Last night, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Joe Biden and Kamala Harris a straightforward question: “Who would you point to now as a leading progressive voice in the cabinet?”
Harris had no answer, saying only that “we’re not even halfway there” on nominations. Biden touted only his Homeland Security nominee, who previously helped run Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The spectacle was revelatory and honest: a month after the election, Biden’s nominations make it clear that the president-elect is most focused on trying to fulfill his promise to donors that nothing fundamentally changes.
And yet that tacit admission may have stunned those who keep hearing from liberal and progressive groups in Washington that, in fact, the Left has been notching monumental victories in Biden’s cabinet appointments.
This disconnect between Biden nominating business-friendly corporatists and Beltway liberals effusively celebrating those nominees spotlights the latter groups’ decision to genuflect for access and influence — rather than being brutally honest about the situation.
That strategy of appeasement has almost never worked in an America where change has typically come only through opposition, struggle, and sacrifice. And yet somehow, prostration remains the dominant strategy among the professional left. Why?
In some cases, liberal groups are naively trying to curry favor with an incoming Democratic administration. Others are probably just trying to demonstrate to their supporters and future donors that they won’t be completely irrelevant in Biden’s Washington. Some are just too chickenshit to ever stand up and have any real fight with Democrats — and still others are just auctioning off their principles because the establishment counterrevolution offers better, more stable career prospects.
The result, though, is the same: what little organized left political infrastructure exists in Washington is largely valorizing or publicly defending swamp creatures who at minimum deserve a loyal opposition. The good work being done by a small handful of underresourced groups to mount a real opposition is getting trampled by a culture of obsequiousness.
This culture of acquiescence gives swamp creatures a free pass — and it may not just deliver an incrementalist Biden administration that takes progressives for granted and consequently fails to address national emergencies.
It could also help permanently change what is even considered politically possible in the future.
Three Stories Illustrate One Parable
Three episodes — each with a similar story arc — tell the larger story of Washington liberals avoiding conflict in a way that could ultimately shift norms and possibilities.
First, there were environmental groups’ exuberant reaction to the announcement of John Kerry as a new climate policy adviser. These groups were not just celebrating the creation of a White House climate czar position, they were feting Kerry himself, with one calling him “one of the world’s most effective climate champions.”
Kerry certainly has some significant climate achievements in his record. However, omitted from the conversation was any mention of his long record in government supporting fossil fuels and his time in the private sector leading an advisory council at a bank that has been behind the “biggest absolute increase in fossil financing” in the last year, according to Oil Change International.
Then came the Bloomberg News report earlier this week about BlackRock executive Brian Deese — an austerity hawk who worked on climate issues for the firm — being named to run the White House’s economic policy. While some climate groups expressed skepticism about the appointment, others went noticeably silent, and some high-profile environmental advocates and Washington pundits simply brushed off the extensive reporting about BlackRock’s pivotal role in fueling the climate crisis. They fell in line and obediently touted the appointment as proof that Joe Biden would be a climate hero, even after he made his liaison to the climate movement a lawmaker with deep ties to the oil and gas industry.
Hours after the news of Deese’s appointment, Bloomberg separately reported on new data showing that while Deese has been working at BlackRock, the firm — more than any other comparable asset manager — has been using its enormous market power to vote down shareholder resolutions designed to force corporations to reduce their carbon emissions.
And then came Biden announcing Center for American Progress (CAP) president Neera Tanden as White House budget director.
Despite Tanden’s push for Social Security cuts, Beltway liberal groups whose mission is to defend Social Security lauded her think tank. Despite Tanden having her organization rake in cash from Wall Street, Amazon, billionaires, and (previously) foreign governments, a Ralph Nader–founded, all-purpose consumer advocacy group praised CAP as “one of our key partners in the fight to tax corporations and the rich, rein in monopoly power, tackle government corruption, and much more.”
And despite — or perhaps because of — Tanden being one of the nation’s most vicious personal trolls of senator Bernie Sanders and his progressive supporters, Sanders’s putatively liberal Senate colleagues went out of their way to make a public show of praising her.
Some progressive groups have defended Tanden’s selection on the grounds that she is better than Bruce Reed, who they’ve campaigned against. Reed — a former Biden aide who led the corporate-aligned Democratic Leadership Council, spearheaded welfare reform and led the Obama administration’s commission proposing Social Security cuts — worked with Tanden in the Clinton White House.
Pretending Tanden’s nomination is laudable because at least she’s not Reed is like pretending Darth Vader is a decent administrator because, hey, at least he’s not Emperor Palpatine.
That victory story is hard to sell to progressives because if the average person — or poster — knows who any of these potential appointments are (outside of maybe Kerry), it would be Tanden, who has spent years vilifying the Left on Twitter and on cable news roundtables.
These three parables are distinct from Biden’s predictable embrace of the Washington swamp — for instance, they are different from him considering a national security team comprised of former government officials promising investors that their political connections will result in lucrative military contracts. That’s just blatant corruption.
By contrast, the spectacle of liberal groups, pundits, and politicians choosing to fall in line behind their putative opponents is beyond corruption — it is ideological capture.
They are not just failing to provide the loyal opposition they promised their grassroots supporters, members, and donors — nor are they merely quietly accepting that to the centrist victor go the spoils. They are instead celebrating the people who have and undoubtedly will continue to undermine their purported agenda.
Normalizing Swamp Creatures
Whatever these groups’ motivations are — naivete, fear, avarice, or anything else — we should recognize that high-profile liberals celebrating corporatist nominees could help further shift the Overton window to the right at a time when we can’t afford a corporatist government.
That term — the Overton window — describes the acceptable range of political possibilities and norms in any given society. When it shifts, the range of all possible policy outcomes shifts with it.
When a veteran politician who supported fossil fuel development is lauded even by environmental groups as a great climate hero, that shifts the window to a place that tells politicians there are no future career consequences for having a mediocre climate record.
When a BlackRock executive strolling through the revolving door is touted even by liberal groups, that shifts the window to a place that tells America it is perfectly acceptable to have a Wall Street–run government.
When a union-buster who promoted Social Security cuts during the last Democratic presidential administration is touted even by liberal groups that claim to support unions and oppose Social Security cuts, that shifts the window to a place that signals it is perfectly fine to have anti-labor, pro-austerity ideologues run the government.
None of this to argue that Kerry, Deese, Tanden, or any of Biden’s other nominees so far are anomalously bad — they are standard-issue functionaries whose distinguishing quality is that they have no distinguishing qualities other than their affiliation with the Washington bog. But at a moment of ecological and economic cataclysm, run-of-the-mill swamp creatures should at least be cast as controversial by what passes for a Left in America — in the name of at least trying to create a countervailing force that presses the government for something more than run-of-the-mill swampiness.
Liberal groups, pundits, and politicians are doing the opposite. They are normalizing these swamp creatures, signaling that in the face of disaster, even the Left believes it is absolutely fine for nothing to fundamentally change. And as that now shifts the Overton window ever further to the right, those who insist this status quo is not fine will inevitably be depicted as a marginal fringe that should be ignored.
But, of course, none of this is fine.
If there is to be any hope for the most desperately needed policy changes — and hope to prevent a Biden administration from cutting bad legislative deals with Republicans — there needs to be a real, reliable, and robust opposition, even if it annoys Washington power players.
Advocacy groups and activists must find the strength and the guts to sacrifice personal relationships, access, and social status for the larger cause. Otherwise, the next four years could be a long descent into even more pain and suffering that is entirely avoidable — and that may create the backlash conditions for another Donald Trump, but worse.