Building the US Left Beyond Reactionary Republicans and Tepid Democrats
The chaos surrounding the 2020 election and the end of Donald Trump’s presidency was so intense, and so deeply unsettling to the broad spectrum of Americans who were terrified by Trump’s turn toward authoritarianism, that it briefly united the warring factions of the Democratic Party. There was widespread agreement that Trump, having incited a crowd of his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an effort to overturn the results of an election he’d lost, had to be held to account. Every member of the House Democratic Caucus, from corporate-aligned centrists such as Scott Peters of California and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey to democratic socialists such as Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, voted to impeach Trump. Every member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, from Wall Street-aligned West Virginian Joe Manchin to billionaire-bashing Vermonter Senator Bernie Sanders, voted to convict the former president of high crimes and misdemeanors.
But unity in opposition to Trump is very different from unity of purpose within the Democratic Party, which at this point is the primary vehicle for thwarting a Republican Party that grows ever more extreme by the day. Progressives who work inside the Democratic Party, and in the movements that seek to pressure both parties to across economic and social and racial justice issues, recognize that President Joe Biden is more amenable to their goals than was Trump.
That does not, however, make the Democrats the left.
This is a problem for the American left, as became increasingly evident in the year following the 2020 election that gave Democrats control of the White House, as well as narrow majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Democrats had power, but they often failed to establish the level of unity that was needed to exercise it. And when they did, on domestic and foreign policy issues, they often frustrated progressives. Torturously long and complicated negotiations between the Biden administration and more conservative Democrats, such as West Virginia’s Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, revealed that, while a Democratic president can propose boldly progressive initiatives, that does not necessarily mean that the party has the ideological coherence to deliver on those promises.
This is not just a problem in Washington. Off-year election contests in 2021 for local and state posts across the country have confirmed deep lines of division within the party that will continue to be mirrored in the 2022 mid-term elections that are to decide whether Democrats retain control of the Congress.
The divide is so profound that, during the 2020 presidential campaign, Ocasio-Cortez observed, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” She is, of course, correct with regards to her own circumstance. AOC’s willingness to identify as a democratic socialist and her emphasis on promoting a Green New Deal to address climate change, on gender equity and racial justice, on dialing down militarism and imperialism, would very probably place her in the camp of the The Left caucus in the European Parliament, or of the New Democrats in Canada’s Parliament.
But there is an even broader truth that extends from the congresswoman’s assertion, and that needs to be understood in any assessment of the position of the left in contemporary American politics. For the most part, the left operates within a Democratic Party that is led by people who do not embrace movement ideals—let alone act upon them.
A System That Forces the Left Into the Democratic Fold
In most western democracies, the left would regroup outside the Democratic fold and position itself as an influential coalition partner or an opposition force competing for power in its own name. But that’s not easily done in the United States.
While there are small left-wing parties that challenge the two-party system in the U.S.–the Greens and the historic Socialist Party of early 20th-century firebrand Eugene Victor Debs, the Socialist Alternative movement that is associated with Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and various other groupings–their combined vote in the 2020 presidential election was barely 500,000 out of more than 158 million ballots cast. Left-wing third parties hold no seats in the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House, they hold no governorships in the states and they hold no mayoralties of major cities. They are rarely covered in the media, excluded from debates and often viewed as “spoilers” who might draw votes away from Democratic candidates in tight races—as many believe was the case when votes for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in 2016 exceeded the margin by which Democrat Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in the battleground states that gave the presidency to the Republican. The casual dismissal of left-wing third parties is unfair to sincere activists who work within them and who point out the considerable deficiencies of both major parties. In particular, it neglects the vital work that these parties do in solidarity with local labor unions and grassroots activists in the Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights and environmental movements. But this lack of power and influence is a reality that shapes the electoral and movement politics of a country in which election rules and media bias favor a narrowly-defined two-party system and the governance that extends from it.
As a result, progressive activists who at several points in the 20th century entertained hopes of operating outside the Democratic Party have been inclined in recent decades to work within it. They do so both in hopes of winning power for the left, and of influencing those in power to implement left-wing proposals. These progressives have had notable, if inconsistent, success in both regards.
The entry of the left into the Democratic Party is not a new phenomenon. Since the defeat of former Vice President Henry Wallace’s effort to build an independent, multi-racial, multi-ethnic party of the left in the 1948 election, progressives have more often than not found themselves battling for the soul of the Democratic Party. They have prevailed in some instances, as when President Lyndon Johnson embraced the civil rights movement in the 1960s and when South Dakota Senator George McGovern won the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination with an anti-Vietnam War message.
But for the most part, they have struggled on the periphery, electing individual activists such as U.S. House members Shirley Chisholm and Ron Dellums and U.S. Senators such as Paul Wellstone and Bernie Sanders, and influencing debates about individual policies, from victories for the environmental movement and the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s to wins for marriage equality and health care reform in the 2010s. While it is satisfying to point to evidence of progress, it is necessary to acknowledge that left-ward shifts in the direction of the party and the nation have invariably been met with backlash and retrenchment. Ralph Nader, the consumer activist who waged presidential runs on the Green Party line in the 1990s and early 2000s, once explained to me that, while you could count on some Democrats at some times, you could not count on the Democratic Party to be a consistent force for economic and social and racial justice, let alone for reigning in fossil fuel companies and the military-industrial complex. Ultimately, Nader argued, “The only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is the velocities with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door.”
For much of the post-World War II era, the primary venue for the left’s activism has been in the streets—marching and organizing for civil rights and women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, opposing illegal and immoral wars, rallying to support the struggles of labor unions and, more recently, mobilizing on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement and its calls for reform of policing in a country where unarmed young Black men are regularly shot and killed by the cops. These movements have achieved progress, confirming the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s faith that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But the slowness with which it bends, even when supposedly sympathetic Democrats hold power, has led to a renewed fight to make the Democratic Party more than just a muddled assemblage of every ideological stream that cannot find a place in the Republican Party.
Bernie Sanders’s Political Revolution
That was the essential theme of the campaigns that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders waged for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020. Sanders failed in both years, yet his were the most successful left-wing bids for control of the party since McGovern’s 1972 campaign and the “Rainbow Coalition” projects of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. Sanders’s 2016 campaign against the choice of the Democratic establishment, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, proposed nothing short of a “political revolution.” The proud democratic socialist who had for decades operated on the fringe of American politics—as the independent congressman and then U.S. Senator from one of the country’s smallest states—invited Democrats and independents who were on the left “to think outside of the box, (to) understand that the limitations that the establishment imposes on our thinking of what we can or cannot accomplish is nonsense, that we can do far, far more.”
Clinton ridiculed Sanders as a utopian dreamer, but his proposals to establish a European-style social welfare state proved to be immensely popular. Starting with barely three percent support in the polls, the left-wing senator ended up winning 23 Democratic primaries and caucuses in 2016. He secured 13.2 million votes nationwide in, and went to the Democratic National Convention in July of that year with 1,865 delegates (out of 4,763)—the largest delegate total secured by an insurgent challenger in modern times.
Those statistics provided only a minimal measure of his success. The real measure came after the campaign was done, when the supporters of the senator’s candidacy remained active in the Democratic Party and, in many instances, became candidates themselves. In short order, they occupied seats in the Congress, statehouses and city halls across the country as Democrats who often identified as bold progressives and, in many cases, as socialists.
The Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020 should not be understood as the isolated projects of an individual contender. They were movement campaigns that, while the senator failed to win the nomination or the presidency, succeeded in altering the ideological trajectory of the party and, perhaps, the nation. Sanders embraced activists and activism. He joined labor union picket lines. He called out corporate polluters. He defended racial-justice campaigners who demanded that elected leaders address systemic racism in policy, education and housing policy. Above all, he amplified the ideas of movements that has been working for years to get a hearing in national debates—arguing for health care as a right, free college, a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a meaningful response to the climate crisis. Sanders said when he finished his 2020 bid that “a new vision for America is what our campaign has been about and what, in fact, we have accomplished.” Linking his two campaigns as a coherent multi-year project, the senator argued, “Few would deny that over the course of the past five years, our movement has won the ideological struggle. In so-called red states and blue states and purple states, a majority of the American people now understand that we must raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, that we must guarantee health care as a right to all of our people, that we must transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, and that higher education must be available to all, regardless of income.”
That may sound boastful, but the data is on the senator’s side. “Today’s Democratic Party is very different from the party that nominated Bill Clinton 28 years ago. It is more liberal and more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before, and more united on essentials than at any time in its recent history,” observed The Wall Street Journal, when reviewing the results of recent polling on the ideological. “In 1994, Gallup reports, self-described moderates made up half the party, liberals and conservatives a quarter each. Today, liberals are half the party and moderates a bit more than one-third, conservatives only 14 percent. By contrast, conservatives already dominated the Republican Party in the 1990s—about 60 percent of its voters compared with a bit more than 70 percent today. The content of these ideological labels has changed over three decades. But Democrats’ center of gravity has shifted far more than the Republicans’.”
Just a quarter century ago, a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed legislation that shredded social-welfare protections for children, undid regulations on Wall Street speculation and blocked marriage equality for lesbians and gays. Today, a Democratic president, Joe Biden, champions $300 per child a month tax credits for low-income families as a tool for combatting poverty, appoints anti-monopoly campaigners to regulatory commissions and has chosen openly-gay married man to serve as his Secretary of Transportation. So a lot has changed. Biden was once an ideological soulmate of Clinton; now he meets on a regular basis with Sanders and adopts the Vermonter’s policies frequently enough that the right-wing editorialists gripe about how the country is being run by “President Sanders.”
Biden is an Old-School, and Often Caution, Democrat
But Biden is not Sanders, and the Democratic Party is a far cry from the socialist cabal that conservative commentators imagine—even if 76 percent of Democrats now say, according to a 2020 Gallup survey, that they would be more than happy to vote for a socialist president.
Biden is an old-school Democrat who served 36 years as a business-friendly U.S. Senator from the tiny, business-friendly state of Delaware, and then eight years as Barack Obama’s loyal vice president. He values the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and is sympathetic with labor unions. But Republican attempts to attach the “radical” label to “Uncle Joe” are laughable. While Sanders says billionaires shouldn’t exist, Biden declares, “I don’t want to punish anyone’s success. I’m a capitalist.”
Biden is a consummate Washington insider who has a long history of being inclined to compromise in order to achieve a little rather than to fight for a lot. That’s become painfully obvious during the negotiations over Biden’s domestic agenda. While Sanders and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus wanted a $6 trillion plan that would create the framework for a social-welfare state, with huge investments in health care, education, anti-poverty programs and climate justice, Biden said that $3.5 trillion was as far as he would go.
That was still a substantial figure, and Sanders, now serving as the influential chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, set out to develop a plan that made the most of what he told me was “a historic opportunity to show the American people that government can work.” Progressives were on the inside of the process, and Sanders and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—many of them veterans of grassroots movements who were suddenly in positions of power—embraced the opportunity with a sense of mission and responsibility. Perhaps too much responsibility. Instead of pressuring Biden from the left, they became the primary defenders of the president’s “Build Back Better” agenda, fighting harder than the president himself to advance it.
Progressives compromised again and again during this process. They did not demand that a newly-elected Democratic president establish a Medicare for All program national health care program, that he implement a Green New Deal or to tax billionaires out of existence via the reconciliation process. After backing off their initial proposal for spending as much at least $6 trillion to address economic inequality in the United States, along with a climate crisis and the challenges of transitioning to a 21st-century economy, they settled for the $3.5 trillion plan that Biden and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate assured them was doable.
Sanders and his allies agreed to legislative strategies that paired a bipartisan infrastructure plan that was a pet project of conservative Democrats and many Republicans with the $3.5 trillion social spending plan for care of the elderly and people with disabilities, paid family and medical leave, investments to child poverty, free community college and a robust response to the threat of environmental catastrophe.
Progressives negotiated in good faith as the two most conservative and corporate-friendly members of the Senate Democratic Caucus—Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—abandoned past commitments and demanded that Biden downsize the plan. The Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP), a key climate initiative that would have used a combination of incentives and mandates to get utilities to embrace renewable energy, was jettisoned to appease the coal industry in which Manchin and his campaign donors were heaving invested. A proposal to reduce prescription drug prices was dumbed down at the behest of Sinema, who has become the pharmaceutical industry’s new favorite senator. A proposal for paid family and medical leave was scrapped. So too were hugely-popular proposals to expand Medicare coverage to include vision and dental care.
The ambitious $3.5 trillion plan of late summer had by Halloween withered to a $1.75 trillion proposal. It was still expected to include many commendable initiatives: free and universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, expanded Medicaid coverage for home care services for seniors and people with disabilities, an enhanced child tax credit to fight poverty, $150 billion for affordable housing, a surtax on billionaires and a minimum tax for corporations. But progressives suddenly found themselves fighting for a fraction of what they had initially proposed.
Asking for Too Little, Too Late
Only at the critical final stages of the long process of Democrats negotiating with Democrats, when Biden was proposing a “framework” for a plan that lacked details or commitments from Manchin and Sinema, did progressives pull the brakes. Sanders signaled that he and House members would not commit to back the Biden plan until they were assured that there would be no more concessions to senators on the party’s right flank. That was good, but hardly inspiring. Instead of playing hardball, the progressives were merely asking for clarity. And it wasn’t just the politicians in Washington. Activist groups on the left and progressive unions were so wrapped up in the process that they found themselves pushing to fill in Biden’s framework, rather than to build something bigger and better.
“Over the last year, progressives in Congress have played a crucial role keeping the Build Back Better Act on track, even in the face of a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign by big business to kill it in its cradle,” announced a late October statement from dozens of progressive groups in the U.S., including the Working Families Party, Justice Democrats, Greenpeace USA, the National Organization for Women, Our Revolution and People’s Action. It called for “holding firm” in order to negotiate “the strongest package possible.”
That wasn’t exactly a call to the barricades on behalf of the radical change that was needed in the aftermath of a pandemic that cost more than 700,000 lives and left millions of Americans in economically unstable and insecure circumstances. And it certainly was not the rallying cry for the transformative agenda that might meet the overwhelming challenges posed by a widening gap between rich and poor, a narrowing window in which to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and 400 years of unmet cries for justice from Black Americans.
A Legacy of Democratic Compromises
This is not the first time that the left has gotten so wrapped up in trying to help a Democratic president succeed on his terms that it has failed to create the pressure needed to push that president to take necessary and popular steps on the terms of movements for social change. That doesn’t just undermine the left’s broader agenda, it actually undermines Democratic prospects in a fight against increasingly right-wing and reactionary Republicans. And it has happened again and again over the past 50 years.
When President Jimmy Carter took office after the 1976 election, ending eight years of chaotic Republican governance under Republican President’s Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, everything seemed possible. Democrats controlled not just the White House but the Congress. Yet, Carter governed cautiously, refusing to follow the urging of Senator Ted Kennedy and left-leaning unions to respond to recessionary times by making Keynsian investments in job creation, health care, education and infrastructure. Two years into Carter’s presidency, Democrats lost three key US Senate seats and 15 House seats, in a result that weakened the president’s hand and set the stage for the 1980 election in which Carter lost to Ronald Reagan and the US Senate flipped to the Republicans.
Years of rebuilding brought Democrats back to power in 1992, when they again secured control of the White House and the Congress. Unfortunately, President Clinton was a “New Democrat” who worked with Wall Street to implement a “free-trade” agenda that was opposed by the working-class voters who had remained loyal to the party since Franklin Roosevelt’s time. He preached that “the era of big government is over,” and ultimately dismantled social welfare protections and business regulations that had been established by FDR’s New Deal. In 1994, Republicans picked up eight seats in the Senate and 54 seats in the House, gaining complete control of Congress for the first time since 1952. Clinton spent the next six years deferring to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and increasingly conservative Republicans. Then, in 2000, the Democrats lost the presidency (albeit Al Gore won a majority of votes).
After the disastrous Bush-Cheney years, Democrats regained power in 2008, again controlling the presidency and Congress. Yet, a tepid response to a housing crisis and mass unemployment during the Great Recession gave Republicans a 2010 midterm opening to gain 63 seats in the House and take control of the chamber. By 2014, the Senate had flipped as well, and Barack Obama finished his presidency in a circumstance so diminished that he could not get a hearing for his final Supreme Court nominee. In 2016, voters handed Republicans full control of the government, as Donald Trump assumed the presidency.
Trump governed so destructively that voters turned against him and his party. But the United States remains deeply divided along partisan and ideological lines. Yes, Biden won. But Trump won more than 74 million votes in 2020, the second highest total for any presidential candidate in the country’s history. A shift of less than 50,000 votes in key states would have given him an Electoral College majority and the ability to remain in office. The Senate is split 50-50 and Democrats only control it because Vice President Kamala Harris breaks ties on their side. A slim majority of under ten seats allows Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to remain in charge of the lower chamber.
It is not unrealistic to suggest that, if Democrats fail to deliver of the promises of 2020, an uninspired electorate might fail to deliver for the Democrats in 2022. In such a circumstance, the mid-term elections of the coming year could give control of the House and Senate back to the Republicans. If that happens, the determination of the Republicans to regain power at any cost, as has already been evidenced by their efforts to overturn the results of the last presidential election, and by their transparent efforts to make it harder for people of color and the young to participate in future elections, 2024 could see the return of Donald Trump to the White House.
Building an Alternative to the Politics of Compromise and Concession
This has created a perilous dynamic for the left. Activists know Democrats should be doing more to alleviate the pain that millions of Americans are suffering, and to move the country in a progressive direction. Yet, they are cautious about attacking a president and a party that are the alternative to Trump and Trumpism. As a result, marches, rallies and street protests on behalf of an explicitly left-wing agenda are relatively rare and muted in their demands. So, too, is the alternative politics that might push the administration in a bolder direction. In a robust multi-party democracy, left-wing voters could back Green or socialist parties that might put pressure on the Democrats—either from inside or outside a coalition government. But the U.S. doesn’t work that way.
So the left once again finds itself fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party, a party that is heavily reliant on corporate money to run its campaigns and that is burdened with politically cautious and uninspired leadership. The question is whether this time–at a point when polling shows that progressive ideas are more popular than ever, when young activists are building Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement into powerful political forces, and when the need to present bold governing alternatives in order to set off an increasingly fascistic right is undebatable–the left can prevail.
The messages from 2021 are mixed. Centrist Eric Adams, a former police officer who criticized leftists for proposing to defund the police, prevailed over a fractured field of progressive contenders in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary in June. Adams promptly attacked DSA, declaring that, “I’m no longer running against candidates. I’m running against a movement.” Weeks later, however, Boston’s Michelle Wu, a dynamic young progressive allied with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, topped her city’s mayoral primary after building a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition in support of police reforms, racial justice and a comprehensive response to the climate crisis that has become an urgent issue for east coast cities. Candidates backed by Democratic Socialists of America won critical primaries in Buffalo and other cities, and DSA members now hold more than 80 local posts, as well as 40 state legislative seats and four House Democratic Caucus spots at the federal level. Hundreds of other progressives, who don’t identify as socialists but who stand on the left side of the political spectrum, serve with them. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has more than 95 members.
That’s a foundation from which to build. But the pace has to pick up if there is going to be any chance of making the Democratic Party into a genuine vehicle for achieving left-wing goals. That makes the 2022 mid-term elections critical. Already, several dozen young leftists—and a few older ones—are mounting congressional campaigns with support from DSA, Justice Democrats and organizations such as MoveOn, Democracy for America and a group that extends from the Sanders campaign, Our Revolution. But their numbers will have to expand exponentially if there is to by any hope for transforming the party’s leadership into a reflection of its increasingly leftist base.
Despite the frustrations of the first year of Biden’s presidency, Sanders has not given up on the hope for a political revolution. Why should he? He and his supporters have moved the politics of the Democratic Party and the country further to the left than all but the most idealistic activists would have imagined possible before he entered the 2016 president race. And he has seen the young people who joined his campaign emerge as the most dynamic force in the party. Several years ago, I hosted a podcast, Next Left, where I interviewed newly-elected members of Congress, state legislatures and city councils across the country. Invariably, the young elected officials I spoke with said things like what Chicago City Council member Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez told me after she won in 2019 as a democratic socialist. “I think that Bernie was successful in putting that out there,” she said. “And then that opened the path for many of us to be able to run for office.” When I told Sanders about that conversation, he was delighted. “During 2016,” he said, “I think there was not a speech that I gave which did not say to the young people, to the people who were there, to working people who were there: Get involved in the political process; run for office, whether it is school board, legislature, city council, Congress, whatever it may be.”
“I get all over the country and I get tremendous satisfaction out of going to some rally and somebody comes up and says, ‘Bernie, I ran for school board and I won.” “I’m on the city council and I won.’ That is fantastic,” he said. “That is part of the political revolution, absolutely.”
The question for Sanders and for the whole of the American left is whether the Democratic Party can be changed. If it can, then surely this is the time to wage the greatest fight for the party’s soul in its history. If it cannot, then it is not just the left but the whole of the United States—and perhaps the world—that is imperiled by a failing two-party system in which the alternative is Donald Trump.
John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and the author of the new book The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics (Verso).