Jacobin’s Meagan Day Talks 2020 Election and The Future of The Left Under Biden/Harris

Published on November 30, 2020

Meagan Day is a Staff Writer at Jacobin and is also the co-author of the new book, Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go From The Sanders Campaign To Democratic Socialism. Meagan is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and currently lives in the East Bay, California. 

Artin DerSimonian: Five years on from Bernie Sanders’ first campaign and movement which reawakened the Democratic working-class and progressive base, how would you summarize the main missteps of the Democratic party elites throughout the 2020 General Election that led to such a narrow victory and the lack of a ‘blue wave’ in Congress?

Meagan Day: I always think one of the gravest strategic mistakes of the Democratic Party in the last 30 years has been the high priority being placed on affluent voters from the suburbs at the expense of the American working class. Broadly speaking, there is some electoral calculus that people in the Democratic Party use to justify that decision, and sometimes they’re proven more or less right. I think it’s a perilous strategy for the Democrats because the vast majority of people in this country are working class.

There’s also a great deal of inequality in this country, including precarity, and by abandoning the working class to the high seas of politics, Democrats are losing a constituency that if they were actually to make an effort to appeal to could help them win election after election.

Specifically, the kinds of policies that you would need to pursue to bring nonvoters who are depoliticized and immobilized out to the polls would be Medicare For All, tuition-free college and trade school, a jobs guarantee, and pro-worker, pro-union policies. Most Americans say they want to unionize, they want that protection and bargaining strength. The reason the Democrats didn’t do very well down the ballot definitely has to do with the polarization of public health and the economy for the pandemic.

The Democrats did not embrace a Sanders-style economic populism or left-wing pro-worker agenda and were essentially allowing the issue to split. If you’re on Twitter, you can see that the candidates who did back Medicare for all performed much better than candidates who didn’t and that’s a good piece of evidence that seeding this economic conversation to the right was a huge loss.

AD: I believe it was more than 100 candidates who supported M4A and were re-elected, and all of those in swing states won as well. Do you think Democrats will learn from that or do you think they feel like, “well we still won the election, and we can deal with the Congress next time”?

MD: I think Democrats are a little divided on this, but mostly it seems like the Democratic Party leadership is sounding two notes simultaneously. One of which is “we won, what are you talking about? We defeated Donald Trump and therefore defeated fascism in America.”

But in more private conversations the Democratic Party is acknowledging that mistakes were made but often rationalizing it as being the Left’s fault. They’re utilizing victories as a vindication of centrist establishment politics. Joe Biden himself is an establishment centrist and he won, so that strategy is completely vindicated by Joe Biden’s victory. However, in this scenario, the losses down the ballot are not a refutation of centrist establishment politics rather they are somehow the fault of the left-wing of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party wants to claim the victories for themselves and blame the losses on the Left. So, do I think they’re going to learn from this? Not if that’s the dominant mindset in the Democratic Party now.

AD: You wrote an article for Jacobin on November 4th, before the election was fully called, talking about what a Joe Biden Presidency and Republican Senate would look like. Given that this is most likely going to be the case now, how do you think progressive policies will be pursued, and do you think the Left will be able to push their agenda during these four years?

MD: I think the term that I used in that article is a “Biden McConnell” coalition government. This would essentially result from the Republicans retaining the Senate which I think is likely–I know that it’s not impossible for the Democrats to squeak through but I don’t think the base is energized enough to actually make it happen. The Democrats spent four years telling their own base that Trump was the only problem. Okay, now Trump is out so where are you going to find the passion in your own base to make those phone calls and send those donations? This is what I think about a Biden-McConnell coalition government, and there’s actually plenty of evidence for what this would look like because Biden and McConnell have been tasked with “squaring off against each other” in very recent American political history.

One thing people should read if they want to understand what this is going to be like is the book, Yesterday’s Man by Branko Marcetic, who’s a Jacobin staff writer. In this book, you can find the entire breakdown of what precisely it looked like for Biden and McConnell to negotiate with each other.  When Joe Biden was the vice president it was his responsibility to lead negotiations with Mitch McConnell over the budget after the recession. Essentially what it looked like is that Joe Biden would walk into rooms where Mitch McConnell was sitting and say “Hey, do you want to cut Medicare and Social Security? Would you like to cut food stamps?” and Mitch McConnell would go, “That sounds great, thanks”. McConnell will take as much as he can get, making the Biden-McConnell coalition government is going to be tilted toward the right. Very, very tilted.

AD: Given this rightward inclination throughout Biden’s political history, how do you see him acting as a Commander in Chief with regards to foreign policy?

MD: Joe Biden is one of the great salesmen of the Iraq war and played a role in Obama’s immigration policy. Both of those are quite awful. Joe Biden is not an anti-war voice and I think that we could probably expect him to be at the complete mercy of the military-industrial complex. I don’t imagine he’ll put up a robust opposition to the Pentagon. Even if the idea for war is not springing fully formed from Biden’s brain, there are other aspects of the American state that might be hell-bent on war and that he wouldn’t have the tools or the willingness to stop them.

AD: Assuming that Biden will be focusing on the Right and consolidating his priorities that way, what do you think the progressive base in Congress and on the streets can do to counter this?

MD: Joe Biden apparently at one point during the Bowles Simpson Commission spontaneously offered $200 billion in cuts that the Republicans hadn’t even asked for. It got to the point where Dianne Feinstein, obviously an arch centrist, was appalled that Biden was giving so many concessions to McConnell. Harry Reid went to Obama to beg for Biden to not be allowed to talk to McConnell anymore. I do think that we’re in major trouble. I also want to say that it’s not just about Biden and McConnell, it’s about Biden constitutionally being inclined toward austerity. Which is a habit that he formed in the era when the Democrats first started breaking with the New Deal legacy and dissolving the New Deal coalition and moving rightward.

I think it’s also worth noting that Joe Biden was added to Barack Obama’s ticket in 2008 because Obama had developed the erroneous reputation for being a progressive and they needed somebody incredibly conservative to balance him out to placate the wealthy donors and voters. One final example, when Biden was tasked with distributing the $800 billion after the Great Recession, he oversaw some major aspects of that project and he spent the entire time talking about not letting money go to waste, prohibiting welfare fraud, and making sure that money didn’t fall into the wrong hands. He sounded like your worst Republican relative who watches too much Fox News–except that he was in charge of the purse.

AD: Where do you feel most optimistic and what do you hope the progressive base will be able to achieve these next four years?

MD: Here’s the thing, I actually am very pessimistic about the administration but I’m pretty optimistic as far as it goes about the ability of the Left to assert ourselves on the political process–at least compared to five or ten years ago. Because of Bernie Sanders’ two primary candidacies, we ended up with a reborn, broader progressive, and more specifically Democratic socialist movement. We now have the nascent organized Left in this country whereas it would be impossible to overstate the extent to which we did not have anything like that five years ago.

What that means is the organized Left is not powerful enough to enter into an actual coalition with a Biden Administration. But we are strong enough to potentially organize outside of the halls of power to create public pressure which creates political crises that the Biden administration is forced to respond to. Matt Karp, who’s a Jacobin Contributing Editor, put it this way recently and I thought it was a good formulation: we need to be prepared to do ‘outdoor politics’ and not ‘indoor politics’.

We should be prepared to square off against a Biden administration in favor of the policies that we want and that we know he’s not going to propose. I don’t think that we should be begging for crumbs. I think that we should be taking stock of the resources that we’ve developed over the last half-decade and put them to use where we think we can get the most bang for our buck. What we need to do in the meantime is to be running people that come from social movements and who have legitimate political commitments. 

AD: With regards to the cabinet selection, Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement put up a wish list of who they’d like to see tapped. What are your hopes and also realistic expectations about what that will look like?

MD: I think we need to be realistic about the fact that a Biden cabinet is probably not going to look that much like the wish lists on the Left. I think that it’s probably wiser for us to invest our emotional and strategic resources into trying to quickly devise a plan for how we’re going to exert pressure on a Biden administration from the outside–rather than hoping for who we’re going to get on the inside.

That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be better to have somebody at the helm of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] who actually cared about climate change or at the head of the NLRB [National Labor Review Board] who actually cares about and is genuinely pro-worker and pro-union. But the truth is, that with a lot of our best leaders we shouldn’t necessarily hope that they end up in a Biden Administration, because we are going to need to do a lot of organizing outside the halls of power and we need our leaders to pioneer that.

When somebody is in a cabinet, they are beholden to that administration and their job is on the line if they bad-mouth that administration or if they play any kind of opposition role. That’s one of my considerations when it comes to the cabinet and that’s why I’m not as sanguine about all of these incredible lists of individuals who I would love to see staff and cabinet–because some of those people need to be playing a leadership role in the outside.

AD: What is the strategy coming out of DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] and like-minded organizations to achieve results under the Biden Administration over these next four years?

MD:  We should be focusing on rebuilding the labor movement and specifically making it more Democratic by rebuilding the links between labor and the Left which were severed during the McCarthy era. Another task is having actual institutions on the Left. In a way, it’s important to think about the Bernie Sanders campaign as being a kind of ad-hoc independent party. It served the same function as the party of our dreams, it connected us all to each other, it gave us the opportunity to build our own political skills and leadership, it raised the expectations of the broader working class, it raised class consciousness, and it put people in contact with each other and helped build networks on the Left.

We should be building membership organizations on the Left which give people the opportunity to have a real stake in those organizations and a sense of Democratic control over them. An example of that would be the DSA. The third project for the Left is to continue building our electoral bench. Presidential politics are not the only politics. The Sanders wing didn’t end up with a Sanders presidency, but we’ve continued to build an incredible electoral presence for the Left– both for progressives broadly speaking and also specifically for avowed Democratic Socialists.

Lastly, the New York state legislature is about to add four more Democratic Socialists in addition to Julia Salazar. Having five openly Democratic Socialists who are DSA members and who talk about socialism and capitalism on a regular basis on the New York state legislature is incredible. Even on the municipal level, if you look in Chicago there are six socialists on the Chicago City Council.

AD: So essentially, somehow there needs to be a way to bring people up through DSA and elevate working class voices more?

MD: To be more specific about it, the relationship between DSA and the labor movement needs to be much stronger. It’s very critical that Socialists and labor be reunited. Throughout history, there have been major points of unity and those have always been the strongest points for both the socialist movement and the labor movement.

It is very critical that DSA reintegrate itself into the labor movement, not just for its own sake but also for the sake of the labor movement and the entire political project. It’s an even more specific task than elevating working-class voices within DSA, we need to bring DSA to organized labor and integrate the two of them. One example where you could see this happening is that there are some DSA members who are engaged in ‘industrializing’, this old term which is when people specifically and intentionally take union jobs so that they can be union activists on a rank-and-file level.

These are the kinds of idea I have in mind in terms of specifics of the overall project facing us these next four years.

Artin is a Champlain College graduate with a degree in Management and Innovation. He is focused on examining and writing on smart cities, sociocultural, political, and economic topics.

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