money to the cops. We’d be under a situation where there’s just going to be a slew of procedural reforms offered that will give more resources, more money, and more legitimacy to policing under the guise of reforming policing.

I think, in some ways, those of us who are doing more radical [things]—and by that, I mean, [who] care about getting at the root of the problem—it will be the same seduction of reform and the same liberals feeling their oats around that. So maybe we would have difficulty getting an audience with the more general Democrats because there will be a lot of sound and fury in the direction of not that much change, in the end: these kinds of surface-level interventions that will preserve the current status quo.

And I think there will be some worry on the part of the administration about antagonizing law enforcement, because law enforcement has taken such an antagonistic role against the Democrats and the Democratic Party, that they are going to feel the need pretty quickly to show themselves to be allies to law enforcement.

We’re going to hear a lot about good cops and the individualization of policing, because people will want to be on the “right side’” of the fight—it’s a fight Democrats don’t want to have.

In some interesting ways, we’d be very challenged around that, as abolitionists. That’s what I’m speaking to, not general reformers. I think general reformers will be feeling very good about themselves pretty quickly.

Kamala Harris will be the fulcrum point, and I think she will be the foil. Particularly for Black liberals, I think that this is going to be their moment of kind of feeling that they are ascendant, and so the Al Sharptons and that wing are going to be very loud about reform. That’s not actually going to be reforming anything, but they’ll have an ear at the federal level.

Law enforcement is a very local site of struggle. There are, like, 3,000 or something different municipalities of law enforcement in the United States—it’s astronomically high—and that’s why those local budget fights are so important as sites of struggle. But the federal government does set the tone and does give people “something to aim for,” so to the extent that the opportunities exist, the opportunities will continue to exist at the local level.

But the feds will have an outsize voice—the FBI, the [Drug Enforcement Administration], and these other institutions—even though they don’t have as much [to do] in terms of people’s day-to-day experience with police themselves: I think if there’s something to look out for that has possibilities, at the hyperlocal level people will be able to make their fights; that big umbrella of the federal government will definitely influence that fight. People will still take cues from what they are saying, and they’ll have a lot of power to make a place, make announcements, and put money in the direction of various efforts.

Lots of that is probably already in the can right now, that Policing Justice bill the House put together, and if they take the Senate, I’m sure that will push through pretty quickly, especially if uprisings in the streets continue. Biden is going to want very much to pass something.


A Debt Jubilee

Astra Taylor, on behalf of the Debt Collective:

Over the last few years, the Debt Collective, a union for debtors, has made massive progress popularizing the idea of debt cancellation. The pandemic has bolstered our case. As part of a just Covid recovery, this country needs a jubilee—the mass erasure of debts. In the new year, we will be expanding our movement, mobilizing people across the country to demand the abolition of rent, medical debt, utility bills, and student loans.

A jubilee is the ethical and economically sensible thing to do, and student loans are a good place to begin. Research shows that canceling all student debt would serve as a significant financial stimulus, boosting spending, lowering unemployment, and helping to close the racial wealth gap. So far, Trump has paused student loan collections and canceled some interest, while Biden has pledged to cancel $10,000 in student loans for all borrowers. Neither approach is bold enough. The more debt we cancel the better, and there is no good reason not to cancel it all. Thanks to a legal authority called Compromise & Settlement, the executive branch can cancel all student debt without waiting on Congress to pass legislation. The Debt Collective is determined to pressure the next administration to do just that.

In order to actually get to the root of the problem, a debt jubilee must be coupled with a policy of robust public provision, including making public colleges tuition-free so that students aren’t saddled with loans to attend them. Given the current crisis of higher education, we can expect universities to double down on three intertwined strategies: 1) raising tuition, and thus increasing student debt, to make up for revenue shortfalls, 2) cutting workers’ pay, hours, and benefits (including more subcontracting out services and reducing tenure and tenure-track positions) and terminating programs, and 3) increasing institutional debt financing, surrendering millions of dollars from universities’ budgets to pay interest and fees to Wall Street banks.

Social movements need to address these moves as part and parcel of the same destructive project of austerity and privatization while paying attention to the outsize role of creditors and credit-rating agencies to enforce this agenda. In the face of budget cuts, universities will need financing to operate; yet their access to private credit is incumbent on how well they follow credit rating agencies’ priorities—raising tuition and disciplining workers. For many universities, this means their credit rating will become their highest budget priority. In response, activists should organize to withhold debt-servicing payments. Doing so would not only redirect precious resources back to campus students and workers, it would challenge creditors’ power to dictate university priorities and further corrode and commoditize education.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that public money is the only sustainable source of revenue for higher education. As we saw when it conjured trillions out of thin air in the early days of the pandemic, the federal government has the capacity to fund all the services we need to survive and thrive. We just have to make it do it.


Demanding a New Horizon on LGBTQ Justice

Chase Strangio, deputy director for Transgender Justice, American Civil Liberties Union LGBT & HIV Project:

With Trump losing, we will need to ensure that we fight a sense of complacency and a desire to return to the policies that governed under the Obama administration that could take hold of liberals and moderates. Our future demands for justice must be transformative, with a vision toward abolishing the systems that have entrenched power in destructive and violent ways. This means imagining a new judicial system and potentially a wholly new Constitution; abolishing prisons and sites of confinement; expanding social goods like health care, housing, and education. Our LGBTQ+ community cannot be liberated under our current systems of governance, and we know that to end violence and discrimination against queer and trans people we will need to put an immediate end to the criminalization of sex work, the death penalty, cash bail, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and qualified immunity. None of these are policy priorities for a Biden-Harris administration, and we will need to build and sustain momentum to effectuate these demands at the local, state, and federal level.

In the next four years, we will also have to be prepared for an immediate backlash in state legislatures, where lawmakers are already primed to attack trans people with legislation that would criminalize health care for trans youth and bar trans young people from sports. These attacks will escalate with a change in power at the federal level, and it will be difficult to effectively challenge them before a federal judiciary stacked with anti-trans judges. We will need to invest significant resources in stopping these bills from passing and building power in communities to create lasting infrastructure and systems of support while we concurrently work to change the judiciary.

There will be a need to undo the anti-trans policies from federal executive agencies, including those issued by Trump’s Department of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Bureau of Prisons, Defense, and Homeland Security. A Biden administration will likely roll back these bad policies, but we will need to fight for more expansive protections at every level and not just a return to the policies that governed during the Obama years. We will also need to be prepared to defend every trans-affirming action in court as we are likely to see groups like Alliance Defending Freedom challenge progressive policies before federal courts hostile to trans rights. Given this, we cannot rely exclusively on the current legal structures as we could see positive legislative and executive action quickly struck down.

The next four years will demand all of our creativity and sustained attention to repealing, abolishing, and rebuilding systems and policies that have destroyed survival opportunities for too many for too long.


Medicare for All and the Fight for More Than Seems Possible

Adam Gaffney, M.D., president of Physicians for a National Health Program:

A Democratic win would open more of a window of opportunity for progressives and Medicare for All advocates. At the same time, Joe Biden has positioned himself as a proponent of a public option but not Medicare for All. And in terms of helping people, a public option could do a fair amount, or it could do very little, depending on how it’s designed. A public option that’s simply one more plan on the marketplace—especially one that has co-pays or high deductibles—might not have a big impact or even really reduce the number of uninsured people. On the other hand, a stronger version of a public option would be one that automatically enrolls everyone who’s uninsured and is available to both people who are offered coverage by their employer and those who aren’t. But a public option still doesn’t have the policy strength of Medicare for All, and it’ll be important to continue to contrast a public option with Medicare for All moving forward.

There are so many ways in which this pandemic has laid bare the need for a unified, coordinated national health program. And that’s something that you do get with a program like Medicare for All, but you wouldn’t get simply with an additional public option. So all this ongoing instability—economically, and within the health system itself—may allow us to do something that’s bigger than what people think is possible.


Building the People’s Internet

Jillian C. York, director for International Freedom of Expression, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and author of Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism:

While a Biden win will undoubtedly provide relief for some of the most besieged communities in the United States, we mustn’t be fooled into thinking that a Democratic administration means more freedom of expression and privacy. Not unlike those from across the aisle, Democratic political initiatives to regulate Big Tech are bound to have deleterious effects for freedom of expression—particularly those that chip away at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the most important law protecting platforms from liability for the content they host.

Those on the right have been claiming censorship from Big Tech since before the 2016 election, but those on the left are just as affected, if not more so. Already, SESTA-FOSTA—a law ostensibly passed in 2018 to prevent online sex trafficking—has led to extraordinary censorship of sex workers and those adjacent to the profession on platforms, and is supported by Kamala Harris (while Biden himself has largely remained mum). There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Democrats have no qualms about chipping away at 230 even further.

There is certainly much more to be desired from platforms when it comes to tackling hate, disinformation, and other ills, but those on the left must be careful what they wish for: Attempts to do the same in other countries like Germany and France have resulted in censorship, as has the increased use of automation by tech companies to tackle such issues at scale.

Although there is plenty about which to be wary, a Biden administration could also lead to solid outcomes: for net neutrality, privacy (like ensuring protection for end-to-end encryption), and toward closing the digital divide that impacts so many Americans—particularly those in rural areas, who have particularly suffered under the pandemic. Students have been going to school from McDonald’s or from their cars because the Wi-Fi works better. I hope that this administration will bring broadband connections to every American.


Give Your Money to People Fighting for True Reproductive Freedom

Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Yellowhammer Fund:

The thing I am most hoping people understand is that Biden winning the presidency doesn’t “fix” everything. In fact, in some ways it’s going to make our work even harder. Sure, there is going to be a Democrat in the White House, but what good is that going to do for those of us in the South, who will continue to do the work to unravel systemic racism and poverty in our communities mostly untouched by federal policies? Obama in the White House didn’t get us Medicaid expansion in our states, and we now have the worst health outcomes in the country. Finding a way to codify Roe isn’t going to help us when most of the pregnant people in this area who want an abortion can’t afford a clinic, anyway. Just like no one came to campaign here when the race was on, no one is going to prioritize us when the new administration is settled. And even worse, the big donors and national progressive groups are going to pack up and go home and assume that now that the election is over, and Biden is in, everything is OK.

What we need as a movement here in the South is a commitment to our region—one that involves investing in us and our work, not cycling in every few years from D.C. or New York when there might be a big election, or when a headline-grabbing bill that is going to harm our community so badly finally registers on a national scale. We need more than a change in federal policies—we need a direct and large investment into building up our progressive network here on the ground, led by and for Black people, brown people, poor people, disabled people, and immigrants. We need the resources given to us directly so we can thrive, and the autonomy to make the changes we need as we see fit for ourselves. We know how to break the chains placed on us by our regressive red-state governments—we need you to finally give us the tools to do it.


Immigration Justice Now

Bianey Garcia, organizer at Make the Road New York:

I’m not 100 percent with Biden. I was supporting my tío Bernie Sanders. Biden, I think he’s more pro-immigrant, pro-TGNC community, so I really preferred to have him instead of Trump. Because Trump is a crazy asshole.

I think we need people in the White House to support our communities, especially trangender people.I know Biden was vice-president at that time, when [Obama] was deporting many people of color, especially immigrants, but he has the power to stop that. I’m hoping that he can change that. I am really hoping Biden gives the opportunity to people immigrating to this country, especially transgender people fleeing transphobic countries.


The Tenuous Move From Climate Denialists to Climate Moderates

Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of Policy & Strategy at Data for Progress:

Amid a historic recession—perhaps the worst since the Great Depression—the Democratic Party rides massive, multiracial turnout at the polls back to power. Among the party’s first priorities: getting the economy back on track and passing comprehensive legislation to fight climate change. Sound familiar? It’s because you’ve seen this play before.

In the first term of the Obama administration, Democrats were elected with a mandate to fix the financial crisis and with the intention to pass a cap-and-trade proposal to start reining in greenhouse gas emissions. But Democrats didn’t get the job done. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 pumped about $90 billion into clean energy, but the cap-and-trade bill, often referred to simply as Waxman-Markey after its lead authors—Representative Henry Waxman of California and Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts—never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. A few years later, Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, wrote an influential postmortem of the Waxman-Markey campaign, arguing, among other things, that climate needed a large, grassroots activist social movement to get legislation across the finish line.

More than a decade later, Representative Markey is now Senator Markey, and his resolution for a Green New Deal with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, backed by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, has raised Democrats’ policymaking ambitions to Rooseveltian levels. Even President-elect Joe Biden is having green dreams. After convening a task force with surrogates of Bernie Sanders’s also-ran campaign for the Democratic nomination, Biden revised his clean energy and environmental justice plans to match the demands of the movement and the gravity of the moment. Biden wants to invest $2 trillion in the economy over the next four years, directing 40 percent of those investments to the communities of color most impacted by poverty and pollution while implementing a clean electricity standard to source 100 percent of the country’s power from net-zero emissions sources by 2035.

But whether the United States will enact such ambitious laws will largely fall, as it did in 2009, to the Senate where Republicans appear poised to maintain their majority. There was a German philosopher who once remarked that history often comes with a sequel: “First as tragedy, then as farce.” While that same philosopher is gaining cachet among the Democrats’ most engaged Green New Deal activists, let’s hope that, this time, he’s wrong.


Organizing Our Way out of the Housing Crisis

Cea Weaver, Housing Justice for All:

Biden is no friend to tenants. Let’s be clear about that. We need to fight vigorously for Covid-19 relief back to cities and states—and to tenants—that meets this moment. We need to fight for policies that prevent a corporate takeover of our housing market.

Covid-19 caused a housing market crisis—this is not dissimilar to the last time that Biden took national office, as vice president. What lessons have we learned from that moment? Are we going to let banks and Wall Street dictate the recovery, or are we going to come together to fight for housing justice for all?

Tara Raghuveer, founding director of KC Tenants:

We are experiencing the largest rent strike in history—by virtue of the fact that so many people simply cannot pay their rent. But while mass non-payment has led to this massive economic disruption, it’s not yet been effective in getting the demand to cancel rent met. To get there, we need to politicize mass non-payment and wield a rent strike as a political strategy.

I’m very skeptical that the House or the Senate are actually going to be able to come to any sort of deal that meaningfully addresses these issues. It’s clear that we’re not going to convince them through logic or data or stories. Instead, our movement must build power to force our demands. That means doing something really challenging: Transforming an act of desperation into an act of power—withholding rent as a political strategy. The powers-that-be must be forced to answer to the ongoing economic disruption.

We know that the depths of the crisis have nothing to do with the coronavirus and everything to do with a system that has commodified a basic human need: our homes. But the pandemic has been a politicizing force. Covid has shone a light on the precarity of the current system, the failures of the market, the injustice of what we are forced to pay in rent. The project right now is to meet people where they are, support their politicization, and then build long-term power and infrastructure out of that. The project of organizing is always one of transforming private pain into public power.


Fighting for Actual Investments in Care Work After Decades of Lip Service

Josephine Kalipeni, director of policy and federal affairs at Caring Across Generations:

Regardless of who’s in the White House, we still need care. Working parents, sandwich-generation caregivers, seniors, and people with disabilities still need economic relief. Nannies, nursing facility staff, and home care workers still need [personal protective equipment]. Seniors need housing.

The Trump administration gutted the few protections that exist for care workers and both condoned and incited white supremacist violence that endangers people of color and immigrant communities who disproportionately make up the care labor force. In a Biden-Harris administration, we would make rebuilding our nation’s care infrastructure a key part of an equitable and sustainable economic recovery. Both Biden and Harris have been vocal champions for increasing wages and benefits for all workers, as well as a pathway to citizenship, which has a direct impact on the domestic and care workforce. Biden and Harris have made the care economy central to their platform and have committed to investing $775 billion to better support caregiving families. That money would go toward expanded long-term services and supports, clearing waiting lists for community services, and increasing the supports that family caregivers need, such as a streamlined portal where family caregivers can access information on local programs, services, and benefits.