The Path Forward For Progressives After Bernie Sanders

The Democratic National Convention kicks off, and progressives find themselves in an unusual place.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a town hall event at the Navajo Nation casino in Flagstaff, Arizo
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a town hall event at the Navajo Nation casino in Flagstaff, Arizona, on March 17, 2016.

The Democratic National Convention kicks off Monday with Bernie Sanders in the same position he was in four years ago: a speaker.

Sanders, who carried the torch for the progressive movement the longest in the presidential race, has to make the case for progressive power in the Democratic Party without having actually won it. 

The progressive movement is in an unusual place without a clear national figure to rally behind. The Vermont senator demurred when HuffPost asked him if he sees himself as the leader of the American progressive movement.

“I will play my role, and other people will play their role,” he said in an interview with HuffPost this summer.

Since ending his campaign in April, Sanders’ Senate office has gone back to its usual business — legislation that would cover health insurance costs for all during the pandemic, a billionaire tax, cuts to the defense budget. His Senate campaign has been using his large email list to raise funds for other candidates and to make endorsements. His closest advisers worked with Biden’s campaign to craft the Democratic Party’s platform.

Progressives saw unmistakable losses this election cycle. Two of the biggest names in the movement — Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) — failed to build broad enough coalitions within the Democratic Party to win the presidential nomination. Warren’s campaign sputtered out early. Sanders tasted victory with a blowout win in Nevada, but when voters were given a choice between him and former Vice President Joe Biden, who explicitly rejected progressives’ agenda in his primary run, they chose the latter.

Biden, who is set to become the official Democratic presidential nominee on Thursday, was never of the left, won in spite of the left and isn’t interested in being accepted by the left. But that doesn’t mean that the Democratic electorate has completely rejected the left.

Progressive challengers had successful showings in a number of congressional primaries this cycle. In Missouri, Cori Bush unexpectedly beat Rep. Lacy Clay running on “Medicare for All,” universal housing and a Green New Deal.

In New York, Jamaal Bowman ousted Rep. Eliot Engel. In Massachusetts, Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal has a serious progressive challenger in Alex Morse. Another candidate, Robbie Goldstein, is hoping for the same momentum on the other side of the state in a Boston race against conservative Democratic backbencher Rep. Stephen Lynch.

And so far, each member of the self-styled “Squad” — the group of four progressive House freshman women — has easily overcome her primary challenge from the right. 

Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), from left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) hold a news conference a
Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), from left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) hold a news conference after Democrats in the U.S. Congress moved to formally condemn President Donald Trump's attacks on the four minority congresswomen in Washington on July 15, 2019.

The progressive movement no longer has a single national figure to rally behind. And the only coherent vision for progressives going forward is to kick out those standing in their way — from the bottom up.

“Any group that is trying to take power away from those who have it ― which is fundamentally what the progressive movement is about — to expect in those races to be equally successful as people in positions of power is not a rational metric of success,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, Sanders’ former deputy campaign manager. “The problem the Democratic Party faces is that on issue after issue, the positions that progressive candidates take are the center of Democratic politics, and the position the leadership takes is at the right side of the party.”

Championing Incremental Policy Wins

Without the presidency, Sanders had to change his expectations for the progressive movement. Success is no longer marked by winning a presidential election. It’s marked by a lot of people not named Bernie Sanders winning elections and giving power to his agenda.

“Democratic control over the House, Senate and White House is not enough,” Sanders told HuffPost. “What success for progressives means is a couple of things. It is moving the agenda of the Democratic Party in a progressive direction, which represents the needs of a very desperate and struggling working class in America today.” 

Sanders launched into a list. Raising the minimum wage. Equal pay for equal work. Making it easier for workers to join unions. And it’s Medicare for All, Sanders said. Other policies that would need to win in order for progressives to truly declare victory? Free tuition at public colleges and universities. A Green New Deal. Police department reform and criminal justice reform.

The bar is high for the two-time presidential candidate. And Biden’s campaign has given no indication that he will get there by Inauguration Day. The results from unified task forces comprising Biden and Sanders camps were just inches to the left of Biden’s original platform, Sanders acknowledged.

Democratic control over the House, Senate and White House is not enough. Sen. Bernie Sanders

“It did not have, needless to say, everything that I wanted. It did not have everything that Biden wanted. But there is no question that on some of the major issues facing this country, if that agenda is implemented, life will improve for tens and tens [of] millions of working people,” Sanders said in an interview on MSNBC.

Of course, a candidate’s laundry list of preferred policies is one thing. Priorities are another matter entirely. 

To the extent that Biden has tipped his hand about the agenda he will pursue immediately upon taking office, he has stuck to a mix of studies, consensus-minded executive orders and reversals of the Trump administration policies most reviled by Democrats.

He would rejoin the Paris climate accord and World Health Organization, end the travel ban aimed at restricting visitors from predominantly Muslim countries, restore Obama-era environmental and public health regulations, reinstate federal employees’ right to unionize, convene a task force on ending homelessness and enact tougher executive branch ethical standards, according to a late July report in The Washington Post.

Some of the bills he can help advance right away include protecting voting rights, toughening gun safety standards and protecting labor, his aides told the Post. 

The new labor measures, in particular, would have a transformative effect on the country’s economic and social fabric. The Democratic-controlled House already passed two bills that would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and massively expand federal protections for unions’ right to organize.

The reforms omitted from Biden’s short-term agenda are notable as well. It is not clear, for example, whether and how Biden would prioritize the creation of a public health insurance option, which the Sanders-aligned left already sees as an unacceptable departure from a single-payer Medicare for All health care system.

The degree to which Biden’s most ambitious items have a real chance of passing depends in part on whether Democrats are able to regain a majority in the Senate. The Democratic-controlled House has passed versions of Biden’s priorities that the GOP-controlled Senate has subsequently declined to consider. 

It will also be up to progressives in both chambers to threaten to withhold support for party-line legislation that they think is inadequate. 

So far, a small group of lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus has only rarely been willing or able to muster its votes in a bloc capable of stopping bills the members don’t like. 

But when left-wing House Democrats have banded together, they have achieved tangible results. A decision by caucus Co-Chairs Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.) to play hardball with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) on a prescription drug bill yielded an increase in the minimum number of drugs whose prices the bill would require the federal government to negotiate to 50 from 25.

“We have to have a sense of being able to say, ‘no,’” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said of progressives building strong coalitions in the House.

The Power Of The Primary Challenge

It is not enough for members such as Khanna to just say “no.” They need the numbers to prevent a partisan bill ― one that Republicans in the House will never get behind ― from passing without their support. 

The left’s greatest effect on U.S. politics since Sanders fell short in 2016 was the addition of more members like Khanna through a sophisticated effort to replace moderate and mainstream House Democrats in solidly blue districts with progressive brawlers.

Progressive primary challenges are “where the money, where our attention should be going,” said Sean McElwee, whose firm Data for Progress has conducted polling for many left-wing insurgents. “We need to actually push leftists across the finish line.”

No single group is more responsible for recruiting and electing a new generation of primary challengers than Justice Democrats, a scrappy, small-dollar-funded group created by alumni of Sanders’ 2016 campaign. In its first active election cycle in 2018, Justice Democrats landed two high-profile primary wins when Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) ― one half of the Squad ― ousted long-standing incumbents. 

Three more candidates backed by the group are set to join the Squad in the next Congress: Bush of Missouri, Marie Newman of Illinois and Bowman of New York. (Mondaire Jones, also of New York, won in the primary for an open seat without Justice Democrats’ backing but began as a primary challenger before his target ― Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey ― opted for retirement.)

That initial success — along with a decision by House Democrats’ campaign arm after the 2018 elections to blacklist firms that work with primary challengers of any stripe — inspired the creation of an ecosystem of consultants, vendors, donors and allied groups that now serves as a de facto alternative to the traditional party system. 

By the time Justice Democrats was helming an effort to replace Engel with Bowman in June, it had the tools, resources and experience to commission state of the art polling and to blanket the airwaves with a super PAC that beat Engel’s well-heeled backers to the punch.

Cori Bush speaks at an Aug. 9 event marking six years since Michael Brown Jr. was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
Cori Bush speaks at an Aug. 9 event marking six years since Michael Brown Jr. was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

The new energy in the Black Lives Matter movement likewise boosted the fortunes of primary challengers. Bush, in particular, capitalized on her deep roots in the St. Louis area’s social movement against police brutality.

In addition, the inadequate response of the government to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout have made the public more skeptical of incumbent elected officials and more receptive to populist newcomers, according to Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats.

“When the pandemic first started, people leaned into elected officials as folks who they knew and could trust,” Rojas said. “But as the response has been just utter failure by the United States at every level, people understand the differences between having someone who casts a vote versus someone who’s going to fight.”

Even Sanders — who is sometimes reluctant to get involved in Democratic primaries and has yet to endorse the reelection campaign of progressive ally and embattled Sen. Ed Markey (Mass.) — has begun embracing the new movement to oust Democrats unwilling to push the boundaries on policy. He was the only member of Congress to endorse Bush’s campaign and went on to raise $107,000 for her successful bid.

Bush singled him out by name for praise in her victory speech on Aug. 4. “Let me also thank somebody that stood with me that did not have to stand with me ― that you all probably know very well: I gotta call out Sen. Bernie Sanders.”

The Road Ahead

There were some early attempts to push the Biden camp toward Warren as a vice-presidential pick. She expressed interest in the position and was seen as the most progressive choice Biden could pick. Memos and polling from Data for Progress buoyed her as the most popular choice. 

But there was also a certain understanding that that wasn’t going to happen, in part because Biden expressed interest in bringing racial and generational diversity to his ticket. Instead, attention turned to a possible Biden administration.

“We need to push for progressives to be in the Biden administration, and I think we can,” Khanna said, suggesting Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Sanders adviser Matt Duss to have a role in foreign policy.

The game theory that applies to the presidential election does not apply to appointments. We have allies in the Senate. There are people who are likely to pick fights if they are compelled to David Segal, Demand Progress

Progressive groups such as Demand Progress and the Revolving Door Project — which applies pressure on political appointees for their ties to big corporations, lobbyists and other outside interests — have been working for months to suss out those in Biden’s orbit.

They feel like they have more power in this realm than with national tickets.

“The game theory that applies to the presidential election does not apply to appointments,” said David Segal, who runs Demand Progress. “We have allies in the Senate. There are people who are likely to pick fights if they are compelled to … .

“If Elizabeth decides we are fighting on this Treasury appointment because they are just a shill for [the] banks, and if Bernie decides we are fighting on this national security appointment because they don’t oppose endless wars, that calls on other senators that might not be the most progressive but want to maintain a veneer of progressivism to make a decision,” he added. 

This is work that began to take shape in the second half of Obama’s term. In 2015, when Obama tried to nominate corporate attorney Keir Gumbs to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Warren and her allies successfully organized to stop the appointment. 

“Maybe it’s just that I have a long memory of this stuff, but you have you go back to when my career started, which was the beginning of the George Bush era, and you look at the ecosystem now, and the ecosystem of the progressive movement now is so much larger, so much more diverse,” Rabin-Havt said. “It isn’t perfect. But you look at the steps and the progress made.”