Joe Biden Is Turning Out to Be Exactly Who He Told Us He Was

Osita Nwanevu

Joe Biden's rise has been a clarifying moment for the Left, showing its relative powerlessness within the Democratic Party. But the Left's ideas are popular in the country at large. The priority now must be advancing those ideas outside the framework of Democratic Party politics.

jlhervas / Flickr

Interview by
Luke Savage

Following two fruitful but ultimately unsuccessful forays into presidential politics in 2016 and 2020, the Left now finds itself back in a familiar place: on the outside looking in as a Democratic president assembles an administration heavy on corporate operatives and light on genuine progressives. The current moment presents several strategic questions in the short-term: how should the Left orient itself toward a Democratic administration over which it has little to no direct influence? Where and to what end should we be directing our time, energy, and resources? Is protesting Joe Biden’s awful cabinet picks a waste of time? In the longer-term, how should we think about electoral politics now that the window opened by Bernie Sanders has closed?

Jacobin‘s Luke Savage spoke with the New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu about these questions and others raised by his recent essay, “Joe Biden’s Cabinet Is a Lost Cause for the Left.”

Luke Savage

Let’s begin with Joe Biden’s transition and his cabinet choices. In your piece, you write bluntly that: “Overall, Democratic policy professionals of all identities and stripes have been given plenty of reasons to rejoice at Biden’s choices so far. Civilians in Yemen have not.” What’s your overall sense of Biden’s transition so far and how would you characterize the administration that’s taking shape?

Osita Nwanevu

I don’t think anybody can really be all that surprised. Biden ran on this vision of a political restoration where we go back in time: both in a spiritual sense and in some ways, in the literal sense, we return to the Obama years. That sort of climate of political normalcy, the expectation that you’d have experts — not people tethered to the political extremes — back in Washington, making good decisions, this is what he promised the American people.

That’s what we’re getting: a lot of Obama officials are quite literally returning to the White House. That’s not to say there haven’t been some good picks. In the past couple of days on the environmental side, we’ve had some respectable selections — people are excited about Deb Haaland running Interior, for example, and that’s fine. But overall, I think that we’re getting exactly what Biden said we would get. We’re getting a team of relatively moderate Democrats who can be expected to make relatively middle-of-the-road decisions at these various agencies.

Overall, I’m not too exercised about it. It’s just sort of what I think we should have been given to expect and assume, given the promises that were made and given who Joe Biden is as a political figure.

Luke Savage

In your recent piece, you point out that the Left has been more responsive and critical during this transition than it was during Obama’s twelve years ago. But you write that “it doesn’t seem like the flurries of statements, social media posts, and articles that have been written to counter every stray rumor and announcement have mattered very much at all.” All things considered, it certainly looks like that’s the case: Biden, by all appearances, is going to appoint the administration he wants.

Nonetheless, even if the Left’s efforts to shape the process aren’t likely to be fruitful, and left-wing lawmakers and activist organizations operate on that premise, there are still some questions about where energy should be expended. Might it still be worth trying to exert pressure, for example, if said pressure is enough to keep Rahm Emanuel out of cabinet (and it seems he may not end up in the administration at all)?

Is it worth, perhaps in a more long term strategic sense, trying to make demands or argue for alternatives at this stage of the process, knowing it’s largely futile, if only to register opposition early and loudly (which, of course, wasn’t done after Obama was elected)?

Osita Nwanevu

That can be worthwhile, but what I’m reacting to in the piece is a tendency you see across politics — not just on the Left — a tendency we have to focus on individuals and a kind of politics that assumes that if the right person is put up for this primary, or put into this seat or appointed to this position, then the political work is kind of done and you can expect good things to flow out of that, naturally as consequence of having this good person, this person who you’re a fan of, in this position of power.

I don’t think things actually work that way. At the most productive moments of opposition during the Obama administration, you had the Left focusing on specific policy questions — these kinds of narrow demands, focused demands, where people put a lot of energy into saying that the Obama administration could do something if it wanted to.

It wasn’t just about putting somebody in the administration. It wasn’t about naming somebody to some post. It was: the Army Corps of Engineers can stop or redirect this pipeline, so it should do it; Obama can sign an executive order to defer deportations for undocumented children who are brought here if he wanted to. Those were ultimately successful pushes, because they were so specific and because you couldn’t object to the substance after it was put out as a political issue that everybody could look at. And I saw some merit to that.

It’s a different thing when you are talking about pushing people to a position, because that’s kind of a second or third degree of separation away from the thing that you actually care about, right? To the extent that we can make specific policy demands, we should make them and push for them. I have an allergy to political expectations that stem from the hope that putting an individual in the right place is ultimately the end that you’re aiming for.

Luke Savage

One of your premises is that the window of opportunity, electorally speaking, for the Left to flex its muscles that roughly spanned the launch of Sanders’ first presidential campaign until the suspension of his second, has now closed. You also offer the blunt, though probably accurate characterization that “there have been fewer substantive policy shifts than shifts in rhetoric and political affect” from the leaderships of both parties over the past four years.

In other words, despite what has often felt like a period of flux and ideological ferment, a familiar stasis has returned and will probably going be with us for a while.

Given this, turning to the more prescriptive side of your piece, you argue that it’s time for a reorientation in which the Left puts “itself at a more meaningful remove from the Democratic Party” and abandons the idea of influencing Democratic elites from below. As an alternative you suggest building a “detached movement adjacent to the Democratic Party that might interact with it only when it makes strategic sense to do so.”

“Broadly speaking,” you write, “instead of holding to the idea that the Democratic Party is the primary medium through which progressives have to act and communicate, the left should be taking itself directly to the American people.” Here, by way of an example, you offer as an analogue what the conservative movement did after Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. Could you unpack that parallel a bit?

Osita Nwanevu

I think it’s really important if anybody has the opportunity to do so to go to CPAC [the Conservative Political Action Conference]. I go to CPAC every year (though I don’t think I’ll be going this next year). But it’s sort of reviled and ridiculed in the media as this kind of clown show and this circus. But once you get there and you interact with the activists and you see all the groups assembled, you develop an understanding of the conservative moment as a movement, not as something that is just ephemera around the Republican Party.

There are institutions, there are organizations, there are groups that are, all the time inside and outside of campaign season, interfacing and interacting with voters and getting them to cotton to conservative ideology. This is what the conservative movement built in the time between Goldwater and Reagan’s victory in 1980: they lost a conventional electoral battle, and it would have been very easy for them to say, “well, this can’t succeed in America, people are too far left, what we’re proposing is too radical to prevail in campaigns.” What they did instead was figure out ways to get a larger share of the American public in line with their way of thinking about the world (and had a lot of money, obviously, put behind them in that effort).

But that’s what they did: they tried to interact directly with the public in all kinds of ways to get them to become more conservative. And I think that’s basically the Left’s task. I think we’re in a place where we believe that we have to act through the Democratic Party. We’re always talking up at them from below, right? And hoping that they’re going to listen to us and cast a glance at the kids’ table. But I think that we’re now in a place where we can think more creatively about how we talk to ordinary voters.

Plus, I don’t think we really have a choice. I don’t really think that the Democratic Party is ripe for a wholesale ideological transformation. As I said previously, I think that there are policy battles that you can win, there are demands that you can get people to accept just kind of narrowly from issue to issue. But the project of transforming the Democratic Party as a whole through conscious effort… I don’t really see much reason to believe that’s all that possible. I mean, I don’t think that there’s much separating you at that point from so-called moderate Republicans who say that with the right time and effort the Republican party can be brought to reason.

We laugh at those people. We tell people to look at history and precedent — and then we spend the rest of the day saying that if you huff and puff, the party’s going to become progressive and social democratic. I just don’t think that that’s in the cards as a product with conscious effort.

Demographically, it’s a different story. I mean, you can tell yourself a story about how most people under forty-five voted for Bernie Sanders and, given enough time, in ten or fifteen years or so they’ll age into a majority of the Democratic electorate and things will be great. I don’t think that that’s a sure thing, and even if it is, it doesn’t really give you a lot of hope on an issue like climate change, for instance, where the time to act is right now — well, in fact, it was ten, fifteen, twenty years ago.

So I think, ultimately, what we need to be doing is figuring out ways where we can communicate directly with the public, with new constituencies and try to sell a new way of thinking about the world and about politics to them. That’s an organizational effort but, abstractly, it’s a creative project. And I think that we can learn from the conservative movements in that this is essentially the project that they themselves took up after Goldwater lost.

They built all of these apparatuses, they built media organizations, they built think tanks, they built all kinds of things that were aimed at communicating directly with the public outside of the Republican Party that then came to bear on Republican Party politics.

Luke Savage

And, the demography-is-destiny story aside, there’s a strong argument to be made — going back to the Goldwater example — that, unlike in 1964 with the Republican Party, the Left’s marquee legislative priorities (things like Medicare for All or perhaps also the Green New Deal) already have an existing majoritarian constituency.

So perhaps the task ahead of us, at least in some areas, has less to do with persuasion than it does with organization and mobilization.

Osita Nwanevu

That’s absolutely right. The central problem of American politics is that these structures that we’ve built geographically distort the distribution of power. And a majority of the American public is already with us on most issues. But given the way the Senate is designed, Republicans and conservatives have a lot of power disproportionate to their share of the population.

So the task is to organize outside of areas where Democrats already do well and where you’ve had socialist candidates do well — i.e. the rural and ex-urban places, and some suburban places. How can you bring this ideology to those communities and make them open to it? That’s the real task.

It’s not winning over for a majority of the population per se. It’s winning over these pockets of the population that happen to be the most important for winning elections in this country and federal elections. And I’m not taking for granted that it’s possible. It’s entirely possible you can’t really do that and that there are cross-cutting reasons why left ideology is always going to be humbled in American electoral politics (in which case you turn to labor organizing and building class consciousness for the long term).

But to the extent that people talk about campaigns and what it takes to win, that is the central task. That’s the thing to try — and, if we fail, we fail, but that’s the project, at least electorally.

Luke Savage

You write: “In general, engagement with state and local politics should be deepened, especially given the success of progressive ballot initiatives, issue campaigns, and candidates in recent years. Incumbent Democrats should continue to be primaried.” But electorally speaking, you also offer one very specific suggestion: “developing strategies for consistently winning federal elections outside of major cities without compromising on policy substance.” Why is this such an important strategic goal?

Osita Nwanevu

Because that’s where we’ve fallen the most short.We’ve seen progressive candidates in places that are already very heavily Democratic and very liberal doing well over the past few years (AOC obviously being the most prominent example).

But also, in city councils across the country you’re seeing socialist candidates step up in those races and win seats and win some power. That’s urban America. The hard part has always been outside of those places. How do you appeal to rural voters? How do you appeal to, these white, educated, suburbanites who swung so heavily to Joe Biden this year who, who were scared of the word “socialist”?

Luke Savage

Right, and can they even be appealed to? Can you win them over to a social-democratic politics at all?

Osita Nwanevu

Right, exactly. That’s the central question. And again, I don’t know that it’s possible. I’m not a theorist or organizer, I’m not a political scientist, I’m just a guy who’s observed politics over the past couple years. But I think if we want to succeed electorally, that’s the only way to do it.

We have had, in two elections now, this experiment in the Democratic primary where the assumption was, if we put out the progressive agenda, that in and of itself — alongside, of course, dedicated, energetic organizing — the substance of the agenda [would cause] all kinds of people who are not already in the electorate to swarm in. Disengaged people and people who are cynical about politics — they were going to vote in unprecedented numbers, and that was going to be the thing that pushed the progressive agenda forward.

We had in this particular primary a lot of participation and a big increase in turnout. And most of it redounded to Joe Biden’s benefits. This model where you’re getting people from the outside in on the strength of the agenda alone doesn’t seem to be one that works particularly well.

And I think it has to do with, on one level, the amount of trust or the lack thereof in government and politics amongst the kinds of populations that Sanders was trying to activate. If you come in and you’re a good guy and you have proposals for a single payer and $15 minimum wage and all this, a lot of people on the outside of politics say: “Well, all of that sounds great, but I’ve never seen any of that succeed in my lifetime in conventional politics and I don’t know if a guy like that can win the election. I don’t know if the guy like him can prevail against, you know, the wealthy and all the people who I think are rigging politics. So I’ll stay out or I’ll have some reservations about the extent to which any of this can really work.”

The fact is, people have not been given very much reason to think that the government can do the kinds of things that we all believe that it can, directly in their own experience, over the past twenty, thirty, forty years of American politics. Over that period there has been obviously a constant attack on the government’s capacity to do anything. So I don’t think it’s a surprise that you have a lot of people who are disengaged from politics or who might have doubts or reservations and not turn out even when a progressive agenda is put in front of them.

I think that the task has always been a little bit more complicated than just running on the most progressive agenda — that you can just sort of put forward this thing and that’s going to carry everything for you. It has to be about building trust and getting people to think differently about what is politically possible and what’s politically necessary. Those are creative tasks that I think that we still have to work on.