When Ed Markey, a longtime Massachusetts senator, became the target of a primary challenge from centrist Democrat Joe Kennedy, leftist organizations like the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led group that advocates for climate change solutions, and the Democratic Socialists of America mobilized to close a 14-point gap between the candidates. These groups foregrounded Markey’s track record as an advocate for the working class and a champion for the Green New Deal. After Markey won by 11 points, Sunrise’s creative director Alex O’Keefe told The Intercept that it meant the organization would have an ally in the Senate who would be “inside negotiating with other senators who are now afraid of us, who also now want our support.” And Markey wouldn’t just be an ally, he’d have more incentive to adopt platforms that he might have once considered too radical.
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What O’Keefe describes is part of the left’s basic playbook for engaging in elections where there is no real progressive candidate: Vote them in, then push them left. This strategy seemed particularly urgent in the 2020 presidential election when the party coalesced around President-elect Joe Biden, an establishment Democrat resistant to the policies and proposals that excited younger, more progressive members of the party. Biden ran a campaign primarily conceived of as conciliatory, hoping to win voters ranging from an array of demographics, from the Obama coalition to disaffected Republicans. He made it through the primaries by convincing Democrats that he was “electable,” if not the most popular or exciting candidate. In the general election, Biden promised to restore dignity and Democratic norms. He ran to the middle and was successful in pushing out the least popular president in the five decades.
Biden emphasized that he was not Trump. And, to the disappointment of a large segment of the Democratic base, he was also not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Still, leftists gave Biden a version of the Markey treatment. Organizers who, during the primaries, dedicated themselves to the Sanders campaign pivoted to campaigning for Biden, a candidate many of them openly loathed just a few months prior. They repurposed the sophisticated grassroots infrastructure the Sanders camp had built up over four years and created groups like Vote Trump Out and Not Him, Us to maximize their impact. Since it would be disingenuous (and ineffective) to rebrand Biden as a progressive, these Sanders supporters spoke primarily to other progressives, working to convince them it was worth not just to vote for Biden, but to play an active role in getting him elected.
It seems clear that their organizing helped push Biden over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia—states that proved critical in defeating Trump. Leftists must now contend with the second part of their 2020 mantra: What exactly does it look like to “push Biden left,” and what sorts of tactics does such a task demand?
The Biden presidency will be the first time the left has been well-matched to the enormity of such a question. Groups like Our Revolution, Indivisible, and the Sunrise Movement didn’t exist when Obama was in office; before 2016, DSA had just 5,000 members whereas now it has more than 80,000. They each have a slightly different theory of how to approach a Biden presidency, but all agree that the work it requires will happen in communities, at the grassroots, much of it the necessary, life-long work that must be done no matter who the president is.
When I called Sunrise spokesperson Nikayla Jefferson Monday after Biden declared his victory, she reminded me of the moment that put the organization on the map: the 2018 midterm elections, which saw the House regain a Democratic majority. When incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she would form a committee dedicated to climate change—a way to make up for the fact that a list of House Democratic priorities included no mention of the issue—Sunrise activists occupied her office, demanding a Green New Deal. They were joined by then Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Since then we’ve grown exponentially,” Jefferson said. “At the drop of a hat, we can get all of our members on the same page and execute an action with a day’s notice.”
During the primaries, the Sunrise Movement gave Biden an “F-” when they evaluated his climate policy; Sanders, whom they formally endorsed, received the highest score, an A-. After Biden became the presumptive nominee, Sunrise’s co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash was invited to sit on the Sanders-Biden Unity task force for climate change, where she helped make recommendations for his platform.
Sunrise has already played a role in moving Biden on this issue, getting him to make bolder promises for how his administration will address the climate crisis than he initially ran on. Still, the organization put Biden on notice shortly after the election: On November 11, Sunrise issued a “climate mandate” for the president-elect, which included their cabinet picks. Among the criteria for Biden’s cabinet members is that none come from the fossil fuel industry. The implicit message is that Sunrise is ready to mobilize its members to loudly contest any such appointments.
“Joe Biden has a choice to make,” the Sunrise video warned. “Does he want to be the leader of the American majority, or does he want to be Mitch McConnell’s Vice President?”
As far as Sunrise is concerned, this is the kind of move that gets results. Besides, Jefferson told me, what other choice is there? “We’ve got like seven years left before we hit a degree and a half of warming, which will be catastrophic,” she said. “I’m 24—by the time we hit this deadline I’ll be 30.”
“Our job is to shift public opinion and building a movement alongside it,” Jefferson continued. “As we shift the terrain and opinion of the country, Biden will be forced to shift with it.”
One of the most powerful tools groups like Sunrise and DSA have at their disposal is their ability to—even if just for a fleeting moment—strike fear in the hearts of dismissive Democrats. Both groups helped insurgent candidates like Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman defeat longtime incumbent members of Congress in Missouri and New York, respectively. DSA, in particular, won 28 out of 37 of their national races.
In the lead-up to the 2020 election, the memory of Ocasio-Cortez’s historic upset still fresh in their minds, a Kentucky Democrat told Politico that many members were “looking over their shoulders” in anxious anticipation of primary challenges from young progressives. More recently, as rumors that Ocasio-Cortez might come for Chuck Schumer’s seat swirled, the Senate minority leader has begun to cast surprising votes and call on Biden to eliminate a portion of student debt in his first 100 days in office.
Though ideologically the DSA isn’t united on the question of how much the organization should focus on electoral politics, in practice, it’s ramped up its grassroots campaigns for issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal while investing a huge amount of time and resources in unseating centrist Democrats and getting progressives elected down-ballot.
“We organize for unions and police reform at the same time as we organize statehouse races, races for district attorney, Congress, and city council,” said DSA communications director Chris Kutalik Cauthern. “We base ourselves in social movements, but unlike the ultra-left, we recognize that because we have a system like ours, where two major parties monopolize power, [it’s important to] run Dems on the party line.”
This is the “inside-outside” strategy progressive groups have shored up in the last few years, which they’re counting on to pay off when Biden takes office. The idea is that outside of Washington, organizations dedicate themselves to activating working-class people and building consensus around leftist mandates. Within the two-party system, these groups get progressives elected down-ballot. Ostensibly these newly elected candidates then advance progressive causes.
“The inside game is heightened by having people like AOC, Rashida Tlaib from Detroit, Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal—the inside game is really strong,” Jeff Cohen, co-founder of RootsAction.org, which organized the Vote Trump Out campaign targeting disaffected progressives in the general election.
“Everyone is gaining maturity and cohesion inside,” he continued. “There are no fractures among progressives. They’re very solid, and they see themselves as being allied with social movements.”
The Democratic Party, however, seems intent on marginalizing these members. In the immediate aftermath of the presidential election—even before it had been officially called—party leaders conducted an informal autopsy report, which saw many centrists blame their progressive colleagues for a lackluster showing in the House. Democrats, while still in the majority, have lost at least seven House seats as of this writing, and could still stand to lose more. The much-anticipated blue wave failed to materialize for the party, now vulnerable to losing its control of the House in 2022.
“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger, who narrowly won reelection, said on a post-election conference call.
But progressive members, including incoming additions to “the Squad,” are undaunted by these warnings from moderates, and plan to continue working alongside the movements they credit with helping them get elected to shape the direction of a Biden-led Democratic Party.
“We’re not going to back down on what we believe our communities need,” Missouri Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush told Jezebel. “And we know how to use the media, social media, and talking to people in our communities to get our message out. When you’re able to galvanize people you put on that pressure, and it garners results.”
Despite early signs that Democratic leadership may try to move even more to the center, there’s good reason to believe that Biden may be more amenable to progressive policies than he seems. That’s because progressives have already won: Policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are popular. All 112 cosponsors of Medicare for All won their races, as did 97 of the 98 Green New Deal cosponsors. And these are the sorts of policies that excite the young voters who helped propel Biden to victory. Keeping them and their other progressive constituencies happy is just good politics, organizers argue.
“Everyone knows Gen Z and millennials are the most progressive and racially diverse group of voters, and no one thinks they turned out to vote in these high numbers because they want to return to the status quo,” said Johnathan Smucker, a Pennsylvania organizer who ran Not Him, Us, a pro-Sanders group that canvassed for Biden. “They came out to vote to beat Trump, not elect Biden. If Biden and Dems in Congress want to win the long-term loyalty of this generation, they have to deliver. It’s not rocket science.”
But leftists aren’t naive. They know things will be difficult if Democrats don’t win the Georgia run-off races that will give them control of the Senate, and they know that there are many competing interests trying to exert influence on Biden, most of which are antithetical to theirs. Not to mention that the last time a Democratic president was in office, progressives were promised transformative change that failed to fully materialize. Biden has rarely if ever suggested that he intends to do much more than return the country to “normalcy.”
But that doesn’t mean completely giving up on trying to move Biden. “There’s a widely shared understanding that it was a mistake to stop exercising pressure from the outside on the president as we did when Obama came into office,” Ana Maria Archila, the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, told Vice earlier this year.
Moving Biden left describes an orientation, an attitude, toward the Biden presidency. It is also a shorthand for a range of strategies to create progressive change in the country, many of which don’t involve making the Biden administration the explicit focus of leftist efforts. And while a neat and useful catchphrase, “pushing Biden left” can play into a dichotomy established by the Democratic Party, making progressive movements sound petty. Instead, organizers say it’s not necessarily a right to left battle but rather a more consequential direction, top to bottom, between the corporate elite and working people.
“We’re not Biden-obsessed,” Cohen said. “We’re obsessed with transferring power within the Democratic Party to the base, and the base stands for social justice.”
Sam Adler-Bell, a writer who covers the left, put it this way: “We’re not going to push Biden left, we’re going to make interventions that force his hand.” Some liberal Democrats may resent leftists for making these interventions. “Isn’t it a relief to have someone who isn’t Trump take office?” they might rhetorically ask. And some leftists will see them as a waste of time, believing that electoral politics isn’t where real change occurs. But between these poles activists see a field of possibilities. Why leave them on the table?
Night blogger at Jezebel with writing at The Baffler, The Nation, The New Republic, Vice, and more.