Biden/Harris and the progressive case against a ‘return to normal’

Come January 20th, the American left will need to be ready to fight for a seat at the table in an incoming administration that seems less and less inclined to woo them the closer he gets to taking office.


While Joe Biden and Kamala Harris probably aren’t the leaders that American progressives would have liked for their country at this critical time, most would agree that just about anyone would be better than the malignant narcissist who has put his feelings about losing the presidential election above the suffering of his fellow citizens during a pandemic.

It may have faded from most people’s memories but there was a time before the election when establishment writers like Franklin Foer of the Atlantic were claiming that a Biden presidency could be as transformative for struggling Americans as that of FDR during the Great Depression. On the basis of the former vice president’s cabinet picks so far, the left shouldn’t be surprised that this kind of talk is being quietly walked back and that American progressives are now being told they should be happy with a return to some undefined ‘normal’.

Demonstrating this turn, there are disturbingly familiar centers of gravity coalescing within the nascent administration. While the nominations of longtime Biden allies, like the hawkish Antony Blinken as Secretary of State and others more associated with the Obama era like former Fed chair Janet Yellen to Treasury were to be expected, others like Neera Tanden, expected to head the powerful Office of Management and Budget, are Clintonites who routinely dismiss the progressive wing of the party.

One thing these factions, which will almost certainly include some Kamala Harris associates, seem to have in common is a disdain for the left and most of the policies they champion.

One piece of good news on the nomination front was the announcement that New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland has been picked to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior, the first indigenous American to serve in a presidential cabinet. The widely praised nomination shows that a Biden administration will at least try to live up to some of its promises in terms of the climate emergency. With this growing crisis in mind, Haaland’s job will be more important than ever in the years ahead.

However, despite having the power to reverse Trump’s environmentally destructive executive orders covering everything from drilling for oil in the Arctic to ending protections for migratory birds, as explained by the Associated Press, “[Biden] faces years of work in court and within agencies to repair major Trump cuts to the nation’s framework of environmental protections.”

Showing the growing power of organizing around the environment and other issues related to it like militarism, groups like CODEPINK and Roots Action have successfully campaigned to stop the nominations of hawks like Michele Flournoy as Secretary of Defense and Michael Morell to head the CIA, offering some hope that the grievous errors made by multiple administrations this century won’t be repeated in an already conflict ridden world.

As explained by CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin, “By hosting calling parties to Senators, launching petitions and publishing open letters from Democratic delegates, feminists— including Alice Walker, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem — and Guantanamo torture survivors, activists helped derail candidates who were once considered shoo-ins for Biden’s cabinet.”

These groups and others like Our Revolution have since turned their attention to another torture apologist, Avril Haines, who is said to be under consideration for the position of Director of National Security. Haines was Deputy Director of the CIA under former President Obama and has spent her time out of government working with interventionist think tanks like the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

In purely domestic terms, in regards to the Black Lives Matter uprisings that spread from the United States to the rest of the world this summer, as Biden and his former boss have made clear over the last few weeks, arguments about defunding the police that were popularized at that time will not be tolerated by centrist Democrats, who have insisted without much evidence that these calls are alienating potential voters.

Former President Obama was quite open about this in an interview broadcast on Snapchat in mid-December, saying, “If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan, like ‘defund the police,’ but, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”

Even more worrying, in a leaked call with civil rights leaders President elect Biden said, “That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police.”

This analysis, also forwarded by other centrists like Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger after the election, ignores the fact that progressive candidates who supported these calls and were engaged in safe voter outreach helped produce good results in vital swing states like Michigan and Minnesota, where they helped to ensure Biden’s victory.

Redirecting funding away from local police shouldn’t even be an issue at the national level but moderates in the Democratic Party helped ensure that it would be by running away from it rather than taking the time to explain it. Perhaps the messaging around the issue might have been articulated better but ensuring that trained professionals rather than heavily armed police respond to those suffering from mental health among other issues, makes a lot of sense.

Hopefully, victories in January 5th Georgia Senate runoffs by Democrats will give the party a super majority but this alone won’t be enough to move the country’s government in a more progressive direction either, especially with an incoming president who thinks he can restore the ‘bipartisanship’ of a bygone era.

Nonetheless, there is hope that new rules introduced by the Progressive Caucus, which will be led by Pramila Jayapal, with Katie Porter as Deputy Chair and Ilhan Omar as whip, will make the body more focused and less vulnerable to co-option by the center right.

As Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin of the group Indivisible explained in a recent editorial for Roll Call, “For years, the CPC has grown in size, but membership has traditionally required little of its members. No more. Just last week, the CPC passed game-changing reforms to its own caucus rules. These rule changes will empower the CPC to organize itself to negotiate and vote as a single bloc on specific legislation to secure progressive improvements or remove dangerous provisions. With just a slim margin in the House, Democratic leadership will need the votes of progressives to pass legislation. The CPC now has the opportunity to use this leverage to ensure bills include progressive priorities.”

On top of this, showing that even just two politicians using their offices strategically can at the very least shame Republicans and centrist Democrats alike in the interests of most Americans, Bernie Sanders was just this week joined by Senator Ed Markey in his impassioned plea for a floor vote on $2000 stimulus checks for the American people in this time of overlapping crises.

As Nina Turner who has announced that she’s running for Congress in Ohio made clear on Twitter, “The kind of leadership we saw from @SenSanders and @EdMarkey today shouldn’t be an exception. We need more leaders willing to fight for everyday people. If your elected officials aren’t fighting for people during this historic crisis, then who exactly are they working for?”

Come January 20th, the American left, who were promised so much after Bernie Sanders cleared the way for the former vice-president by dropping out of the primaries, will need to be ready to fight for a seat at the table in an incoming administration that seems less and less inclined to woo them the closer he gets to taking office.


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