Building Bridges to Progressivism

How an otherwise successful Vice Presidential debate failed to prove that the Democratic Party is strategic about change, and what we need to see moving forward.

In current US politics, the Democratic party stands as the representative of all factions of the political left. The range of political identities that this one party claims to wave the banner for ranges from revolutionary Orthodox Marxists to the recent Scandinavian style democratic socialism, to neoliberalism. In a healthy multiparty system, this diversity of political ideology would demand a multitude of parties vying for power, but America’s 2-party system funnels all of these groups into the Democratic party. In attempting to gain the allegiance of this huge spectrum, they gain the allegiance of none; the party holds on to the same tentative voters who remain uninspired with the trajectory of the country while the climate crisis deepens, social unrest due to a vast wealth gap mounts, and galling foreign military intervention remains the norm. Democratic leadership sees these problems, but their solution has always been to appeal to the “undecided centrist voter,” leading to a Democratic party which would be considered conservative in most countries. If the country wishes to meet the challenges facing the nation outlined above before implosion, the left-wing party needs to distance itself from neoliberalism, which amounts to nothing more than untethered free market capitalism with socially liberal aesthetics. If Joe Biden is elected president, the country will be tempted to slip back into the familiar neoliberal rhythms which have been the norm since Reagan.

With the rise of right wing fascism in the Republican party during the Trump era, too much of an appeal to centrism by the Democratic party would be akin to throwing in the towel for many of these issues. This election season is so contentious that the Biden/Harris ticket has started to make concessions to the right, fundamentally contradicting common sense solutions to problems. The party needs to be more courageous with their message, directly calling out hypocritical, bad faith talking points when they’re levied against them (as Pete Buttigieg has done lately with right-wing media). It needs to revert the conversation back to a problem-solving mindset when the conversation inevitably derails. As well, the people need to know that our elected officials are smart enough to “re-rail” anything — nevertheless a debate.

Many Americans are starved for hope and a vision. They want a candidate who represents more than a vote against Donald Trump. They need a president who will give them economic agency and fight against the greed and corruption which has fermented through decades of neoliberal policy. But most of all, many Americans — including the detractors — need a bridge to understand how we get from where we are to where we need to be — and how the Democratic party can graduate from being an allegiance broker to becoming the flagbearer of our progressive future.

The Biden campaign has repeatedly ducked the responsibility of championing decisive progressive stances, including in the most recent Vice-Presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence. Harris was asked if she would support a ban on fracking and she responded with blunt denial, stating “Joe Biden will not ban fracking, that is a fact.” Her response offered no hope for progress, no solution for a way out of the broader climate problem, and ironically no comfort for those who work in the fracking industry concerned for their job. It was a poignant example of the Democratic party dumbing down the message and sacrificing progressive values to appeal to the neoliberal voter who shuns government overreach in the economy despite the staggering need for strong and decisive regulation. A more hopeful message which appeals to the left but does not sacrifice the reality, gravity, and difficulty of the energy predicament would be:

“No I won’t ban fracking, natural gas accounts for 40% of the United States’ energy, a flat ban would upend the country. What I will do is use every resource I have to ensure we stop fracking as quickly as possible while providing pathways to new employment for those in the industry. This means no more subsidies to energy companies and billionaire owners while instead subsidizing the workers themselves in the form of free job reeducation to build and install the infrastructure needed for a renewable power grid. We have 8 years to reverse the course we are on and we have the ability to transition to a fully green energy supply while also providing more manufacturing opportunities than this country has ever seen. This is not a choice; this is a necessity.”

One of the greatest myths perpetuated by the right is the delusion that the Republican party is the party of fiscal responsibility. The Republican party and neoliberal Democrats have embraced baseless trickle down economics despite overwhelming evidence that these economically libertarian philosophies have widened the wealth gap to levels never before seen in the U.S. Joe Biden has certainly announced steps in the right direction regarding tax increases on those making above $400,000 a year as well as the much needed corporate tax increase, but the message is again being diluted to “Joe Biden wants to raise your taxes and hurt your businesses.” This harmful narrative needs to be confronted and disproven far more effectively on the national stage for the Democratic party to have any hope at bridging the wealth gap and promoting needed social safety nets.

“Let me start by saying the vast majority of Americans will not be paying more taxes and yes, I will be repealing the Trump tax cuts. The Trump tax cuts were a tax break for the wealthiest people in the country at a time when the top 3 richest American families own the same as the bottom half of the country, many of whom are living paycheck to paycheck. We need to oxygenate our economy by supporting small businesses and infusing our communities with funding for infrastructure development, not lining the pockets of extremely wealthy shareholders. This is not communism, this is not governmental overreach, this is a logical check on late stage capitalism and a long overdue helping hand to the hundreds of millions who desperately need it. ‘Good for the economy’ has become synonymous with ‘good for the stock market.’ This pandemic has shown us that the stock market is completely disconnected from the economic reality of the average American. It’s time to finally help those who make less than 7 figures by ensuring that those who do finally pay their fair share.”

The Biden-Harris ticket has actively tried to distance themselves from the defund the police movement, giving legitimacy to the false notion that protestors want lawlessness and chaos. In a USA today opinion piece, Joe Biden wrote: “I do not support defunding police. The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms.” This response is fundamentally in conflict with many progressive groups of the Democratic party, especially following the use of unmarked police in the protests following the George Floyd murder. Biden needs to acknowledge that many of the roots of problems which police deal with on a daily basis cannot themselves be solved by police. His mentality in regards to law enforcement flirts with the toxic “thin blue line” view of policing, whereby officers act as the omnipresent arbiters of order. In reality, myriad police departments have proven to be highly undertrained for the job requested of them, despite enormous funding. Protestors want politicians to think more creatively and humanely about solutions to the problems facing these communities. In this upcoming debate, i’d like to see Joe Biden defend the millions of progressives across the country who believe that policing can be greatly reformed:

“Let’s demystify the ‘defund the police’ movement and talk about what these protestors are fighting for. The defund the police movement is a push for a more understanding, more just, more accountable, and less militarized police force. In 2019 The New York Police Department received $10.9 billion in funding. This is 1/6th the budget of the entire Russian military, our cold war adversary. On top of that, the police are rarely a preventative force, they react to a situation which is already ongoing or concluded. Those who wish to defund the police want a portion of the funding from these bloated agencies redirected into more preventative programs such as mental health institutions, drug prevention programs, and public housing, thus dramatically improving many American’s lives while also reducing the need for a police response in the first place. Most importantly, Americans are telling us that they are reluctant to overfund institutions that, when excessively imposing violence, are exempted from the same rules that you and I face. The police are meant to ‘serve and protect’ and that will remain their goal. But, we must disrupt the current system because it’s one of mass incarceration and callousness toward human life, even over nonviolent issues. This isn’t a partisan talking point: this has been demonstrated many times and was proven to be hugely problematic by the 2017 justice department’s assessment of the Chicago Police Department. In reshaping our policing, we will invest more in the relationships with and resources of our communities. Let’s start strategically using a scalpel to solve the problems facing our communities instead of using the unforgiving blow of a hammer — one which has failed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others by virtue of its excessive force.”

In this final presidential debate Americans need Joe Biden to really confront some of these issues. Following this fiercely progressive primary season, many leftists would like to see more indication that Biden is listening. He has certainly demonstrated his understanding of the issues facing underprivileged communities, but the United States needs a president who is willing to take the extra step with these three ideas. Many who do find themselves in the center or those who consider themselves apolitical will not balk at any of these answers. It’s time for the democratic party to fully step into their role as a progressive party of the people and actually get to work solving the threats to our democracy.