A few days ago, democratic socialist Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) became the latest in a string of prominent progressive politicians to endorse Joe Biden’s bid for reelection. One of her fellow “Squad” members, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, endorsed Biden almost a month ago when AOC wasn’t quite ready to join her. Bernie Sanders endorsed him way back in April.
But why should any of them endorse Biden — especially right now? It would be one thing if this were late 2024 and the country were facing an imminent choice between Biden and Donald Trump (or Biden and Ron DeSantis) and there was a real danger that the greater evil would win. Right now, though, we’re several months away from the first primaries.
Socialist politicians should be articulating a clear alternative to the business-as-usual centrism of Biden and other leading Democrats. That’s not all they should be doing, of course. They should also work toward concrete reforms that will make life better for working-class people in the here and now, and admittedly these goals are sometimes in tension. But it’s hard to see a long-term way forward for the Left that doesn’t start with being very clear about the fact that leftists and centrists aren’t on the same team.
Left politicians should be looking for opportunities to make those distinctions clear. And a premature show of unity with the President who intervened to break a rail strike just seven months ago does exactly the opposite.
“A Strong Signal of Democratic Unity”
The Associated Press headline about AOC’s decision to endorse Biden called it a “strong signal” of “Democratic unity.” But how united are Democrats on a second Biden term?
Just before Biden kicked off his reelection bid in late April, one poll found that 73 percent of Americans didn’t want the President to run again. That number included 52 percent of voters who identify as Democrats.
As Nathan Robinson points out in Current Affairs, before Biden’s announcement we were seeing headlines like “Democrats coalesce around a Biden 2024 run as re-election decision looms” side by side with ones like “Most Democrats don’t want Biden to run in 2024, AP-NORC poll finds.” The key, Robinson pointed out, is to realize that “Democrats” means two different things. There’s a great deal of Democratic unity from above behind Biden. Politicians and party officials were marching lockstep behind him before he’d even officially made up his mind. What there absolutely isn’t is Democratic unity from below.
That doesn’t mean Biden won’t win renomination. Realistically, he almost certainly will — in large part because of the unity from above. No Democratic elected official has thrown their hat in the ring to oppose him in the primaries.
The only two candidates who have are Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Jr and Marianne Williamson. Widely derided as a conspiracy theorist with unsavory associations and a suspicious amount of Republican support, it’s currently hard to see how Kennedy would get enough Democratic support to dethrone a Democratic incumbent — even one who doesn’t inspire much enthusiasm among Democratic voters. Williamson has forthrightly progressive positions on issues like labor rights and Medicare for All that could appeal to the millions of Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. But she’s never held elected office and she has a far lower national profile than Senator Bernie Sanders did in 2016. She doesn’t even have the benefit of RFK Jr’s famous name.
Surprising things happen in primaries, and I’d love to be surprised about this one. But right now, if no one else enters the race, the most likely outcome is that Biden will cruise to renomination, at which point we’ll all find out how big a problem that lack of Democratic enthusiasm will be in the general election.
Is that likelihood really enough, though, to justify a “strong show of Democratic unity” behind a strikebreaking president a year before the election?
Excusing Biden and Blaming the Senate
AOC didn’t mention the rail strike in the interview where she made her endorsement. Instead, she said of Biden’s performance in office, “I think he’s done quite well, given the limitations that we have.” She cited the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act and vaguely gestured at “ebbs and flows” and “things that could have gone better.” The only specific policy area she mentioned that “could have gone better” was immigration. After this, she immediately pivoted to blaming the shortcomings of Democratic achievements in the last few years on the filibuster and other “structural issues” regarding the Senate.
It’s true that the Senate is a countermajoritarian institution in its design — with the largest and smallest states each getting the same representation — and the filibuster really is an egregiously antidemocratic anachronism. But acting as if, with the possible exception of immigration, the Biden administration was basically well-intentioned and the Senate rules were the major problem is fundamentally inaccurate.
At the outset of Biden’s presidency, the American Rescue Plan was a continuation of exactly the kind of COVID relief that had been enacted the year before by Trump. The Inflation Reduction Act was more significant, but it was the end result of a road paved by deep betrayals.
In the spring of 2021, Biden promised a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that included a long checklist of progressive priorities ranging from universal pre-K to paid family and medical leave to free community college. It was even supposed to include a resuscitation of the already-on-life-support PRO Act to make it easier for workers to organize unions.
Then Democratic leadership announced a “two-track strategy” by which the Chamber of Commerce–friendly infrastructure spending would be passed as its own bipartisan bill while the other “track” would be a Build Back Better bill. As anyone who wouldn’t be routinely tricked by the wallet inspector in the Simpsons could have predicted, the bipartisan part sailed to passage while Build Back Better was left to die a slow and miserable death. By the time bits and pieces of if it were revived for Build Back Better, pretty much all that was left from the checklist was a lot of climate spending — and even that was mixed in with deregulation and expanded drilling.
Meanwhile, back in the 2020 primaries, the candidate AOC supported — Bernie Sanders — was promoting Medicare for All. Biden argued for a “public option” that would have amounted to two-tiered health care according to income level but would have at least extended some sort of health insurance to everyone. As soon as Sanders’s insurgency was defeated, though, even talk of a “public option” was dropped cold.
It’s no doubt true that in a world where the Senate rules made things easier, progressives would have gotten more out of the first Biden term. But pointing to the Senate as the fundamental source of the problem distorts the record.
For example, one of the only items in Sanders’s 2020 campaign platform that Biden agreed to adopt as his own was the demand for a $15 minimum wage. That came up for a vote in the Senate in February 2021. It had a majority, but not a filibuster-proof majority. The Senate rules allow bills to be passed with a bare majority through the reconciliation process if they have “more than incidental” budgetary consequences, and you’d think that raising the wages of many millions of workers would meet that standard, but the Senate parliamentarian deemed the budgetary consequences incidental.
Democratic leadership treated that as the last word — never mind that the parliamentarian is a powerless staffer they could have fired at any time, and whose rulings are nonbinding in any case. The plain truth is that Democratic leaders were happy to let the $15 minimum wage proposal die.
“In Any Other Country…”
In a moment of lucidity three and a half years ago, AOC herself said that in a “any other country” she and Joe Biden wouldn’t even be part of the same party. That’s true. Whatever my reservations about AOC, she’s a social democrat who supports Medicare for All and walks picket lines during strikes in her district. During Biden’s years in the Senate, meanwhile, he was one of the most important supporters of the Iraq War on the Democratic side of the aisle, and he earned the nickname “the Senator from MBNA” for his cozy relationship with MBNA holding company — parent company of MBNA bank — headquartered in his state of Delaware. As president, he’s poured money into the military-industrial complex and oversaw the reversal of the temporary expansion of the welfare state during the COVID emergency.
In one of the countries where Biden and AOC weren’t members of the same party, she still might back him for president — at the point when Biden and an alternative to his right were the only options left on the table. For example, when France’s disastrous neoliberal president, Emmanuel Macron, was running against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen during the runoff portion of France’s two-stage election, French socialists and communists reluctantly supported Macron. But it would be hard to imagine them throwing their support to Macron before the first stage of the election had even happened.
Left-wing politicians who display their unity with a president most Democratic voters aren’t enthusiastic about, months before the primaries and over a year before the general election, may tell themselves that they’re securing whatever influence they can exert as junior partners in a Biden-led coalition. And if their only goal was to very slowly bring about a few modest reforms, that calculation would be understandable.
But if you think the level of economic inequality in contemporary American society is grotesque and unacceptable and you think that grave danger is posed to the entire planet by the twin threats of climate catastrophe and superpower tensions, it’s hard to justify this perspective.
If we’re going to build a real political alternative to both the neoliberal center and the resurgent right, we can’t count on a long-term strategy of nudging the center for incremental improvements. We need to draw clear lines between the center and the Left, and make a forthright case for the future we need. That means acting like we and Joe Biden don’t comfortably fit together in the same big tent.