U.S. Progressives in the cross hairs

With the Trump problem out of the way, the Democrat establishment could turn on the Sanders’ wing of the party

November 16, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:44 am IST

It was clear, at least as far back as October, that Joe Biden would win. I recall discussing this with friends, including Americans, who were no fans of Donald Trump. They were not expecting Mr. Biden to romp in, as some polls were predicting. But they were expecting him to squeak through. In the event, he did better than we expected, winning by around five million votes and garnering 36 more electoral votes than he needed.

Sanders was a north star

The reasons why all of us, except one very pessimistic American friend, expected Mr. Biden to squeak through were many. Of these, two were purely negative: Mr. Biden was not a woman, and would get the sexist votes that Hillary Clinton lost by virtue of her gender, and Mr. Trump had made a huge mess of the coronavirus crisis. But the third reason was positive: mainstream Democrats and progressive Democrats had united in an impressive way, and the progressives, pushed by Bernie Sanders after he was once again manipulated (not cheated) out of a shot at the Presidency, had hit the streets and the screens to motivate many previously inactive voters. This had flipped States like Georgia .

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Note that Mr. Trump’s vote tally did not decrease. In fact, it increased by around three million. But Mr. Biden still beat Mr. Trump by five million votes. In short, contrary to moderate and mainstream Democrat expectations, Mr. Trump did not lose voters to the moderate Democrats. His voters mostly stayed faithful to him. He lost because Democrats managed to get a lot of voters, who had not voted in the past, to come out and endorse Mr. Biden. This was largely due to the work that the progressives, guided by the north star of Mr. Sanders, did.

But it was also clear that a Biden victory would immediately change this equation. Once the unstable, potentially destructive scarecrow of Trump was removed, mainstream Democrats and their moderate allies in the media would no longer find Mr. Sanders too attractive. Their essentially ‘nice’ corporate interests (which gave us Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and, as a stupid and ineffective reaction to them, Mr. Trump) would ensure that much. I wondered then, way back in October, how soon this ‘moderate’ reaction would set in?

In the event, it took only a few days, and started happening even before the Democrats have managed to boot Mr. Trump out of the White House. There was a flurry of attacks on the progressives by leading Democrats and their allies in the mainstream media. It reminded me of what happened to Jeremy Corbyn and his leftists in the United Kingdom some years ago, when leaders in the Labour Party and publications like The Guardian combined to put him beyond the pale of electability.

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Moderates vs. progressives

Mr. Sanders is a more charismatic and less doctrinaire leader than Mr. Corbyn. He is also at the end of a long and illustrious career. There is a good chance he will be let out to grass, with just a prod or two, by the ‘moderates’. Their fire will be concentrated on the progressives associated with him, in particular the women known as the ‘squad’. The term ‘squad’ is already indicative of the potential: the fact that it is applied to a bunch of young progressive and popular women Democrats and not to the obstructive Republican gang around Mitch McConnell is revealing. I would say ‘shocking’, but I stopped using that word to describe such developments way back in the 1990s. The epithet, ‘squad’, evades their many differences — all of them are from different sections of multicultural America — and poses them as potentially undemocratic and a quasi-gang, which they are not.

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A fightback

The attacks have been increasing. Interestingly, the progressives are not taking it lying down. In particular, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, popularly known as AOC, seems to have gone on a counter-offensive, strongly pressing for the progressive demands that gained the Democrats many million votes. However, the mainstream Democrat responses to these demands have already changed. They range from dismissive criticism by conservative Democrat senators to studied silence in circles closer to Mr. Biden, who have the excuse of Mr. Trump not vacating the White House and the coronavirus crisis to hide behind for the time being.

More interesting, the response from a certain kind of establishment Democrat voter has also taken on acerbic ‘Cold War’ tones. For instance, on November 14, AOC tweeted reminding her party of their progressive commitments : “Can we please get people stimulus checks and mortgage relief and rent forgiveness and small business support and free testing and hazard pay and health care for the uninsured (and underinsured) in the middle of a pandemic or is that too socialist too?” As is always the case when progressive demands are stressed, she was immediately accused of harming the party, and of not having the courage to make such demands to the Republicans — as if the progressives have not been making these demands all over the place from day one!

I wonder if AOC and the progressives know what is going to hit them? Are they prepared to deal with it? Because this is how it will happen: The media response to them will change. Their demands will no longer be reported, as they were when scarecrow Trump was around, as legitimate and popular. They will be reported as doctrinaire, dated and divisive. Soon they might find themselves in the position in which Mr. Corbyn found himself. And then we can safely wait for Trump II.

Tabish Khair is Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark

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