In the US, as in the UK and Spain, a resurgent left has been blocked from gaining control of the levers of state by the presumed-dead establishment of a center-left party. After winning millions of votes in the primary, the left can claim a portion of the mandate granted to Joe Biden by a record 75,000,000 voters in the general election. But the Democratic establishment’s successful (albeit late) counter-insurgency campaign against Bernie Sanders effectively means the left enters into government as the junior partner with neoliberals.
Rather than look at our current position as a refutation of the left’s push into electoral politics, it should be considered a beachhead to continue the battle of taking over the Democratic Party from the left. Justice Democrats and Sunrise efforts to elect new members of Congress have been wildly successful: Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Marie Newman and Mondaire Jones have been added to the Squad, though reinforcements are needed. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is undergoing a transformation that could make it into a much more robust source of power.
The left is also winning the battle for popular opinion on issue after issue. Neoliberals hold onto the presidency, the majority of Congress and the key positions of power within the Democratic Party. But they have no ideas capable of addressing the scale of the crises generated by Covid-19: millions of Americans are out of work, on the brink of homelessness or going hungry, or at risk of falling ill without healthcare. Historic rates of federal spending are necessary in the short term to get people back to work, and in the long run to shift to a sustainable energy economy.
With Biden in the White House, the left now has abundant opportunities to propose solutions bigger than the means-tested, privately run programs of the president-elect has proposed. The establishment will fight to water down our ideas, and attempt to take the credit when they pass, but it will be clear to voters whose vision of society is capable of improving people’s lives. Like Podemos in Spain, we must simultaneously propose an alternative to neoliberals and work with them to show we’re capable of governance.
In a House of Representatives with a shrunken Democratic majority, progressive members of Congress could form a voting bloc that negotiates with House leadership to ensure our priorities make it through Congress. Only once we’re capable of saying to “no” as a bloc will we get to “yes” from the administration.
However, a GOP-held Senate means the white supremacist plurality has an effective veto over federal policy, and dooms most progressive priorities to Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard. It is possible Democrats end up winning both run-offs in Georgia, in which case we will be able to get legislative business done. But if not, the left – and Democrats as a whole – will have to work primarily through the executive branch. The possibility of protracted gridlock amidst economic and medical crises vastly increases the likelihood of an ongoing constitutional crisis.
That’s why the left must also push for a new political system. It’s a sad fact that America has not completed the process of building a democracy for all its citizens. The left needs to wage war on the anti-democratic aspects of the constitution that make it impossible for the popular will to become law. The current proposals on offer for democratic reform – adding states to the Senate, reforming or expanding the Supreme Court, or instituting public funding of elections – are the equivalent of Obamacare: meaningful reforms in the right direction, but vastly short of what’s needed.
The left should be proposing reforms that would make it possible for America’s increasingly progressive majority to govern: abolishing the Senate, electoral college and first-past-the-post single-member districts that create the two-party system. While these procedural reforms can feel a bit less sexy than big-ticket items like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, we will only be able to achieve our movement’s goals if we create a new political system that’s not the result of compromises with slaveholders. We should be thinking about what it would take to rewrite the constitution in the early 2030s, so we can have a government that represents the interests of working people.
These next two years will be the opening battles in a decade-long war to take control of the government and construct a new common sense that sees public programs as the solution to private problems. We need dozens more AOCs, Ilhan Omars and Cori Bushes to lead the way. For that to be possible, we need more leftist campaign operatives, labour unions and candidates. Like the New Right following Richard Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, leftists should gird ourselves for a decade of institution-building, coalition-forming and majority-creating.
Max Berger is a co-founder of the Momentum Trainings, a social movement training institute that helped launch the Sunrise Movement, and IfNotNow, a Jewish-American movement to end our community’s support for the occupation of Palestine. He’s worked for the Working Families Party, Justice Democrats and Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.