US progressive change window closing

Paul Garver assesses the Biden administration ten months on

The narrow electoral victory for Biden and the Democratic Party staved off immediate disaster for US democracy. It feels better to wake up mornings free of the latest product of Trump’s egomaniacal and disordered brain. With the narrowest of Democratic margins in Congress, Biden has made some decent executive appointments and reversed some of Trump’s most vicious executive orders. However, the window of opportunity for vital substantive reforms in US society is already beginning to close.

The Biden administration has not delivered on many of the promises made on the campaign trail. Desperate families are still being denied refugee status at the border with Mexico, under the pretext of stopping the spread of Covid-19. Although Biden suspended one pipeline being constructed to carry fracked oil sands petroleum through indigenous territories, his administration still defends others equally destructive, and increased permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands. Racial justice has been addressed only symbolically by making Juneteenth (June 19th) a new national holiday.

The Biden administration has accomplished some basic economic tasks well. Half of Americans are now fully vaccinated against Covid-19 (79% of adults have received at least one shot), reducing hospitalisations and deaths. This aids economic recovery and reduces unemployment. Its one significant legislative accomplishment to date in March was a large $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill that sent direct payments to all Americans, extended unemployment and child tax credits, and provided relief to local and state governments. Since all Republicans voted against this Covid relief package, it had to be passed in the Senate by the “budget reconciliation” process steered by Budget Committee chairperson Bernie Sanders, which does not require a super-majority of 60 of the 100 Senators to avoid a Republican filibuster.

Most corporate leaders in the Business Roundtable supported this emergency stimulus legislation, along with about 70% of the American public. But business support faded quickly as the Left of the Democratic Party pushed the agenda to expand the social safety net and boost infrastructure spending towards longer-term reforms. Under the guise of promoting “bi-partisanship”, big business interests are now directing large amounts of pro-fossil fuel lobbying and corporate funding into propping up 10 so-called “moderate” Democrats and Republicans, including Democratic Senators Joe Manchin from West Virginia, a spokesman for coal interests, and Krysten Sinema from Arizona. Corporate interests also campaigned to block the PRO Act that would modestly strengthen workers’ right to organise into unions, and against any legislation to promote voter rights against the onslaught of Republican states’ bills designed to discourage voting by African Americans, Latin-Americans (‘Latinxs’) and young people. Above all, big capitalist interests directed their fire against any reversal of the huge tax cuts passed by the Trump administration for corporations and wealthy individuals.

This capitalist class strategy to create a “moderate” centrist bloc in Congress that would resist any sweeping climate, political, tax or racial justice reforms has had some success. Manchin and Sinema are promoted in the media as power brokers capable of derailing the crucial Democrat unanimity. Since the Senate is divided 50-50, even one Democrat defection dooms the budget reconciliation process or an end to the undemocratic and racist filibuster rule.

The Left wing of the Democratic Party, co-led by Bernie Sanders and a cluster of relatively newly elected House Representatives including the “Squad”, has kept its fragile alliance with the Biden administration. It hopes to use what may be a one-year window of opportunity to legislate key steps towards a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. The Left is also promoting sweeping social policy proposals that in the European context might appear merely “social democratic”, but in the USA would reverse the neoliberal contraction of the positive role of government and promote the broad interests of the interracial working class. Many centrist Democrats support some of these measures as essential to a full recovery from the pandemic crisis, but perhaps more crucially ones that might recoup some of the heavy defections from the traditional working class Democratic base.

However, the siren call of a “bipartisan” coalition with Republicans continues to tempt Biden and centrist Democrats. Fortunately, or not, so many Republicans are so in thrall to their defeated ex-President that they are reluctant to support any positive popular legislation that might make Biden look like a successful president.

The compromise infrastructure bill, which gained enough support from Republicans to pass with a large majority in the Senate, would provide some $1 trillion mostly for physical infrastructure projects like roads and bridges. Excluded are the more sweeping measures necessary to combat climate chaos and the broad governmental measures promoted by the progressive Left to address racial and social inequality, protect workers’ rights to organise into unions, expand Medicare, and begin implementing a Green New Deal. These measures are now part of a $3.5 trillion “budget reconciliation” bill that advanced for debate in the Senate with no Republican support and will pass only if all Democrats vote for it. A handful of Democratic “moderates” led by Sinema and Manchin claim that the bill is too expansive and expensive, while progressive Democrats have drawn a red line in the sand and may withhold their votes from the infrastructure bill as well if the key features of the budget reconciliation bill are weakened.

The outcome of this battle will determine whether the USA advances towards a comprehensive social democracy or falls back into chaos.

Election setback for Left

In a Democratic primary for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District in Cleveland, Nina Turner lost narrowly but decisively by 4,000 votes to Shontel Brown, a local Democratic Party chairperson backed by a strange combination of supporters. Prominent among them were Hillary Clinton, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, two major right-wing pro-Israel Political Action Committees, and major Republican donors who had contributed heavily to Donald Trump. Millions of dollars were expended by the PACs and donors on anti-Turner attack ads, claiming that she is too shrill, antisemitic, and out of touch with the district. Turner, an early supporter of Bernie Sanders and a prominent leader of Our Revolution (the grassroots organisation that emerged from the Sanders presidential bid), received enthusiastic support from Sanders and Squad members.

The negative campaigning seems to have persuaded many African American voters that Brown would be the safer choice. The result was a clear victory for Biden’s cautious centrism and the Party establishment and a setback for the left progressive/democratic socialist insurgency. The defeat for Turner and the Democratic Left may hearten “obstructionist” Democrats like Manchin and Sinema already being urged by their corporate supporters to block the budget reconciliation bill in the Senate.

In conceding her loss, Turner told her supporters: “Tonight, my friends, we have looked across the promised land, but for this campaign, on this night, we will not cross the river… I am going to work hard to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen to another progressive candidate again. We didn’t lose this race; evil money manipulated and maligned this election.”

But Turner’s defeat might in fact represent a Pyrrhic victory for the Democratic Party’s neoliberal establishment, who fear the slow advance and consolidation of the Democratic Socialist Left within the Democratic Party and US politics generally. The Congressional Black Caucus senior leadership is still smarting from the bruising 2020 primary defeat of ten-term incumbent Rep. Lacy Clay in the 1st Missouri congressional district around St. Louis. Victorious insurgent Cori Bush, an African American nurse and DSA member, has become a militant spokesperson for the most vulnerable, camping out on the steps of the US Capitol with Squad colleagues to demand an end to evictions and winning some delays. India Walton, another African American nurse and DSA member, had just defeated a long-term incumbent mayor of Buffalo. Caught between the Trumpist Republican Party, and the slow and halting advance of a Democratic Socialist Left whose most visible spokespeople are working class women of colour, the space for centrist Democrats to triangulate and obfuscate felt diminished.

By rejecting Nina Turner, the Democratic establishment slowed the progress of the Left, but may have tolled the death knell for the PRO Act that would strengthen unions and the Democracy Act, that would secure voting rights for the Southern African Americans that are an important constituency for the Black Congressional Caucus. Turner’s defeat may also reduce the scope of the sweeping Budget reconciliation bill to extend basic social democratic policies to segments of the Black and Latinx populations excluded from the original New Deal.

I hope to be wrong in this pessimistic assessment. But if the Democrats do not deliver substantial material results for most working class Americans before 2022, the Republicans are odds-on favourites to win the 2022 Congressional elections and the Presidency in 2024. I fear the extinction of US democracy at the hands of racist xenophobic bigots.

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