Beautifully attired in a cream coloured silk blouse and white pantsuit Vice President elect, Kamala Harris — the joyful warrior — gave her acceptance speech and introduced the President elect, Joe Biden on the evening of Saturday, November 7th. It was a night of firsts most great and a few less so. Biden will be the oldest President ever, he and Harris received the most votes ever surpassing both Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s records for most votes and most votes for a white candidate respectively. Harris will be the first Black woman and the first Asian woman elected to a federal Executive office. But, also for the first time in America’s history the transition of power is unlikely to be smooth and may not even be peaceful.
The near literal elephant in the room is Donald Trump and his likely refusal to leave the US seat of power willingly. Fortunately, he cannot remain legally, but an underpinning of the US republican-democracy is peaceful transition of power.
I previously characterized the 2020 election as close which is not entirely fair. As of writing the Biden-Harris margin of victory is 4,361,895 votes. It probably won’t get much higher than that, but it almost certainly will not tighten. Biden and Harris did earn more than 50% of the vote, but they are nowhere near Obama’s nearly 10 million vote margin in 2008.
And the question is, why not?
Trump made it clear that he did not want to run against Biden. He was impeached over possible crimes committed in an attempt to sully Biden’s reputation and during his campaign he tried to imply despite clear evidence and statements to the contrary that Biden would implement “Medicare for All,” and socialism in general.
Regardless of your own personal opinions on socialism it does seem to be a trigger word for conservative voters. The more Trump implied that a Democratic government would be a “socialist” one the higher his poll numbers rose regardless of the existence of centrist Democrats and Biden’s support for the Affordable Care Act which he himself was involved in creating in the first place.
There does seem to be reasonable evidence that the United States is actually moving leftward in political ideology, which in my opinion as an actual progressive is a really great thing. The problem however is that these things never happen at once, they are subject to multivariate effects, and you cannot force them. However much you may wish for the United States to be a super liberal and progressive country there are always going to be voters who are relatively conservative and there will be some who are far right, resistant to progressive legislation and ideas, or even subject to radicalization.
And crucially, how a voter, particularly a voter from the opposite party perceives a candidate is often more important than that candidate’s actual views or policies.
The strength and fault in democracy is that if it’s working you’ll never get something you can’t stand, but you also won’t get what you want. Regardless of how amazing a given candidate may be or how written a bill is someone somewhere is going to have a problem with them or it. The best you can hope for is a decisive majority, but unless you’re George Washington you are never going to have unanimity in democracy. The US democracy by design discourages and nearly eliminates rule by fiat. I think having seen the Trump Presidency we are all agreed that that is probably a good thing, but it also means that no matter how hard you personally believe a thing you’re unlikely to get everything you want under a democratic system of government.
Particularly as an elected official your personal and public ideology need to be separate. If you take it as a personal affront every time you need to compromise you’re never going to get anything done within a democratic system.
Enter Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
I have so many previous entries explaining why I don’t think Bernie Sanders especially really counts as a progressive or liberal that it would be pointless trying to link them here but the basic issue with both his and AOC’s ideology is that it is not actually centred on the issues that most far left voters, politicians, and ideologues consider important. From a conservative perspective Sanders and AOC are far left, but from a progressive standpoint both of them are either conservative or simply contrarian. The two of them have started recently to try to frame their ideology in a liberal context with Sanders trying to promote “Medicare for All,” and AOC attempting to get her “Green New Deal,” out of committee, but both of them were and remain primarily centred on the sort of economic concerns which most real progressives consider tertiary at best.
For both “Medicare for All,” and the “Green New Deal,” there is and has been more inclusive, comprehensive, progressive, and even bipartisan legislation. Both efforts are primarily economic in nature, don’t really take into account America’s diversity, and are not as well grounded in science as other healthcare and green acts. “Medicare for All,” and the “Green New Deal,” are primarily economic bills or policies which for liberal voters don’t focus enough on the issues which matter and for conservative voters focus too much on a leftist economic perspective. Ironically, despite the hype and everything else I will say in this article, they’re actually too centrist to pass.
But the biggest issue with both Sanders and AOC is their unwillingness to respect the democratic process particularly when it benefits the left. And this has progressed to the point where I have speculated on whether or not Sanders and AOC might secretly be Republican provocateurs.
In 2016, Sanders repeatedly ignored Madisonian pleas for representation by introducing to the popular parlance the term “identity politics,” as a derisive dismissal of any non-white or female politician. He even went so far as to call women’s issues a “distraction,” (although he quickly tried to talk his way out of that), and outright said that Hillary Clinton — the most qualified Presidential candidate in the history of our nation — was not actually qualified heavily implying that it was due to her gender. He later went on to tell Sen. Elizabeth Warren that he didn’t think a woman could be elected to the Presidency, then publicly lied about his statements to her and did not speak out against homophobic attacks on Mayor Pete Buttigieg after his narrow primary victory in Ohio.
AOC spent her first few days in office protesting not Republicans but Democratic women implying that they were old and ineffective, entirely ignoring that such women were the very trailblazers that allowed her to get into Congress in the first place and had decades’ long careers of progressive legislation. When attacking Nancy Pelosi, she simply ignored Nancy Pelosi’s career and record, but with Diane Feinstein AOC’s attacks tend to fabricate statements and behaviours that AOC has either intentionally misunderstood or entirely falsified. Her behaviour was so disruptive that Republicans booed her especially when she did finally cast her vote for Nancy Pelosi’s speakership because — presumably — they had believed they could use AOC to undermine that vote.
Far from being an effective or progressive legislator AOC has failed to pass a single piece of legislation or even get a single bill out of committee and Nancy Pelosi has been forced to disregard and ignore her as one of four votes in an otherwise unified Democratic majority. Additionally, while AOC tends to characterize criticism against her and the other three members of the “squad,” as racist or sexist, she failed to acknowledge particularly Nancy Pelosi’s own long record of fending off incredibly sexist remarks and she not only campaigned against Sharice Davids but excoriated Lauren Underwood for being somehow insufficiently leftist.
The candidate AOC backed against Sharice Davids was a white man, and AOC’s supposed reasoning for this departure was that he backed Sanders’ aforementioned “Medicare for All,” policy. The issue with this logic however was not only is Sharice Davids a lesbian woman of colour but she serves a red district that she had to flip blue and which did not and never would back “Medicare for All.”
Meanwhile, whilst AOC had no issues keeping her seat in her own deep blue district, Lauren Underwood is in a more purple area. Underwood is fairly progressive and — notably — has accomplished far more in Congress than AOC. But perhaps because of this and the fact that Underwood’s district is considerably more white and conservative than AOC’s her election was in jeopardy far longer.
In the 2018 midterms Democrats were able to secure a rather significant majority by flipping once red districts to blue often with young candidates who were sometimes LGBTQ+ individuals and/or BIPOC. The 116th Congress of the United States was, at the time, the most diverse in history. So while white supremacy remains a major problem in our political landscape contrary to Bernie Sanders’ insistence, women can be elected. Notably however, and again, contrary to their narrative, AOC’s “Justice Democrats,” did not flip a single seat. All seven of the seats taken by “Justice Democrats,” were in districts previously held by Democrats.
Bernie Sanders who lost his 2016 and 2020 primary campaigns both in the first month of contests but remained in well beyond rationality insisted in both cases that he was the most truly progressive candidate and that his support for the democratically selected Democratic Party nominee was both necessary and conditional on his dictation of major policy platforms some of which were why he was democratically rejected in the first place.
Most gallingly, in both cases Sanders’ primary defeat was largely articulated by South Carolina’s Black Democratic voters who he subsequently dismissed and minimized in, if not racist, then highly racialized terms. His supporters did not miss the dog whistle and their attacks in both 2016 and 2020 on other Democrats were openly bigoted.
Ironically, the logic of pushing ethno-nationalism from the left is electorally sound if deeply morally corrupt in that white voters do make up a majority of the electorate and are the only demographic which consistently vote Republican. If Sanders’ goal is introducing white supremacy to the left he is doing an unsettlingly good job but fortunately about sixty years too late.
But regardless of the racial or ethnic make-up of any given candidate’s coalition the fact remains that whilst Bernie Sanders commands more of a national following than some of his Senatorial colleagues, he is not, has never been, and likely never will be elected as the Presidential nominee for any major Party. There’s popular and then there’s Kamala Harris or Hillary Clinton popular. This may be due to his less than sterling record, or his comments regarding women or BIPOC, it may have to do with his history of anti-immigration speeches and votes, but it’s likely down not even to his policy but his contrarian nature.
Certainly, the GOP under Trump has been able to use both Sanders and AOC as sort of liberal bogeymen. It’s quite clear that whatever “socialism,” may mean to me or you it’s a scary word to moderates or blue curious Republican voters. One would think that if the GOP and Trump are so desperately frightened of Sanders and AOC that the two of them should be a value add for the Democratic Party. But it’s simply not so.
Sanders and “Justice Democrats” like AOC are pretty even-handed in their criticism and contrarianism towards both the Democratic and Republican Parties. And while both of them are ranked by govtrack as quite far to the left it is notable that govtrack’s methodology ranks ideological extremity based on who a given Congressperson is willing to collaborate with. This means that a Representative or Senator who gets a lot of bills out of committee and does hard bipartisan negotiation and rises in seniority in their committee positions will have a high leadership ranking and a very moderate ideology ranking whereas a Representative or Senator who does comparatively little legislatively speaking will have a low leadership ranking but generally be further to either the left or right of govtrack’s spectrum. (There are exceptions to this rule.)
And both AOC and Sanders rank pretty low in govtrack’s leadership scale.
I’m not here to say that we can’t have naysayers — but I will say that we have an entire Party specifically made for naysayers and as much as Sanders and people like AOC insist that they’re ever so far left and really here to move the Overton Window I’m not detecting any results. I have seen results from people like Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, but curiously few from AOC and Sanders. Biden and Harris won the 2020 election but they did it in spite of Sanders’ insistence that having lost the nomination, he’ll be leading the party and whatever it is that AOC’s doing instead of her actual job. Moreover, lest we all forget, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 but lost the election due in large part to third party votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
I’ve explained, somewhat exhaustively in the past how the Overton Window is more of a thing to be observed than overtly controlled, but even if it could be artificially moved, negotiation works via defining viable win-sets. If Sanders and AOC are really interested in making America more liberal then they’re in the wrong line of work. They could be activists, but one cannot be an effective legislator and never compromise.
The 2020 Election was not quite as tight as it originally seemed. And we all knew it was going to play out like this with it seeming quite red initially and then breaking blue simply due to the way votes would be returned this year. But this election was far closer than it should have been. A lot of this is due to white voters behaving badly, Trumpism, the QAnon conspiracy, white supremacy in both general and particular, and even COVID-19, but the performative fauxgressivism of figures like Sanders and the “Justice Democrats,” is a major obstacle to actual progressivism and the sort of legislation an increasingly liberal America wants to see.
As AOC herself said in her apologia, “I’ve been unseating Democrats for two years.”