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The Democratic Party's Hand Is Weak. Only Progressives Can Strengthen it.

Only a progressive New Deal-like response can address the people's needs.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., arrives at the Capitol for a vote on a coronavirus bill amendment on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., arrives at the Capitol for a vote on a coronavirus bill amendment on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Before this year, it was almost unimaginable that anything could be a bigger story than a U.S. Presidential election.

However, COVID-19 has seriously disrupted the 2020 election—not only because it distorted or delayed many primaries, and eliminated in-person campaigning; but also because the candidates organized their campaigns and platforms around a world that doesn't exist anymore, the world before the pandemic. And yet, because the public health crisis has effectively marginalized the election, there's been little pressure to adjust to the new reality.

This will have to change by November. Democrats across the country, and presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, must make major adjustments. The social and economic impact of the pandemic far outstrips any domestic crisis in our lifetime. If Democrats want to win, the writing is already on the wall: they have to move in a strongly progressive direction.

There are two reasons for this, and they compliment each other: 1. It's what people want. 2. History shows that progressive policies are best suited to contend with a crisis of this magnitude.

Before tackling these two facets, let's make clear what is meant by progressive policies. In the context of a severe economic and public health crisis, the divide between progressive policies and either maintaining the status quo or a reactionary response, is defined by the level of fiscal spending on social welfare, infrastructure, and economic policies.

Whereas, the right-wing response to a major economic crisis traditionally calls for austerity and tax breaks; and the mainstream "neo-liberal" response would be a mix of Federal Reserve lending, tax breaks, and short term stimulus while maintaining concern over deficits; the progressive response focuses on employment guarantees and direct spending to keep average households solvent, while enacting social programs and infrastructure projects that have long term benefits for the poor, the working and middle classes, and society at-large.

Or, to put it in simpler terms, the progressive response fully mobilizes the resources of the government to take care of people.

So, what does the American public want two months into the pandemic? It's no contest. They want a classic progressive Big Government response. An array of polls conducted after the first major stimulus (the "CARES" Act) passed, showed that Americans overwhelmingly support the passage of another stimulus, plus more direct financial relief. In fact, a poll from the conservative Rassmussen group showed 77% of Americans favored big spending vs 13% who were concerned about the deficit.

Topping that off, support for Medicare for All—the signature progressive policy from the recent presidential campaign—is soaring in the polls.  A Morning Consult poll conducted a few weeks into the pandemic revealed a dramatic increase in support for Medicare for All. Then, a Hill/Harris X poll from late April confirmed this trend. It showed that 69% of Americans, from across the entire political spectrum, support the universal single-payer health insurance plan. A staggering 88% of Democrats were in favor.

The problem for the Democrats is that current party leadership, including Joe Biden, have not supported these overwhelmingly popular positions. During previous economic downturns, they have proposed only limited variations of progressive programs due to concern over the deficit. Fortunately for them, the political movement that advocates for these measures wholeheartedly is present inside the Democratic Party too; as a shift towards progressive policies would clearly benefit Democrats in the general election. 

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History also makes a strong case for a progressive response to the crisis.  There's only one period in American history that merits comparison with the present, given the massive scale of the current rupture; and that is the near-complete gutting of the U.S. economy during the Great Depression. It provides a laboratory-like test case for the three political approaches at play in contemporary America. First-off, there was a moderate approach that was unwilling to go against the dictates of the market, represented by the Hoover Administration, which proved powerless not only to lift the economy, but even to respond to the suffering of the people.  In contrast, the unprecedented progressive intervention that was Roosevelt's New Deal not only jump-started the economy but also renewed the public's faith in our society and government.

It's urgent that we learn from this history because if Democrats stick with the "moderate" approach, it would likely play into the hands of the right-wing. This is especially dangerous because, judged solely on economic statistics, there was another "successful" response to the Great Depression of the 1930s: European fascism fueled by a massive military build-up and animated by exclusionary ethno-nationalism. It's not hard to imagine Trump's GOP drawing from that playbook. The stakes, indeed, are high.

While it's important to acknowledge that historical parallels are never perfect, there's no getting around the fact that only progressives (FDR Democrats) have an applicable policy template with a proven record to promote. The spectacular popularity of the New Deal in its day, and its well-documented achievements, provide a powerful ready-made message for any candidate looking to connect with a citizenry desperate for a positive pathway out of this catastrophe.

So, given what we learn from history—plus the ever-increasing popularity of progressive policies in light of the pandemic—is it still possible for progressives to save the moderate Democrats from themselves? Or, in other words, can we at this zero hour somehow convince the party leadership and/or Joe Biden to do the right thing?

It might be a quixotic endeavor; but given the stakes, we have a moral obligation to try.  Here's the good news, we have a way to gain leverage.

Progressives must arrive at this summer's Democratic Convention with as large a delegation as possible. How do we achieve that? By winning as many delegates for Bernie Sanders as we can in the upcoming presidential primaries. This is an attainable goal.  A number of major national progressive organizations are mobilizing for just that purpose.  What does gaining delegates for Bernie achieve? Two things, both essential:

1. By winning more than 25% of the delegates to the convention, we get a seat at "the table." This allows us to make, face-to-face, the incontrovertible case that, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, only a progressive platform will inspire a landslide victory in November—and that, after Inauguration Day, only a progressive New Deal-like response can address the people's needs.

2. Even if the party's moderate leadership rejects a more progressive platform, a large Sanders delegation allows progressives to maintain a strong presence inside one of America's two major parties going forward (as the make-up of the party's leadership for the next four years is a reflection of the delegates at the convention). Given the overwhelming popularity of our agenda with Democratic voters, this beachhead inside the party will anchor our efforts to build support and move the party in a truly progressive direction.

So, the task is simple. If you live in Oregon and want what's best for the country and the party—vote for Bernie in Oregon's primary! That vote will help in the struggle to return the Democratic Party to its FDR roots; which is exactly what the country needs—and wants—in 2020 as in 1932. And there are many other primaries soon to follow in the coming weeks and months. We need people in all these contests to make their voices heard.

Here's the schedule of remaining Democrati presidential primaries:
May 19:    Oregon
May 22     Hawaii
May 30     Virgin Islands - caucus
June 2      Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota,  Washington DC
June 7      Puerto Rico
June 9      Georgia, West Virginia
June 23    Kentucky, New York
July 7        New Jersey
July 11      Louisiana
Aug. 11     Connecticut

If we win this battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, the presidential election and the transformative progressive program of the winner may yet be the biggest story of 2020.

Alan Minsky

Alan Minsky is the Executive Director of Progressive Democrats of America.

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