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OPINION: Progressivism is a winning strategy

16 min read

Bryce Hoehn, a senior studying political science, analyzes the 2020 election results and argues that Democrats would be more successful if they embrace more liberal views rather than trying to appease moderates.

Please note that these views and opinions do not reflect those of The New Political.

After four years of news cycles dominated by President Donald Trump, nearly two years of intense party infighting and a week of ballot counting, former Vice President Joe Biden finally defeated Trump and will be the 46th president of the United States. While many on the left wanted someone more progressive, Trump’s defeat is a universal breath of relief to everyone who supports the Democratic Party.

But the prospects of a Biden administration raise questions, such as whether Biden will embrace the growing progressive wing of the party or if he will continue moving right to appease moderates. With such a narrow victory in the face of fascism, how can Democrats maintain their power and better secure victories going forward?

In the primary, Biden ran to the right by strongly opposing progressive policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. He even went as far as suggesting that he would veto Medicare for All as president.

When Biden formally won the nomination after the party consolidated around him to stop Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Convention featured several conservative speakers in another attempt to win over moderates. The most prominent of these conservative speakers was John Kasich, the former anti-gay marriage, pro-life, union busting governor of Ohio. 

Michael Bloomberg was another speaker at the event — a lifelong Republican billionaire who bought his way into the Democratic primary and was then frequently criticized by the left for his sexual misconduct allegations and the implementation of the racist “stop-and-frisk” laws when he was mayor of New York City. Colin Powell was also a speaker, who is known for his role as George W. Bush’s secretary of state who lied to the U.N. to justify invading Iraq.

Despite all of these concessions to the right, and with over 200,000 dead largely due to the current administration’s incompetence in handling coronavirus, Biden still only won by a razor thin margin in a handful of states. 

If Biden’s strategy of appealing toward moderates worked, then we should have seen a large shift of voters from Trump to Biden. Instead, we saw Trump come out of the election with almost 10 million more votes than in 2016.

One of these major concessions was Biden’s refusal to ban fracking completely. This was likely a calculated measure to reassure fossil fuel workers in Pennsylvania, a tossup state projected as key to Biden’s path to victory in the electoral college. While he did narrowly win the state, there will still inevitably be job loss in the fossil fuel sector from the rise of the renewable industry by sheer market forces, regardless of what climate policies he pursues.

In contrast, the Green New Deal would provide several provisions to help those who are displaced from work such as free job training programs and a federal job guarantee. The Green New Deal would simultaneously provide relief to fossil fuel workers while addressing climate change seriously. Biden’s position compromises both.

At best, Biden successfully turned Pennsylvania blue. At worst, his short term strategy may backfire and turn the state further red with the eventual rise of renewable energy while fossil fuel workers get left behind and the climate suffers.

In Ohio, despite the endorsement from Gov. Kasich, Biden still lost by eight points. Many have interpreted this as a sign that Ohio is no longer a swing state, which could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It doesn’t have to.

Just two years ago in the 2018 midterm, Ohio re-elected Senator Sherrod Brown, a champion of workers’ rights and advocate for fair trade, despite electing Republicans to every other statewide office. This election took place in between the state electing Trump twice, so if anything, this proves that swing voters exist, but they swing toward the left rather than moderation.

A major issue for Democrats in the rustbelt is declining support among blue collar workers due to unpopular trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was supported by Biden and Clinton but opposed by Trump, Brown and Sanders. Trade has proven to be the swing issue in Ohio, so rather than writing the state off, Democrats should simply embrace a more progressive trade approach that prioritizes American jobs and the climate over the interests of multinational corporations.

Similar patterns have shown up across the nation this election. In Florida, Biden lost by about 3%, yet 61% of voters voted in favor of a ballot initiative increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. While Biden does support raising the minimum wage, he did not brand himself around it in the same way that other progressive challengers did.

In Texas, Biden came within about 6% of flipping the state but failed largely due to low Latino turnout, which is not surprising considering his campaign’s decision to ignore Latino voters. In contrast, Sanders received massive grassroots support from the Latino community in the primaries due to strong support of his progressive policies.

Some may argue that there is no way a progressive like Sanders could have won Texas, but I would disagree. The argument is generally that the right would smear progressives as socialists and it would cause them to lose the center, but the exact same thing happened to Biden, who was arguably the most moderate candidate in the primary. 

At least with a progressive, left-leaning voters would turn out in higher numbers, and they could argue the merits of progressive policies rather than simply denying accusations like Biden did.

For instance, during the first debate, Biden was accused of supporting the Green New Deal, which he swiftly denied. The right continued to push the propaganda that he supported it and that it was bad, whereas left-leaning voters were pushed further from the party. 

Instead, a progressive could have broken through the right-wing narrative by arguing the merits of the Green New Deal and how it would improve voters’ material conditions while winning over independents in the process.

Across the nation, we also saw four states legalize marijuana to varying degrees, including red states such as Montana, Mississippi and South Dakota. This should be unsurprising given that full legalization polls at 68% nationwide. Biden ran against it. In Oregon, voters even decriminalized all drugs in a massive victory against the war on drugs, which disproportionately impacts Black people while perpetuating the prison industrial complex.

In U.S. House districts, Democratic candidates in swing-seats who ran on Medicare for All significantly outperformed those who did not. This should come as no surprise considering Medicare for All polls at 69% favorability among all voters, including 46% of Republicans. 

In fact, Medicare for All receives more than 20% higher favorability than the Affordable Care Act while providing universal health care at a lower cost. But the party still refuses to run on it, even amid a deadly pandemic.

And while Democrats lost seats in the House overall, out of the 29 candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), 20 won

This — along with the 8 out of 11 ballot initiatives endorsed that also passed — is a strong sign that progressive groups will continue to chip away at the moderate wing of the party and that the progressive message is being heard by voters. 

Of course, these primary battles would not be necessary if Democrats simply moved left willingly.

Despite these successes of progressivism and shortcomings of moderation, in a recent CNN interview, John Kasich still had the audacity to suggest that “the far left almost cost Joe Biden the election.” 

While there is evidence on the contrary, Biden is already embracing this opinion by denying cabinet seats to the progressive wing in favor of conservative choices and potentially considering even Kasich himself despite his horrendous record as governor.

Biden still won due to record breaking turnout in opposition to Trump, but what happens when Trump is gone and the more than 70 million people who voted for him are still around? 

Trump received the second highest vote total of any presidential candidate in history. Those voters are not going anywhere any time soon. Unless the party moves left, they will almost certainly experience lower turnout in future elections without Trump to campaign against, while Republicans may show up in even higher numbers in opposition to Biden.

Democrats could easily win across the country and secure their position of power if they simply listened to their own voters rather than conservatives like Kasich. It is also hard for Democrats to effectively call themselves the party of women, minorities, workers, the LGBTQ community and the truth when they are warming up to these conservatives who represent everything they stand against in the false name of electability. 

The country wants to move left. Democrats just need to get out of their own way and embrace it.

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