More than just talk: How American progressives are working for change

History teaches that progress takes time, those standing on the sidelines making unrealistic demands and criticizing those doing the work are only slowing it down.


Perhaps one of the most depressing things for the American progressive left as 2020 nears its end is the inability of the Democratic Party’s corporatist leadership to get results for working people or even just message effectively, something that was already obvious prior to the overlapping crises created by the novel coronavirus.

For reasons that are difficult to explain, in the lead up to the November election, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer failed to pin the blame for the lack of a second stimulus package on Mitch McConnell and the Republican controlled Senate. With the Republican leader too busy establishing his ‘legacy’ by stacking the courts with young lifetime appointees favorable to big business interests and religious fanatics, it should have been easy to raise voters’ ire, but the Democratic Party’s leadership failed to do this.

Speaking to the suffering that’s been made worse by the health crisis, Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan’s 13th district recently made the position of the country’s progressive left on this clear, “People across the country are demanding that Congress gets its priorities straight and provide relief to those struggling during this pandemic. Rent is due, food is needed. People have nowhere else to turn and it is our duty to provide a people’s bailout. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated families across this country and its impact on the health, lives, and economic stability of people will only get worse if we do not do anything. Enough is enough. We must provide direct relief to people now.”

In contrast to what’s happening in the United States, almost every other advanced economy from neighboring Canada to Europe, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia, besides offering some form of universal healthcare to all citizens, have found ways to support them over the longer term in this time of widespread need. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s what the internationalist left has always believed but has only rarely had the opportunity to prove over the last four decades: governments can help citizens in an emergency without infringing on their civil liberties.

Although some on the American left are calling for the progressives in the U.S. Congress to tie their votes for Nancy Pelosi to continue on as speaker to a floor vote on Medicare for All, this is actually a poor strategy in the short term. As it stands, their numbers are still small, the bill would not pass and instead of shaming those who voted against it, a loss would more likely give ammunition to those, both in politics and media, who oppose it.

Former Bernie Sanders advisor and speechwriter David Sirota made a more nuanced argument about how progressives in Congress might tackle the issue in Jacobin earlier this month, writing, “But here’s the thing to understand: merely asking only for that vote — and not taking actions or making demands to substantively change the power equation — would start such a negotiation in a position of weakness, asking for the bare minimum from the beginning rather than asking for the whole loaf in hopes of at least getting half the loaf.”

There is also the fact that most of those who opposed Pelosi in 2018 were actually to her right and if progressives were to withhold their votes, they might face a leader even more opposed to their policy ideas.

Another progressive elected in 2018, Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez, has been spending much of her time working for her constituents in parts of the Bronx and Queens rather than simply making performative gestures that inevitably end in failure; as reported by Common Dreams, “During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when New York City became the epicenter of the global public health crisis, Ocasio-Cortez and her staff conducted 200,000 community check-in calls; delivered 80,000 meals to families; and ensured teachers, small businesses, and essential workers got 100,000 masks.”

Ilhan Omar, arguably the one member of what came to be called ‘the Squad’ most abused not only the outgoing president by but by her own Democratic colleagues, has several testimonials on her website showing her commitment to her constituents in Minnesota’s 5th district.

One of Omar’s voters, who gave her name as Mindy, explained how the congresswoman and her staff helped her navigate the federal bureaucracy before the pandemic arrived, “I had been in touch with local and federal offices trying to figure out why my Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claim was taking so long to process before I reached out for help. My claim was processing for 2 years before I contacted Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s office for assistance. My case was completed within a month of that contact and I was awarded over $11,000 from the Social Security Administration. I was just about to give up before I decided to reach out to Congresswoman Omar for help.”

I may be naive, but helping actual people, as these leaders and the grassroots activists who helped propel them into power are doing, especially in the area of mutual aid, seems more valuable than more of the kind of empty gestures Democratic politicians often rely on.

Further, the argument can be made that losses in the House of Representatives in the 2020 elections might be attributed to the fact that many so-called moderates were out of touch with many of their constituents in their calls for a return to the ‘normal’ that allowed for a Trump presidency in the first place.

However relieved the whole world will feel when the outgoing US president is gone, the American left must remember that almost every Republican enabled him and that their priorities are those that ruled the last four years (along with those Democrats like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who often voted with them in the name of an entirely one-sided bipartisanship), not Donald Trump’s incoherent rantings. The country’s media, fixated on the outgoing president’s style, all but ignored the tax breaks for the wealthy and environmental and other deregulation that will damage the health and livelihoods of ordinary Americans (and those in other countries) long after this pandemic is in the rear view mirror.

Worse, instead of being recognized as more effectively representing the hopes of the party’s real base and taking note of their example, Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and to a lesser extent Ayanna Pressley, were often presented as outliers out of touch with Democratic voters despite poll after poll showing clear majorities in support of their positions on the issues like a $15 minimum wage, which President elect Biden could put in place early in his administration through an executive order.

It’s important to remember that when she first entered politics, Ocasio-Cortez (like other members of the Squad) was dismissed as a longshot against an entrenched incumbent Joe Crowley, who was often floated as a possible future speaker of the House. Many in the press were shocked by AOC’s victory, not understanding why voters would choose a person working in hospitality (like so many of her constituents) over a man who appeared to have never dealt with the stress of trying to make ends meet in his life.

Of course, politicians like Crowley always land on their feet and he proved many of the arguments AOC made against him when he became a lobbyist last year for the powerful lobbying firm, Squire Patton Boggs, who also hired Bill Shuster, a former Republican representative from Pennsylvania, stating in a press release, “The skills and experience Bill and Joe bring will be an asset for clients all over the world who are seeking to navigate the challenges of modern-day Washington.”

It’s heartbreaking that some commentators with large audiences insist on going after the growing number of progressives in government rather than highlighting the success of cynical ideologues like Mitch McConnell. Perhaps because the latter would require a little bit more work on their part.

I’m as guilty as anyone on the left of placing a lot of hope in the idea that a top down transformation might take place under a Jeremy Corbyn or a Bernie Sanders only to be disappointed when they’re defeated by the powerful institutional forces arrayed against them. It’s only through building power, as American progressives have been doing at all levels of government and through movements and organizing, that real change will come. History teaches that progress takes time, those standing on the sidelines making unrealistic demands and criticizing those doing the work are only slowing it down.


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