At the start of the week, as the Trump coup attempt cranked into gear, there was yet another entry in the Democratic Party’s continued identity crisis. In dueling interviews with The New York Times, Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Conor Lamb shared their respective views for the future of their party. Lamb, taking exception to Ocasio-Cortez’s analysis that Democratic candidates should run digital and on-the-ground campaigns that are focused more on organizing around progressive policies and less on candidate personalities, said that political demands like transitioning away from fracking for natural gas and defunding the police “aren’t just unpopular, they’re completely unrealistic, and they aren’t going to happen.”
The exchange was a reminder that the next four years are going to be a constant intraparty struggle to define what it means to be a Democrat right now. Unlike previous moments of failure and policy divide in the party, though, there is no margin for error now.
Democrats do have a lot to figure out in the coming years: reckoning with the fact that increased voter turnout doesn’t necessarily mean more Democratic victories, or how to contend with an increasingly unhinged and openly anti-democracy Republican Party. They need to develop the kinds of campaigns that build the coalitions and majorities needed to win elections all the way down the ballot, and they need to do this while facing the extreme barriers of conservative-led voter suppression, court engineering, and gerrymandering. But what cannot change—and what must be fought for the hardest—is the urgency among Democratic lawmakers to enact the policies that we need to survive on a warming planet in the middle of a pandemic recession.
As we’ve learned both this year and over the past decade, the people of this country cannot afford to wait any longer for programs like the Green New Deal, the end of lethal systems of policing and punishment, universal health care, safe and affordable housing, and debt relief and forgiveness. The moment speaks for itself: We are cycling between wildfires and hurricanes, millions have lost their health care in our pandemic recession, cops remain as deadly as ever with no meaningful check on their power, an eviction crisis looms, and debt is eating up the little savings people were able to cobble together from the last stimulus. This isn’t a left/right thing—it’s more existential than that. The only variable that is yet to be solved for is whether the Democratic leadership is willing to actually fight and sacrifice in order to win. Because we need these things.
In a preelection interview with Anand Giridharadas for his newsletter, The Ink, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—who was reelected to the position on Tuesday—doubled down on President-elect Joe Biden’s plan for an “FDR-size presidency.” Schumer claimed that his legislative goals include passing a federal $15 minimum wage, “strengthening labor unions,” relieving student debt up to $50,000, and “a big, strong, aggressive climate agenda that takes into account working people, takes into account racial injustice.”
While it requires a very elastic definition of what a so-called FDR-size presidency is—and a clearer definition of what his plans for labor unions and a climate agenda would actually entail—these were all decent, if slightly broad claims. The problem is, we have heard similarly bold promises before. As Laurie Bertram Roberts and other organizers and movement workers across the left told The New Republic in the wake of last week’s election, “Biden winning the presidency doesn’t ‘fix’ everything.”
Rather than enact the measures that the given moment demands, the Democratic Party’s leaders have repeatedly shown that they will instead triangulate, offering lukewarm versions of urgent policies and failing to commit to the political maneuvers necessary to achieving them. This just burns more and more of the people they need to build a coalition to actually govern.
This kind of timidity was made most clear when Giridharadas began to press Schumer on how far he’d be willing to go to achieve his legislative goals. Asked if he’d consider killing the filibuster, Schumer countered by saying that his party needs to gain the Senate majority first. When asked again—and again—he simply repeated the phrase, “Everything is on the table.” The same exchange repeated itself when Giridharadas asked about packing the Supreme Court to counter Trump’s rushed appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Schumer—who somehow concluded that the Democrats actually beat Trump “on every major issue” during his tenure—also seemed increasingly annoyed when Giridharadas asked him to concede that Democratic lawmakers of the past decade-plus have underwhelmed voters with constant compromises and halfhearted legislative measures.
None of that is a good sign! Even if Schumer was playing politics and trying not to give ammunition to Fox News and Republican Senate leaders, he must understand, somewhere deep down, that these figures will cast him and his party as off-the-rails Communists regardless of whether he admits he wants to pack the high court. This brings us back to the beef between Lamb and Ocasio-Cortez.
Lamb’s central argument—that being branded as the party of socialism is costing the Democratic Party power—does not seem to hold weight when you look at the polling done on many of the policies that a progressive agenda includes. Or, as Ocasio-Cortez and Earther’s Brian Kahn have both noted in their postelection analysis, the successful campaigns that ran on exactly these commitments.
But he is right that there seems to be, in many places, a split between policies people say they support and how they cast their ballots. That doesn’t mean you abandon the policies, though. It means you deepen your organizing, adopt a dynamic set of approaches that are regionally hyperspecific. It means listening to, and funding, people at the ground level. It means building toward the vision rather than running from it. Because people say they do like these policies. These are premises worth testing.
A quick-minded plan for mitigating climate change is popular. So, too, is student debt relief and free college and a wealth tax. Sixty-five percent of Americans support labor unions, though only 11.6 percent are union members. Despite what Lamb would contend, nobody actually likes fracking; they just like the fact that they can make a living. But instead of fighting to make a decent living a basic right guaranteed to all, Democrats in the current moment use it as a fleeting commodity dangled for political points.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, if nothing else, was entirely transparent about the Republican plan ahead of the Trump administration—gut taxes and stuff the federal courts with conservative weirdos—and then pulled every possible lever of power to make sure that happened. The same could be possible of a progressive-minded agenda.
We haven’t actually seen what happens when the Democratic Party fully embraces policies that make life more livable and decent for millions of people. But as my colleague Alex Pareene wrote recently, if the messaging isn’t working, then the governing will have to start speaking for itself. In the places where Democrats can make immediate changes—broad executive action at the federal level, truly progressive work in blue states that have the majorities to pass policy—they must start committing to those changes. “It would take making the state work for people to convince the masses that the state can work for people,” Pareene wrote. Why not start doing that wherever possible?
Instead, at a moment when the nation is staring down a long, long winter of further pandemic calamity and economic uncertainty, the Democratic Party is stuck trying to decide whether it’s pro-fracking enough. As Ocasio-Cortez rightly noted, there is a real danger in learning the wrong lessons here. The stakes are way too high.
Maybe, in calmer times, the split between Lamb and Ocasio-Cortez would have been a good impetus to have a well-rounded debate about the direction the party should take. But the moment we are in now—even with Trump slowly being shoved out the door—is emergency time, not figure-your-shit-out time. If it can’t move quickly toward a popular agenda that will also, conveniently, save our planet and millions of lives, then we’re all fucked.