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In the months before the election, 2020 looked to many like it could be the dawn of a new progressive era in American politics. Democrats had chosen a moderate candidate in Joe Biden — thereby taking ideas like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All off the table — but influential figures from the left wing of the party had pushed him to shift some policy proposals in their direction. If Democrats took over the Senate, as polls suggested they would, Congress would be primed to pass an agenda that would represent major strides toward progressives’ goals on climate, criminal justice, health care and more.
Things didn’t turn out the way progressives had hoped, however. Biden secured a narrow victory, but the best Democrats can hope for now is a 50-50 split in the Senate if they win two upcoming runoffs in Georgia. Any legislation that might make it through the Congress will now need the backing of the most moderate Democrats and perhaps even some Republicans.
Progressives have also come under fire from some moderate Democrats, who said ideas like defunding the police and banning fracking hurt the party in swing districts. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., one of the most influential voices on the left, instead attributed Democrats’ shortcomings in House races to poor campaign strategies that made them “sitting ducks” for bad-faith Republican attacks.
Why there’s debate
The tenuous truce between far left and moderate Democrats appears to be over now that their shared goal of unseating Trump has been accomplished, which sets up what could be a long struggle for the future direction of the party, political experts say. Already the two sides are jockeying to influence Biden’s decision making on policy and who will be part of his Cabinet.
The results of the election dealt a major blow to the progressive policy agenda, some argue. Hopes that Biden might enact policies that would serve as a significant first step to things like a Green New Deal or Medicare for All were all but dashed when Democrats failed to secure a majority in the Senate, they say. The perception that progressive messaging hurts moderate Democrats, whether it’s true or not, may also make rank-and-file members eager to distance themselves from the left wing of the party.
Despite the setbacks, there is still a lot of room for progressives to shape the direction of American politics now and in the future, others argue. Polls show that many policies that are considered far left, like a Green New Deal, are popular with voters, which could give more Democrats reason to fully embrace those positions. Ballot measures pushing progressive policies passed in several states that Trump won, including a $15 minimum wage initiative in Florida and several pro-marijuana proposals, which shows that the appetite for a “far left” may be broader than critics believe. There are also many strides progressives can make without Congress at the state and local levels or if key left-wing figures are named to high-ranking posts in Biden’s administration.
In the short term, the main source of disagreement between progressives and moderates appears to be over whom Biden will choose to join his Cabinet. Progressive groups are pushing for Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., for top roles, but some moderates fear those choices would spark contentious confirmation battles. Going forward, the debate over whether progressive messaging helps or hurts Democrats will be critical in the party’s effort to flip GOP seats in the Senate and maintain control of the House in 2022.
Hopes that 2020 would mark the dawn of a progressive era are dead
“The bittersweetness of Biden’s victory consists precisely in the fact the Trump era is dying and a progressive one cannot be born.” — Eric Levitz, New York
Progressive policies can help Democrats if they make a strong case for them
“There seems to be, in many places, a split between policies people say they support and how they cast their ballots. That doesn’t mean you abandon the policies, though. It means you deepen your organizing, adopt a dynamic set of approaches that are regionally hyperspecific. … It means building toward the vision rather than running from it. Because people say they do like these policies.” — Nick Martin, New Republic
Democrats are primed for an intense intraparty struggle for influence
“The divisions in the party were put aside for several months and the election results reflect that all parts of the big tent party showed up on Election Day. That was driven by the common belief that the country could not survive another Trump term. But having beaten Trump it’s now inevitable most leaders will leave the big tent and go back to their own smaller tents.” — Joe Lockhart, CNN
Progressive voices aren’t going to be chastened by subpar election results
“These progressives aren’t simply going to slink away and be quiet, to sacrifice principles for decorum, nor should they.” — Charles M. Blow, New York Times
Voters showed they don’t want a progressive political revolution
“In their considerable wisdom, the voters may have elected Mr. Biden but they left his party and its radical ideas behind.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal
Progressives have the opportunity to expand their influence
“For progressives, Biden’s election is a doorway, not a destination. We are going to get our foot in that door right quick and make it open for our people.” — Nicolas O’Rourke, Philadelphia Inquirer
Biden could bring major gains on one of progressives’ top issues
“Mr. Biden seems to grasp that his success in fighting climate change will go a long way toward defining his success as president.” — David Leonhardt, New York Times
Key parts of the progressive policy agenda have no chance of becoming reality
“Now every inch of liberal legislative gains will be an uphill struggle. There won’t be a public option. Court packing is dead. If the 6-3 Republican advantage on the Supreme Court changes, it will have to be the old-fashioned way. Even the Trump tax cuts are likely to survive nearly unchanged.” — Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg
There are many opportunities for progressive change outside the federal government
“Moving Biden left describes an orientation, an attitude, toward the Biden presidency. It is also a shorthand for a range of strategies to create progressive change in the country, many of which don’t involve making the Biden administration the explicit focus of leftist efforts.” — Marie Solis, Jezebel
Progressives will have an equal voice in the party for the first time in a generation
“With Joe Biden now the president-elect and speaker Pelosi returning to a Democratic house, progressive activists are no longer phrasing their policy priorities in the form of a question. Empowered by the stunning act of turning Trump out of the White House, the activist base of the Democratic Party expects to speak on equal terms with the stalwart establishment figures who sought to minimise progressive causes in Biden’s campaign rhetoric.” — Max Burns, Independent
Democrats of all stripes must prioritize party unity to get anything done
“Democrats have a peculiar talent for mourning victories and attacking friends. If former Republicans can impart any advice to newfound Democratic allies, it would be to seize and tout victories, claim a mandate, highlight the insanity of the other side and remember the lesson of 2020: There are millions and millions of people who will vote for you if you offer them something positive and sane.” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post
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