This article is one in a series of arguments on elections and coalitions in our summer issue.
Is Joe Biden the reincarnation of Lyndon B. Johnson or even Franklin D. Roosevelt? Biden will have to rack up many more legislative victories before he can make any such boast, but based on the first few months of his presidency, it is safe to say that Washington is now more amenable to left-wing ideas than at any time since the peak of the Great Society.
Many have been taken by surprise by this development. Biden’s political identity has been resolutely centrist for decades. And he was the second-most moderate of the Democrats who vied for the presidential nomination in 2020, to the left only of former Republican Michael Bloomberg. Yet Biden’s centrism has always been tempered by a healthy opportunism. He is a party man, with an uncanny gift for locating himself wherever the median Democratic Party voter is. And thanks to Bernie Sanders’s two bids for the presidential nomination and the rise of a young cohort of openly leftist lawmakers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the other members of the Squad, the center of gravity of the Democratic Party is well to the left of where it has been for the last half-century.
One sign of Biden’s political acumen is the effort he has made to integrate the left into the Democratic Party—something that Hillary Clinton failed to do in her ill-starred 2016 run. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain has been especially diligent in making sure that the progressive wing is involved in policymaking. Bernie Sanders’s elevation to chair of the Senate Committee on the Budget, an influential perch, ensures a pressure point for keeping alive social democratic proposals even if the White House backslides. In April, Sanders’s advocacy ensured that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer signed on for pushing for cheaper drug prices and a lowering of the Medicare eligibility age, both areas where the White House needs prodding.
Not everyone is pleased with the new rapprochement between the left and the Democratic Party. While politicians like Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal have been engaged in the inside game of negotiating with the party establishment, there is still a small but significant left faction that worries about the dangers of co-optation. In April, Corbin Trent, former communications director for Ocasio-Cortez, complained that while Klain “schmoozes” and “makes people feel heard,” a meaningful agenda is getting lost.
Trent’s cynicism is echoed by a broader tendency on the left that is suspicious of any cooperation with Biden’s Democratic Party. In the burgeoning online left media, there is a robust but limited market for voices who advocate intransigent opposition. Podcasts like Chapo Trap House and Bad Faith and YouTube personalities like Jimmy Dore are representative.
The dilemma for the left is sometimes presented as a judgement between a Popular Front strategy pursued by Sanders and the Squad—working within the Democratic Party—versus an oppositional left strategy—seeing the Democratic Party establishment as an institutional foe that needs to be delegitimized for progress to occur. The advocates of the Popular Front are willing to praise Joe Biden and mobilize for the party in order to get concessions. For the oppositional left, this transactional alliance is a dead end that will inevitably involve a watering down of radical demands.
Between these two poles, there is a spectrum of concern about the left’s place in the Democratic alliance. There is plenty of room for gauging the deficiencies of the existing Democratic Party and fighting to improve it. As we’ve seen, Sanders himself is welling to keep banging the drum for policies that the White House is reluctant to move on. Working within the Democratic coalition doesn’t preclude primary challenges to elected officials who stand in the way of a social democratic agenda. Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema, who voted against the $15 minimum wage and represents a state well to the left of Joe Manchin’s West Virginia, will present a ripe target in 2024.
The more serious cause for concern is the changing makeup of the Democratic coalition. Writing in Jacobin, Princeton historian Matt Karp noted that “class dealignment is accelerating, as working-class voters (of all races) grow more Republican, while college-educated professionals have become a larger part of the Democratic base.” Many of these college-educated professionals are in fact squarely within the working class, including teachers and nurses. But the category of college-educated professionals also includes many managerial types that have typically been hostile to working-class mobilization.
Class dealignment means that in three national election cycles in a row (2016, 2018, and 2020), Democrats have surged among college-educated suburban voters while seeing a crumbling of their share of the non-college vote (including Latinos and, to a lesser degree, African Americans). In trying to fend off Trumpism, the Democratic Party has employed a moral rhetoric around issues like norms and civility. This plays well in the suburbs but has cost support among blue-collar constituencies in the cities and rural America. Conversely, Trump’s constant harping about concrete economic issues—especially jobs—has brought many former Democrats or apolitical voters into the GOP fold.
The new Democratic coalition is amenable to large-scale Keynesian spending, but there is evidence of a reluctance to accept taxes on the rich. Joe Biden plans to raise taxes only on those making $400,000 a year or more, which is a start but will leave revenues far short of what is needed to fund the policies advocated by Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and the Squad. If this pattern holds, the new Popular Front strategy is doomed to fall far short of the New Deal or the Great Society: there simply won’t be enough money in the coffers to fund a substantially larger welfare state.
But there is no reason to assume that the Democratic coalition will always remain as reliant on well-to-do suburbanites as it recently has been. One factor that could change the political dynamic is a renewed labor movement. The United States is in a period of renewed labor militancy, as can be seen in numerous wildcat strikes and the expansive agenda pushed by teachers in Chicago and university workers in Rutgers, who recently reached an agreement dedicated to preventing layoffs across occupational categories. A post-COVID-19 Biden boom, spurred by Keynesian spending and a Federal Reserve now committed to full employment, is likely to increase labor’s confidence. The fate of the new Popular Front rests, more than anything, on whether organized labor emerges as an energized social movement.
Jeet Heer is a columnist for the Nation. His newsletter is at jeetheer.substack.com.