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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Is J.B. Pritzker The Democrats’ Only Hope For 2024?

The Illinois governor is not a democratic socialist, but he’s taken a lot of solidly progressive steps and delivers on promises.

Joe Biden’s presidency is in very serious trouble. A new Harvard/Harris poll finds that a staggering 71 percent of Americans do not want Biden to run for reelection. Politico reports that “leading experts in consumer sentiment and behavior” say that a “sour and angry America is poised to punish” Democrats. The Atlantic says that even many Democrats outside the party’s progressive wing are growing exasperated with Biden’s failure to provide leadership and action on seemingly any issue, from voting rights to abortion. The New York Times tells us that in interviews, “dozens of frustrated Democratic officials, members of Congress and voters expressed doubts about the president’s ability to rescue his reeling party and take the fight to Republicans.”

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Biden’s record. Surely when leading Democrats helped to crush Bernie Sanders and ensure Biden’s nomination, they knew Biden had spent decades showing he didn’t care about abortion rights. Jacobin warned, for instance, that even if Biden was able to get elected, his presidency would probably be an unpopular failure that could pave the way for a far-right successor in 2024. 

The problem, of course, is that Democrats cannot turn back the clock and nominate Bernie Sanders in 2020. They are looking at 2024, and they realize the obvious: Biden, with his approval rating having collapsed and showing no signs of recovering, does not seem likely to be reelected. But if not Biden, who could the party run? Biden himself seems to want to run again and is reportedly annoyed at those who are disappointed in him or think he should retire after a single term. But anyone who wants Biden to back out also faces the problem that there aren’t many obvious alternatives, because the party leadership is full of unimpressive mediocrities who share many of Biden’s weaknesses. Vanity Fair reports that the “behind-the-scenes Democratic conversation” is full of such questions as: if Biden doesn’t run, “what then?” and “There’s a backup plan, right?” 

Of course there isn’t a backup plan. Joe Biden was only nominated because, even though his campaign had been failing, centrist Democrats agreed he was the best shot the party had at keeping Bernie Sanders from being nominated. There was no plan then, and there isn’t one now. There are no obviously strong alternative candidates. Pete Buttigieg is an empty suit. Kamala Harris has disastrous political instincts. Every Democrat who immediately comes to mind as a 2024 contender seems like a sure-fire loser. This is a problem, because the GOP are energized and increasingly support a terrifying radical theocratic hyper-capitalist agenda. Even those of us who detest the Democratic leadership have to acknowledge that a Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis presidency needs to be avoided if at all possible.

When J.B. Pritzker first ran for the governorship of Illinois in 2018, I was annoyed. Pritzker is a billionaire heir, and I am disinclined to believe that there are “good billionaires”—the possession of extreme wealth is itself immoral. But when, a couple of years into Pritzker’s term, I spoke to lefty friends in Illinois and expected them to rant about what a ridiculous sign of Democratic corruption it was to have a billionaire as their governor, I was surprised to find they had nothing negative to say about Pritzker. In fact, they said he was a shockingly good governor. They were impressed with him because he had signed into law some major progressive policies that a neoliberal centrist governor would have fought tooth and nail. 

Indeed, Pritzker has been signing bill after bill, and many of them are exactly what progressives want. In his time in office, Pritzker has approved legislation that has: 

Pritzker is a pragmatist, not a radical. He might have ended cash bail and increased state spending, but he has also improved the state’s finances over all, and signed a measure cracking down on rings of criminals that organize retail theft. Still, when you talk to a leftist in Illinois, they are likely to tell you that Pritzker is about the best Democratic governor one could reasonably hope for. Democratic socialist Chicago alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa told the Washington Post that “there’s a strong argument to be made that J.B. Pritzker is the best Illinois governor since progressive John Peter Altgeld.” Partly the high marks are because the bar is so low. As one Twitter commenter said, “In our lifetimes, Democratic governors have been more likely to resign in shame, lose to Republicans, or help conservative Democrats join Republicans to stop good things (*cough* Cuomo) than to do anything good for regular people. Until Pritzker.” Indeed, in Illinois the bar is particularly low, since 4 of the states’ past 10 governors have gone to jail. I am also skeptical of Pritzker for his decision to pursue the incredibly risky political strategy of trying to get the GOP to nominate radical far-right candidates on the theory that they are more easily beaten. This strikes me as dangerous and unprincipled. 

But the measures Pritzker has signed into law are real steps forward. They matter to people. They are not bullshit, and they will actually alter many lives in positive ways. If the Democrats are going to stand a chance of retaining national office, they need to be able to show that they can actually deliver benefits that people will see and feel. Instead, what we usually get is party leaders telling us how bad the Republicans are, and when anyone asks for more than “not being the Republicans,” Democratic leaders ask us if we are saying we want the Republicans to win. It is absolutely maddening and is part of why young people are increasingly disenchanted with the party, although they have few other obvious options (a fact that the party takes advantage of. They also work hard to keep that way by keeping third parties off the ballot.)

Pritzker may well have signaled his openness to running in 2024. Asked if someone might run against Biden in the 2024 primary, he said he thought it was “certainly possible,” though he did not say it would be him. But if he does run, let us hope that he has the wisdom to understand that there is no point challenging Biden if one is not going to actually deliver progressive policies. If Pritzker runs, he needs to run the Bernie playbook, not the tired Biden strategy of promising to work with Republicans on sensible bipartisan compromises. It is not actually clear how progressive Pritzker is personally, or whether he is pushed to the left by the movement organizations in his state. There are some promising signs—he has, for instance, made concrete demands of the Biden administration on abortion that give us some indication of what a President Pritzker might do differently. But the only reason to get behind a Pritzker presidential candidacy would be if he was likely to give the right a real fight and seriously distinguish himself from the status quo.

Already, there is a niche contingent of online lefties who are (perhaps slightly ironically) very into J.B. Pritzker. A “Socialists for Pritzker” Twitter account has attracted thousands of followers, and makes it clear that while it is partly joking, it is also serious. The account’s anonymous creator said: “people like JB because he was a Democrat who ran on things that were very popular amongst Democrats, and then he did basically *all* of those things in office. Somehow, that is rare. He delivers for the base in a way we expect from red state Govs.” When Jeff Stein of the Washington Post asked Twitter users about the “socialists for Pritzker” idea, many claiming to be from Illinois responded with sincere positivity about their governor, or suggested that the hefty Pritzker and 6-foot-9 Pennsylvania senate candidate John Fetterman would make for a dream team of Democratic “big boys.” The fantasy seems to be that Pritzker could serve as an FDR for our time: a wealthy class traitor who has the wisdom to understand that if people like him aren’t going to be eaten alive by the populist hordes, they need to get with the program and let the labor movement lead them.

J.B. Pritzker as Chairman Mao

That may be just a fantasy. I think it’s a role Pritzker might conceivably serve, if he was principled and intelligent. But it would also require Pritzker to be willing to distance himself from the Democratic establishment. Anyone running with a D next to their name in 2024 is going to need to separate themselves from Biden’s legacy, because Biden has none, which means taking a stance as someone independent from the hugely unpopular national party leadership. The Democratic label itself is going to be an albatross in 2024 because Biden has helped reinforce every perception of the party as weak, hypocritical, and full of hot air and false promises. But we still desperately need some way to keep Donald Trump out of office, and so it’s high time to realistically consider options. Some leftists are hoping Bernie Sanders will run again. I’d be inclined to support him if he did, because Bernie is still in great form and articulates left arguments more compellingly than any other national political figure. But we have to admit that a third Bernie run is not optimal, since it’s hard to imagine him serving out a full term in peak shape. I am reluctant to endorse the idea of finding a “billionaire of our own” to challenge the plutocrats of the right. But an FDR-style presidency is the bare minimum it will take to keep this country from lapsing into Christian Fascism, and if we are not to have a proletarian revolution anytime soon (and let us still hope that we do), we at least need a Democrat who does more than absolutely nothing. I look over the country and the only one I see who conceivably reaches that threshold is J.B. Pritzker. 

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