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The Center Cannot Hold: Biden and the Challenge for Progressives

Photograph Source: Matt Johnson – CC BY 2.0

The election is over and Trump, with or without conceding, will leave the White House. The jubilant Democrats cheer on the president-elect as he convenes his center-right administration. The disaster of four more years of Trumpogarchy was indeed incomprehensible. Having the old, corrupt party machine back in power has never felt this good.

The centrist and corporate Democrats were quick to gloat and declare themselves vindicated. They had, after all, resisted the progressives’ call from inside the party to mobilize the electorate around a social-democratic agenda on labor, healthcare, education, and environment. “The progressives said we need a base candidate,” said Rahm Emanuel. “No we didn’t. We needed someone to get swing voters. If you campaign appropriately, you can make that a governing transformation.” That the former White House Chief of Staff under President Obama and former mayor of Chicago whose own 2015 reelection hinged on his cover up of the police murder of the 17-year-old Laquan McDonald designated himself party spokesperson was telling. The obsession with the swing voter has plagued the Democrats for many decades. They continue to ignore the basic predicament of electoral politics in the U.S.: on average less than 50% of eligible voters participate in major elections. The foundational rift in the party’s electoral strategy lies there. The progressives argue that the only path forward is to tap into the marginalized 50%, the others are resolved to hold the increasingly untenable center.

Winning the White House in an election in which by all accounts Democrats performed abysmally has deepened the rift in the party. In a widely publicized phone conversation with the members of the House Democratic Caucus, Abigail Spanberger, who represents the 7th Congressional District in Virginia, derided the “liberal” wing of the party for promoting radical ideas at the expense of winning local elections. Spanberger, who barely survived her reelection in her district, was adamant that “We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of that.”

The more vocal members of the progressive caucus, representatives such Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Tlaib (Mich), and Jayapal (Wash), have rejected the centrists’ blame game, reminding their colleagues that it was the massive campaign of progressive organizers that energized a dormant electorate to hand a victory to Biden. The future of the party does not hinge on appeasing white middle-class suburbia.

The Democratic party machine gears up to restore the same old order that has given us Trump and the ideology on which he rode to the White House. The centrists failed in 2016 and fail today to acknowledge that one of the core elements driving Trumpism is a popular anti-establishment sensibility. Yes, Trumpism rides on racism, misogyny, and corporate greed that informs this anti-establishment movement. But partly what fuels this movement is the Republicans exceptional ability to frame the collapse of the American cities and the failure of the state to fulfill its responsibilities in racial/cultural terms. By doing so, they have turned the consequences of naked capitalism into the cause of its insolvency.

The center that Democrats intend to restore will not hold. This nation cannot face the unfolding environmental catastrophe, the unbridled accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, the disintegration of the infrastructure of social welfare (epitomized in the devastation brought by the COVID-19 pandemic), and the emboldened terror networks of white supremacy with haphazard measures and realignment of already existing institutions of power. Without a radical restructuring, we need to anticipate the second coming of Trump, this time not clownish, incompetent, and rash, but forceful, rational, and organized, closer in form to its fascist core.

Corporate Democrats along with their Republican colleagues have always been advocates of the doctrine of there is no alternative (TINA), most passionately advocated by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. TINA has now become the age-old wisdom of both parties in the United States. A wisdom that makes thinking beyond capitalism and skepticism about its unforgiving survival of the fittest ideology socialist heresies that supposedly delegitimizes any political campaign. Socialism, particularly after WWII, became an effigy with no place in the party of the New Deal. Amor fati, love your destiny as you can’t change it.

The Republicans and many Democrats were successful in turning the campaign of the progressive wing of the Democrats as the return of socialism. Universal health care, free education, basic income, debt forgiveness, taxing the rich, and all other reformist plans became symbols of how socialists have hijacked the party and how they plan to turn the country into another Venezuela (now gone is the day that the U.S. was going to be turned into the Soviet Union). From an issue of well-being of all people, those against universal health care, Republicans and Democrats, turned it into a question of liberty, freedom to choose your own provider, even if you can’t afford one. This project is not new. Since the time that Medicare was introduced in the 1940s, the same battle has been fought between those who consider health care a business opportunity and those who regard it as an inalienable right.

Today social media has far expanded the scope of those propaganda tools such as the Operation Coffee Cup in the 1960s, when members of the American Medical Association, almost exclusively white men, asked their wives to organize gatherings for acquaintances to listen to an LP called Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine. The guests were then asked to write letters to their representatives asking them to stop the dreaded socialist plot. At the end of the recording, which in many ways launched his political career, Reagan is heard warning that “if you don’t write the letter, I promise you that this program will pass as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow, and behind it there will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom we know in this country. Until, as Norman Thomas has said, we will awake to find that we have socialism. And if you don’t do this, if I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”

That fight continues. In 2018, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday (yes, even the White House had to acknowledge that!), the Council of Economic Advisors of the Trump White House published a Report on Socialism warning that “socialism is making a comeback in American political discourse. Detailed policy proposals from self-declared socialists are gaining support in Congress and among much of the younger electorate.” The sophomoric report returns to the basic Republican caricature of socialism: a regime of taxes and spending that thrives on hampering choice and inhibiting the spirit of entrepreneurship—a recipe, the report declares, for economic disaster and loss of freedom.

Centrist Democrats share that sentiment. They find common cause with Republicans in their fear of the socialist domino effect. Most often, the party leadership distances itself from any socialist project by marking it as an ill-conceived electoral strategy. This is dishonest. The leadership and the corporatist majority in the party reject socialist projects not because they are unpopular, but more importantly because those radical transformative plans do not align with interests they represent. A recent poll has shown that 57% of Democrats see socialism positively. This number can easily and quickly grow if, rather than distancing themselves from them, Democrats begin to claim social-democratic reforms. That will not drive the party to the fringes of American politics. Let’s remember that Collin Kaepernick very quickly became a persona non grata when he kneeled during the national anthem in the NFL’s 2016 season. Today, all around the world, kneeling in protest against social injustice and racism has become an official part of any major athletic competition. Only two years ago, Black Lives Matter was far from the kind of respected and recognized movement for social justice that it is today. Universal healthcare became a seriously debated program and a central point of division among Democrats’ Presidential candidates, a remarkable departure from its previously non-starter status during the conversations around Obamacare. Movements and ideas need to be claimed by those who subscribe to them, otherwise they remain marginal and fade. Parties and organizations need to assert ownership of those ideas in order to make them a part of the pubic conversation not taboos to be eschewed.

The center cannot hold. With their centrist dream, the corporate Democrats are paving the way for the total collapse of democratic principles in the country. The next fascist president will be a competent, organized, and banal Trump, far more dangerous, far more effective. The progressives, inside and outside of the party, need to promote an agenda that will make tangible and immediate transformation in the lives of the disenfranchised and marginalized communities around the country. Let’s make elections relevant to their lives.

Here is a proposal that brings all the aspects of the progressive agenda together:

A Progressive Agenda

Green New Deal (GND):

1. Net-zero emission by 2050

2. Federal investment in renewable energy research and production.

3. Federal investment in new means of transportation with the goal of reduction in carbon emission (i.e. high-speed trains, zero emission public transportation, and electric cars)

4. Ban on logging and construction in federally protected lands.

5 Implementing and strengthening safe water and clean air regulations..

6. Transparency in identifying toxic waste sites

Social Justice Projects:

1 Redistributive Plans:

a. Universal basic income.

b. Progressive income taxation: 0-60% without loopholes and deductions.

c. Wealth and capital gain tax of 50%.

2. Free universal healthcare.

3. Free primary and secondary education in addition to two-year college degree. No federal or state funds for private primary and secondary schools. Equal funding (adjusted for the cost of living) for all public primary and secondary schools.

4. Priority hiring from underrepresented communities for the implementation of the GND.

5. Federal assistance for job training and placement for historically underrepresented communities.

6. Local, state, and federal assistance in public housing toward zero homelessness.

7. Labor laws that guarantee:

a. The right of collective bargaining.

b. Two-week paid vacation.

c. Sick-leave and family-leave without retribution.

d. Maternity and/or paternity leave of a minimum three months.

3. Reinforcement and strengthening of health and safety regulations at work.

Political Reform and Regulations of Governance

1. Abolish Electoral College system

2. Hold all elections on a holiday.

3. Restore voting rights for the incarcerated.

4. Institute new campaign reform policies to:

5. Finance presidential campaigns only through public funds.

6. Ban contributions of over $1000 to any political campaign.

7. Reverse Citizens United vs. FEC.

8. Congressional term limit.

9. Ban lobbyists employment in the government.

10. Ban former government employees to work as lobbyists.

Policing and Military Industrial Complex

1. Abolish the prison industrial complex.

2. Dissolve police departments into a Community Safety and Security Administration.

3. Abolish the military industrial complex:

a. Cut the defense budget in half.

b. No arms sales to other countries

c. No private contracts for the development of new weapons and other instruments of war.

d. No private contractors and mercenary organizations for military supplies and missions.

International Responsibilities and Treaties

1. Respect and abide by all international norms and treaties regarding the rights of refugees and other immigrants.

2. Respect other nations sovereignty and their rights of self-determination.

3. Stop all forms of interference in domestic affairs of other nations

4. No imposition of economic regulations on behalf of global corporate interests.

5. No political influence to determine forms of governance.

6. Make the United States subject to the international conventions, such as the International Criminal Court, that make all nations accountable for their global actions.

7. Abolish the veto power of the five-countries in the United Nations.

8. Democratize the governing bodies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

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