Current Affairs

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The Left Keeps Warning You That Centrist Democrats Are A Disaster

We warned about Hillary Clinton. We warned about Joe Biden. It’s time to listen to the Sanders wing of the party.

The New York Times reports that top Democratic officials are privately growing worried about Joe Biden’s reelection chances and considering the possibility that he shouldn’t run at all:

[T]he repeated failures of [Biden’s] administration to pass big-ticket legislation on signature Democratic issues, as well as his halting efforts to use the bully pulpit of the White House to move public opinion, have left the president with sagging approval ratings and a party that, as much as anything, seems to feel sorry for him. That has left Democratic leaders struggling to explain away a series of calamities for the party that all seem beyond Mr. Biden’s control: inflation rates unseen in four decades, surging gas prices, a lingering pandemic, a spate of mass shootings, a Supreme Court poised to end the federal right to an abortion, and key congressional Democrats’ refusal to muscle through the president’s Build Back Better agenda or an expansion of voting rights.

The Times quotes former Obama adviser David Axelrod saying that Biden “looks his age and isn’t as agile in front of a camera as he once was,” though Axelrod insists the public’s low opinion of Biden is unfair. From Feb. 2021 to May 2022, Biden’s approval rating plummeted from 61% to 39%. In other words, in a single year in office, Biden managed to turn over 20% of the country against him who were positively disposed toward him when he came into office. The Times also provides evidence that top party officials are floundering and have no idea what to do. Biden is getting more and more unpopular, and Democrats need to turn public opinion around, but their ideas so far are things like trying to use the Jan. 6 hearings to distract voters who “have been more focused on inflation and gas prices.” (I have already written about why I think this is a doomed and stupid idea.) 

The Times report paints a picture of a party that understands it is failing, but that has no idea what to do in order to turn its fortunes around. Some officials are quoted as saying that Biden needs to tell a better story, or needs to do more to show the American people the administration’s accomplishments. 

But for those of us on the left, Biden’s unpopularity is no mystery. Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic wrote an article in 2019 arguing that Biden was “uniquely ill-suited as a leader in the current moment. In Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, Marcetic documented Biden’s lifelong commitment to a dated brand of centrist politics. Throughout his political career, Biden has shown “a seemingly congenital aversion to anything that smacks of populism.” Marcetic warned that the “only thing that could be more harmful [than a Joe Biden candidacy] is a Joe Biden presidency,” because “such a disillusioning presidency could subsequently pave the way for a far-right populist even more virulent—and competent—than Trump.” I myself did a YouTube video in 2019 called “Why Joe Biden Would Be a HORRIBLE President.” We are now seeing unfold precisely what Marcetic predicted: Biden is living up to the promise he made to rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he was elected. Biden’s poll numbers from inauguration day until today show millions of people steadily becoming disillusioned, and it is indeed paving the way for a far-right populist presidency, if not a second Trump term then perhaps a Ron DeSantis or Tom Cotton presidency.

What a disaster. Of course, it didn’t need to be that way. We leftists pointed out in 2016 and 2020 that the Democrats did not need to run centrist candidates whose idea of “pragmatism” is to do absolutely nothing and then complain that voters are insufficiently appreciative of them. We had Bernie Sanders, whose clear agenda targeted at the material needs of working people gave him the ability to appeal to supporters of Donald Trump. I think it’s quite clear that if Bernie Sanders had been the 2016 nominee he would have beaten Trump. Polling after the fact showed independent voters “favored Sanders over Trump, 55 percent to 45 percent,” while Hillary Clinton “lost independents 48 percent to 42 percent.” This would have spared us the four-year nightmare of Trump’s presidency. But as bad as it was that Hillary was defeated, an unpopular Hillary presidency could have led us to precisely the same place: a disillusioned Democratic party and an emboldened, energized right.

I didn’t think Biden would beat Donald Trump at all, and suggested that nominating him was a very bad idea. Without hundreds of thousands of people dying of coronavirus thanks to Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic, heavily damaging Trump’s approval rating, Biden probably wouldn’t have squeaked in. Many Democrats, eager to believe that Biden’s victory showed Biden’s strengths had been underrated, rather than being reflective of the unique conditions of the pandemic, began to delude themselves into thinking Biden would be the next Franklin Roosevelt, asking questions like “Can Biden Join FDR And LBJ In The Democratic Party’s Pantheon?” But Biden has been an ineffectual leader who could not discipline senate Democrats into voting for his signature piece of legislation and has failed to articulate a clear vision for the country or solve some of the most pressing problems facing Americans.

The good news is that Democrats are not, in fact, doomed to oblivion. There has always been a clear alternative for the party: economic progressivism. Bernie Sanders, warning Democrats that they need to turn the ship around fast to stop Republicans, has laid out a clear agenda for the party that can answer the question Americans may have of “What will the Democratic Party do for me?” Sanders says the platform should be built around: 

  • Raising the minimum wage to “a living wage”
  • Establishing affordable childcare
  • Setting up universal pre-K
  • Expand Medicare so it covers dental, hearing, and vision benefits
  • Jobs program through a Green New Deal
  • Student loan forgiveness

Sanders argues that Biden should distance himself from the corporate Democrats who have thwarted his agenda (Manchin, Sinema) and make clear that they are the enemy and are preventing Americans from having nice things. 

I also think Democrats would do well to embrace the 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights laid out by Harvey Kaye and Alan Minsky, available at Progressive Democrats of America. Kaye and Minsky argue that Democrats need a compelling story of how the party is going to serve the needs of ordinary people, and suggest that the party draws from the plans for an economic bill of rights floated by FDR and Martin Luther King, Jr. Such a proposal would guarantee: 

  1. A useful job that pays a living wage.
  2. A voice in the workplace through a union and collective bargaining.
  3. Comprehensive quality health care.
  4. Complete cost-free public education and access to broadband internet.
  5. Decent, safe, affordable housing.
  6. A clean environment and a healthy planet.
  7. A meaningful endowment of resources at birth, and a secure retirement.
  8. Sound banking and financial services.
  9. An equitable and economically fair justice system.
  10. Recreation and participation in civic and democratic life.

Kaye and Minsky point out that these are not just abstract ideals. Each one corresponds to proposed legislation that progressives in Congress have already authored. The right to a useful job (#1) is guaranteed by Ayanna Pressley’s resolution for a federal jobs guarantee. The right to a voice in the workplace (#2) would be furthered by the PRO Act, and the right to comprehensive healthcare (#3) by Medicare For All. For each of these rights, there is existing legislation pending. 

Kaye and Minsky argue that Democrats need a progressive economic platform that will be clear to the public and will constitute an argument for voting for Democrats. I am far from the first to observe that the party too often relies on the argument that Republicans are horrible as its core case for voting Democratic. It’s a somewhat effective argument, because Republicans are horrible, and one feels ethically compelled to do almost anything to keep the far right out of power. But it is incapable of generating enthusiasm for the Democratic Party when Democrats actually succeed in getting into office, it produces failures like the Biden presidency, and leaves a gaping hole where there should be an answer to the question of “What has the party done for us?”

Bernie Sanders has consistently shown what the Democratic Party could be if its leaders were willing to abandon neoliberalism and embrace a basic social democratic agenda. I still feel that Sanders-style politics are the only possible route forward. The calamities of the Clinton candidacy and the Biden presidency show that there is no choice but to recognize that Bernie has the only possible blueprint for how the party can avoid oblivion and recapture the enthusiasm of the American public. I hope Democrats are wise enough to see at last that centrism doesn’t work. If they don’t grasp this, the increasingly fascistic and anti-democratic Republicans will come to power, and the consequences for all of us will be horrendous. 

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