This story originally appeared in Jacobin on Jan. 12, 2022. It is shared here with permission.
It’s been almost 12 months since Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, and Democrats have very little to show for it.
They promised to beat the pandemic and to replace the Age of Inequality with an economy that works for all. But all we got was a new COVID culture war, a temporary and poorly implemented child tax credit, and an infrastructure package that was more a slush fund for private corporations than a substantive investment in the future.
Bernie Sanders knows the score. In an interview with the Guardian published this week, Sanders told labor reporter Steven Greenhouse that the Democrats need a “major course correction.” He attacked the current strategy for passing Build Back Better, the infrastructure and social services plan: “We have tried a strategy over the last several months, which has been mostly backdoor negotiations with a handful of senators. It hasn’t succeeded on Build Back Better or on voting rights. It has demoralized millions of Americans.”
The danger is real. As Bernie puts it: “It is no great secret that the Republican party is winning more and more support from working people. It’s not because the Republican party has anything to say to them. It’s because in too many ways the Democratic party has turned its back on the working class.”
Sanders is ratcheting up the pressure on Democrats. “I think the Democratic party has to address the long-simmering debate, which is, Which side are you on? Are we prepared to stand with working families and take on powerful corporate interests?”
Bernie is absolutely right to set the stakes this high. Democrats have failed miserably to deliver on their promises from 2020. People don’t see their lives getting better under this administration, and they can’t understand why, because whatever negotiations are happening are happening behind the scenes.
The solution, Sanders argues, is to start bringing popular pieces of Build Back Better up for a vote, one by one. Make Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema vote against creating a permanent child tax credit and reducing the cost of prescription drugs. Make the fight public, loud, and intense. Go after those who would stand in the way of improving all our lives.
But Democrats are unlikely to listen.
Will Democrats Change Course?
For one thing, taking the fight against right-wing Democrats to the public goes against how Democratic politicians have always done things. Democrats on Capitol Hill think they belong together as a family. They aggressively police anyone who would try to level criticisms at “fellow” party members. When progressives dared to criticize Manchin during Build Back Better debates, others in the party came down hard on them.
Nor are Democrats at all likely to go to Arizona and West Virginia and try to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to pressure Sinema and Manchin. Imagining Democrats trying to do this is absurd — this is not something they do, ever.
And then of course there’s the real roadblock: Democrats have two bases.
The first base is among the voters, a base they readily take for granted except during elections, when they deploy the well-worn demand that voters fall in line to “save democracy.”
The second base is in the ruling class. This is the base they would never dare to consider taking for granted. For this is the base that pays the bills, gives Democrats jobs when they lose elections, hosts lavish parties in their honor, and staffs their most important offices — the base whose stocks Democratic politicians own and trade with impunity in order to enrich themselves.
In early 2021, it seemed like this corporate base might have loosened the leash on Joe Biden’s administration. Scared by the rise of right-wing populism, many in the corporate world appeared open to some redistributive policies.
But that window closed quickly. If one wants to redistribute money, it has to come from somewhere. And business was in no mood to give from its own plate.
As a telling New York Times headline put it this past summer, “In Social Policy Bill, Businesses See a Lot to Like. They Oppose It.” The accompanying blurb read, “Resistance to tax increases outweighs the appeal of a $3.5 trillion measure containing child care credits and other items that corporations embrace.”
The result has been a weak Biden administration, unable to do almost anything meaningful, and a lost year.
What Comes Next
There’s no reason to put hope in the Democratic Party making a dramatic course correction. Yes, they will probably lose the midterms. No, there’s no reason to think that will stop them from going down with the ship without a fight. We’ve been here before.
If there’s one thing Democratic politicians excel at, it’s losing. After all, the consequences for them are pretty minor: lose an election, get a high-paid job at some corporate outfit.
That means we need a different plan. Bernie and the Squad—who have often done a laudable job in Congress of standing up to Democratic duplicity, as the Squad did in voting against the bipartisan infrastructure bill—have the power and the opportunity to stake out an independent course. They’re possibly the only ones, besides the labor movement, who at this moment have the name recognition and ability to mobilize resources and supporters to do what needs to be done nationally.
As Ben Beckett has argued in Jacobin, it’s time for the left wing in Congress to call its millions of supporters and activists to action. Bernie could revive his promise to be an “organizer in chief.” He may not be president, but he can still play that role.
With their resources and support, Bernie and the Squad could begin a relentless campaign of speeches, ads, petitions, rallies, marches, and demonstrations calling on Democrats to put the agenda they claim to support to a vote and to apply pressure against right-wing Democrats. They could rally unions and community organizations, or mobilize the tens of thousands of Democratic Socialists of America members ready to jump into a new national campaign, or link up with the 1.3 million workers whose union contracts expire this year and who might go on strike.
Why not organize a march on Washington? Or organize mass occupations of the offices of recalcitrant Democrats? Or launch a vigorous bird-dogging campaign against Manchin and Sinema, on a scale we haven’t seen yet? Both Sinema and Manchin will be up for reelection in 2024. Start recruiting now, in a big and public manner, for primary challenges. Set up pickets outside the offices of Manchin and Sinema’s major donors. After all, they’re the ones who seem to call the shots.
Tactics like these won’t make any friends in the Democratic Party leadership. But if there’s no reason to think Democrats will change course and go to war against their own right wing, what’s holding us back? The consequence of inaction, as Bernie has correctly put it, is to continue to hemorrhage working-class people to apathy, the Right, and the conspiratorial fringes. And if people can’t tell which side the Democrats are really on, we on the Left need to get as far away from their toxic brand as we can.
For some leaders on the Left, this will mean going outside of their comfort zone. Mass mobilizations require mass organization. We have to put the days of lone wolf politicians acting on their own, and of “organizations” of email subscribers, behind us. We need to trust our own base to democratically manage its future, and left-wing politicians need to heed their recommendations. That’s what it’ll take to mobilize millions for a sustained campaign.
The chances of passing a bill that comes anywhere close to what the moment calls for are slim at this point. Manchin and Sinema (and other, less visible right-leaning Democrats) seem to have dug themselves in. And having wasted twelve months, there’s probably little Democrats can do to save themselves from defeat in November anyway.
The Left doesn’t have to go down with them, however. Even if a mass campaign against Manchin and Sinema can’t get them to change their minds, it can help us to set ourselves up as an alternative. People need to know that if they’re unhappy with Democrats’ incompetence, reticence to act, or downright betrayal, there’s a different way that’s not signing up with Donald Trump’s Republicans or giving up entirely.
But establishing ourselves as that alternative means getting aggressive. Being loud and proud of the fact that we know whose side we’re on. Not on the side of Biden, his billionaires, and his buddies on Capitol Hill. Not on the side of right-wing reactionaries or QAnon cranks. We’re on the side of the working class, against all the other forces in society that have kept workers down for so long.
The message is simple.
Yes you’re right to be angry.
Yes, you’re right to think, as Bernie put it, that “the Democratic party has turned its back on the working class.”
We’re here to fight alongside you for a better world, against the reactionaries, against the billionaires, and even against Biden and the do-nothing Democrats.