Last week, news broke that Bernie Sanders’s team has been compiling a long list of executive orders for Sanders to potentially enact if he becomes president. A document reviewed by the Washington Post “shows how the Sanders campaign has already begun extensive planning for how the senator would lead the country in his first days as president if he won the Democratic nomination and defeated Trump in November.”
The list was compiled for Sanders by his campaign manager Faiz Shakir, senior adviser Warren Gunnels, and policy director Josh Orton. “We cannot accept delays from Congress on some of the most pressing issues,” it reads, “especially those like immigration where Trump has governed with racism and for his own corrupt benefit.”
According to Post reporters Jeff Stein and Sean Sullivan, who reviewed the document, it contains dozens of recommendations. They include more than a dozen reversals of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, as well as:
allowing the United States to import prescription drugs from Canada; directing the Justice Department to legalize marijuana; and declaring climate change a national emergency while banning the exportation of crude oil. Other options cited in the document include canceling federal contracts for firms paying less than $15 an hour and reversing federal rules blocking U.S. funding to organizations that provide abortion counseling… Other possible executive orders being considered include the immediate release of disaster aid to Puerto Rico and a review of the federal policies toward Native American tribal groups.
Stein and Sullivan interpret the document to mean that a Sanders administration would take an aggressive approach to unilateral executive action, in defiance of Republicans and many conservative Democrats who will oppose these measures. This governing style stands in contrast to that of Joe Biden, Sanders’s top competitor for the Democratic nomination, who has signaled that he is primarily keen to pursue bipartisan negotiations — and has advertised himself as an excellent negotiator of compromise with the GOP.
In recent months, Jacobin has featured contrasting views about the potential role of executive orders in a left-wing administration. I wrote a feature story early last year in which I compiled my own list of potential Sanders administration executive orders, and argued that they could be used to both curb capitalist power and stimulate extra-parliamentary activity, which would be the real source of a Sanders administration’s strength. On the other hand, law professor Ryan Doerfler has expressed doubt about that approach, pointing to the courts’ increasing hostility to grants of executive authority; Luke Herrine responded to him in Jacobin, while David Dayen responded in the American Prospect.
In my view, it’s wise for the Sanders team to be preparing to take aggressive executive action if he wins the presidency. There are three main reasons. First, executive orders, when they can be implemented, can be used to stop or undo the harm of previous administrations, which is good and necessary in its own right. Second, they can raise popular political expectations, which can fortify a sense of possibility and enthusiasm in the public as well as improve the administration’s image. And third, they can be used to curb capitalist influence and clear obstacles to mass political action, which will be necessary when it comes to passing legislative aspects of the administration’s agenda.
The first point is pretty straightforward. Over eight million people were arrested in the first decade of the twenty-first century for possession of marijuana. With the single stroke of a pen, a President Sanders could stop the federal prosecution of marijuana cases, removing a pretext for the arrest of poor people and people of color, especially poor black men. Similarly, nearly two million noncitizens live in the United States who were brought here before their sixteenth birthday. Vulnerable to deportation under Trump, their burden of anxiety and precarity could be immediately lifted with the executive reinstatement of the DACA program.
Neither of these measures constitutes a complete vision for criminal justice or immigration reform, but because they would right wrongs and make people’s lives better on a large scale, it would be incumbent on a Sanders administration to enact them as swiftly as possible. The same goes for other executive orders reported by the Post like prescription drug importation reforms and disaster aid to Puerto Rico, and many that aren’t reported including instituting postal banking, creating public treatment programs for people suffering from addiction, banning the box for federal contractors — the list goes on.
The second point is that executive orders can be strategically used to cut through the pervasive gloom and to fortify a new sense of political possibility in the culture. The ascent of neoliberalism and the internalization of its unofficial motto, Margaret Thatcher’s statement that “There is no alternative” to austerity and privatization, has engendered deep political demoralization. For the last forty years, the prevailing philosophy has been that the constant upward redistribution of society’s resources is inevitable, as is cutthroat competition over what remains at the bottom. Politics simply consists of different methods of making peace with worsening inequality.
If Sanders makes it all the way to the White House, that will be the clearest indication yet that the mass resignation of the neoliberal era has given way in the United States to a new appetite for social transformation, and a new belief that it can be accomplished. But that hope could evaporate if Sanders doesn’t act quickly to demonstrate that he’s not going to be hamstrung, neutralized, or coopted like so many would-be reformers before him. A raft of well-chosen and well-timed executive orders that have real material consequences for people could buoy spirits for the battles to come.
Ambitious executive orders signed early in a first term also have the potential to win the allegiance of large swaths of the population. Think about the elimination of all student debt, something that Sanders has promised to do (and that is curiously not reported by the Post as being listed in the document, despite the fact that it’s most easily accomplished by executive order). If Sanders were to eliminate all student debt through executive action early in his presidency, forty-four million people would see their loans disappear and new futures stretch out before them.
In the same way that the New Deal endeared many people to Roosevelt by lighting up their homes, a move that reaches so many people so intimately could create a new constituency inclined to remain loyal to a Sanders administration. That allegiance will come in handy when the attempts to undermine the administration — to disinvest, tank the economy, and blame it on Sanders, for example — begin in earnest.
Third, some executive orders may help curb the influence of capital on government and make it easier for the working class, ideally newly emboldened and increasingly organized, to influence the state instead. When Sanders talks about the need for ordinary people to proactively exert their will in order to enact durable change, he’s not simply flattering would-be supporters. He’s rejecting a view of the state as neutral in the class struggle. He’s articulating a core belief that change of the type that his campaign represents will not be possible without harnessing social power and using it to force the state’s hand, against the inclinations of the state itself.
A Sanders administration would face not only the ordinary constraints imposed on all presidents, but an extraordinary level of opposition due to the fact that many pieces of his agenda challenge the power of corporate stakeholders in both parties, and are therefore likely to invite robust pushback from both Republicans and conservative Democrats. The anti-corporate basis of Sanders’s proposed reforms, however mildly social-democratic we may consider them to be in the grand scheme of things, means that a Sanders administration will encounter unusually high obstacles. Scaling them will require creative solutions.
To push the most substantial portions of Sanders’s agenda — Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, a Green New Deal — through a hostile Congress, mass mobilizations of some type will be necessary. Grassroots organizing drives, public protests, political strikes, and other forms of coordinated working-class action have the potential to force people in power to pretend to care about the working class and the planet, even if their donors don’t like it, on threat of losing their political careers. But to pull this off, the working class has to exert enough pressure on politicians to turn the usual capitalist dictum into, at the very least, an ultimatum.
In addition to inspiring and calling for extra-parliamentary action, which Sanders has repeatedly indicated he would do, it’s also possible to pass some executive orders that tilt the field in organized workers’ favor. Orders that obstruct channels by which the capitalist class can easily influence lawmakers are good examples. These include closing revolving doors, barring noncompliant corporations from securing federal contracts, and really any reform that stymies the relationship between capitalists and the state. The point is to use executive orders to shift the balance of power, and put obstacles in capitalists’ path as they seek to influence politicians. This increases the likelihood that workers’ attempts to squeeze and spook politicians will work, improving the administration’s chances of securing positive legislative outcomes.
That the team around Bernie Sanders is thinking about what they’d like to accomplish through executive order is good news. And it’s especially heartening to see them include so many recommendations, indicating a willingness to proceed aggressively, without empty bipartisan pageantry.
The trick, as always, will be to lean on executive action in a way that encourages and fosters popular participation, rather than treat it as a top-down substitute for mass action. And of course, before we reach that stage, another form of mass action is necessary. Huge numbers of people need to volunteer to knock on doors, make phone calls, and send this movement to the White House.