Joe Biden and the Disastrous History of Bipartisanship

Branko Marcetic

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial cam­paign play­book has, for decades, includ­ed grand promis­es to reach out to the GOP to solve the nation’s ills.

In 2020, some can­di­dates are throw­ing that play­book out the window.

If the Repub­li­cans are going to try to block us on key pieces that we’re try­ing to move for­ward, then you bet­ter believe we got­ta keep all the options on the table,” Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D‑Mass.) said, refer­ring to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of elim­i­nat­ing the fil­i­buster. In a speech to the 2019 Cal­i­for­nia Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­ven­tion, Sen. Bernie Sanders (IVt.) pledged no mid­dle ground” on issues dear to pro­gres­sives. Even cen­trist Michael Ben­net, at the June Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate, acknowl­edged that work­ing with Repub­li­cans would be impos­si­ble in 2021: Grid­lock will not mag­i­cal­ly disappear.”

Four pro­gres­sive law­mak­ers elect­ed in 2018— Reps. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.), Ayan­na Press­ley (D‑Mass.) and Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.) — mod­el what a rebel­lious Demo­c­ra­t­ic approach can look like. The squad,” as they’re known, has pro­posed far-reach­ing mea­sures like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal while com­bat­ing right-wing attacks and call­ing for the impeach­ment of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. While main­stream Democ­rats still pledge to build bridges, this new gen­er­a­tion is more like­ly to occu­py them.

It’s a remark­able turn­around. If wor­ship of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion is an Amer­i­can civic reli­gion, with the Founders as prophets and Capi­tol Hill as a place of wor­ship, then bipar­ti­san­ship has become its holy sacrament.

This uncom­pro­mis­ing approach from young pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tors and pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates like War­ren and Sanders is also an implic­it rebuke of for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden, who is cam­paign­ing on the promise of an out­stretched, bipar­ti­san hand.

For Biden and his gen­er­a­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers, bipar­ti­san­ship has long been hailed as a wor­thy end in its own right, no mat­ter the result. He has pledged that a new day will dawn once Trump is removed from the White House. This nation can­not func­tion with­out gen­er­at­ing con­sen­sus,” Biden said in May. You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Repub­li­can friends.”

But as mod­er­a­tor Chuck Todd told Biden at the first Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate, It does sound as if you haven’t seen what’s been hap­pen­ing in the Unit­ed States Sen­ate over the last 12 years.”

An increas­ing­ly far-right GOP has ruth­less­ly obstruct­ed Democ­rats while dan­gling coop­er­a­tion to lure them right­ward. The out­come has been a dis­as­ter for pro­gres­sives. The par­ties have coop­er­at­ed to water down or kill left-lean­ing mea­sures and advance a right-wing agen­da, from shred­ding the New Deal to ramp­ing up depor­ta­tion, turn­ing the admin­is­tra­tions of Pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton and Barack Oba­ma into grave­yards of pro­gres­sive poli­cies. Democ­rats increas­ing­ly under­stand that, if they want to gen­er­ate con­sen­sus, they’ll have to do it some oth­er way than meet­ing a right-mov­ing GOP in the mid­dle.”

In the first round of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry debates, Biden was the only can­di­date (besides lit­tle-known cen­trist John Delaney) to say bipar­ti­san.”

Biden, how­ev­er, is not the only one cling­ing to faith in cross-par­ty cooperation.

In April 2017, New York Times colum­nist David Brooks spec­u­lat­ed that, assum­ing the depar­ture of Trump in 2020, Con­gress would again enjoy a world with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of bipar­ti­san­ship.” Politi­co Magazine’s Michael Grun­wald explained that Biden’s bipar­ti­san friend­ships, Wash­ing­ton expe­ri­ence and genial Uncle Joe approach real­ly can help pro­duce results.”

Indeed, dis­com­fort with open divi­sion is part of the DNA of the nation,” says his­to­ri­an Rick Perl­stein, author of The Invis­i­ble Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Rea­gan. It’s all about repress­ing this orig­i­nal fis­sure: Slav­ery. The entire his­to­ry, for the first half of the 19th cen­tu­ry, is this all-con­sum­ing attempt to keep this genie in the bottle.”

To get slave-own­ers to at least pay lip ser­vice to life, lib­er­ty and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness,” the Founders com­pro­mised that three out of every five slaves would be count­ed in a state’s pop­u­la­tion when appor­tion­ing con­gres­sion­al seats. Slave states wield­ed this inflat­ed elec­toral pow­er to ensure slav­ery con­tin­ued in the new repub­lic, while the Com­pro­mise of 1850 facil­i­tat­ed slavery’s west­ward spread and made the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment respon­si­ble for recov­er­ing fugi­tive” slaves.

These com­pro­mis­es came at a tremen­dous cost,” says his­to­ri­an Man­isha Sin­ha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A His­to­ry of Abo­li­tion. If you think of slav­ery as a gross abuse of human rights, then com­pro­mise doesn’t sound so good.”

This com­pro­mis­ing dynam­ic out­lived slav­ery. The Com­pro­mise of 1877 end­ed Recon­struc­tion, made room for Jim Crow and, by pulling fed­er­al troops out of the South, gave a green light to racist ter­ror­ists like the Ku Klux Klan.

Yet Biden and oth­ers who yearn for the prag­ma­tism” of days past aren’t invent­ing things. Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days — so con­se­quen­tial they would turn that num­ber into a mea­sure of suc­cess for every pres­i­dent there­after — like­ly would have failed had he not secured piv­otal sup­port from Repub­li­cans and even put sev­er­al in his cab­i­net. Four-fifths of Repub­li­cans in Con­gress vot­ed for the 1964 Civ­il Rights Act signed by Demo­c­ra­t­ic Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. Johnson.

All of this was pos­si­ble, says his­to­ri­an Thomas Frank, in part because there was a time when the par­ties were not divid­ed by ide­ol­o­gy or by their place on the polit­i­cal spec­trum. The par­ties were region­al and ethnic.”

In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, Repub­li­cans dom­i­nat­ed pol­i­tics as a par­ty of the North­east, white Protes­tants, busi­ness own­ers, African Amer­i­cans and the mid­dle class, while Democ­rats foundered as a large­ly agrar­i­an par­ty of the South and Great Plains. Things changed when Roo­sevelt cob­bled togeth­er an ulti­mate­ly unsta­ble coali­tion of South­ern­ers, Catholic immi­grants in urban areas, blue-col­lar work­ers and, cru­cial­ly, African Amer­i­cans, who fled the GOP as they began eco­nom­i­cal­ly ben­e­fit­ing from the New Deal. In prac­tice, this meant pro­gres­sive politi­cians from both par­ties could work togeth­er to get things passed.

So what hap­pened? Com­men­ta­tors across the spec­trum name one cul­prit: Partisanship.

Too much estrange­ment on both sides,” groused Sen. Richard Shel­by (R‑Ala.) in 2018. A 2017 Atlantic Coun­cil report on U.S. polit­i­cal dys­func­tion blamed a dan­ger­ous­ly code­pen­dent” par­ti­san divide birthed by ger­ry­man­der­ing that made offi­cials account­able to par­ti­san rad­i­cals. Bruce Wolpe, who worked on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic staff in Con­gress dur­ing the first Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, charged that Con­gress was beset by hyper­par­ti­san­ship” defined by no com­pro­mise, no con­sen­sus” and no work­ing togeth­er in the nation­al interest.”

In June, Biden echoed these sen­ti­ments, bemoan­ing the loss of civil­i­ty” that marked his sal­ad days in Con­gress when he worked with seg­re­ga­tion­ists despite disagreements.

We got things done,” Biden said. We got it finished.”

These analy­ses omit, how­ev­er, the key agent of this grow­ing polit­i­cal polar­iza­tion: the GOP.

Soon after FDR took office in 1933, a coterie of con­ser­v­a­tive intel­lec­tu­als, promi­nent polit­i­cal fig­ures and wealthy busi­ness­men (such as the Du Pont broth­ers) began orga­niz­ing against what they saw as the social­is­tic” over­reach of the New Deal. With a mes­sian­ic resolve and a seem­ing­ly bot­tom­less pit of cash, they cre­at­ed think tanks, books, peri­od­i­cals, col­leges, tele­vi­sion and radio pro­gram­ming and more. The result was an alter­na­tive intel­lec­tu­al land­scape that demo­nized gov­ern­ment and dei­fied the free market.

Elec­toral pol­i­tics fol­lowed. Frus­trat­ed with the dime­store New Deal”-ism of the post­war GOP, what came to be called the New Right” engi­neered a grass­roots takeover of the Repub­li­can Par­ty, result­ing in the 1964 pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion of hard­line con­ser­v­a­tive Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter. While Gold­wa­ter lost spec­tac­u­lar­ly, liberalism’s tri­umphs only fueled right-wing orga­niz­ing. A well-cul­ti­vat­ed con­ser­v­a­tive and evan­gel­i­cal back­lash against the civ­il rights vic­to­ries of the 1960s and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade deci­sion cul­mi­nat­ed in the 1980 vic­to­ry of Ronald Rea­gan, pre­vi­ous­ly viewed large­ly as an une­lec­table ide­o­logue out of step with the times.

The elec­tion of Ronald Rea­gan was a sym­bol of the eclipse of the Rock­e­feller Repub­li­cans by the Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter wing, send­ing a sig­nal to the par­ty to get on board,” says Corey Robin, pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at Brook­lyn Col­lege and the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Grad­u­ate Center.

Rea­gan used his bul­ly pul­pit to pop­u­lar­ize the idea of get­ting the gov­ern­ment off the backs of the people.”

The con­ser­v­a­tive wing of the GOP estab­lished hege­mo­ny over not just the Repub­li­can Par­ty, but the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal order,” says Robin.

Tes­ti­monies from the con­ser­v­a­tive Hoover Insti­tu­tion at the close of Reagan’s pres­i­den­cy attest to that fact. As his­to­ri­an Stephen Ambrose put it, while Rea­gan failed to break the Demo­c­ra­t­ic hold on Con­gress, he did force the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to move to the right.” His­to­ri­an Karl O’Lessker wrote that Reaganomics may well have caused a fun­da­men­tal shift in the polit­i­cal community’s approach to fis­cal pol­i­cy. … There has been lit­tle if any dis­po­si­tion among con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats to advo­cate, still less vote for, big new spend­ing or tax­a­tion programs.” 

The GOP came to explic­it­ly align itself with the agen­da of super-rich, right-wing patrons like the Koch broth­ers, while the Democ­rats, shell-shocked from elec­toral defeats, began rely­ing on big-dol­lar fundrais­ers that has­tened a right­ward turn.

[Repub­li­can Par­ty patrons have] turned the GOP into a kind of Lenin­ist par­ty of the Right, one in which no dis­sent is allowed after the course has been set,” says his­to­ri­an Nan­cy MacLean, author of Democ­ra­cy in Chains: The Deep His­to­ry of the Rad­i­cal Right’s Stealth Plan for Amer­i­ca. It wants to dra­mat­i­cal­ly dimin­ish the pow­er of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in order to remove the reins from cap­i­tal­ists.” And yet, she says, We are still oper­at­ing as a nation as if there is a Repub­li­can Party.”

The new­er, more stri­dent class of Repub­li­cans who entered Con­gress in 1979 had not been exposed to the demor­al­iz­ing impact of Water­gate, the Agnew and Nixon res­ig­na­tions, the Ford defeat, and maneu­ver­ing in a Con­gress dom­i­nat­ed by two-to-one Democ­rats,” read a 1979 – 1980 inter­nal report com­mis­sioned by GOP con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship. Where old­er mem­bers saw per­sis­tence and shrewd­ness, the fresh­men saw timid­i­ty and inde­ci­sion.” Newt Gin­grich was one of them. In the 1990s, he would con­tin­ue the process that Rea­gan began by spear­head­ing the tac­tic of obstruc­tion­ism by the minority.

Gin­grich fan­cied him­self the most seri­ous, sys­tem­at­ic rev­o­lu­tion­ary of mod­ern times” and called for large-scale, rad­i­cal change.” Work­ing to polar­ize debate between the par­ties, he pio­neered the threat of a gov­ern­ment shut­down as a polit­i­cal strat­e­gy. He cal­cu­lat­ed that obstruc­tion­ism would nur­ture pop­u­lar con­tempt toward the insti­tu­tion of Con­gress, which would serve the Right’s anti-gov­ern­ment agenda.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R‑Texas), who served as House Major­i­ty Whip when Gin­grich was Speak­er, lat­er wrote about the GOP’s strat­e­gy under Clin­ton. Know­ing that Clin­ton and the Sen­ate would tack to the cen­ter, he explained, the GOP would start every pol­i­cy ini­tia­tive from as far to the polit­i­cal right as we could” to move the cen­ter far­ther to the right” and achieve a much greater suc­cess rate than we had ever known.” DeLay boast­ed in his mem­oirs, We moved the whole of Amer­i­can gov­er­nance to the right.”

The old-guard Repub­li­cans joined in. Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Bob Dole pio­neered the fil­i­buster-threat strat­e­gy now syn­ony­mous with Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), mak­ing 60 votes nec­es­sary for any­thing to get done, from health­care reform to a stim­u­lus package.

This right­ward shift led schol­ars Thomas E. Mann and Nor­man J. Orn­stein — at the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion and the con­ser­v­a­tive Amer­i­can Enter­prise Insti­tute, respec­tive­ly— to declare in 2012 that the GOP had become an insur­gent out­lier.” The par­ty was ide­o­log­i­cal­ly extreme; con­temp­tu­ous of the inher­it­ed social and eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy régime; scorn­ful of com­pro­mise; unper­suad­ed by con­ven­tion­al under­stand­ing of facts, evi­dence and science.”

Joe Biden’s polit­i­cal career is an exem­plar of the price the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty paid as the Right slid into the dark reach­es of the polit­i­cal spectrum.

As overt racism fad­ed in polite soci­ety after the 1960s, those com­mit­ted to beat­ing back the advance of civ­il rights found proxy issues to dog whis­tle a racist tune: crime, drugs, wel­fare and bus­ing. They found a will­ing part­ner in a 30-year-old fresh­man sen­a­tor: Biden.

Biden hailed from Delaware, whose cul­ture and bor­ders strad­dled the Mason-Dixon line and whose polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic life was dom­i­nat­ed for decades by the Du Pont fam­i­ly that had helped jump­start the rebel­lion against the New Deal. (As Biden would lat­er assure a Repub­li­can Rotary Club in South Car­oli­na in advance of his 2008 pres­i­den­tial run, Delaware, a slave state, had only fought beside the North. … because we couldn’t fig­ure out how to get to the South.”)

As con­flict over court-ordered bus­ing roiled his home state, Biden led a cru­sade against the civ­il rights mea­sure, lat­er boast­ing that he made it polit­i­cal­ly accept­able for oth­er lib­er­als to oppose it. He built alliances with Repub­li­can racists like Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.) and Sen. Strom Thur­mond (S.C.), the record-hold­er for longest fil­i­buster in his­to­ry, a 24-hour attempt to stall the Civ­il Rights Act of 1957. Dur­ing the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion, Biden, Helms and Thur­mond would help ush­er in an era of mass incar­cer­a­tion, work­ing togeth­er to estab­lish racist crack cocaine sen­tenc­ing guide­lines and harsh manda­to­ry min­i­mum drug sentences.

Biden also led the way on bud­get-slash­ing: In 1984, with Repub­li­can Sens. Chuck Grass­ley (Iowa) and Nan­cy Kasse­baum (Kan.), Biden put for­ward a bud­get freeze” that cut deficits by $100 bil­lion more than Rea­gan pro­posed and elim­i­nat­ed sched­uled increas­es to Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare. Biden also ranked among the siz­able num­ber of Democ­rats who gave their stamp of approval to sig­na­ture Rea­gan vic­to­ries like increased mil­i­tary spend­ing, pri­va­ti­za­tion and low­er tax­es for the rich.

Mean­while, Bill Clin­ton was cut­ting his teeth in this same pun­ish­ing era. In 1980, Clin­ton lost his bid for reelec­tion as gov­er­nor of Arkansas after rais­ing car license fees to fund high­way repairs and try­ing to rein in the tim­ber indus­try. The loss taught Clin­ton to eschew chal­leng­ing cor­po­rate pow­er and, instead, embrace what Arkansas Demo­c­rat-Gazette edi­to­r­i­al page edi­tor Paul Green­berg termed the pol­i­tics of ultraconsensus.”

While Clinton’s pres­i­den­cy is remem­bered as a time of par­ti­san war­fare, bipar­ti­san con­sen­sus was a qui­et fix­ture through­out. Clin­ton brought in his own per­son­al Rasputin in the form of polit­i­cal oper­a­tive Dick Mor­ris, who laid his strat­e­gy out in a memo: fast-for­ward the Gin­grich agen­da” to make Repub­li­can issues less appeal­ing” and take the wind out of their sails. Unbe­knownst to Clin­ton, Mor­ris also cre­at­ed a back chan­nel to Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Trent Lott (R‑Miss.), a for­mer client, whom he gid­di­ly told: We’ll pass everything.”

Every­thing” meant mea­sures like wel­fare reform, a bal­anced bud­get, cuts to Medicare and an immi­gra­tion over­haul that helped cre­ate the depor­ta­tion state cur­rent­ly oper­at­ed by Trump.

Biden was an impor­tant play­er in these bipar­ti­san deals. As Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry Chair under Clin­ton, Biden led the pas­sage of the infa­mous 1994 Crime Bill and worked to make sure Clin­ton would ful­fill his promise to end wel­fare as we know it.” With Repub­li­can Sen. Arlen Specter (Penn.), Biden lament­ed the polar­iz­ing par­ti­san­ship and pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics that have per­me­at­ed the issue” and insist­ed that a tough, bipar­ti­san wel­fare reform bill is eas­i­ly with­in reach.” In 1996, the Sen­ate passed wel­fare reform (what Lott described as the Holy Grail of [the GOP’s] leg­isla­tive mas­ter plan”) thanks to the votes of 51 Repub­li­cans and 23 Democrats.

These were great mon­u­ments to con­sen­sus in Wash­ing­ton,” says Thomas Frank, author of Lis­ten, Lib­er­al: Or, What Ever Hap­pened to the Par­ty of the Peo­ple? They were just down­stream of racism.”

Bipar­ti­san­ship reached its apogee after Sep­tem­ber 11, when Biden swift­ly became one of the most promi­nent Democ­rats to hitch him­self to Pres­i­dent George W. Bush’s for­eign pol­i­cy. The ter­ror­ist attacks cre­at­ed a stun­ning uni­for­mi­ty of opin­ion, and Biden, up for reelec­tion in 2002, would soon be heav­i­ly crit­i­cized in the Delaware press for a speech that appeared dovish. Biden told reporters they should count him in the 90%” of vot­ers who backed Bush. He stacked a hear­ing on Iraq with pro-war voic­es and made reg­u­lar TV appear­ances par­rot­ing the administration’s talk­ing points about the threat posed by Sad­dam Hus­sein. And, like 28 oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors, Biden vot­ed to autho­rize the war in Iraq.

In 2008, Vice Pres­i­dent Biden found a home with post­par­ti­san” Oba­ma, who, Perl­stein says, was wed­ded to the myths of con­sen­sus in a way that a lot of his sup­port­ers hadn’t real­ized at the time.”

Oba­ma had risen to star­dom with his 2004 con­ven­tion speech deny­ing the exis­tence of a red” and blue” Amer­i­ca, a feel­ing that suf­fused Demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics. Nary a 2008 pri­ma­ry debate went by with­out Sen. Hillary Clin­ton (N.Y.), for exam­ple, pledg­ing some­thing or oth­er of a bipar­ti­san nature: a bipar­ti­san process” to tack­le Social Secu­ri­ty, a bipar­ti­san way” on immi­gra­tion reform, even bipar­ti­san diplo­ma­cy” head­ed by bipar­ti­san emissaries.”

But once pres­i­dent, Repub­li­cans used Obama’s own long­ing for con­sen­sus and bipar­ti­san­ship against him,” says Frank.

Oba­ma ran aground upon a decid­ed­ly par­ti­san oppo­si­tion that took advan­tage of racist sen­ti­ments against him. He tried for months to secure min­i­mal Repub­li­can buy-in on Oba­macare so he could slap a bipar­ti­san” label on it, only for mod­er­ate” Repub­li­cans like Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) to use it as lever­age to end­less­ly delay and erode the bill. Oba­ma ramped up depor­ta­tions as a bipar­ti­san ges­ture, and the GOP con­tin­ued to obstruct immi­gra­tion reform.

Noth­ing spoke more to Obama’s futile attempt to reach com­mon ground with Repub­li­cans than his 2011 attempt at a grand bar­gain” on cut­ting the deficit. Biden was dis­patched to nego­ti­ate with a rad­i­cal­ly anti-tax, anti-gov­ern­ment GOP. He capit­u­lat­ed to every Repub­li­can demand, includ­ing cuts to food stamps, Medicare and Social Secu­ri­ty, while agree­ing to rule out new tax­es. Iron­i­cal­ly, it was only thanks to the Tea Partiers’ obsti­na­cy that the deal did not pass.

The pub­lic was not so lucky in 2010, when Biden made a deal with Sen. McConnell to extend unem­ploy­ment insur­ance in exchange for extend­ing the Bush tax cuts and cut­ting the estate tax. The deal was so lop­sided that it out­raged even con­ser­v­a­tive Democ­rats like Sen. Dianne Fein­stein (Calif.) and prompt­ed an eight-hour fil­i­buster by Bernie Sanders. Two months lat­er, in the midst of affec­tion­ate­ly pay­ing trib­ute to McConnell at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville’s McConnell Cen­ter (named for the sen­a­tor), Biden point­ed to the deal as the only tru­ly bipar­ti­san event that occurred in the first two years of our administration.”

We both got beat up, but we knew we were doing the right thing,” Biden said. The process worked.”

He explained to the audi­ence that, whether they were lib­er­als, con­ser­v­a­tives, Tea Partiers or Blue Dogs, lit­tle actu­al­ly divid­ed mem­bers of Congress.

We basi­cal­ly all agree on the nature of the prob­lems we face,” Biden said, as McConnell, lead­ing a his­tor­i­cal­ly rad­i­cal cam­paign of obstruc­tion­ism against the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, looked on.

A con­tin­u­ing faith in com­pro­mise may well be the last gasp of a dying era.

A lot of the things that made bipar­ti­san­ship sound attrac­tive are now ves­ti­gial,” Perl­stein says. Like a lot of neu­roses, it was a response that was use­ful for deal­ing with trau­ma that was present and impor­tant at the time, but has out­last­ed its usefulness.”

Or, as Robin says, bipar­ti­san­ship is a mourn­ing for a neolib­er­al accord between Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can par­ty elites.”

Today’s Democ­rats increas­ing­ly rec­og­nize the fol­ly of seek­ing pro­gres­sive change by part­ner­ing with a GOP that’s fun­da­men­tal­ly opposed to it. A new gen­er­a­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers is tak­ing a com­bat­ive, unflinch­ing­ly pro­gres­sive approach rem­i­nis­cent of the 1979 class of fresh­men GOP leg­is­la­tors that includ­ed Gingrich.

As Oca­sio-Cortez told jour­nal­ist Ryan Grim, The old­er mem­bers real­ly cling to the idea that things are going to go back to nor­mal’ [after Trump]. For us, it’s nev­er been nor­mal, and before that, the bipar­ti­san­ship was shit­ty any­way and gave us the War on Drugs, [the Defense of Mar­riage Act] and strip­ping the leg[islative] branch of everything.”

These young pro­gres­sives are backed by social move­ments whose adher­ents have no desire to coop­er­ate with nativists and cor­po­ratists. Togeth­er, they are seek­ing to remake the exist­ing gov­ern­ing con­sen­sus in their image, just as Rea­gan man­aged to do four decades pri­or. The irony is, they’d be fol­low­ing the Right’s own road to success.

The rise of the Right is the clos­est thing we have to an exam­ple of a polit­i­cal suc­cess sto­ry in our time in Amer­i­ca, and it was large­ly achieved by smash­ing con­sen­sus,” Frank says.

But MacLean warns it would be a mis­take to believe that obstruc­tion­ism alone is a path to vic­to­ry. The rad­i­cal Right is win­ning now because its chief archi­tects played a very sophis­ti­cat­ed, well-fund­ed, inte­grat­ed long game and built a vast infra­struc­ture that is well-aligned to achieve their agen­da,” MacLean says.

For inspi­ra­tion, today’s pro­gres­sives might look back to the anti-slav­ery move­ment, which went from a rel­a­tive­ly small band of uncom­pro­mis­ing, rad­i­cal” activists to con­trol­ling the pres­i­den­cy and Congress. 

Abo­li­tion­ists were nev­er any­where near a major­i­ty in the North or any­where else,” says Eric Fon­er, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. They were a vanguard.”

Abo­li­tion­ists worked at both the grass­roots and offi­cial lev­els to enact change, whether through leg­is­la­tion and court deci­sions or direct action and edu­ca­tion. They made pio­neer­ing use of cut­ting-edge tech­nol­o­gy such as the print­ing press, the rail­road and the telegram to spread their mes­sage. Their efforts helped lead Abra­ham Lin­coln to dras­ti­cal­ly shift his think­ing, jet­ti­son­ing ideas like grad­ual eman­ci­pa­tion and instead embrac­ing black citizenship. 

Abo­li­tion­ists and rad­i­cals were able to shift the pen­du­lum to the left, and were able to make mod­er­ates inhab­it rad­i­cal ground,” says Sin­ha. In the end, it wasn’t the abo­li­tion­ists who abol­ished slav­ery,” Fon­er says. It was more mod­er­ate peo­ple like Abra­ham Lin­coln. But with­out the abo­li­tion­ists, there’s no Lin­coln. There’s a sym­bi­ot­ic relationship.”

Polit­i­cal shifts require years of move­ment build­ing, but change ulti­mate­ly hap­pens sud­den­ly. Thir­ty years after the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment took off, there were near­ly 2 mil­lion more slaves in the Unit­ed States. Three years lat­er, Lin­coln issued the Eman­ci­pa­tion Proclamation. 

The abo­li­tion­ist move­ment last­ed for a long, long time, and for a long time failed abysmal­ly,” Fon­er says. Rad­i­cals have to not give up.”

The time is look­ing ripe for anoth­er hege­mon­ic shift. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has sparked a wave of polit­i­cal activism and orga­niz­ing by Amer­i­cans pre­vi­ous­ly dis­en­gaged from pol­i­tics. A bevy of social­ist intel­lec­tu­al organs and fig­ures have risen to new­found promi­nence, their argu­ments cit­ed by main­stream news out­lets and shared quick­ly and eas­i­ly over the inter­net, much like the cheap, ephemer­al books and mag­a­zines passed around by con­ser­v­a­tives in the mid-20th Cen­tu­ry. Work­ers are show­ing a renewed mil­i­tan­cy, from the teach­ers who went on strike in red states across the coun­try to the flight atten­dants who helped end the gov­ern­ment shut­down in January.

Polls sug­gest the pub­lic has moved left, sup­port­ing every­thing from Medicare for All and the Green New Deal to a much high­er min­i­mum wage. Even as Trump stokes a racist anti-immi­grant cam­paign, polling shows a pub­lic more pro-immi­grant than ever.

Repub­li­cans will demo­nize these move­ments. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment will try to ignore them. But as the ranks of today’s rad­i­cals grow, and the more a con­cert­ed move­ment to remake the coun­try expands, the hard­er it will be for even the most com­mit­ted cen­trists to hew to their vision of con­sen­sus. As Biden told the audi­ence at the McConnell Cen­ter eight years ago: Real­i­ty has a way of intrud­ing on one’s tight­ly held view.”

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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