On Saturday morning news outlets across the country began declaring Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election and for the first time in 4 years, American liberals began to truly relax. The Trump era has been grueling for Democrats, and while there is still a ways to go until it is over, Biden’s win signaled the beginning of the end for many liberals. By Saturday afternoon, thousands of people were streaming into the streets of cities across the country to celebrate. But the celebrations were not completely free from worry. Beyond the immediate problem of excising Trump from the White House should he refuse to concede defeat, the Democrats had to reckon with the reality that they had failed to achieve their secondary goal of securing a majority in the Senate. With Republicans in control of the Senate and a tighter margin of control for House Democrats, party unity quickly became a central topic of discussion across the nation. Now more than ever, the Democrats need to maintain party unity and avoid intra-party squabbling if they wish to give Biden any hope of achieving many of his legislative and policy goals.
Unfortunately for the Democratic Party, unity is not something they are known for. The left-wing of the country is a big tent with many competing interests, and these diverse factions are not always willing to work together. Unlike the Republicans, Democrats do not always exhibit discipline when it comes to setting aside differences to achieve common goals. For instance, after Obama had clearly forsaken progressive policy goals for a neoliberal approach in 2011, the progressive scholar Cornel West launched a series of scathing attacks on him, saying: “[Obama is a] black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats… I was thinking maybe he has at least some progressive populist instincts that could become more manifest after the cautious policies of being a senator.” To West’s dismay, that ever happened.
In 2012, progressives again worried that Obama would attempt to strike a “grand deal” with Republicans and betray progressive values. That worry eventually came to fruition as House Republicans refused to play along with Obama’s commitment to compromise. These are far from the only examples, but suffice to say, the Obama years offer a clear window into what we can expect from both liberals and progressives as they get ready to battle under a Biden presidency.
And make no mistake – progressives and liberals will do battle.
Progressives are riled up like never before. A small squabble already broke out last week between members of the Squad – namely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar – and Democratic Party leadership after some Democrats blamed progressives for the party’s poor performance in down-ballot races on Tuesday. The Democrats not only failed to unseat any incumbents in the House, but lost some seats. The finger-pointing started immediately, with Democratic leadership blaming progressives for scaring voters with policy positions that they felt were unpopular during a conference call that lasted for 3 hours.
“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. . . . We lost good members because of that,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) heatedly. “If we are classifying Tuesday as a success . . . we will get f---ing torn apart in 2022.” Spanberger narrowly leads in her reelection bid.
AOC fired back immediately, saying that it would be absurd to make ideological claims before polling and election data can confirm such critiques. Instead, she encouraged Democrats to simply campaign harder, rather than relying on the expectation of a blue wave like that of 2018.
“I’ve looked through a lot of these campaigns that lost, and the fact of the matter is if you’re not spending $200,000 on Facebook with fund-raising, persuasion, volunteer recruitment, get-out-the-vote the week before the election, you are not firing on all cylinders. And not a single one of these campaigns were firing on all cylinders,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
AOC also explained something that centrists may not fully understand yet, namely that it is not just Republicans that establishment Democrats need to worry about: progressives like AOC and Pressley won their seats by ousting long-time incumbents within the party. That strategy will almost certainly continue on the Left during the next election cycle.
“If I lost my election, and I went out and I said: ‘This is moderates’ fault. This is because you didn’t let us have a floor vote on Medicare for all.’ And they opened the hood on my campaign, and they found that I only spent $5,000 on TV ads the week before the election? They would laugh. And that’s what they look like right now trying to blame the Movement for Black Lives for their loss,” AOC continued.
The lesson here is clear: Democrats who want to pick a fight with the progressive Left should make sure they have their own ducks in a row before they do so. Under Biden’s presidency, the Left will have very little leverage, both within the party and in the Democratic Party’s base, to achieve their policy goals. Instead of punching down, centrist Democrats need to fix themselves and work on their own political positioning. If they continue to blame the Left, which is still recovering from Bernie Sanders’ failed campaign, Democratic leadership should be ready for strong responses from progressives. For now, if the Democrats want to have any chance at maintaining party unity, they should focus on working together rather than starting fights. Otherwise, both progressives and centrists will not achieve much under the next administration.
For now, if only for a little while, Democrats can unite around their newly minted president and vice president. There are also still many challenges ahead since Trump still has a few months left in office with which to attempt to wreak havoc. Democrats have so far held their tenuous unity together in the face of this shared nemesis. As long as Trump is in office, the Party can expect to tamp down many cracks that are already forming beneath the surface. But as soon as the useful foil of the Trump administration is gone, this unity will almost certainly begin to fray. It will probably be up to Joe Biden himself to make enough concessions to the Left that he can maintain party unity in the face of such infighting. Let's hope he is as good a leader as Democrats think he is.