In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, there was a momentary fear on the Left that the Trump administration could seize on the crisis to lethal political effect. With news of a federal evictions freeze and initial buzz about massive stipends to the unemployed, would the Republican Party, traditionally sycophantic towards its corporate paymasters, embrace a populist welfarism and outflank the Democrats?
In retrospect, the question feels absurd. Trump, true to form, quickly returned to his preferred theatre of the culture war and has proven too politically and ideologically lazy to take the kinds of measures that might boost his flailing poll numbers and salvage a victory in November.
Over roughly the same period, a parallel story was being told in liberal media circles about the Democratic Party’s then all-but-certain presidential nominee Joe Biden. A lifelong moderate (the word liberal pundits use when they actually mean “conservative”), could the former vice president remake himself as the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and usher in a suite of reforms as ambitious as the New Deal?
The question has always been silly, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Biden’s history and career would instantly conclude. Some version of it, furthermore, invariably appears in the weeks leading up to the Democratic National Convention — right as the party’s presumptive nominee is starting to perform the conventional pivot to the neoliberal center they’ll maintain right up until election day (and afterward, should they win).
On paper, Democratic elites always seem to be “moving to the left.” In practice, they’re fighting it at almost every turn and making clear that they categorically reject the Left’s demands — even when these demands enjoy robust popular support throughout the country.
If past precedent doesn’t put to rest transparently silly media chatter about an ambitious liberal agenda in the coming general election, the past week offers strong clues about where the center of gravity really lies in senior Democratic circles amid a global pandemic, an unprecedented popular uprising against racism, and what will probably be the most destructive economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Last Wednesday, 139 House Democrats voted to reject a 10 percent cut in the Pentagon budget proposed by Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Mark Pocan. On Monday, delegates on the DNC’s platform committee rejected Medicare For All (M4A) by a margin of 36-125-3, alongside an amendment urging the party to embrace the legalization of marijuana.
On Tuesday, House majority leader Steny Hoyer signaled that the party is ready to budge on extending the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits millions have been receiving during COVID-19 — echoing right-wing talking points that such benefits would serve as a “disincentive to work.”
Tying together what has been a truly stellar month for elite Democrats, Biden — who currently has a solid lead in the polls — explained to a group of Wall Street donors that he won’t actually propose any new legislation to rein in corporate power or change corporate behavior. “Corporate America has to change its ways,” said Biden at a fundraiser headlined by Blackstone executive Jon Gray, adding: “It’s not going to require legislation. I’m not proposing any.”
As David Sirota points out, that pledge stands in direct contrast with a number of potentially major initiatives Biden is theoretically committed to — including proposals to empower workers and pass corporate accountability legislation still listed on his own website. Between corporate accountability, military spending, criminal justice, unemployment benefits, and universal health care, it all amounts to an impressive record of triangulation over a breathtakingly brief period of time.
In every one of these areas, there’s a strong argument to be made that elite Democrats are not only rejecting the preferences of their own rank and file, but public opinion as a whole. M4A and the legalization of marijuana, in addition to being urgent and morally necessary policies, command majority support among both Democrats and the public writ large.
Fewer and fewer Americans are convinced that the Pentagon needs yet another increase in funding. Even before the coronavirus, primary voters in the conservative state that rescued Biden’s then-flailing presidential ambitions believed in overwhelming numbers that the American economic system is in need of “a complete overhaul.”
If there’s a lesson in all of this, it’s that neither national crises nor waves of street protest are sufficient to make either wing of America’s political class responsive to ordinary people’s needs and demands. Whatever vaguely populist gestures allowed him to win in states like Ohio and Wisconsin, the political machinery of the Republican Party under Donald Trump is simply too atrophied to weaponize the current moment for political gain.
The supposedly reform-minded liberal opposition, its differences notwithstanding, is meanwhile poised to take power in January with a similarly anti-populist ethos as its guiding philosophy. Democratic leaders are offering the usual nods to the agenda favored by their own activists (and a less than negligible swathe of the general public) while making clear that their allegiance is ultimately to donors and financial interests.
Millions have lost their health insurance, with millions more facing eviction and ruin thanks to a pandemic that has laid bare the essential cruelty of America’s bipartisan political consensus. But if the basic themes of 2020 have been popular protest and economic crisis, the ruling sentiment among the country’s political leadership continues to be one of moral and political stagnation. The past week is living proof.