Politics

What Does the Left Do Now?

Without the Senate, is America destined for years of compromise instead of bold change?

Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 6. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Joe Biden has won the presidency, but this election was not the landslide Democrats wanted. The Democratic Party lost seats in the House (and it may lose more as the vote counting continues). With two Senate races in Georgia still to be decided, the party has the opportunity to secure 50 seats in the Senate, which would mean control with Vice President Kamala Harris as the deciding vote, but the likelihood of Democrats winning both Georgia runoffs is not high. As a result, House Democrats are already at one another’s throats, with centrists like Abigail Spanberger admonishing her colleagues for talking about defunding the police, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez retorting that vulnerable Democrats weren’t willing to accept progressives’ strategy advice. A Biden administration with a Republican Senate does not seem promising for Democrats’ ability to push for progressive policies. Slate staffers discuss where the left goes from here.

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Christina Cauterucci: What’s the outlook for the progressive policy agenda under a Biden presidency, under the circumstances that look likely (Republicans hold the Senate)?

Tom Scocca: There’s a powerful faction of the Democratic establishment and the commentary business, which always gets the first turn at the microphone, that will inevitably argue that the lesson of an election is that the left wing of the party can’t afford to scare off the reasonable middle.

If this had been a landslide, it would have been the duty of the left not to upset the broad united front by pushing for its divisive policy goals in a moment of consensus; in a close race, it is too dangerous for the left to risk the narrow margin by pursuing its divisive policy goals.

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Cauterucci: It’s already out in full force!

Jordan Weissmann: I think the issue is more that neither the left wing of the party nor the more moderate establishment wing really has a good answer about how to get around our crappy, anti-majoritarian political institutions. I mean, seriously, everybody’s theories failed. Bernie Sanders’ idea that he could generate a groundswell of new voters didn’t even work in the Democratic primary. Instead, Biden seemed to pull out marginal voters. But Biden’s idea that his moderate coattails would help win the Senate? Not looking so hot.

Ben Mathis-Lilley: I struggle to balance the idea that “everybody failed” with the Democrats holding the House while gaining the presidency and one to three seats in the Senate.

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Scocca: There are two competing pessimistic takes: the self-interested pessimistic take of the centrists and the pragmatic pessimistic take about how this election demonstrated—and reinforced, between the Senate and the Republican gains in state legislatures just in time for gerrymander season—that the structural obstacles to changing things are overwhelming.

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Weissmann: The structural obstacles are enormous, and Democrats winning a wave in the middle of a national emergency seemed like one of the only ways to overcome them. But we appear to have wasted the crisis.

Mathis-Lilley: Yeah, a lot of it’s how you’re looking at the glass. I’m basically just arguing that progressives continue to have a relatively strong position within a system that might as well be designed to restrain them. Aren’t the people who wasted the crisis the ones who voted for Republican candidates? And who voted for even more Republican candidates in 2016? Your phrasing to me seems to imply the existence of some low-hanging fruit that no one has ever actually photographed. Bigfoot fruit.

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Weissmann: It’s just very frustrating to win the presidency, and yet know that it’s a very real possibility that there won’t be a landmark piece of progressive legislation for eight to 12 years.

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Scocca: The optimistic take seems to be centered on Georgia—not just because it opens the door to squeaking out a miracle save of the Senate, but because the left-pessimist argument and the centrist-pessimist argument are both grounded in the same premise that nothing can happen outside a long-established set of constraints. And Georgia threatening to go blue, or even holding out for days before going red, is a huge change in the assumed structure of national electoral politics.

Cauterucci: And it proves something the Democratic Party needs to see: that there’s a world in which it can tailor its campaigns to underserved voters of color whose votes are often suppressed, in the South and elsewhere, instead of to the white racial grievance people.

Julia Craven: I think Georgia is a cautiously good sign! It’s proof that grassroots work is kicking ass. Again, another example that comes to mind is how voter groups, mostly led by Black women, flipped Alabama’s Senate seat in 2017. The DNC didn’t do that. (And yes, it flipped back, but I wonder how much of a role COVID putting a slight damper on in-person efforts played in that.)

Cauterucci: This speaks to one of the things that makes me most pessimistic: the reminder that so many people are illogical, immoral, shortsighted, selfish, and motivated by things that seem unthinkable to the rest of us. COVID hot spots voting for the COVID spreader is just beyond any realm of reasonable understanding. So how are candidates supposed to build support for a progressive agenda when people don’t vote based on rational arguments?

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Mathis-Lilley: I guess the answer is, inch by inch, with the knowledge that there are ultimately more of us than there are of them, rather than by hoping for an FDR-style wave in an era in which that’s just not possible.

Weissmann: I mean, there have been two periods of radical progressive change in modern U.S. history. The New Deal. And the Great Society. Both followed massive Democratic wave elections.

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Mathis-Lilley: We’re forgetting that the Democrats did win a wave two years ago! I wouldn’t give up so quickly on another midterm during which Donald Trump is not on the ballot. Usual midterm rules might not apply given that no other rules apply, anywhere, to anything.

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Weissmann: But Democrats are losing seats in the House. They will have a relatively narrow majority. Then comes redistricting and a midterm election in 2022.

It’s possible that COVID relief will finally be passing, Americans will be in a good mood, and the president’s party will not lose seats. But I think there’s a strong chance they just lose the House in the midterms, which is why GOP consultants are all extremely pleased right now.

Mathis-Lilley: But this is the outcome of one election. In another election that was held all the way back in [checks notes] two years ago, under the same structural conditions, Democrats won 40 seats. This sudden bleak certainty that there can be no more winning House or Senate elections, ever, for Democrats when the last three cycles produced the most conventional wisdom-busting outcomes possible is nuts to me.

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Scocca: One great fear among the preelection optimists was that a big Biden win with broad congressional coattails would breed complacency, and people would feel as if normalcy and decency had been restored and the system had worked out OK after all, so real change would seem less urgent. That risk seems to be gone now!

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Cauterucci: To switch gears a bit—I’ve seen some leftists on Twitter saying things to the tune of, “people in Florida voted for a $15 minimum wage and also rejected Biden. What does that tell you?” So … what DOES that tell us?

The sense I’ve been getting is that leftists think people secretly want a more progressive Democratic Party, or a party that focuses more on economic issues. But I think Biden focused a lot on economic issues! He very publicly supported a $15 minimum wage! The Florida vote just says that people don’t care much about policy at all. They care about what makes them feel a certain way. They’re easily swayed by propaganda. And the GOP is way better at devising rousing propaganda.

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Weissmann: To your first question, Christina, it tells us that some Democratic policies are more popular than Democratic candidates. The other two that win basically everywhere are legal weed and Medicaid expansion. I’ve been saying that Democrats need to just print “Higher pay. Better health care. Legal weed.” on bumper stickers and put them everywhere.

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Cauterucci: That sounds like the Papa John’s slogan. I like it.

Craven: I think that tells us that people vote on what affects them. Republicans work minimum wage jobs too! Just like Amendment 4, which reinstated the right of the formerly incarcerated to vote, won in 2018 but Andrew Gillum lost.

Cauterucci: But doesn’t … the rest of the Democratic platform affect them? Higher taxes on the rich? Labor protections? $15 minimum wage, literally.

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Craven: Yes, it does. No, I don’t have a smart answer for why they don’t vote Dem, except my usual rants on them falling victim to dog whistling.

Scocca: Also people looking for grand explanations of why Biden lost Florida should probably keep an eye on the fact that the margin was 400,000, and there were 750,000 people stripped of their voting rights by the Republican state Legislature, via an unconstitutional poll tax upheld by the Supreme Court, despite the actual electorate of Florida having voted to give those people the franchise.

Cauterucci: Yet another reason why the progressive agenda depends on local and statewide organizing to get potential voters registered and educated and to the polls.

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Weissmann: Well, one thing they have found about ex-felons is that they don’t necessarily lean that heavily Democrat. But yes.

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Cauterucci: Are there any issue areas or pieces of legislation that could still see movement under Biden?

Scocca: Things look bad for getting any major policy goals passed in the Senate, and questions of structural politics and people’s material well-being are both likely to get worse before they have a chance to get better.

Weissmann: There are lots of things Biden can try to do through executive power and hope that the Supreme Court doesn’t bat them down. Student debt forgiveness. Emissions standards. Environmental regulations. The American Prospect did an amazing series of articles exploring the possibilities. But a lot of it hinges on whether Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett decide to give the administration permission, and what is done via regulatory rule-making can often be undone by regulatory rule-making.

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Cauterucci: I’m going to print those out and fall asleep with them under my pillow tonight.

Weissmann: That said, I think this would be a good time for Biden to use his pardon power for good. Maybe do a systemic pardoning of drug offenders in the federal system, like Cory Booker proposed. And there is some smaller bore legislative stuff that could maybe move, finally. There have been bipartisan proposals on surprise medical bills and prescription drugs, for instance.

But I’m also just worried that things will devolve back into the serial fiscal wars of the late Obama years. Though Biden could put more emphasis on civil rights litigation at the Justice Department, cleaning up the wreckage Trump created in our immigration system. There are places he can make positive progress.

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Cauterucci: They’re going to need to pass another COVID relief bill. My hope is that they can sneak some other goodies in there, too.

Weissmann: Same, but Mitch McConnell is not generous with goodies. But anyway, it’s not that a Biden administration will be totally immobilized. It’s just that the scale of progress we can hope for is much, much smaller, and it may be more than a decade before even some of the more modest ideas about health care or climate change progressives spent the past two years debating have a chance to become reality.

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Cauterucci: At which point, for climate at least, it will be too little and much too late.

Weissmann: We’re basically banking on being able to suck carbon out of the air at this point.

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Scocca: There are lots of crucial opportunities that seem to be lost, from halting the rapid slide into global climate apocalypse to ever getting the New York subway running properly again. But this election still feels like a breakthrough on some of the most basic problems of American democracy. Thanks to the pandemic, voting itself became much easier and more accessible—and the extended voting period had the added benefit of giving people time to respond to and overcome voter suppression activities. Georgia demonstrated that it’s possible to organize and fight back against a government dedicated to stealing elections. And not only did Joe Biden add more voters, but so did Donald Trump—delivering a possibly mortal blow to the small-C conservative establishment view that the only thing to do in elections is play tug of war with the same limited population of theoretically persuadable high-propensity voters.

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Cauterucci: I’d never thought of Trump’s high turnout among low-propensity voters as a possible good force for democracy.

In a really good and sobering piece, Eric Levitz suggested Dems recruit more Blue Dogs, on the chance that candidates who are mushier on social issues, like semi-pro-gun people, could broaden the coalition into something more sustainable for the near term. Four years ago, when Dems were saying the same thing, I resisted it. I maybe resist it a little less strongly now, because a weak majority is better than a minority. But I also wonder whether the idea of Democrats—not the reality of any specific Democrat—has been poisoned so thoroughly among the set that was once thought to be convincible as to make this kind of deliberate shift worth it. Especially when progressives like AOC are both enraging the right and energizing new voters and donors.

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Weissmann: I have heard some people murmur about how there maybe needs to be another rural-state, not-the-Republicans party. But I am not sure how that would play out in practice.

And it’s tough. You can talk about running more Blue Dogs, etc. But Democrats had Steve Bullock in Montana. He’s a popular two-term governor, and he still couldn’t pull out a win.

Scocca: The Levitz piece was strongly argued, and unlike the centrist arguments for letting Blue Dogs lead the way, it wasn’t coming from a position of self-interest. But it felt trapped to me by that thing I was talking about before—the belief that everything has to happen within a well-known set of existing limits. Add more voters, and some totally new possibilities might open up!

Weissmann: Well, we added more voters and new possibilities did not open up.

Cauterucci: No, things changed! Georgia! Arizona!

Scocca: Exactly!

Cauterucci: But yeah, nothing makes sense anymore. That’s what’s so weird about this election. Turnout was insanely high but still kind of inscrutable, at least if you’re a partisan strategist or organizer. There’s no one easily identifiable trend to jump on.

Scocca: If we’re not sure how things are supposed to play out anymore, maybe Mitch McConnell isn’t, either.

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