Even with majorities in both the House and Senate, conservative Democrats fought and removed parts of the Build Back Better plan that were wildly popular with voters—voters who elected Democrats expecting them to deliver things like paid leave, universal pre-K, and expanded Medicare coverage. As those voters continue to face real struggles, what options do they have when their representatives won’t even defend their agenda against members of their own party?
On this episode of The Marc Steiner Show, longtime labor organizer Bill Fletcher Jr. and Jacobin staff writer Luke Savage discuss how voters need to organize and counterattack with litigation, ballot initiatives, and mass action to confront voter suppression and gerrymandering, and pressure Democrats into action—and not just wait until midterm elections “for the meteor to hit.”
Tune in for new episodes of The Marc Steiner Show every Monday and Thursday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s good to have you all with us once again. Today, we have another conversation inspired by Jacobin magazine. For a few political moments, many of us took a sigh of relief when Trump lost the election and two progressives won Senate seats from Georgia that allowed Democrats to regain control of the Senate. Well, so much for that. The Democrats have just passed a watered down infrastructure and Build Back Better bills. Most Americans have no idea what the fight was about, but see Democrats in dysfunction. Democrats are in real danger of losing the House and the Senate during the next midterm elections, and they just lost the governor’s race in Virginia, and almost lost in New Jersey.
One of our guests, Luke Savage, staff writer for Jacobin magazine, for which he wrote the article, “Democrats Can’t Be Losing Because They ‘Moved Too Far Left’ When They Aren’t Moving Left.” He joins us along with Bill Fletcher, who has been a union activist and organizer for decades, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, written numerous books including his mystery novel, The Man Who Fell From The Sky, They’re Bankrupting Us, and many other books.
The question is, what has this congressional battle wrought? Progressives among Democrats pushed hard and fought, but Senators Sinema and Manchin fought openly for the agendas of their corporate backers. The compromise cut legislation from $3 trillion to $1.5 trillion. So what does it all mean and what comes next? We’re going to explore that.
Gentlemen, welcome. Good to have you both with us.
Bill Fletcher: Good to be on board.
Luke Savage: Glad to be here, thanks for having me.
Marc Steiner: Oh, this is great. Luke, let me just start with you since we started with your article. Give us a broad thesis here about what you’re positing.
Luke Savage: Okay. Well, the catalyst for the article was the elections a few weeks ago, which you mentioned off the top there. I mean, particularly the election in Virginia, in which the Democrats lost the gubernatorial election. Which has obviously become, in its own way, a catalyst for, I suppose, recurrence, resurgence of a Clinton era ontology of electoral politics that you’ve been really hearing from mainstream and centrist Democrats since the mid ’90s. Blame the left is a shorthand for it. In the centrist ontology of politics, the left is always to blame for defeat even when it’s not in power, even when it’s not really exerting influence, when it’s not in charge. And triangulation of one kind or another is always the cause of a centrist victory.
We’ve really seen this version of this argument or variations of it blaring from multiple channels since the elections a few weeks ago. You’ve really seen this resurgence of this very Clinton-ite idea of how electoral politics work. I mean, the basic idea is that all elections are won from the center. They are won by capturing an idealized middle of the road voter, who is put off by language that sounds like it’s anchored on the left. That gets complicated of course in practice, because you can shoehorn an awful lot into that. You can shoehorn, if you’re a centrist liberal, really any grievance you have with anything that isn’t centrist liberalism.
The type of voter we’re told should define American elections is very fiscally conservative. They’re worried about the federal deficit. They’re concerned about excessive public spending. They’re also reflexively centrist, so they want bipartisanship. They want incremental reforms rather than big new programs. Surprise, surprise, they want the same basic approach that the big donor class that’s largely captured both parties wants. And last thing I’ll say about this type of voter, I mean, I won’t say it’s a phantom, this type of voter exists. I don’t think they’re as numerous or as worth targeting and catering to as centrist Democrats do.
But another thing I think that’s interesting you’ll find here is that this type of voter is interchangeably blue collar and white collar suburban, depending on the context. And middle class is the catchall term that is often used to elide the actual differences within the electorate. Because a lot of people identify as middle class. You meet people who make $50,000 a year who think of themselves as middle class. You also meet people who make almost half a million dollars a year and they say, I’m not rich. I’m part of the middle class. Once again, we’ve seen the centering of this type of voter and the narrative. The Democrats, their electoral fortunes are suffering because they are alienating this type of voter for all kinds of alleged reasons which we could get into.
Marc Steiner: Bill, I’m curious as to your take about what’s happening on the Hill and why.
Bill Fletcher: I started in a somewhat different place, Marc. First of all, what’s interesting about the Virginia elections and the New Jersey elections is that the margin of victory was narrow on both levels. We’re not talking about some sort of dramatic sweep. We’re talking about, at least in the case of Virginia, a Republican victory in an off year election where the Republicans really played to race and COVID, which I think is going to be very central to what they’re going to do all over the country. That’s one thing I want to say in the beginning.
The second is, as you and I have discussed, I don’t think it’s very useful to talk about the Democratic Party. I think it’s useful to talk about the Democratic coalition. I think what we’re seeing, and this is where I disagree somewhat with you, Luke. What you described is true, but it’s not the whole truth. There is a broader truth, which is that there are multiple parties within the Democratic Party. I think that, unfortunately, what the mainstream media has done has turned the real struggles that are going on in the Democratic Party into squabbles.
In other words, they’re describing these struggles, like what we recently saw with the progressive caucus pushing against Senator Munchkin, as I like to call him, and Sinema. Pushing against them. I mean, that’s not squabbling, that’s struggle. There’s a struggle that’s going on within the Democratic coalition that, if this was Europe, we’d be talking about at least three or four different parties within the Democratic coalition. Now what that means then is that there’s a struggle around narrative, which I think you’re pointing to, Luke. I think that the progressive caucus has done really a marvelous job in pushing back against the neoliberal narrative. And so we are up against that.
I think when we’re looking at this larger situation, we won’t be able to figure out an appropriate strategy if we keep looking at the Democratic Party as a party. It simply doesn’t help because there’s a fight that’s going on within the so-called Democratic Party that needs to be joined. We have to understand that the battle around Munchkin and Sinema is not just a battle against them as individuals, it’s a battle against an entire tendency. One of the things that was not anticipated by anyone on the left was that Biden would advance a non-neoliberal economic program after he won. Nobody. There’s no one on the left that anticipated that. Everybody assumed, myself included, that it was simply going to be warmed over Obama, and it’s not. We have a president who is more outspoken on labor and the need to unionize than has existed in my lifetime.
So the question is then, what does the left do? I think that’s what we’ve got to focus on. What do we do in this moment, and how do we avoid the politics of despair? Which is, I guess, the last thing I want to say. And you’ve heard this before, Marc. I’m tired of despair, I’m tired of hearing of despair, I’m tired of the ways the mainstream media has basically been laying the foundation ever since November 2020 for disaster in the midterms. They’ve been repeating over and over again that the Republicans are going to take it. Well, the Republicans might, but we still got another year and there’s a hell of a lot that can happen in a year.
Marc Steiner: Luke, before I leap in and try to bring together these ideas that both you have just posited, are you chomping at the bit to say something before I jump in? You can, please go ahead.
Luke Savage: No, it’s all right.
Marc Steiner: Okay, cool. Let’s pick up on this theme and what this might mean. I’m going to posit something you can agree or disagree with. That at the moment, it seems that the most organized segment of the left in terms of a political push is somehow swirling around the Democratic Party. Some in it, around it, but that seems to be, other than demonstrations in the street around Black Lives Matter, the strikes going on that are a public response to what’s going on in our society. Other than that, it’s inside the Democrats, it seems to me, or whirling around them.
At the same time you saw what just happened, which was that progressives made a huge push to back this bill that Biden put out, and Biden wanted to get their buy-in, so it became a much larger bill. It was whittled down because of certain centrists who said no, both in the House and the Senate. The question becomes to me, though, and because what you just said, Bill, the reality is though it seemed to me that the midterms with the right wing in this country controlling at least 26 states, gerrymandering them, pushing back on the voting rights bill which hasn’t happened yet, that there is a real danger. That because the Democrats couldn’t do anything that appealed to a broad mass, that they lose and the right wins.
Marc Steiner: I know that’s the despair. So let me get through the despair first and talk about that. Bill, let you start, then Luke, you jump right in.
Bill Fletcher: As I used to say to my father, there’s a very real possibility a meteor will hit the earth in our lifetime and wipe us all out [Marc laughs]. Now, there’s a couple of things that we could conclude from that, Marc. One is that we should sit around and smoke herb and just wait for the meteor to hit, right? I mean, that’s a conclusion. Another is that, that disaster might happen, but it might not. It may not happen in our lifetime. You’re absolutely right that the midterms could go in a really bad way. But actually, they could go in a really bad way largely because of gerrymandering and voter suppression, and added to that, certain typical things that happen during midterm elections. Therefore, I think that one of the things that we’ve got to be doing is pushing the Democratic establishment and the Biden administration around the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better and other policies.
This is where I get so frustrated with much of the progressive movement. We saw this with Clinton, we saw this with Obama, which was this tendency to become very passive once these liberals get elected, and to sit back and give them a lot of breathing room when they don’t need any breathing room, none. We should give them no breathing room. The point is, we’ve got to be on them like white on rice. I think that is one of the things that will make a difference. When you look at the labor upsurges of the 1930s after Roosevelt was elected, the unions didn’t sit around waiting for Roosevelt to give the word. I mean, there was a lot of activity that was going on even beginning before Roosevelt got elected. So I’d say that’s a general direction that we need to go in. That’s one of the reasons I’m not despairing.
But the other thing is that, in the coming year, any number of things are possible. I wrote this piece about how I think that the Democrats really have to remind the voters that the Republican Party is the party of January 6th, and they’re nothing more or less than that. That this needs to be part of the central message that’s conveyed. I just read something in the Washington Post about how some Ethiopian Americans voted for Youngkin because they were angry with Biden around how he’s dealing with Ethiopia. Well, okay, I get it. So you’re going to vote for someone who is not willing to distance himself from a crypto fascist as a way of making a protest against what’s going on in Ethiopia. I mean, maybe that’s their decision. But I think we’ve got to remind people that we’re not talking about the Republican Party of 1967. We’re talking about a very different party and that needs to be central to the narrative that’s articulated.
Marc Steiner: Luke.
Luke Savage: Well, I mean, I largely agree with what Bill said. I mean, the initial point about treating the Democratic Party less as a party than as a coalition I think is absolutely central to any kind of serious analysis about this stuff. I mean, I guess there’s a whole lot to unpack there. The only thing I would say about the January 6th thing is from my sense, the Virginia race, the Democrats focused on that quite a lot. As I understand it, Biden went to campaign for McAuliffe and he didn’t really talk about his agenda. He tried to tie McAuliffe to Trump. Now, Bill, I think you’re probably going to get your wish. I suspect the Democrats will mention January 6th quite a lot in 2022 and probably in 2024, as well. It’s obviously a serious concern.
The Republican Party, which has not in my lifetime ever been any kind of moderate, sensible political formation, is radicalizing more and more with each passing year. I think even though he’s no longer president and is off Twitter and is much less visible, Donald Trump has really continued to define it, and in many ways his personality and temperament, I think, are now inextricable from it. Having said all that, I’m skeptical of the wisdom of making that central as an electoral offering. The Democrats did that in 2016 in lieu of any kind of broad, progressive agenda and they were not successful. They had, I think, I would argue, a uniquely poor candidate as well. I think the margin of victory in 2020 was probably smaller than it should have been and that Biden might not have won if it hadn’t been for the coronavirus.
These are all obviously quite debatable points and who knows what will be sensible electoral strategy in a few years. But I think to turn back for a second to the recent electoral results, there’s certainly a case to be made that the Democrats, contra what much of the mainstream media is saying, the Democrats, at least a part of their voting coalition, really did expect them to implement something on the scale of the New Deal or something like that. I mean, if you go back to the months leading up to the election, the months immediately following the election, that really was the narrative in a lot of publications. It was, we’re in a new progressive era. Joe Biden is not the person we thought he was, et cetera.
There’s now been eight straight months of this agenda being whittled down from a $6 trillion figure to $3.5 trillion, to now less than $2 trillion. The idea that Democrats have been governing from the left when they’ve just passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill and haven’t even passed this watered down reconciliation bill – We don’t know what it will look like in its final form – The idea that they’ve been governing from the left and are being punished for that I think is absurd. There’s a much stronger case to be made. And obviously, Virginia and New Jersey and all these places have their own specific context and I’m not trying to elide that. But taken as a whole, looking at the national picture, I think there’s a much stronger case to be made that the Democrats’ electoral fortunes are sinking in large part because they have not implemented an agenda that huge parts of their voter coalition thought that they were going to implement. And as a consequence, just the amount of enthusiasm around the administration and its agenda have really plummeted.
Bill Fletcher: Well, I mean, yeah, that’s right, but that’s not about Biden. I mean, let’s deal with what’s happening. There is a blockage in Congress. Munchkin and Sinema are blocking this. That’s one of the reasons I think it’s important that we talk about the Democratic coalition. This is what bothers me about the media. To the extent that the media acts like the Democrats are just sitting on their hands and not doing anything, they’re missing what’s actually going on. There’s a struggle going on. Sinema and Munchkin have blocked this thing from moving forward. So the question then on the left is, what do you do about them? That’s the question. Since Biden advanced his very ambitious proposal – And you’re right, that’s what people were expecting, and that’s what people deserve – Biden advanced that. It is being blocked by some particular forces, one that was expected and one that was not.
And because the situation is so tight, the question is what do we do? I feel like that’s a very real, hard question that needs to be addressed. Because I don’t disagree with you that there needs to be convincing candidates, but let’s remember that loads of us on the left said Biden was simply not a convincing candidate. I remember after he got the nomination, seeing all kinds of leftists saying, oh my God, we’re going to lose this election. I mean, it should have been Bernie Sanders. Well, we didn’t lose the election. But we do need a good candidate and absolutely we need that platform. I think that the administration needs to be speaking about some of the victories that actually have been brought about.
But we also have to remind people about what the nature of the threat is. This is where I disagree, Luke. What McAuliffe did in Virginia was not talk about January 6th, he talked about Trump, and there’s a big difference. Because what he was focusing on was Trump and Youngkin. What I’m talking about is, January 6th was much more than that. The fact that you did not have a guy running for governor who was denouncing January 6th, and the fact that you have these Senators and Congresspeople who are not denouncing January 6th is something that should be tied around their neck like a noose. That was my point.
Marc Steiner: So, [crosstalk]. Go ahead Luke, and I’ll jump in.
Luke Savage: Well, I want to agree just to find some more ground for agreement here. I think what you said about the way the media has framed the reconciliation fight is absolutely right. I’ve been following the media coverage of that pretty closely and you’re right that it’s largely been portrayed as a squabble rather than a struggle. There’s been, I would say, a pretty strong bias towards Manchin and Sinema in the way that the whole thing has been framed. I mean for starters, you’ve had these two separate pieces of legislation. The bipartisan one, which has long had the support of, I guess it’s 10 Senate Republicans, and I think passed with the same margin. And you have this reconciliation bill.
By and large, the first of those things has been treated as this essential, bread and butter, practical thing that has bipartisan support. And the other one in which all the actual stuff, all the climate legislation, all of the social spending, all of that is contained. That’s been treated very derisively as these liberal, boutique issues. That’s there because the Democratic activist base wants it, and their job is to slowly make concessions to these two hard headed senators who are constantly framed as people negotiating in good faith, which of course they’re not doing. I mean, if you look at the kinds of things that Manchin and Sinema have said throughout this entire process, they’ll ask for cuts, but they don’t really ever offer any kind of alternative. The alternative is just more cuts. At one point – And I never get sick of bringing this up – Manchin was talking about a $4 trillion bill. That was just earlier this year. So $4 trillion was fine in February or March or wherever, and now it’s a threat to the Republic itself or whatever.
The way the reconciliation fight has been framed I think is awful. For me, the big issue is that the only viable way I see to overcome that kind of opposition, if there is one under these conditions with this kind of balance of power in the Senate and all the rest of it, is if you had a more activist kind of presidency, you had a more activist administration that was much more willing to pick fights with parts of the Democratic coalition. We don’t have time to debate the whole trajectory of Biden, but my sense is that Biden did run on all these things on paper, and then introduced them in the form of this legislation. But he’s unwilling to do the kinds of things that would be necessary to push them. At least push them further, given the circumstances.
Just one really quick point on this, and then I’ll stop talking. But a few weeks ago, Bernie Sanders did this thing in trying to advocate for the reconciliation bill, basically. All he did was he took out an op-ed in a West Virginia-based newspaper. It only mentions Joe Manchin once. It essentially makes a positive case for the items in the bill and how they’re going to benefit West Virginians. Now, this was largely treated as this horrendous breach of Beltway etiquette. Sanders was chastised, Manchin issued this aggrieved, wounded statement. How dare you come into my state? How dare you take out an op-ed in a newspaper in West Virginia and tell me what to do? But I think what Bernie was doing is very tame. I mean, should be said, it’s a pretty tame thing to do. Bernie didn’t go and hold a militant rally or something like that.
But if the White House was really serious about moving these intransigent Senators rather than simply giving them more and more until the reconciliation bill is down to almost nothing, Biden would be going and holding rallies in West Virginia, he’d be making a positive case for this agenda. I think the issue with Joe Biden, notwithstanding the agenda that he at least ran on on paper, is that he really is a creature of the Beltway and he’s a reflexively centrist politician. That kind of thing is just not done. But Bill, I think I largely agree with your assessment, even if we maybe have a little bit of a different impression on Joe Biden himself.
Bill Fletcher: And I agree with what you were just saying, Luke. In fact, because I agree with it, I feel like you don’t wait for Biden to do that. See, I think you’re right, I think the example of Sanders is right, and what Sanders did was correct. And we need other progressive forces that are willing to do just that and really jack up these people who are obstructing this. I agree with you 150%.
Marc Steiner: Whatever bill passes will not be a bill that I think will satisfy most Americans. You have a situation, at least from my perspective, where most people in this country would not describe themselves as leftist. But when it comes to looking at agenda items and their lives, they support the agenda that most progressives would posit. Then you have what we call the centrists, tied to the corporations who are saying no and forcing this back. So even though progressives have maybe a plurality of congressional representatives at the moment, you’re faced with the voting rights issues coming up in states, gerrymandering, the real danger the right could get even more seats in the coming election, and the right wing power could grow.
What is it then that both of you think should be the progressive left response both inside and outside the Democratic party to what’s being faced at the moment? What’s the next logical step given the reality that we’re facing now with this bill that’s about to be passed? Luke, I’ll let you start and let Bill conclude.
Luke Savage: Yeah. I mean, it’s very hard for me to offer an answer that I think would be particularly compelling or uplifting. Bill may feel differently about this. I hope he’s able to offer one that’s compelling and uplifting because I find myself coming up short here. But I mean, one thing I would just say, and I think it’s worth reiterating, is worth always keeping in mind in the wake of these awful electoral postmortems where even when you have a centrist like Terry McAuliffe lose, it’s somehow always that the Democrats, they’re running too far on the left. So the solution is to run even less on the left that they weren’t running on to begin with.
It’s worth remembering in moments like this, that as you just said, Marc, I mean, forget the DSA left or the more militant parts of the left. Much of the agenda embraced by the congressional progressive caucus commands considerable support across the United States. This op-ed that I was engaging with in my piece that we’ve been talking about, this one by Mark Penn and Andrew Stein, very tellingly doesn’t mention all of the things in the reconciliation bill that are incredibly popular. I’ve got the numbers right here. Lowering Medicare prescription drug prices – This is something the Democrats have been talking about doing for something like 30 years – 88% support. Medicare coverage for dental, eye and hearing, 84% support. Paid family medical leave, 73% support. Universal pre-K, 67% support. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I think free community college also got over 60% support in this particular poll.
Marc Steiner: It did, yes.
Luke Savage: And you could run down the list. This stuff is popular.
The problem is that the faction of the Democratic party that is in power and that tends to be given a platform to write this kind of op-ed and that kind of thing is not one that believes in this kind of agenda. Again and again, we see the ideological and policy preferences of a particular faction laundered in this concern trolling, we’re just offering hardheaded strategic advice, that kind of thing. For that reason, this advice is always going to be bad and I’m not exactly sure what to recommend that people do. But I know that one thing you should not do, is follow the advice of somebody like a Mark Penn or an Andrew Stein. Ignore whatever they say and whatever they say, probably doing the opposite is a good idea.
Marc Steiner: And let me just add before you jump in Bill, for the people listening, is that both Mark Penn and Andrew Stein have relationships with Trump. Even though they’re Democrats and have worked for Clinton and others, centrist Democrats, they play a very dangerous political game. That’s an important thing to point out in this thing because they were not billed that way and neither did The New York Times make any caveat about that. They just put it out there. But Bill, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
Bill Fletcher: No, no, don’t apologize. I agree with what Luke was laying out. I have a few suggestions about what I think can and must be done right now. But I want to start by just emphasizing that we have to remind people, regular people, that politics is very messy and that there’s certain things over which we’re not going to have any control. Unless we have a base in West Virginia, the Senator from that great state thumbs his nose at the rest of us. Unless we have a significant base in Arizona, the same thing. This should tell us something about where we need to be basing ourselves and the kind of work that we need to be doing. Because sometimes in politics you have to do certain strange things because the balance of forces is just not the way you want them to be.
There’s three things that I think overall, and a very specific proposal in addition. One: in terms of your question, Marc, voting rights movement, union organizing, and the environment. If I were to say, if you want to know what will make a difference right now, I would say a unified, aggressive voting rights movement that’s not just relying on a demonstration here or an email there but is doing a comprehensive counterattack using litigation, legislation, ballot initiatives, mass action, that’s one.
The second thing is an uptick in union organizing. This is an ideal time for massive union organizing. What people refer to as the great resignation or other people refer to as an objective general strike, is a very complicated moment because the fact of economic activism does not necessarily mean it’s going to be progressive. But we have an opportunity for the union movement to really start looking at taking advantage of this moment throughout the country to build organization, to develop more unions and other labor organizations. That’s the second thing.
The third is the environment. I mean, particularly given these repeated climate disasters that we’re facing, this is a moment to really point to why, at a minimum, what’s in the Build Back Better is important and why we have to go further. This is not going to happen from Biden. It’s not going to happen from the mainstream Democrats. It’s going to have to happen from us. That is, advancing this. But there’s another thing that we’ve got to do. We need to be building democracy brigades around this country. We need to be building the 21st century equivalent of the union leagues, which were organizations during reconstruction to fight the terrorists. We need to be building organizations that regular people can join, that can show up at these school board meetings, city council meetings, when idiots show up. And we need to battle back, we cannot allow a continued dominance by the irrationalist right, and that means organization.
It ain’t about sending emails, it’s not about tweeting this stuff, or despairing pictures on Facebook. It’s actually about being at these school board meetings when they’re happening. When idiots show up we need to be there and we need to be the ones that say when they start, for example, attacking so-called critical race theory, which is actually attacking the truth, we should be challenging them to a debate. We should be chomping them. But that’s not going to happen in the absence of organization. So progressives need to be taking the lead right now in forming democracy brigades around the country that deal with that, as well as protecting election officials. These election officials who are resigning for fear because they’re facing death threats and because the law enforcement is doing precious little around this. We need to be there. There’s a whole lot of stuff to be done. Question is, who’s going to take the lead?
Marc Steiner: Maybe that’s the point we’ll pick up on in the next conversation because I think this is really important. And I really appreciate both of you today and what you brought here. Bill Fletcher Jr. and Luke Savage, this has been a great conversation and inspired by Luke Savage’s piece for one of our Jacobian conversations: “Democrats Can’t Be Losing Because They ‘Moved Too Far Left’ When They Aren’t Moving Left,” we’ll be linking to that as well here.
Bill and Luke, thank you both so much for joining us here on the Marc Steiner Show today. We’ll pick this up because this is a critically important discussion. Thank you both for your work, and thanks for being here today.
Bill Fletcher: It’s a pleasure.
Luke Savage: Cheers.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. And please, let me know what you think about what you’ve heard today, what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I promise I’ll get right back to you. And if you’ve not joined us yet, please go to www.therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor, and become part of the future with us. For Stephen Frank and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.