First appeared in Waging Nonviolence, April 21, 2020. A shorter version of this piece was syndicated in October 2020.
Democratic voters had a choice of who to run against Trump. On one side was Bernie Sanders, the candidate most likely to win over tens of thousands of the working-class Trump voters who’d opposed business as usual more than they’d liked the former “Apprentice” star. Sanders promised plenty that any disaffected working-class American would like, minus the charlatanry, scapegoating and blaming of immigrants. On the other side was Joe Biden — a candidate who seemed almost designed for older and wealthier Trump voters. Their support for Biden wouldn’t be about change, but rather fear of what four more years of psychopathocracy might mean for their pocketbooks and the future of American empire.
The Democrats’ actual choice appeals not to the better instincts of the Trump-voting poor, but the baser instincts of the Trump-voting rich. It feels like a huge missed opportunity: for one thing, it’ll do nothing to change the dynamic that’s brought us to within a stone’s throw of fascism — unless, starting now, progressives push to make Biden into the candidate the whole world needs.
That’s more or less what happened during two earlier periods of landmark progressive policy change. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson were both centrist Democrats who ascended to the presidency in times of mass discontent — and reacted to that unrest with the most obvious, expeditious and convenient way to defuse it: They met, at least in large part, the movement’s demands.
Neither president disagreed with those demands, but their powerful action for good came not because they cared — both would have been happy to drag their feet and do far less. Rather, they saw that decisive action was the only way to exit the morass that had engulfed their predecessors, and they might even have thought it was needed to forestall revolution: The mass movements that had ramped up were that scary.
In Roosevelt’s case, pressure from a huge mass of unemployed workers, combined with Huey Long’s left-populist candidacy (cut short by a bullet), made implementing the New Deal the obvious thing to do in the circumstances. Safety-net measures like Social Security (in their day quite visionary), relief for struggling farmers, and jobs for millions of unemployed were simply what his electorate needed, and without these measures they would clearly give him no peace (nor a second term).
As for Johnson, he’d seen how the civil rights movement gave the recalcitrant Kennedy administration no end of headaches. And so after his landslide 1964 reelection he took advantage of a fresh start to push through legislation addressing education, medical care, urban problems, rural poverty, transportation and of course, with the Civil Rights Act, race. I’m sure he thought these were all good things, and good for his legacy — but the fact that they’d quell discontent was certainly not incidental.
‘All the news we hope to print’
One thing operating in our favor this year is that we know exactly the raw material that we’re dealing with. In the summer of 2008, many of us didn’t. After eight years of destructive, unworkable, and just plain evil Republican rule, it was a relief to be staring at the likely victory of America’s first black president. But Barack Obama was a definite centrist, who’d increasingly toed the middle line as his career picked up steam over decades, and many progressives didn’t quite realize this.
Some who did campaigned for him anyway — because they knew that only a Democrat could be moved by public pressure to do truly progressive things (again, think FDR and LBJ). But most seemed to absorb the sentiment the marketers wanted: not hope that a fierce mass movement would force change to happen, but more like “I sure hope this guy changes everything.”
A small group of us, foreseeing that many progressives would think the battle was won when Obama reached office, prepared a 14-page lookalike New York Times and, one week after Obama’s victory, distributed 80,000 copies of it on the streets of New York. The paper was set six months in the future, and it concretized all the unspoken visions of what could, in actual honest-to-God fact, change, and what needed to if the Democrats were to remain relevant. Its top headline announced the end of the disastrous war in Iraq, and articles throughout the paper described the passage of universal health care and free higher education, the implementation of a maximum wage for CEOs and environmental-effects taxes, the elimination of corporate lobbying and a great deal more.
Between every utopian line, our paper had one clear message: “This guy won’t do any of this by himself — not even the small part of it that he’s promised. If you want ‘hope’ for ‘change,’ you have to make it yourself.” So each article described how, shortly after his victory, people had maintained the election’s momentum and used all sorts of tactics — riots, sit-ins, occupations — to pressure the new president to make it happen.
Our fake newspaper — with its proposals for the ambitious programs that someone like Obama could have been pressured to institute — made a big splash. Unfortunately, however, it remains a sad gravestone for the hopes of that era. Stunts, no matter how huge, only work as parts of campaigns, and there weren’t yet movements like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter calling for much of what our paper imagined. (Once those movements did emerge, for all that they did to affect public consciousness in the short and long term, they weren’t quite enough to hold Obama’s feet to the fire.)
Progressives had, by and large, let themselves be lulled into complacency by the clever marketing of “change” and “hope.” As a result, they’d failed to see that what we were going to get — beyond all the hype — was just business as usual. Instead of our newspaper’s visions, what we ended up with were massive bailouts for the banks that had caused the 2008 economic collapse, no real end to the wars that our front page had declared over, and the half-measure Affordable Care Act instead of universal health care. There was also the DREAM Act — a result of activist pressure — but, behind the scenes, a torrent of deportations that not enough people cried out about.
Thankfully, presidents can’t just do what they want
Today, Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee, and progressives are disappointed. Bernie Sanders has been a rock-solid promoter for decades of the policies we so desperately need today. He was the only candidate with a chance of appealing to the “fuck you” Trump voters, the ones who, in 2016, had pulled the lever to “blow it all up,” as Michael Moore put it. With Bernie those voters would have had a chance to change things for real.
But here’s the thing: Even with Bernie in the White House — acting as the best possible organizer-in-chief — we would have still had to fight alongside him and sometimes against him, in all kinds of ways, to help him make the no-brainer policies we so desperately need today. Bernie could never have instituted Medicare for All or free higher education on his own; he would have needed truly prodigious amounts of our help.
And it’s a good thing, of course, that presidents can’t just do what they want. Our current president chose to downplay the threat of coronavirus when he knew full well that hundreds of thousands could die (as a number of investigations have shown, most recently this one). Now, he continues to downplay the pandemic and push for early “reopening” — out of fear of what more bad economic indicators will mean for his re-election. In other words, he’s effectively trying to send tens of thousands of his supporters (and others) to their deaths, for his own personal glory.
Do we doubt that this tin-pot Stalin would abolish both houses of Congress if he could — perhaps calling on his supporters to “liberate” them? Or that he’d be happy to find scapegoats to not just imprison in cages, but exterminate? This is all just to say that limits on a president’s power can be unfortunate when that president is good, but let’s be very happy they exist.
Biden, as clearly centrist as he is, makes it evident what progressives must do: Use every (nonviolent) trick in the books to make it inescapable for him to champion the sort of bold measures that Bernie was promising, and that mainstream Democrats often championed until the 1970s. Only such measures — appealing to everyone, white or black, poor or middle class — can turn this country from the nightmare it’s been for vast swathes of the population into a society that’s truly worth living in.
Also, by the way, it’s the only way Democrats will start winning elections again.
We must, starting now, make life so uncomfortable for Biden that the obvious, inexorable choice for his administration will be to ignore pressure from powerful corporate entities, and do what movements are demanding — just as FDR and LBJ did. If we don’t build that pressure, we’ll be sure to get more corporate rule, and our recent threatened descent into fascism will merely be slowed — with a smarter, less instinct-driven psychopath up next at the helm.