Leftist policies are popular, yet the progressive agenda is stalled. What’s missing is a fighting, movement-backed strategy. Congressional progressives should learn from Seattle’s Kshama Sawant.
filed 20 May 2022 in POLITICS (currentaffairs.org)
More than a year into the Biden presidency, with Democratic control of both houses of Congress, progressives have not passed a single one of the core tenets of the moderate, professed Joe Biden agenda of a $15 minimum wage, free community college, a healthcare public option, student debt cancellation, paid family and medical leave, lowering prescription drug prices, climate action, free pre-K, subsidized child care, and marijuana decriminalization. Without a single one of these policies enacted, it is no wonder that Democrats are awaiting a bloodbath in the 2022 midterms (and plausibly the 2024 elections)—deferring any chance for progressive change for years to come.
The failure of even this moderately progressive agenda is particularly frustrating given that progressives occupy key positions from which they could apply pressure. Though the mainstream media and the Democratic Party establishment successfully defeated Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, Sanders is now the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. There are enough progressives in the House to make or break any legislation without Republican support (only around six votes are needed for this, and there are six “Squad” members on top of a sizable handful of other progressives).
So, why are we losing? Why has even a moderately progressive agenda failed to pass? The electoral left is losing because it is pursuing the hopeless strategy of confining itself to indoor, backroom deal negotiations while remaining friendly and accommodating to the Democratic establishment in public. Progressives in D.C. are losing because they refuse to strongly and persistently call out the corruption of their Democratic colleagues, they refuse to draw red lines for their votes (and stick to them), and most importantly, they refuse to mobilize their base.
Let us look at the two most important fights during the Biden Administration. The $15 minimum wage should have been an easy victory. Biden and the Democratic Party claim to support it, and it is popular among the public. The policy was included in the very popular COVID relief package from the early days of the Biden Administration until the Democrats came up with a clever excuse to take it out, proclaiming that the Senate Parliamentarian—an unelected advisor with no actual power—ruled it could not be in the bill. How did progressives respond? Along with a few Tweets, they publicly wrote one letter to president Biden kindly asking him, with no red lines or threats, to override the Parliamentarian and keep the $15 minimum wage in the bill. As you might expect, this did absolutely nothing, and the federal minimum wage sits appallingly at $7.25 per hour and $2.13 per hour for tipped workers for the foreseeable future. Without living wages, millions of real human beings go hungry in America and countless Americans are forced to sleep out in the streets because, in part, of the cowardly inaction by progressives.
Throughout last spring and summer, the Biden Administration unveiled its plans for infrastructure and social spending in two bills. The first bill, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, was a giveaway to corporations that did little to help the general public. The second bill, the Build Back Better Act, was a fairly impressive package including much of Biden’s professed economic agenda, such as free community college, universal pre-K and subsidized child care, paid family and medical leave, expansion of Medicare (to include hearing, vision, and dental) and Medicaid, action on climate change, lowering of prescription drug prices, and a continuation of the child tax credit. The left had reason for optimism about the Biden Administration’s agenda, and progressive congressman Ro Khanna even declared “the end of neoliberalism.” To have some leverage in making sure these progressive policies actually got passed, the Progressive Caucus promised that they would not vote for the corporate Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill without first passing Build Back Better. Over time, however, almost every provision of Build Back Better was gutted, with none of the progressives ever drawing a single red line as to what must stay in the bill to get their votes. If that capitulation wasn’t enough, the Progressive Caucus—apart from the ‘Squad’ of six, who admirably stood their ground—blatantly reversed their promise under pressure from the Democratic establishment, allowing the corporate Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to pass without Build Back Better. Not long after, even this unacceptably whittled-down residue of the Build Back Better Act was, very predictably, killed. This time, the Democrats’ excuse for gutting their own agenda—and even the progressives’ excuse—was not the Parliamentarian but rather, two right-wing corporate Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, an excuse that seems hard to believe because there was serious pressure put on them to support the bill.
So, how do we stop losing and start transforming this country? First of all, just as the right-wing Democrats Manchin and Sinema are happy to draw red lines in negotiations and sink bills if they’re not met, progressives have to muster the courage to do the same—which the balance of votes allows them to do—and they must actually stick to their promises. But, it might be objected, when Manchin and Sinema draw red lines, they have the corporate donors, the media, and, arguably, the Democratic establishment on their side. When the left draws red lines, we are all alone, left to be viciously attacked and politically isolated. What would occur if progressives pledged to sink bills that didn’t meet their demands, according to this objection, is simply that nothing would get passed, which would be an unacceptable travesty. However, progressives would be weak in making demands and drawing red lines only if they lack a grassroots movement to mobilize alongside them.
How could this social movement mobilization be achieved? Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told us how when he explained what he would do, as president, to get his policies passed in the face of inevitable opposition from Congress:
The essence of my politics, and I think Alexandria’s as well, is that we need an ongoing grassroots movement of millions of people to pressure Congress, to pressure the corporate establishment, so that we can bring about the changes that this country desperately needs. So that’s why I have said that I will not only be commander-in-chief, I’m going to be organizer-in-chief.
I will be going all over the country to put pressure on Senators like those from Kentucky, for example. Go to the people in Kentucky who are hurting right now and say, really, do you think we should raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour? You tell your Senators to do it. Should we make public colleges and universities tuition-free? You tell your Senators to do that.
Though Bernie Sanders did not become commander-in-chief, as the powerful Senate Budget Chairman—and, more importantly, as the most popular currently elected politician in the country with an enormous grassroots base—why could he not keep his promise to be organizer-in-chief? Why could he not do what he proposed to do and go to states like West Virginia and Arizona to rally masses of people to pressure corporate senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema? Why could he and the progressives in Congress not organize mass rallies—alongside labor unions and major left organizations like DSA and the Sunrise Movement—in D.C. and across the country to put pressure on Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Joe Biden to enact the agenda they promised the American people?
Imagine if, throughout this past year of the Democratic trifecta government, the progressive politicians in D.C. worked alongside left social movements and organized labor to stubbornly, persistently, and combatively, rally hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, day after day, week after week, month after month, with either our own core progressive demands of Medicare for All, free college and student debt cancellation, and a Green New Deal, or even the more moderate demand: “Joe Biden, follow through on your campaign promises! Enact a $15 minimum wage, free community college, and a healthcare public option!” We know from the unprecedented protests of summer 2020 that this scale of mobilization (even amidst a pandemic) is possible, and we know from the Bernie Sanders campaigns that there is potential to mobilize a massive, dedicated progressive base. By focusing on three or four core, concrete demands (and, in the latter example, emphasizing that these are Biden’s campaign promises), the left could demonstrate to the American people the clarity that gets lost in the endless negotiations of insider D.C. politics that are designed to confuse and tune out the public. In addition to rallying in cities across the country and even camping out in an occupation of D.C. for as long as it takes, this movement would need to—with equal stubbornness, persistence, and combativeness—rally in West Virginia and Arizona to pressure corporate obstructionists Manchin and Sinema. Then, progressives would have the strength to draw red lines in negotiations without the fear of being trampled. They would not be alone and politically marginalized. They would have millions of people standing with them, loud and clear, impossible to ignore.
If one is skeptical that this public protest against Biden and the Democratic establishment would actually work, let us recall an instance where it did. In one instance, progressive congresswoman Cori Bush openly protested the expiration of the eviction moratorium by sleeping out on the steps outside Congress. The Biden Administration was so embarrassed that they immediately reinstated the moratorium. While some of the leading establishment Democrats did already seem to support extending the moratorium, Bush’s protest represents a glimpse of the fighting, mobilizing politics that has the power to effect change. Without mass mobilization, however, her action still pales in comparison to the potential power that could be realized by tens of thousands of people camping out in D.C. alongside leading progressive lawmakers in an occupation protest for as long as it takes until their demands are met.
We have seen other glimpses of this “outside” strategy by D.C. progressives, such as AOC’s sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office alongside the Sunrise Movement right after she was first elected, bringing the Green New Deal to the mainstream discourse. But, on top of being small in scale, these brave actions have been the exception, not the rule, and progressives have generally avoided open combat with the Democratic establishment. Under pressure from party leadership, they have succumbed to the “tyranny of decorum” that prioritizes public politeness over open criticism of the corporate Democrats who stand in the way of the policies we need. AOC seems to have abandoned the combative movement politics of her Pelosi sit-in in favor of what she erroneously calls more “sophisticated” methods, and Bernie Sanders has always refused to be more than mildly critical of Joe Biden, who he consistently maintains is his “friend.” How many people have to die without healthcare, sleep on the streets without a living wage, and have their futures torn away by the climate apocalypse for these crises to take precedence over the friendships and polite relations of politicians?
Why do progressives prioritize cordial relations over the fighting approach against the Democratic establishment necessary to pass the policies we need? I do not believe that all of the progressives are corrupt and selfish, nor do I believe their accommodationist approach is part of some complex rational strategy. Rather, a large part of the reason is that politicians are human beings, and human beings are prone to social pressure. Democratic socialist and Rhode Island State Senator Sam Bell has made the point that what often stops elected leftists from being more combative against the establishment is not strategy but psychology:
The most strategically optimal … would be to be far more anti-establishment than I’ve been and far more aggressive than I’ve been, much more aggressive than Bernie Sanders has been. I think what holds people back is not a strategic goal. It’s your emotional strength. It takes an enormous amount of emotional strength to stand against a political establishment, to stand against the group of people you’re spending time with all the time. … It really wears you down emotionally.
This psychological vulnerability is ruthlessly exploited by the powerful, as AOC herself explained:
The halls of Congress are no joke. It is no joke to stand up to corporate power and established interests. … Behind closed doors, your arm is twisted. … Political pressure gets put on you, and every trick in the book—psychological and otherwise—is used to get us to abandon the working class.
As this pressure mounts and progressives continue to spend time with their establishment “colleagues,” progressives like AOC have generally avoided the open confrontation necessary to pass the policies we need.
What is the solution to this pressure towards conformity? Is conformity unavoidable? Is the alternative, more combative approach even possible in reality? In fact, the alternative is not only realistic, but it has been accomplished—just not in D.C. On November 15, 2013, a socialist economist named Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle City Council not as a Democrat but as a member of the Marxist party Socialist Alternative. Having operated under a very different political strategy than progressives in D.C., Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Alternative movement represent exactly how the left can effectively use elected office to deliver substantive results for the working class.
When Sawant was elected on the promise of passing a $15 minimum wage, every other member of the City Council opposed it. Instead of writing a polite letter to her colleagues pleading with them to support it and then giving up when that failed, Sawant and Socialist Alternative created a campaign called 15 Now:
15 Now set up 11 action groups in neighborhoods across the city mobilizing in the streets and at public forums. [They] organized multiple rallies and marches of hundreds of people in Seattle, a National Week of Action in over 21 cities, and a major presence at both the annual Martin Luther King Day march and May Day march. … Critically, through the action groups and democratic conferences, 15 Now offered activists the opportunity to have ownership over the fight for $15.
Essentially, “Sawant used her position as a city councilmember and the big media spotlight on her to build a powerful grassroots movement from below.” It was this grassroots mass mobilization—and its credible threat of a ballot initiative that would have passed an even more progressive minimum wage law—that led the Seattle City Council to reverse its opposition and pass the $15 minimum wage, the first of its kind in any major U.S. city, which quickly spread to other cities and even states and changed the national debate. The D.C. progressives, therefore, have Kshama Sawant and her mobilizing, fighting approach to thank for the $15 minimum wage being on the national agenda.
The second major accomplishment of Sawant’s tenure is the Amazon Tax—a tax on the wealthiest businesses in Seattle to fund affordable housing and Green New Deal projects. Two years after a grassroots campaign spearheaded by Sawant won the tax, big business succeeded in getting the City Council to repeal it. Instead of conceding defeat:
Sawant convened a series of Tax Amazon Action Conferences … where hundreds of activists discussed, debated, and voted on a strategy and the elements of a new proposal. … As the drive approached the signature threshold to get on the ballot, and with hundreds of activists flooding city council offices with emails, phone calls, and public testimony, and with the Amazon tax demand being echoed in the street protests, the political establishment felt compelled to advance its own Amazon tax.
The result was an Amazon Tax four times as large as the one that was repealed.
Unsurprisingly, big business and the political establishment have desperately tried to unseat Kshama Sawant. In the 2019 election, they spent $4 million, $1.5 million from Amazon alone, on Seattle City Council races, and after Sawant won anyways, they resorted to a recall campaign with over $1 million spent solely against her. In a familiar pattern, Sawant prevailed again and defeated the recall with a fighting campaign that went on the offensive and mobilized around crucial demands like rent control.
There are two interconnected and mutually reinforcing reasons that Sawant has been tremendously effective where D.C. progressives have failed—her fighting approach and her deep connection and accountability to grassroots organizing.
Her fighting approach includes the critical understanding that elected office is not a friendly arena where progressives can privately convince corporate politicians to do the right thing, but a battlefield of raw power where the Democratic establishment is an enemy that must be forced into giving concessions. Sawant is able to maintain this radical, fighting approach without being politically marginalized because she comes out of, remains accountable to, and is in consistent dialogue with grassroots social movements. The decisions made in the fights for the Amazon Tax or the $15 minimum wage were not made by Sawant herself but were voted on at action conferences where anyone from Sawant to a new volunteer had an equal say. In fact, Sawant never simply decided to run for office, but only did so reluctantly when, as a member of Socialist Alternative, the organization democratically decided that she should be the candidate they run.
Among other leftist lawmakers who have been able to effect progressive change despite being in the minority, close ties and accountability to grassroots movements have been key. In discussing how he has been able to pass over a dozen of his own bills and help make Illinois the first state in the country to abolish cash bail, democratic socialist and Illinois State Senator Robert Peters explained:
I try to tie myself to the movement as much as possible because I am the conduit for their organized power and governing position. And they are the conduit for me being able to govern the way I want to. And if those are tied together, it makes it easier to get things done under the dome. … I believe that my office should be a conduit for organizing, for movement spaces. So basically opening it up, whether it’s mutual aid efforts on the South Side, it’s hosting meetings, it’s being part of meetings. And sometimes when I’m not able to get something done, being held accountable. I try to make sure that I’m tied as much as possible. And I will ask. When we passed the bill … I was talking to the coalition about negotiations on this bill. I said “They’re trying to do this in the bill, and I need to know: how far am I allowed to go?”… I remember saying to my colleague on the floor … “My people won’t let me go any further. That’s it. I can’t negotiate any further.” We’re not as weak as people think.
To overcome the intense political and psychological pressure towards acquiescence and conformity that the D.C. progressives have often succumbed to, the two factors of the fighting approach and the connection to grassroots social movements go hand in hand, as being consistently movement-rooted gives both the political and the emotional strength to take on the fighting approach. If the movement ties are strong enough for real accountability, this serves as a powerful counter-pressure on elected progressives to the political and psychological pressure placed on them by the establishment. As Sawant explained:
I would not underestimate the kind of pressure you feel once you are elected. … It is an onslaught of pressure on you. … You have to have something on your side. You have to empower yourself, and you cannot be empowering yourself if you don’t build mass movements, and that is the fundamental difference between the approach we have used in Seattle and the approach that Bernie Sanders and the Squad in Congress have done. … What we’ve been able to achieve, which is win victories that were thought of as impossible, is precisely because I have a political organization with me. … It’s about collective power, and having Socialist Alternative … that stands with me, that is itself rooted in the working class, that is itself accountable to the working class, that… [has] a democratic organization where rank and file have the ability to debate, discuss, and vote on the key decisions of the organization, all of that has been absolutely crucial. It has been the backbone of what I have been able to do in Seattle.
The remarkable success of Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative is living proof that this movement-rooted, mobilizing, fighting approach to leftist politics is neither impractical nor unrealistic. It is not political suicide but political strength.
The left will never win through backroom-deal politics. That’s the establishment’s turf. We will only win with grassroots social movements and organized labor working alongside our allies in office to mobilize their base. The choice should never be between a defeatist withdrawal from any kind of electoral politics and trusting that “our” elected officials will get the job done. Serious progressive change in this country—from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Act—has never come from either avenue alone, but only from tremendous grassroots mobilization (especially labor power) alongside some relatively sympathetic allies in office. In his famous Letter From A Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that negotiations with the political establishment were needed, but that they could only occur seriously when mass direct action created a crisis that established powers could not ignore. In addition to these well-known American examples of the New Deal Coalition and the Civil Rights Movement, the same lessons prevail internationally. The Nordic model that American progressives regularly celebrate came not from some long-standing political harmony but from exactly this fighting approach of militant labor and other radical social movements organizing and mobilizing alongside their social-democratic allies in government. In our time, it is no coincidence that probably the most successful example of the left in power is the ruling MAS party in Bolivia. “Founded with the idea that the social struggle and the electoral struggle have to go together,” the MAS does not even consider itself a political party, but merely a “political instrument” of the various labor and indigenous-based social movement organizations that compose and run it. Of course, political and social conditions differ significantly in different countries and different time periods, but it is nevertheless crucial for the left to learn from struggles throughout the world and throughout history.
I do not believe, as some on the left do, that the leading progressive lawmakers are all corrupt or fraudulent, and I greatly appreciate having them in office. I believe that many of them are genuinely on our side, and it is precisely because they are on our side that we must thoughtfully critique them. While progressives make up a small minority of the federal government, they do have significant power—both from their votes and their popular platform. While they have had a substantial positive impact, there is a significant disparity between what they have accomplished and what they could accomplish with a fighting, mobilizing strategy. The D.C. progressives have wasted the enormous, rare opportunities handed to them during this last year of a Democratic trifecta government and a vote margin effectively giving them veto power over any partisan legislation. After the ineffectual (or, more accurately, corrupt) Democrats get predictably obliterated in the upcoming midterms, this opportunity is unlikely to recur for many years to come. There is no more time to waste.
Clearly, the strategy of electing people who support progressive policies and trusting them to do the work of getting the policies passed, with superficial involvement from social movements at best, has failed. Progressive lawmakers must be part of, accountable to, and in daily dialogue with radical grassroots social movements. They must be willing to have an “open clash,” in Sawant’s words, with the Democratic establishment. They must understand that the left’s power comes from mobilizing and organizing, not private pleading and friendly negotiation. There are millions of unorganized but dedicated leftists in this country, and a large majority of Americans support core left policies. We have masses of people on our side, we have politicians in power, and we have social movement organizations. Though we certainly must expand the scale of all three of these, we will not win the policies we desperately need unless we connect the three along the lines of a mobilizing, fighting approach. It will not be easy. It will require serious strategizing, will entail the hard work of building grassroots organizations and labor power, and will create new political questions that will have to be navigated. But we have no choice. We must begin this project now. We have a world to win.
Find Jordan Bollag on Twitter and Instagram at @jojobollag.
(Contributed by Gwyllm Llwydd)