It is not clear which of the two leading Democratic candidates will benefit from Elizabeth Warren ending her campaign last week. But one thing is apparent. Donald Trump will be re-elected president unless the leftist (Bernie Sanders), progressive (Warren), and liberal (Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris) wings of the Democratic Party come together to support Biden. This alliance is particularly vital for the Democratic campaign in the key swing states that will determine the outcome: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Iowa, Arizona, and Nevada.
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that no candidate will win a majority of Democratic delegates. But seems clear now that Biden will have a plurality. At this point, it makes no sense to prolong the internal battle within the Democratic Party and endure a conflict at the July convention that will weaken the candidate before he steps into the ring with Trump.
Warren has not endorsed either Sanders or Biden. Sanders should drop out, too, but only after he and Warren jointly get Biden to agree to some concessions. This should include leverage over his vice-presidential nominee, his Cabinet and Supreme Court picks, and the make-up of the platform committee at the convention, with strong representation from the Sanders and Warren campaigns drafting the party’s policy agenda. It should also include platform planks on the policies that progressive voters value: minimum wage, health care, financial aid for college tuition, criminal justice reform, labor law reform, bank reform, progressive tax reform, immigration, federal funding for public schools and affordable housing.
Biden will need to make a good faith effort to publicly embrace views that are further left than his own. Public opinion polling shows widespread support for the policy views that Sanders and Warren espouse, such as a forgiveness of college debt, limits on corporate campaign contributions, labor law reform, universal health insurance, and a jobs program that also addresses the climate crisis — a Green New Deal. Similarly, the once-radical idea of a wealth tax has gained wide support since Sanders and Warren proposed it as part of their presidential platforms. The majority of all Americans — including 77% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans — approve of a 2% tax on households with a net worth over $50 million.
According to a recent Pew survey, 82% of Americans, including 91% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans, believe that “big corporations have too much power in our economy.” They want to rein in the power of health insurance companies and banks, the survey discovered. A vast majority (70%) think that “our economic system unfairly favors powerful interests.” Sixty-four percent of Americans favor labor unions — the highest in decades. Biden will need to loosen his ties with a financial industry that has supported his career.
Polls reveal that most Americans, like Sanders and Biden, think that the government should establish rules requiring corporations to act responsibly towards employees, consumers, and the environment. Banks shouldn’t engage in the kinds of reckless predatory lending that led to the devastating recession. Energy corporations shouldn’t endanger our planet and public health by emitting so much pollution and relying on fossil fuels. Companies should make consumer products that are safe. Corporations should pay decent wages, provide safe workplaces, and provide paid leave and vacation time. Drug companies shouldn’t be allowed to charge for prescription medicines more than what people can afford. All Americans, regardless of income, should have a safe and affordable roof over their heads.
For Sanders and Warren to endorse Biden will require important compromises from liberal Democrats, since Biden won’t agree to support all the progressive views that the two progressive Senators have been promoting. But the compromises should be significant enough so that Warren and Sanders can persuade most of their supporters to vote, to vote for Biden, and to campaign for him and for the Democratic candidates for House and Senate in swing races.
The goal of this coalition should be a 2020 version of the 2018 “blue wave” that increased Democratic turnout (particularly among young people and people of color), persuaded some Republicans and independents (particularly suburban women) to vote for Democrats, and won a majority in the House of Representatives.
A vote for Biden would also be a vote to retain, and build on, this important accomplishment. It also clears the way for electing even more progressive legislators. In 435 House races in 2018, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 55.2 million to 49.2 million votes and flipped 40 Republican seats. In blue areas like New York City, Detroit, and Boston, the “blue wave” meant electing radicals and progressives (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley) to the House to replace liberal Democrats. In purple districts it meant flipping GOP-held seats and electing liberals (although the media calls them “moderates”) like Lucy McBath (Atlanta suburbs), Lauren Underwood (Chicago suburbs), Colin Allred (Texas), Mickie Sherrill (New Jersey suburbs), Abigail Spanberger, Elaine Luria, and Jennifer Wexton (all in Virginia), Elissa Slotkin (Michigan), Joe Cunningham (South Carolina), and Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer (both in Iowa) to the House and Kirsten Sinema (Arizona) to the Senate.
Democrats are clearly already eager to vote: turnout for the 2018 midterms was the highest since 1914, and suppressing voter enthusiasm with a long, bitter primary struggle is a mistake. Although Sanders and Warren ran impressive campaigns this electoral cycle, neither was able to significantly increase turnout among less-than-likely voters in comparison to the 2016 primaries. Nor did Biden.
But that doesn’t mean that Biden can’t increase turn out among young people, brown and black voters, and union members, who will be motivated and can be mobilized to defeat Trump, especially if Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, Julian Castro, Stacy Abrams, and other progressive and leftist figures enthusiastically campaign for the Democrats’ presidential candidate as well as House and Senate candidates.
Although Democrats tend to be more closely in sync with Sanders’ and Warren’s policy views than Biden’s, the primary results so far reveal that most Democratic voters do not seem to believe that either Warren or Sanders can beat Trump, which is their highest priority. This was particularly true among African American voters, but it was also true of other core Democratic constituencies. Rightly or wrongly, most Democrats think that the former Vice President is more electable. It was even true among many women who preferred Warren — but who thought she couldn’t win, in part because of sexism. Much of the media contributed to this attitude by labeling Sanders’ and Warren’s ideas as “utopian” and “unrealistic,” while Biden, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg were described as “pragmatic.”
This was not a matter of the Democratic “establishment” rigging the election for Biden. In reality, he raised much less money than either Warren or Sanders and had almost no ground troops in some states where he won more votes than his two progressive rivals who both had more staff, volunteers, and media ads. Democrat caucus and primary voters viewed Biden — for all his verbal gaffes and mental lapses, and despite some troublesome parts of his Senate record — as the safer candidate to challenge a president who is a pathological liar, sexual predator, white supremacist, and wannabe fascist dictator.
Biden is not as progressive as either Warren or Sanders – but he is not the centrist some on the Left make him out to be. On a hypothetical progressive scale from 0 to 100, Trump is a 0, Biden is a 75, Warren is a 97 and Sanders is a 99. He has problematic moments in his past — for example, his mistreatment of Anita Hill, his support for corporate-backed bankruptcy legislation, and the 1994 crime bill that exacerbated mass incarceration – but overall Biden has been a steadfast liberal throughout his political career. It was Biden, for example, who pushed Obama to publicly support same-sex marriage, and it was Biden who championed the Violence Against Women Act and pushed for strong gun control laws.
Today, Biden’s views are to the left of where Barack Obama was in 2008 and 2012. On health care, criminal justice reform, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, addressing climate change, and other issues, Biden has moved to the left with the rest of the Democratic Party, thanks in large measure to Sanders’ 2016 campaign, Warren’s progressive “I have a plan for that” campaign, and a significant leftward shift in public opinion.
There is a progressive and a corporate wing of the Democratic Party. The progressive wing is based in the movement groups – the unions, Indivisible, Planned Parenthood and #MeToo activists, the Sierra Club and Sunrise, Black Lives Matter and the NAACP, the Dreamers, the ACLU, gun control activists, the Human Rights Campaign, MoveOn, the Fight for 15, tenants rights organizations, Democratic Socialists of America, and advocates for cutting the military budget and redirecting the money to address domestic problems.
The party’s corporate wing (epitomized by Michael Bloomberg) is headquartered on Wall Street, but includes other business sectors, think tanks, and pundits that oppose most of what Sanders and Warren stand for, and has deep pockets. Biden (like Hillary Clinton) has straddled both wings of the party. But the biggest danger facing America today is the reactionary wing of big business led by billionaires like Charles Koch, Paul Singer, Sheldon Adelson, Robert Mercer, Rupert Murdoch, the Walton siblings, and their ilk, who support and ally with the Religious Right, the gun lobby, Fox News, and the racist and ultra-nationalist alt-right.
Biden will not lead the revolution. But he will, if elected, throw a monkey wrench in the gears of this constellation of right-wing forces that is the backbone of the Trump regime and of Trumpism. Electing Biden will allow progressives to play offense rather than defense — a much better place to be politically.
If, in the best-case scenario, Biden beats Trump, the Democrats keep their big majority in the House, and are able to win 50 seats in the Senate (a real possibility), the left/progressive movement will be in a position to push Biden on the progressive scale from a 75 to an 80 and adopt some version of Sanders’ and Warren’s agenda — particularly if they are willing to agree that three-quarters of a loaf is better than no loaf at all. If the key parts of the progressive coalition can work together when Biden and the new Congress take office — redefining the anti-Trump “resistance” movement into a push-Biden “persistence” movement — they will be able to prevail on many of their policy ideas.
They can, for example, push Biden to give progressives – like Jared Bernstein, his chief economist when he was Vice President — key roles in his administration. Biden should pledge to turn the Democratic National Committee into a supporter of grassroots organizing, recruiting and training a farm team of candidates. He should also help fund the groups that comprise the progressive movement, and keeping party activists in motion on issue campaigns in between election cycles.
Activists can also push the Senate Democrats to give Sanders a powerful assignment (such as chair of the Budget Committee, where he’s now the ranking Democrat) and replace Chuck Schumer with Warren as the party’s Senate leader — a smart move whether Biden or Trump wins the White House. Given his age, Biden is not likely to run for a second term, which would give Warren another shot at the White House in 2024.
Throughout American history, the Left has succeeded when its ideas have been co-opted by reformers, and turned into pathbreaking legislation (such as the Meat Inspection Act, Social Security, Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Water Act, and Obamacare) that become stepping stones to further reform.
We’re in a position to make that happen again. Let’s not blow it with a circular firing squad.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style , co-edited with Michael Kazin and Kate Aronoff (The New Press, 2020)