This evening I was lucky enough to attend one of Marianne Williamson's candidates zoom call in which teh special guest was political scientist and strategist Rachel Bitecofer. She urged the progressive candidates on the call to use negative partisanship and to go on a brand offensive against their Republican opponents. Jonathan Bollag's new essay in Current Affairs, The Left Is Losing Because We’re Not Confrontational Enough, incorporates much of what Bitecofer has been preaching-- at least in terms of Republicans (she doesn't get involved with primaries) for the last few years: "Leftist policies are popular, yet the progressive agenda is stalled. What’s missing is a fighting, movement-backed strategy."
He noted that "more than a year into the Biden presidency, with Democratic control of both houses of Congress, progressives have not passed a single one of the core tenets of the moderate, professed Joe Biden agenda of a $15 minimum wage, free community college, a healthcare public option, student debt cancellation, paid family and medical leave, lowering prescription drug prices, climate action, free pre-K, subsidized child care, and marijuana decriminalization. Without a single one of these policies enacted, it is no wonder that Democrats are awaiting a bloodbath in the 2022 midterms (and plausibly the 2024 elections)-- deferring any chance for progressive change for years to come. The failure of even this moderately progressive agenda is particularly frustrating given that progressives occupy key positions from which they could apply pressure. Though the mainstream media and the Democratic Party establishment successfully defeated Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, Sanders is now the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. There are enough progressives in the House to make or break any legislation without Republican support (only around six votes are needed for this, and there are six 'Squad' members on top of a sizable handful of other progressives). So, why are we losing? Why has even a moderately progressive agenda failed to pass? The electoral left is losing because it is pursuing the hopeless strategy of confining itself to indoor, backroom deal negotiations while remaining friendly and accommodating to the Democratic establishment in public. Progressives in D.C. are losing because they refuse to strongly and persistently call out the corruption of their Democratic colleagues, they refuse to draw red lines for their votes (and stick to them), and most importantly, they refuse to mobilize their base."
He suggested we look at the two most important fights during the Biden administration, starting with the minimum wage disaster. "The $15 minimum wage should have been an easy victory. Biden and the Democratic Party claim to support it, and it is popular among the public. The policy was included in the very popular COVID relief package from the early days of the Biden Administration until the Democrats came up with a clever excuse to take it out, proclaiming that the Senate Parliamentarian-- an unelected advisor with no actual power-- ruled it could not be in the bill. How did progressives respond? Along with a few Tweets, they publicly wrote one letter to president Biden kindly asking him, with no red lines or threats, to override the Parliamentarian and keep the $15 minimum wage in the bill. As you might expect, this did absolutely nothing, and the federal minimum wage sits appallingly at $7.25 per hour and $2.13 per hour for tipped workers for the foreseeable future. Without living wages, millions of real human beings go hungry in America and countless Americans are forced to sleep out in the streets because, in part, of the cowardly inaction by progressives."
The last Democrat left in the House to have voted against increasing the minimum wage, Blue Dog Kurt Schrader (OR) was in a tough race against a progressive opponent, Jamie McLeod-Skinner who favors increasing the minimum wage (and decreasing the price of drugs, another item Schrader is on the wrong side of). Biden decided to endorse Schrader, his first endorsement of the election cycle. The whole DC Democratic establishment also favored Schrader. He lost his primary to McLeod-Skinner, making Biden look even more like a sad sack.
The second item was the popular and transformative Build Back Better agenda, another battle Biden failed to deliver on, without ever even having to engage Republicans. Fed up, Bollag asked "So, how do we stop losing and start transforming this country?"
First of all, just as the right-wing Democrats Manchin and Sinema are happy to draw red lines in negotiations and sink bills if they’re not met, progressives have to muster the courage to do the same-- which the balance of votes allows them to do-- and they must actually stick to their promises. But, it might be objected, when Manchin and Sinema draw red lines, they have the corporate donors, the media, and, arguably, the Democratic establishment on their side. When the left draws red lines, we are all alone, left to be viciously attacked and politically isolated. What would occur if progressives pledged to sink bills that didn’t meet their demands, according to this objection, is simply that nothing would get passed, which would be an unacceptable travesty. However, progressives would be weak in making demands and drawing red lines only if they lack a grassroots movement to mobilize alongside them.
How could this social movement mobilization be achieved? Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told us how when he explained what he would do, as president, to get his policies passed in the face of inevitable opposition from Congress:
The essence of my politics, and I think Alexandria’s as well, is that we need an ongoing grassroots movement of millions of people to pressure Congress, to pressure the corporate establishment, so that we can bring about the changes that this country desperately needs. So that’s why I have said that I will not only be commander-in-chief, I’m going to be organizer-in-chief.
I will be going all over the country to put pressure on Senators like those from Kentucky, for example. Go to the people in Kentucky who are hurting right now and say, really, do you think we should raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour? You tell your Senators to do it. Should we make public colleges and universities tuition-free? You tell your Senators to do that.
Though Bernie Sanders did not become commander-in-chief, as the powerful Senate Budget Chairman—and, more importantly, as the most popular currently elected politician in the country with an enormous grassroots base—why could he not keep his promise to be organizer-in-chief? Why could he not do what he proposed to do and go to states like West Virginia and Arizona to rally masses of people to pressure corporate senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema? Why could he and the progressives in Congress not organize mass rallies—alongside labor unions and major left organizations like DSA and the Sunrise Movement—in D.C. and across the country to put pressure on Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Joe Biden to enact the agenda they promised the American people?
Imagine if, throughout this past year of the Democratic trifecta government, the progressive politicians in D.C. worked alongside left social movements and organized labor to stubbornly, persistently, and combatively, rally hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, day after day, week after week, month after month, with either our own core progressive demands of Medicare for All, free college and student debt cancellation, and a Green New Deal, or even the more moderate demand: “Joe Biden, follow through on your campaign promises! Enact a $15 minimum wage, free community college, and a healthcare public option!” We know from the unprecedented protests of summer 2020 that this scale of mobilization (even amidst a pandemic) is possible, and we know from the Bernie Sanders campaigns that there is potential to mobilize a massive, dedicated progressive base. By focusing on three or four core, concrete demands (and, in the latter example, emphasizing that these are Biden’s campaign promises), the left could demonstrate to the American people the clarity that gets lost in the endless negotiations of insider D.C. politics that are designed to confuse and tune out the public. In addition to rallying in cities across the country and even camping out in an occupation of D.C. for as long as it takes, this movement would need to—with equal stubbornness, persistence, and combativeness—rally in West Virginia and Arizona to pressure corporate obstructionists Manchin and Sinema. Then, progressives would have the strength to draw red lines in negotiations without the fear of being trampled. They would not be alone and politically marginalized. They would have millions of people standing with them, loud and clear, impossible to ignore.
If one is skeptical that this public protest against Biden and the Democratic establishment would actually work, let us recall an instance where it did. In one instance, progressive congresswoman Cori Bush openly protested the expiration of the eviction moratorium by sleeping out on the steps outside Congress. The Biden Administration was so embarrassed that they immediately reinstated the moratorium. While some of the leading establishment Democrats did already seem to support extending the moratorium, Bush’s protest represents a glimpse of the fighting, mobilizing politics that has the power to effect change. Without mass mobilization, however, her action still pales in comparison to the potential power that could be realized by tens of thousands of people camping out in D.C. alongside leading progressive lawmakers in an occupation protest for as long as it takes until their demands are met.
We have seen other glimpses of this “outside” strategy by D.C. progressives, such as AOC’s sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office alongside the Sunrise Movement right after she was first elected, bringing the Green New Deal to the mainstream discourse. But, on top of being small in scale, these brave actions have been the exception, not the rule, and progressives have generally avoided open combat with the Democratic establishment. Under pressure from party leadership, they have succumbed to the “tyranny of decorum” that prioritizes public politeness over open criticism of the corporate Democrats who stand in the way of the policies we need. AOC seems to have abandoned the combative movement politics of her Pelosi sit-in in favor of what she erroneously calls more “sophisticated” methods, and Bernie Sanders has always refused to be more than mildly critical of Joe Biden, who he consistently maintains is his “friend.” How many people have to die without healthcare, sleep on the streets without a living wage, and have their futures torn away by the climate apocalypse for these crises to take precedence over the friendships and polite relations of politicians?
Why do progressives prioritize cordial relations over the fighting approach against the Democratic establishment necessary to pass the policies we need? I do not believe that all of the progressives are corrupt and selfish, nor do I believe their accommodationist approach is part of some complex rational strategy. Rather, a large part of the reason is that politicians are human beings, and human beings are prone to social pressure. Democratic socialist and Rhode Island State Senator Sam Bell has made the point that what often stops elected leftists from being more combative against the establishment is not strategy but psychology:
The most strategically optimal … would be to be far more anti-establishment than I’ve been and far more aggressive than I’ve been, much more aggressive than Bernie Sanders has been. I think what holds people back is not a strategic goal. It’s your emotional strength. It takes an enormous amount of emotional strength to stand against a political establishment, to stand against the group of people you’re spending time with all the time. … It really wears you down emotionally.
This psychological vulnerability is ruthlessly exploited by the powerful, as AOC herself explained:
The halls of Congress are no joke. It is no joke to stand up to corporate power and established interests. … Behind closed doors, your arm is twisted. … Political pressure gets put on you, and every trick in the book-- psychological and otherwise-- is used to get us to abandon the working class.
As this pressure mounts and progressives continue to spend time with their establishment “colleagues,” progressives like AOC have generally avoided the open confrontation necessary to pass the policies we need.
...To overcome the intense political and psychological pressure towards acquiescence and conformity that the D.C. progressives have often succumbed to, the two factors of the fighting approach and the connection to grassroots social movements go hand in hand, as being consistently movement-rooted gives both the political and the emotional strength to take on the fighting approach. If the movement ties are strong enough for real accountability, this serves as a powerful counter-pressure on elected progressives to the political and psychological pressure placed on them by the establishment.
...The remarkable success of Kshama Sawant [in Seattle] and Socialist Alternative is living proof that this movement-rooted, mobilizing, fighting approach to leftist politics is neither impractical nor unrealistic. It is not political suicide but political strength.
The left will never win through backroom-deal politics. That’s the establishment’s turf. We will only win with grassroots social movements and organized labor working alongside our allies in office to mobilize their base. The choice should never be between a defeatist withdrawal from any kind of electoral politics and trusting that “our” elected officials will get the job done. Serious progressive change in this country-- from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Act-- has never come from either avenue alone, but only from tremendous grassroots mobilization (especially labor power) alongside some relatively sympathetic allies in office. In his famous Letter From A Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that negotiations with the political establishment were needed, but that they could only occur seriously when mass direct action created a crisis that established powers could not ignore. In addition to these well-known American examples of the New Deal Coalition and the Civil Rights Movement, the same lessons prevail internationally. The Nordic model that American progressives regularly celebrate came not from some long-standing political harmony but from exactly this fighting approach of militant labor and other radical social movements organizing and mobilizing alongside their social-democratic allies in government. In our time, it is no coincidence that probably the most successful example of the left in power is the ruling MAS party in Bolivia. “Founded with the idea that the social struggle and the electoral struggle have to go together,” the MAS does not even consider itself a political party, but merely a “political instrument” of the various labor and indigenous-based social movement organizations that compose and run it. Of course, political and social conditions differ significantly in different countries and different time periods, but it is nevertheless crucial for the left to learn from struggles throughout the world and throughout history.
I do not believe, as some on the left do, that the leading progressive lawmakers are all corrupt or fraudulent, and I greatly appreciate having them in office. I believe that many of them are genuinely on our side, and it is precisely because they are on our side that we must thoughtfully critique them. While progressives make up a small minority of the federal government, they do have significant power-- both from their votes and their popular platform. While they have had a substantial positive impact, there is a significant disparity between what they have accomplished and what they could accomplish with a fighting, mobilizing strategy. The D.C. progressives have wasted the enormous, rare opportunities handed to them during this last year of a Democratic trifecta government and a vote margin effectively giving them veto power over any partisan legislation. After the ineffectual (or, more accurately, corrupt) Democrats get predictably obliterated in the upcoming midterms, this opportunity is unlikely to recur for many years to come. There is no more time to waste.
Clearly, the strategy of electing people who support progressive policies and trusting them to do the work of getting the policies passed, with superficial involvement from social movements at best, has failed. Progressive lawmakers must be part of, accountable to, and in daily dialogue with radical grassroots social movements. They must be willing to have an “open clash,” in Sawant’s words, with the Democratic establishment. They must understand that the left’s power comes from mobilizing and organizing, not private pleading and friendly negotiation. There are millions of unorganized but dedicated leftists in this country, and a large majority of Americans support core left policies. We have masses of people on our side, we have politicians in power, and we have social movement organizations. Though we certainly must expand the scale of all three of these, we will not win the policies we desperately need unless we connect the three along the lines of a mobilizing, fighting approach. It will not be easy. It will require serious strategizing, will entail the hard work of building grassroots organizations and labor power, and will create new political questions that will have to be navigated. But we have no choice. We must begin this project now. We have a world to win.