Since President-elect Joseph Biden clinched the Democratic nomination, progressive analysts have generated a rich literature on how he should govern. While this is valuable, the intense focus on Biden as the lead actor in the drama distracts us from the Left’s own agency to shape the outcome of his presidency, making us extras when for the first time in half a century we have the potential to be lead players. In the same way that Biden must radically evolve to govern effectively, so must the rising progressive movement if we are going to play the change-making role that current events demand. Let me explain.
In 1941 pioneering labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph asked FDR what he could do to intervene against soul crushing racial oppression. “I agree with everything that you’ve said,” FDR answered. “But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it.” To forestall a march on Washington Roosevelt did take an important incremental step, barring discrimination in war industries, but Randolph was not in any position to create enough public pressure to force him to act more broadly. A political realist like Roosevelt was not going to blow off the segregationist leg of the Democratic governing stool. The most generous spin on Roosevelt’s deceptive answer: He was saying that the politics had to be workable because civil rights would otherwise undermine his power to govern. In this sense, the challenge FDR put to Randolph is relevant for progressives in 2020: What would make the politics work for Biden?
Progressives need a realistic view of the power dynamics at play. A toxic and mutually reinforcing mélange of ideology and pay-for-play politics makes placing progressives in key posts a heavier lift than making populist pronouncements and adding antiracist campaign planks.
The huge corps of professionals that work as political consultants, lobbyists, staff Democratic campaigns, presidential administrations, and legislative offices, are career-dependent on the plutocratic interests that fund the massive lobbying-campaign infrastructure. Imagine the panic from Wall Street to K Street had Biden named Elizabeth Warren Treasury Secretary, rather than Janet Yellen, who Robert Kuttner calls “basically a liberal who is respected by conservatives.” On the other hand, Biden handed out top foreign policy posts to former Obama officials who became defense lobbyists and consultants after leaving government.
The massive concentration of wealth has fueled an explosion of the influence industry: big money campaigns, lobbying, and strategic communications. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson document in their latest book, Let Them Eat Tweets, this is the natural result of a concentration of wealth without parallel in U.S. history or that of any liberal democracy. While extreme inequality has converted the Republican Party into a proto-fascist threat to democracy, the Democrats have not escaped unscathed, moving far less left than the Republicans have moved right on economic issues.
Biden faces a perhaps inevitable conflict between the ascending progressives and the undiminished strength of the well-heeled shadow partners who put him in position to be President and will be a major source of his power. A big difference between 2020 and 1932 is that we can’t say, as Roosevelt could in his First Inaugural speech, “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.” Because of our rigged economic structure the money changers of 2020 have enjoyed a massive expansion of wealth at a time the bottom 50% of income earners are facing a depression.
Can Progressives Meet the Moment?
Progressives must also evolve if we are going to grow into a movement capable of holding up our end of the bargain. Secretary of the Labor Robert Reich’s memoir of the Clinton years makes no mention of organized progressives backing him from the outside and increasing his leverage, he was largely on his own.
Historically, powerful and focused social movements have been indispensable to creating the conditions for reform presidencies. As Bob Master observes “a combination of crisis and mass movements transformed” some presidents, “pushing them to enact far-reaching policies that were unimaginable at the beginning of their tenures.”
We must up our game both in terms of raw organizing capacity and of governing philosophy, if we are to push Biden in this direction. In a liberal democracy the only enduring counterbalance to organized money is organized people. Unless resources are channeled into movement building we will never reach the sustained scale needed to shift power from economic elites to average citizens and marginalized communities.
Realistically, a subset of the plutocracy needs to be on our side if we are to close the capacity gap with the radical right. While always the case for successful social movements in American history, this inconvenient fact is usually scrubbed from collective memory and official histories. As Jesse Jackson was wont to say, “The problem with tainted money is there ’taint enough of it.” Despite the distorting influence of progressive-leaning foundations and the handful of progressive billionaires, who can’t help but shift power away from organizers and leaders, the resources they provide are indispensable if we are to compete with the concentrated economic arsenal of the right, which claims a lion’s share of plutocratic support. Income inequality has built huge fortunes parked in foundations for tax purposes.
The resurgence of organic activism on America’s streets in 2020 is a rare opportunity for social reckoning, but this energy and inspiration must be translated into sustainable and long-term movement power to achieve its promise. The new mobilization methods made possible by social media, digital engagement technologies, and distributive organizing models also require external funding. While these techniques are critical to amplifying and bringing to scale the movement on the ground, they will be co-opted by establishment forces if directed from on-high, and not rooted in frontline communities experiencing the brunt of our unjust social and economic order.
In contrast to the right wing infrastructure, most progressive social justice groups are still working at a subsistence level on the brink of financial disaster, and forced to dissipate a huge proportion of their energy competing with their peers to piece together narrow program grants in order to keep the lights on and pay living wages to professional organizers. The anarchic winner-takes-all structure of the nonprofit sector means large funders have trouble distinguishing between rooted organizers and pretenders who are skilled at self-promotion, or who have privileged connections. Money is siphoned off by well branded national organizations who do not share them with community organizations. The biggest drain is political organizations run by well-connected operatives who want to do good but have no interest in structural transformation, who burn through many hundreds of millions without leaving anything of value behind.
The scale of base building needed to match overwhelming plutocratic power cannot be achieved without a reimagined and revitalized labor movement. The right and corporate America have done what they can to demolish unions because there is no precedent in any Western democracy of a progressive that is not backed up by a robust labor movement. Understandably, many activists, impatient for systemic change, see elements of labor as allied to an oppressive establishment. The social justice movement must cultivate greater appreciation of the necessary role of organized labor. Restoring the right to join a union on a New Deal scale will diversify and radicalize both American politics and organized labor. The sectors ripe for organizing – retail, fast food, agriculture and food processing, the gig economy, low wage caregivers and paraprofessionals, and the emerging green economy – have the potential to inject tens of millions organized workers of color into our movement and contribute more to economic and political equality than any governmental action within our reach. Hamilton Nolan writes that Biden has the most leftist labor platform of any nominee since the New Deal.”
The prospect of a progressive coalition with establishment Democrats raises the question of whether the Left has a workable governing philosophy. The progressive insurgency has grown primarily as a decentralized protest movement unaccustomed to holding a major share of power. As George Goehl, executive director of People’s Action puts it: “We were outside throwing rocks for 30 years. Now we’re trying to move inside, and it requires a whole different mindset, whole new strategies.”
Fortunately, progressives are not starting from scratch. Professional organizers increasingly talk of co-governing and movement governing, harbingers of a conceptual shift that could help build a more unified and effective American left.
The emerging framework has roots in orthodox Alinskyism’s emphasis on power analysis and realistic roadmaps for winning concrete advances, but radically departs from its narrow focus on hyperlocal demands and its notorious aversion to ideology. One of the leading advocates of this turn is Richard Healey, who with colleagues at the Grassroots Policy Project adapted the three faces of power framework from political science for use as a radical organizer training tool, refining it in practice with social justice networks such as People’s Action. This approach has gained so much traction, that there are now a number of thought-leaders with closely related models for building incrementally towards structural reform, including Demos President K. Sabeel Rahman and Harvard Political Scientist Archon Fong. These ideas echo in many ways democratic socialist Michael Harrington’s unheeded calls in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s for “visionary gradualism” and “pragmatic radicalism,” a road not taken by the American left of that era.
Organizing in this style means building the capacity to achieve near-term advances that build movement capacity and power, without which structural transformation is impossible.
Veteran organizer David Hatch writes: “If we insist on an all-or-nothing approach that puts purity over progress, we can snatch defeat from the jaws of our hard-won victory. This tension between principle and pragmatism lies at the core of co-governing, and will always be there because the line between necessary and unacceptable compromise is never as clear as we’d like.” For example, “defunding the police” sounds to many as complete abolition, something the Left lacks the power and shared worldviews to accomplish anytime soon. A difficult but achievable near term stepping stone goal is shifting substantial resources to badly underfunded public services that improve public safety. The key is to coalesce around difficult but achievable demands that lead towards structural reform and build power, rather than dissipating grassroots energy by taking on unwinable fights.
This inherent dilemma has roots in the philosophy of prudence, which was critical to the development of democracy in Britain and the United States. It is a stance for operating ethically under conditions of pluralism, for sharing power with those with diverging values and objectives. A prudential frame of mind seeks a middle ground between rigid adherence to principle, which is unworkable in pluralistic systems, and pragmatism, which can mean a surrender of core values to political expediency.
A prudential frame of mind requires hard-headed, and at times unsettling analysis of both the potential benefits and risks of a given compromise. Viewed in this way, past compromises such as the structural racism of the New Deal, Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, and bailing out the banks in 2008 rather than working people can be judged to have had long term consequences worse than their immediate benefits.
It is also helpful to reconsider advances, such as the celebrated Brown v. Board of Education decision. Derrick Bell, one of the originators of critical race theory, and a lawyer who was on the frontlines of implementation, makes a brilliant prudential argument that the intractability of white racism made school integration a hopeless dream. As the Supreme Court’s decision was impossible to implement, Bell argues that Black liberation would have been better served by the Supreme Court upholding “separate but equal” and finding that the education system unconstitutionally violated the equal component of the doctrine. In this sense, Bell’s conclusion that racism is intractable, if accepted, has profound implications for devising a long term strategy.
Such judgements are hard for leaders and activists, and even harder for social movements. When Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Jayapal, on behalf of the Sanders campaign, compromised with the Biden team on health care, she recognized the limits of what was possible, but secured what she judged a major advance in the fight for a single payer system: “We knew we weren’t going to get Medicare-for-all. The question then for me was: How do we get some foundational pieces of Medicare-for-all, even if the words ‘Medicare-for-all’ aren’t there?” However, having reached this fallback position for advancing a longer term goal, with the full backing of the most influential progressive leader, does not mean that activists across the country will accept it, and mobilize at the level needed to push Biden to follow through and have a realistic chance of enacting it over ferocious opposition. An unfortunate all-or-nothing, one might say absolutist, mentality remains prevalent among many activists, as was demonstrated in the primaries when Warren’s floated a pragmatic timeline for achieving Medicare for All, for which she was promptly branded a sellout. Finding a cure for this condition and making it widely available should be a priority for the movement.
A Model for Building National Progressive Power
The most likely way to achieve this kind of strategic and tactical unity in 2021 is to erect temporary campaign structures within major issue areas. A promising model is the largest scale progressive grassroots lobbying effort in recent history: the Health Care for America Now Campaign (HCAN) campaign of 2008 – 2010 to pass the ACA. As is documented in a book by its campaign manager Richard Kirsch, what makes HCAN a model for progressive governing power was its success in creating operational unity for thousands of grassroots groups and tens of thousands of activists. This held even as Obama’s advisors and a small band of neoliberal Senators weakened the bill, eventually killing the public option, its most galvanizing progressive feature which could have become an inroad into the corporate insurance monopoly. This unity also weathered a tense relationship with the Obama team, which resented the campaign’s independence, and froze it out of the decision-making loop.
Importantly, HCAN had unprecedented resources from foundations and organized labor to build out robust capacity, raising around $60 million. Rather than creating expensive temporary infrastructure, HCAN invested massively in existing state groups which already had organizing bases, coalitions, deep roots in communities, local knowledge and other social capital. This sharing of resources promoted strategic alignment, giving grassroots groups ownership in the campaign. When right-wing plutocrats unleashed the crazed ferocity of the Tea Party backlash, which Rick Perlstein explained at the time was both manufactured and real, the mainstream media and establishment Democrats found it incomprehensible. It was HCAN state partners who turned the tide, out-organizing the radical right in the end. It is doubtful that ACA would have survived the onslaught without HCAN, although this was never appreciated by an Obama administration that preferred astroturf campaigns run by Democratic operatives to independent progressive power.
As there was no possibility of anything but a transactional relationship with Obama’s lieutenants, HCAN did not approach anything like co-governing. The experience shows that even under difficult conditions progressives, when organized to scale, can be a major outside force on the defining issue of a presidency. Of course, in 2021 we need exponentially bolder reform than the ACA in multiple fields, which means multiple HCAN-scale campaigns. Our best chance for accomplishing anything like structural reform is a mobilized and aligned progressive base working with the Biden administration with enough progressives in key posts, including hundreds of political appointments that will never reach the mainstream media, to enable true inside-outside organizing strategies. This is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but given the odds against the bold measures required, it is hard to imagine the neo-liberal teams of the past three Democratic administrations rising to the historical occasion.
The End Game: Meeting the Moment
Carrots will not be enough, progressive will also need bigger sticks. Given the backlash that anything remotely approaching a 21st Century New Deal would spark from Biden’s establishment shadow partners, progressives in the field and in Congress will need strategic unity to block legislation and when necessary force their will on moderates. A handful of corporatist Democratic senators have done this for years, and were able to force neoliberal health policy down the throats of the party during the process to pass the ACA. In the old Democratic coalition, the southern party within a party had a veto power that it used to defend and further institutionalize structural racism.
If progressives are going to take the next step towards building a proto party, we likely need the leverage to impose core demands. The CPC has more than enough votes in the House to block any legislation, more than double the size of the Freedom Caucus. The question is, can the newly restructured CPC achieve enough internal unity and external alignment with the organized progressive grassroots to act so boldly?
The difficulty of achieving anything like shared governance with Biden and establishment Democrats raises the question of whether progressives should even pursue it? Is there an alternative? With the surge of progressive opinion in the Democratic Party over the last two decades, and an ongoing demographic transition in our favor, would it be better to exercise influence where possible but largely stay on the outside, continue to build a mass movement, and play for a full progressive takeover of the Democrats in 2024? I don’t think so. I believe the historical turning point we now face imposes a profound moral obligation for progressives to immediately pursue a working coalition with moderates.
There are three reasons a coalition with Biden’s establishment Democrats is the most likely path to timely structural reform.
First, there is no precedent for a complete takeover of American government by movement progressives or their rough equivalent, but there is for center left alliances achieving structural reform. Past examples include the political antislavery movement that created the Republican Party in the 1850s that ended slavery, and the Democrats of the 1960s who achieved civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid, and other landmarks. The Progressive reformers who established the modern federal government in the first two decades of the 20th century and the New Dealers in the 1930s were led by establishment figures who believe their historical moments called for radical measures. FDR, the leader Biden says he wants to emulate, described himself as “a little to the left of center.” He told Frances Perkins that he agreed with the first stage of the socialist party’s agenda, comparing it to his cousin Theodore’s 1912 “Bull Moose Party” platform, but not their long term objectives.
Second, for the foreseeable future the progressive and moderate wings of the party need each other to win elections and to govern. No matter which wing leads the top of the ticket, neither is in a position to replicate the radical right takeover of the GOP. Given the surge in progressive opinion within the party, the complete domination of Democratic administrations by moderates is no longer viable, necessitating a coalition on much closer to equal terms than anything we have seen since the 1960s. The possible upsides are great. As E.J Dionne points out in Code Red, a fusion of the capacity of progressives to mobilize and generate mass support for bold structural reforms, with the moderate wing’s understanding of how power works in Washington, has the potential to achieve a long term realignment of American politics.
Third, the national and global crossroads we face imposes a moral obligation not to roll the dice on a highly speculative progressive takeover in 2024. The failure of the Biden administration to markedly improve the lives of average Americans is more likely than not to produce a right-wing takeover, perhaps led this time by a more effective authoritarian than Trump. We may dodge the first bullet because of Trump’s incompetence, but may not escape a second. Now that American conservatism has evolved into an ultranationalist and antidemocratic movement bent on minority domination, the stakes may well be as high as those faced by the political factions of Europe that failed to unify in opposition to fascism in the 1930s.
Progressives must confront what Robert Penn Warren called the “awful responsibility of time.” To prevent the genocidal consequences of what will be unleashed by catastrophic climate change, we need to cut greenhouse emissions nearly in half by 2030. It seems unlikely that a progressive president taking office in 2025, and having to work with moderates to pass legislation over ferocious opposition, could pull that off in four years. Another right-wing presidency could seal the world’s fate. Nor can we wait another four years to reckon with the carnage of structural racism at every level of society, dangerous and growing income inequality, the murderous commodification of health, and perhaps a working class depression.
Theodore Roosevelt made the case that the takeover of the economy by massive corporations in the late 19th Century was so threatening that it required a revolution in governing philosophy to avert levels of inequality and domination that would tear democracy apart. He proclaimed during the epic 1912 campaign, the first and only presidential election dominated by dueling progressives, that “nine tenths of wisdom consists in being wise in time.” Now the two divergent wings of the Democratic Party face a challenge of even greater magnitude. The question is whether we can find the courage and moral fortitude to meet our moment.