The election of Joe Biden is a pivotal event in American politics, and for the Left in particular. First and foremost, it means that one of the most aggressively cancerous people to ever occupy the White House has been ousted.
It is clear that even while Donald Trump is no longer president and has much of the American corporate class lined up against him, he remains the most powerful figure within the Republican Party, which is descending into a deep crisis. The Democrats, for their part, are showing signs of coming to life for the first time in decades. Even while Biden has been faithful to the neoliberal creed for most of his career, his first weeks in office are already tilting more to the left than any president since Jimmy Carter — certainly more than ever witnessed in Barack Obama’s tenure. As we go to press, his nearly $2 trillion proposed relief package has been a surprise to most analysts as well as to us. It contains a more aggressive ecological agenda than offered by any recent president; a $15 per hour minimum wage; considerable relief for local governments, and other measures that, while falling short of a Bernie Sanders–style New Deal, nevertheless mark an entirely new direction in policy.
This leftward tilt is undoubtedly due to the changed political environment since 2016. There is, of course, the fact of an economic and social crisis, which calls for bold and extensive action. But it is important to recall that Obama also came into office during a crisis — and proceeded to underwhelm on every level. What is truly distinctive about this moment is not the fact of the crisis, but the change in political balance within and without the Democratic Party. Biden faces a party with a small but vocal left flank, an electorate that is more restive than we have seen in years, and, in consequence, a dramatic shift in public opinion, which he finds impossible to ignore. Policy proposals that were dismissed as fringe five years ago are very much in the mainstream today. The greater opening for the Left has not gone unnoticed among more conservative Democrats. Just as Biden has had to concede to political pressure, so his wing of the party has moved aggressively to quash it. There are already warnings being issued about the consequences if the “far left” — i.e., the Sanders wing — is able to define the party. Biden himself has played a very careful game of adopting some of its policies even while he moves decisively to block its members from key positions in his administration.
What is clear is that the political situation is more fluid today than in decades. This calls for a careful analysis of the conjuncture — of the opportunities that it offers to the Left and the limits that still constrain us. Toward this, we devote the entire issue of Catalyst to the Biden ascendency. Addressing the critical problem of the economy, David Kotz shows that the COVID-19 crisis only exacerbated a long-term problem of declining investment and anemic growth. This makes it all the more important to launch an ambitious public investment program as a foundation for equitable growth. Kotz powerfully argues that the warnings from deficit hawks in both parties are unfounded, and that the greater danger is not of excessive spending but of it being insufficient. Of course, for Biden to move aggressively on a progressive economic agenda will most likely require political pressure from his constituency, labor being the most important. But Chris Maisano shows that, even while there are signs of a revival in working-class mobilization, the labor movement is still exceedingly weak, and its left flank is only just holding on. Suzy Lee observes that, even in this weakened state, labor can still expect to benefit from Biden on the immigration front, but Biden’s horizon seems limited to returning to the Obama-era status quo, which was, on most any measure, deeply hostile to immigrants.
Labor’s organizational weakness does not portend well for meaningful progress on the ecological front, and Matt Huber suggests that even the progressives in the Democratic Party are largely wedded to the nonprofits and think tanks rather than labor unions, as sources of pressure. He warns that this amounts to a kind of magical thinking, in which politicians will take the steps essential to reverse ecological catastrophe, but through moral suasion rather than through political mobilization. On the foreign policy front, Jason Brownlee places Biden in a longer sweep, from George W. Bush through Trump. Brownlee shows that Biden seems committed to returning to Obama’s status quo ante with regard to American geopolitics. But that status quo is nothing to celebrate — indeed, on several fronts, it was bloodier and more aggressive than Trump’s tenure. Of all the dimensions on which we examine Biden, Brownlee persuasively argues that foreign policy is likely to be the biggest failure from a progressive standpoint, and the area where the Left will face the greatest challenges.
Finally, Jared Abbott reviews Seth Masket’s book on the lessons that the Democratic Party drew from its defeat in 2016, Learning From Loss: The Democrats, 2016–2020. Abbott observes that Masket offers a useful window into the party’s reorientation in the wake of Trump’s victory. The book shows that, in most every way, Democrats failed to appreciate the real reasons for their defeat, so that they are likely to persevere in their courting of the suburbs and elites within minority populations. As he dolefully concludes, this will only deepen the alienation of working people from the party, further blocking the chances for left resurgence within it.
The next four years will undoubtedly be pivotal for both the mainstream parties, and especially so for the Left. The fluidity in social and political alignments is of an order that we have not seen in decades. In upcoming issues, Catalyst will continue to develop the analysis of this moment in American politics, with essays on the Republican Party, racial formation, the evolving American role in the Middle East, and changes in working-class occupational structure. This, with our continuing focus on conceptual and theoretical debates crucial for socialist revival.