Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher and editorial director of The Nation, has a wake-up call for progressives. “Reform won’t happen,” she warned in the Washington Post last Tuesday, “if progressives simply wait for a Biden-Harris administration to take charge.” For vanden Heuvel, election day is only the beginning of the arduous march. “Progressives,” she writes, “will have to push hard—in the streets, on the campaign trail and in the halls of Congress,” if they want a Biden administration to pursue “real structural change.”
Now I’m no political scientist, but isn’t the “taking charge” part why we elect the politicians? I thought we had a deal? Every couple of years, I go to a middle school gymnasium and vote for the
hottest candidates most aligned with my policy goals. In exchange, whoever wins goes on to represent me, and if it’s my candidate, my interests, while I get to spend my life not thinking about politics until the next election.
Not anymore, apparently. According to vanden Heuvel, a Biden administration would require progressives to commit themselves to activism—a perpetual Women’s March. “Electing Joe Biden is a door, not a destination” advises the last line—a quote from the national director of the Working Families Party, Maurice Mitchell.
The idea that progressives can “push” a hypothetical Biden administration to the left is a confused and narcissistic understanding of American politics. For starters, how exactly does the average Washington Post reader go about bending a sitting president’s policy agenda to their will? Vanden Heuvel cites “the grass-roots groundswells for Medicare-for-all,” the Green New Deal, the Women’s March, March for our Lives, “nationwide walkouts for climate justice” and the recent protests against police brutality as blueprints for her Great Push Leftward.
But while some of the movements she lists have forced state and local governments into adopting reforms—none have been able to produce substantive policy changes at the federal level. A fact that doesn’t worry vanden Heuvel, who thinks that the supposed ability of progressive protesters to influence a future Biden administration is “evidenced by this year’s [Democratic Party] platform, which is more progressive than some thought possible.” Really? It doesn’t even include Medicare for All. And as far as I can tell, the platform only exists to provide columnists and pundits with talking points, hardly a sign of “real change.” “We will close the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay,” promised 2008’s version. I’m not holding my breath.
And who is vanden Heuvel even talking to when she writes that “progressives” must “get ready to push Biden and Harris”? Does she expect the well-heeled readers of the Post to take to the streets? Though framed as a clarion call, vanden Heuvel’s affected naiveté makes the column read more like a rationalization. The real function of which, I suspect, is to soothe self-styled progressives struggling to cope with the dissonance and identity-threat created by their support for a decidedly unprogressive candidate. The fairytale of perma-protest lets Biden’s reluctant supporters on the left, unwilling to admit they’ve placed partisanship above principle, sleep easy imagining they’ll “push hard” for progressive causes once Biden is in office.
The reality is that progressives like vanden Heuvel forfeited their ability to influence the next president’s policy agenda when they promised to vote blue no matter who. Biden has no reason to make concessions to voters he knows he can’t lose, a fact no amount of protest or “pushing” will change. Come November, vote for Biden if you’re so inclined, but don’t pretend like that’s a vote for anything besides a Biden presidency.
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