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Biden-Harris and the Progressive Movement in an Uncertain World

"A lukewarm Biden-Harris presidency—even one that eventually brings the pandemic under control—will not achieve the populist policy objectives necessary to win in 2024."

US President-elect Joe Biden speaks at the Queen Theater on January 6, 2021, in Wilmington, Delaware. - Biden on Wednesday denounced the storming of the US Capitol as an "insurrection" and demanded President Donald Trump go on television to call an end to the violent "siege." (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

US President-elect Joe Biden speaks at the Queen Theater on January 6, 2021, in Wilmington, Delaware. - Biden on Wednesday denounced the storming of the US Capitol as an "insurrection" and demanded President Donald Trump go on television to call an end to the violent "siege." (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump: "We will never concede."

Donald Trump, Jr.: "This gathering should send a message to them: This isn't the the Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump's Party."

The Washington Post: "Trump supporters storm U.S. Capitol, with one woman killed and tear gas fired." 

"This doesn't happen in the United States," observed one shaken and incredulous CNN commentator as images of Trump supporters breaching walls and breaking windows at the U.S. Capitol played on the television screen. 

One woman was killed in the Capitol. Three others succumbed in the streets. A Capitol Hill officer was also killed. A president shows no remorse. And this did happen in the United States and, while it is tragic and for many incomprehensible, it is what we have become. 

"Since 1980, with the rise of modern American conservatism under the banner of the 'Reagan Revolution,' the Republican and Democratic parties have steadily retreated from the principles of democracy."

Yes, thousands of deluded followers of a president who peddles conspiracy theories stormed the Capitol building today, but 60 million Americans are also hungry today, millions have lost homes and much of their assets, racism haunts our institutions and a pandemic besieges a nation that has failed to establish a universal health care system.

And, today, three American businessmen—Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos—hold more wealth than half of the American people do. That's 160 million citizens, 63 million households. Approximately a fifth of Americans have zero or negative wealth. These are disproportionately families of color. African American households in the greater Boston area had a net worth of $8 in 2015, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston report.   

Historically, cities have been sacked and nations have fallen for failing to address great disparities in wealth and widespread deteriorating social conditions. Trump supporters today did not bring down the government, far from it. What they did at the Capitol was reprehensible, deplorable and deserves condemnation. But this did not happen simply because a corrupt president abetted by elected U.S. representatives and senators refused to accept the 2020 presidential election results. 

To avoid worse calamities, we must take stock of where we are politically in this nation, how we got here and what we can do in the next four years.

Trumping Elections

Donald Trump is a creation of a two-party system that has presided over a country being torn apart by the forces of unrestrained capitalism. Over four decades both Republicans and Democrats have retreated from regulating the impact of corporate activity that has despoiled the environment and torn apart American communities. The long lines of people waiting for donations of food, communities of color suffering from toxic water, pharmaceutical companies promoting epidemics of deadly addictions, young black men and women killed by police in the streets, dozens of mass murders in schools and movie theaters and concerts—these are the symptoms of a society that is being torn apart and, yet, the nation's wealth continues to flow into the coffers of corporations and the off-shore accounts of the wealthiest Americans.

The purpose and function of an elected government is to represent the people. In practical terms this means to ensure that the resources of the nation are distributed in a fair and equitable manner, to redress the deprivation and violence endured by those who have suffered oppression. A government that does anything less allows social divisions to deepen and enables a minority with greater access to resources to deprive others of opportunity to improve their lives. This is the unfolding story of America. 

Since 1980, with the rise of modern American conservatism under the banner of the "Reagan Revolution," the Republican and Democratic parties have steadily retreated from the principles of democracy. Private corporate industries, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, have employed the emerging digital technology to amass fortunes greater than entire countries while over that same time the livelihoods of working Americans have become more insecure and actually declined. 

'Big banks,' 'Big tech,' 'Big pharma,' and 'Big oil' are among the behemoth corporate industries that have forged global markets, crunching numbers with supercomputers in a global race for the cheapest labor, taxes and natural resources. From Gary, Indiana to Bhopal, India, the communities and lives of millions have suffered directly from the rapacious appetites of powerful corporations amassing unprecedented wealth and power. The American government has been the major facilitator of this naked globalization, supporting corporations through tax incentives and other forms of de-regulation to gain advantages in domestic and foreign markets.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 is part of this history. He represents the crass and debased morality at the heart of the most aggressive corporate enterprise ever witnessed. He is what the American Dream has become as transnational corporations abandoned industrialized American communities, inexpensive foreign imports buoyed the purchasing power of declining livelihoods and wild Wall Street real estate speculation artificially inflated the assets and spending power of middle class Americans. Then the Great Recession hit and the Obama administration failed to restore the losses to those working Americans whose homes and wealth had literally evaporated overnight.

"[Trump] represents the crass and debased morality at the heart of the most aggressive corporate enterprise ever witnessed."

Real estate impresario and self-promoter Donald Trump burnished the brass of what was left of the myth-laden American Dream. He promised to "make America great again!" White nationalists and racists – the social detritus of a profit-driven nation in which individualism has triumphed over common welfare – became emboldened. Blacks, other communities of color and immigrants whose lives and work have built this country over generations became the enemy. 

Trump attacked the media, too, "as enemy of the people" while the authoritarian roots of incipient fascism enveloped the American body politic. The Republican Party did indeed become the Trumpublicans, strengthening racism, xenophobia, further weakening corporate and environmental regulations, denying climate change and scientific warnings, resisting gun control and even intensifying the pandemic by rejecting public health guidelines and federal and state mandates as assaults on the Second and First Amendments and overreaching government intrusion into citizen's private lives.

Then January 6th arrived, the day the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice-president of the United States would be confirmed by the Congress and Senate. That morning tens of thousands of Trump supporters gathered in Washington. Incited by U.S. president Donald Trump, they marched to the Capitol and invaded the Senate and House of Representatives. Earlier that same day two Democratic senatorial candidates – one black and one white - won historic victories in the Georgia run-off election. It tipped the balance of power in Washington in favor of the Democrats.  

Biden-Harris in an Uncertain World

While the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris drives Donald Trump from the White House and the election of Georgia Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff gives the Democrats a working majority in the Senate, it remains to be seen if the Democrats will pursue the fundamental economic, political and social reforms necessary to strengthen democracy and promote greater harmony in America. The obstructionist claims and actions of Trump and the Republicans concerning election fraud signal not only how politically and socially divided this nation has become but they also indicate that tepid bipartisan policies will not restore ordinary Americans' confidence in their government. Dramatic new initiatives to combat climate change, wealth concentration and institutional racism are the only ways a new American government can instill enough faith in democracy to avoid sliding more deeply into authoritarianism.

The pandemic is clearly the first issue a Biden-Harris administration will have to address. Slowing and managing a mutating virus that has been allowed to establish a broad base of infection will ultimately require establishing a national public health infrastructure. While federal leadership and resources are vital to organizing an effective vaccine delivery system, we must recognize that fighting infectious diseases is a matter of long-term national security. The fact that the virus has followed the fault lines in our nation's access to health care – disproportionately impacting the poor and communities of color – indicates that the lack of a comprehensive national health care system threatens everyone's lives and livelihoods. 

"Dramatic new initiatives to combat climate change, wealth concentration and institutional racism are the only ways a new American government can instill enough faith in democracy to avoid sliding more deeply into authoritarianism."

A universal single-payer program would not only make health care affordable for millions who do not presently have access to it, such a program ensures that all Americans receive vaccinations in a timely manner and that delivery systems for medicines, hospital equipment and protective gear are readily available when and wherever they are needed. It's unconscionable that in an age of climate change and accompanying contagions we do not have a fully-fledged national public health system. Even fiscal conservatives would be hard pressed to explain how the need for an effective national health care program is not a critical matter of national and international security.

As daunting as it is, containing the coronavirus is only the first hurdle the incoming administration will need to overcome. The second is the single greatest hurdle facing the United States in the 21st century. It involves regulating the excesses in commercial production and consumption that are ravaging the planet, destroying habitats and species while, at the same time, sowing division among ordinary citizens. As stated earlier in this essay, these excesses are generated by unrestrained capitalism. Asserting control over industry and directing the flow of public and private resources needed to control the new coronavirus variant is one step in that direction. 

Laissez-faire capitalism, however, is deeply embedded in the American psyche, bound up with the so-called American Dream. The dynamic relations of capitalism in our lives and in our governance must be at the center of public policy debate. Virtually everything depends on this critical public discourse, on whether or not we take appropriate action to mitigate the social injustices and environmental destruction that threatens the futures of our children, their children, their children's children, here and across the planet.

In suggesting that unreformed capitalism is an existential threat to the nation and the world, many will dismiss this argument as a failed socialist idea or the product of an alarmist imagination. While anathema to some, challenging the corporate impact on our lives is nevertheless a disturbing reality for many. Sixty years ago, renowned biologist Rachel Carson warned of ecological catastrophe in Silent Spring (1962). Carson was attacked by industry executives then. But today, no one can ignore Carson's prophetic vision: "We stand now where two roads diverge [borrowing from Robert Frost's familiar poem]...The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress at great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one less traveled – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth."

Carson's words give bold definition to the existential threat we face. While her critics in industry and government labeled her as "hysterical," Carson knew full-well how humans had arrived at this critical juncture. Human activity, she contended, was degrading the natural world and "the gods of profit and production" were the driving forces propelling humanity on its cataclysmic course. In other words, capitalism, the pounding heart of modern American and global history, is a primary obstacle to a sustainable human-environmental relationship. 

But challenging and reforming capitalism requires us to take account of its impact on wealth distribution and democracy as well as the global ecosystem. We will not achieve a sustainable way of life without addressing the underlying values and practices that two hundred years of capitalist evolution have fostered. "[T]he right to make a dollar at any cost is seldom challenged," as Carson succinctly put it. And in the course of capitalism's evolution that "right" has dominated our social relations and twisted our political principles.

Capitalism, American Democracy and a Shifting Political Landscape

The stark truth is that capitalism and democracy have rarely been compatible over the two centuries of our nation's history. The American Dream would have us believe otherwise, though.  Attempting to give "scientific" validation to this popular myth, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, arguably the most influential economist at the close of the 20th century, argued in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom that capitalism was the essential cradle of a free society. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth.

"We will not achieve a sustainable way of life without addressing the underlying values and practices that two hundred years of capitalist evolution have fostered."

Our nation's history is rife with examples that throw into question the veracity of the American Dream and the liberal economic theory that upholds it. Take, for example, capitalists' continuous resistance to and attacks on workers struggling for fair wages and humane working conditions in the late 19th century. Would an end to exploitation of children in the workplace have been achieved without workers and progressives fighting against owners of factories and their allies in government? Would enslavement of Americans of African descent have ended if the plantation owners had their way? Why did unscrupulous northern capitalists sell inferior guns, clothing and supplies to the Union Army? African Americans and working class whites were those who died in the Civil War battlefields, not the owners of capital.

During the civil rights movement sixty years ago, Martin Luther King declared that a corporate-dominated government was sacrificing poor and working class blacks and whites in Southeast Asia. Here's what he said about the Vietnam War near the end of his life: "Our involvement in the war... has strengthened the military-industrial complex." He also offered this perspective on the link between the profits made in that war and persistent domestic poverty: "It is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each enemy we kill, while we spend in the so-called war on poverty in America only about $53.00 for each person classified as 'poor.'"

Would we have 60 million Americans seeking food relief today if democracy actually existed? Do we really believe that American citizens and nonprofit organizations working to expand democracy have the same weight in Washington, DC, or in state governments, as corporate lobbyists with their clients' comparatively inexhaustible capital resources? How many public lobbyists regularly provide expensive dinners, golf outings, inside trade information and access to huge campaign donations to gain support for their interests? 

Is it reasonable to think that a society in which 1% of its citizenry holds 40% of the nation's wealth while 90% share 25% is a democratic society? Is that democracy at work? In such a society who really has more influence over the distribution of the nation's resources, the 1% or the 90%? How do we explain that ordinary Americans' lost 40 percent of their wealth in the Great Recession while the top 1% of Americans actually increased their wealth during this period? In a democracy one would expect that the majority would not allow such wealth disparities to exist. In a democracy a regulated financial industry would not be permitted to facilitate the transfer of wealth from society's poorest members to its wealthiest members, a massive transfer of wealth that has been well documented (see James H. Carr, 

"Why Recovery from the Great Recession Favored the Wealthy: The Role of Public Policy," NPQ, March 25, 2020).   

Viewing Joe Biden's incoming presidency in the light of the broad social and environmental injustices threatening this nation and the world, it is obvious that Democrats will need to enact thoroughgoing populist reforms over the next four years. Central to achieving social equality, improved public health and economic-environmental sustainability will require confronting the market forces and propaganda obscuring the disastrous course of unbridled capitalism. At the same time, socially-responsible capitalism has a vital role to play in the success of populist reforms. But bringing about a progressive public-private partnership depends on the character and policy objectives of the new government. 

"Is it reasonable to think that a society in which 1% of its citizenry holds 40% of the nation's wealth while 90% share 25% is a democratic society?"

Do the appointments Biden has already made indicate that he is ready to challenge American institutions embedded in the myth of democracy in capitalist America? The nominees to cabinet posts and appointments to other administration positions he has already unveiled do not indicate that his presidency will address fundamental economic and social issues. Too much time and effort has been spent on weighing potential Republican approval of prospective cabinet nominees, as if the Biden administrative team should defer in any way to the sentiments of a Republican Senate that has devoted itself to a race-baiting, xenophobic fear-mongering Donald Trump. Some will excuse such a cautious approach to forming a new government as pragmatic and realistic, crucial to Biden's effort to unify the nation. In light of the profound issues that face us, however, early concessions to those who deny Biden's own election indicates that he will favor conserving the status quo over pursuing a progressive political agenda. 

While Democratic victories in the senatorial run-off election in Georgia have made it easier for the Biden-Harris administration to pass aspects of its agenda and secure the new administration's cabinet nominees, progressives yet have much work to do to keep the Biden-Harris team from weakening much needed reforms in its quest to shore up the two-party system. Now is the time to let the Republican Party and its conservative, self-serving policies further weaken, to grasp the opportunity to shift the entire spectrum of American politics toward the left. In this new political environment Biden's moderate positions on health care, climate change, systemic racism and wealth disparities would become the new conservative pole and progressive positions could gain broader legitimacy and political weight at the center of government.  

The tectonic plates of the American political landscape are rocking the foundation of the two-party system. This is why we see such extremist positions and actions on the part of conservatives, the very segment of American society that feels most threatened by a new, rapidly emerging political culture. While it's true, political-centrist Biden won 51.68% of the primary popular vote, progressive Democrats Sanders and Warren combined for 29.89% of it. These percentages indicate that nearly a third of those casting votes in the Democratic Primary wanted to tackle wealth concentration and climate change more aggressively than did mainstream Democrats. Indeed, even among mainstream Democrats concerns about climate change and institutional racism are broadly shared. 

"If Biden... helps reconstitute the Republican Party as a weakened yet viable minority party, it represents a clear repudiation of progressive forces in his own party."

These political realities make Biden vulnerable to criticism and pressure from the "left" of his party. This is already evident in Biden's recent nominations of African Americans, a Native American and women to cabinet and other administrative positions. Though it is still unlikely that a progressive like Bernie Sanders will be offered the position in a Biden-Harris cabinet, one would like to think Biden is not simply making comfortable political concessions, that these nominees actually signal genuine commitment to fundamental change. Certainly these are historic appointments and they add liberal voices to the new administration's policy deliberations. At the same time, though, Biden's explicit political strategy belies his commitment to establishment politics.

As a mainstream politician bent on pursuing centrist, "bipartisan" policies with the help of "principled" Republicans, Biden appears fearful of the serious challenge progressives could bring to bear on established two-party system. Hewing to the center and allying with Republicans can only move the Biden-Harris agenda to the political right. It is absolutely absurd to think that a Biden-Harris administration will pull resurrected Republicans to the political left. Haven't the political developments of the last four years and the recent circumstances in which the vast majority of Republicans remain silent as a deranged president spouts proto-fascist rhetoric, entertains seizing power by force and imposing martial law, pressuring state election officials to change the election results, haven't these realities revealed the debased morality and self-interest of American conservative thinking? "Principled Republicans"—does anyone seriously believe they exist in Washington today? 

If Biden nevertheless helps reconstitute the Republican Party as a weakened yet viable minority party, it represents a clear repudiation of progressive forces in his own party. It is as if the new administration will stand astride the shifting fault lines in the American political landscape, trying vainly to hold a troubled nation together by clinging desperately to the institutions and political strategies that continue to divide the nation. Working with the likes of Senator McConnell and Republicans may help parry the challenge of progressive forces in the Democratic Party—forces actually emanating from the ground up—but it will not avert the political realignment that threatens to upend the two-party system, that threatens to replace the politics of the status quo with a political reawakening to authentic democracy.

Even with the election of Senators Warnock and Ossoff conservative Democrats remain in the Senate and Congress. While a disgraced and weakened Republican Party will theoretically make it easier for these Democrats in their re-election campaigns, one must not think that a scorned base of Trump supporters will simply wither away after the January 6th events. It cannot be forgotten, nor should it be ignored, that 75 million Americans voted for Trump in 2020. For this reason among others, many elected Democrats, conservative and liberal alike, are frightened by the rise of progressive politics.

"The threat to the established Democratic Party could well intensify with each overture party leadership now makes to a corrupt, discredited Republican Party."

Wounded Republicans will still practice red-baiting, invoking what's left of anti-communist, anti-socialist propaganda that fueled the imaginations of generations who lived through the Cold War, but these claims are not as menacing to younger generations. At the same time, expanding progressive power brings its proponents greater access to the party's financial resources and campaign machinery. Even the traditional support of African Americans in the Democratic Party will be affected by the rising voices of progressive people of color. Thus the threat to the established Democratic Party could well intensify with each overture party leadership now makes to a corrupt, discredited Republican Party. Eventually the brakes the party establishment has placed on the insurgent progressive movement that emerged in Sander's 2012 primary campaign will give way. 

In this context the results of the Georgia run-off election is more important to progressives than to the centrists of the Democratic Party. Two losses in Georgia would have strengthened centrists and conservatives in Washington. They would certainly have made it easier for Biden to build alliances with establishment Republicans. With the two wins, however, progressives have a greater chance of forcing the Biden-Harris team to retreat from the political center since there is less need for Republican Senators' support of policy initiatives and greater space for progressives to influence prospective legislation.

Defining Moment for Progressives

American progressives now face a defining moment in their political evolution over the past decade. They will need to form a unified front in the Democratic Party, even preparing themselves for a break with the Democrats if the establishment party members try to undermine their policy objectives. They must be smart and aggressive in exploiting the factious political environment in Washington. They must take their policy ideas back to their districts and sponsor public forums in which exchanges of ideas can inform their strategies and broaden the appeal of progressive goals. They must not fear ultimately fracturing the established parties. This will be necessary to shift the American body politic toward progressive ideas and take up the critical challenges of our era in history. 

An organized progressive faction in the Democratic Party backed by a grassroots progressive movement can lead the forces of democratic populism into a future where a new centrist politics will include single-payer health care, the greening of the economy, free tuition at two-year colleges, college debt forgiveness, ending systemic racism in American institutions, just redistribution of national resources, guaranteed child care, living wages and more. This is the way to take the wind out of the sails of Trumpian politics, to demonstrate that government can work for the people. Ultimately, as happened with the New Deal, unfettered capitalism will be reigned in, made to work for the common good.

"A lukewarm Biden-Harris presidency—even one that eventually brings the pandemic under control—will not achieve the populist policy objectives necessary to win in 2024." If this interpretation of where America stands today seems idealistic, it is. But it is the death of idealism that dwells in the heart of conservative theory of humankind and that has done so much harm to our nation and the world. Greed drives capitalism, belief in the selfish motives of humankind drives conservative politics. In a time of impending social and environmental disaster on a global scale, these values will not enable us to mitigate the conditions leading to ecological destruction and social chaos. Likewise, a lukewarm Biden-Harris presidency—even one that eventually brings the pandemic under control—will not achieve the populist policy objectives necessary to win in 2024. 

While the efficacy and wisdom of progressive social and environmental policies will surely be reinforced by observable reality, by the contagions, wildfires, superstorms and human suffering and conflict that capitalist exploitation will certainly intensify, failing to adopt a broad agenda of populist social and genuine environmental reforms will leave the field of history wide open for authoritarian political forces. As grave social inequities continue to degrade our humanity and an inadequately-regulated capitalism accelerates climate change, authoritarianism will gain deeper roots here and around the world. Faith in democracy will further erode and, in the face of an uncertain and unjust world, the rhetoric of demagogues will remain more attractive, more politically potent than messages of moderation and empty appeals to unity. Most importantly, progressives will have ceded political ground to "centrists" and weakened the possibility – more palpable, more within grasp than ever – of broadening and deepening democracy and justice in America and throughout the world. 

John Ripton

John Ripton writes political essays and research articles. He holds a Master in International Affairs and PhD in History. His dissertation explores the historical impact of global capitalism on Salvadoran peasants and how it contributed to the revolutionary struggle against authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. John's articles and essays have been published in journals, magazines, newspapers and other publications in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia.

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