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Updated Sep 8, 2023, 4:14pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Left behind: Progressive groups struggle for relevance in Biden era

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The Scene

The image, used in ad after ad, stuck with Rhode Island Democrats: White House staffer Gabe Amo with Joe Biden, in the Oval Office. As early voting wrapped up, Democrats in the 1st Congressional District saw another potent image: Amo and Patrick Kennedy, their old congressman, who warned that Bernie Sanders-endorsed front-runner Aaron Regenburg would put the state’s defense economy at risk.

“We need someone who understands the way Washington works,” said Kennedy.

On Tuesday, Amo won his first-ever race by 3000 votes, ending this year’s Democratic primary season — and dealing the latest setback to his party’s left flank. Endorsements from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Working Families Party, and some of Rhode Island’s leading progressives couldn’t elect Regunberg, who also narrowly out-fundraised Amo. Former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who endorsed Amo early, declared victory over “pundits who dismiss Bidenism” as a Democratic Party force.

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“I will be a vigorous defender of the president every step of the way,” Amo told Semafor in a pre-election interview. “He’s one of the finest public servants in our nation’s history.”

Progressives shaped the party’s last presidential primary and pushed many of their ideas into Biden and Klain’s White House. Now they’re limping out of 2023, and into the next cycle, with smaller ambitions, more divisions, and no one figurehead to rally around. For the first time since 2016, no Democratic incumbent in Congress has a credible primary challenger on the left.

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David’s view

There have been a few left-wing political triumphs this year, like the election of Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson. And Regunberg’s defeat came after his father-in-law put six figures into a super PAC, an optics disaster that hurt him and made it impossible for him to attack Amo effectively. But the infrastructure and ambitions left behind by the Sanders campaign are in flux, for several reasons.

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One of them, demonstrated in Rhode Island, is that most Democratic voters are not in the mood to rebel; worries about the president’s age have not transmuted into angst about their party’s direction. Campaign polling ahead of the latest election found that a supermajority of primary voters were satisfied with Biden; the race unfolded as Republicans talked louder than ever about impeaching him. And one reason that Johnson prevailed in Chicago was that his opponent in the mayoral runoff, Paul Vallas, had disparaged Biden and Barack Obama.

It doesn’t help that the current issue set is less amenable to the left than it used to be. Under Trump, issues like inequality, protecting immigrant rights, and expanding health care helped them tap into goals that broadly united Democrats. There’s now much more internal party angst about border issues, even in deep blue cities, while on the economy, there’s a conflict between Democrats who want to sell Biden’s jobs agenda as a success, and leftists who see them papering over still-unsolved problems that demand radical change.

The Biden administration also mollified progressives, especially when it was being shaped by Klain. Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act preempted major problems with the party’s left; the Sunrise Movement, the youth-driven direct action green group that protested Biden in the 2020 primary, has alternated between outrage that the president won’t declare a “climate emergency” and back-patting over the 2022 passage of a climate bill.

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“Without the movement for the Green New Deal, there would be no IRA,” Sunrise founder Varshini Prakash wrote in an email to donors last month.

That gets to a second reason for the left’s electoral struggles: Bitter disagreement about how to interact with the Democratic Party, or if there’s even a point in trying.

This was a factor, though not determinative, in Regunberg’s loss, and it’s played out more dramatically in places like Boston, where a local Democratic Socialists of America chapter moved to expel a legislator because — among other things –— he’d supported the Democratic nominee for governor. (Last month, national DSA delegates agreed that while it was “not advisable for us to form an independent political party with its own ballot line at this moment,” it should study strategies for becoming an “independent party-like organization.”)

There’s more cynicism on the left about the progressives elected with the support of Justice Democrats, a group founded by Sanders campaign veterans and advocates like the The Young Turks host Cenk Uygur. That cynicism grew days into Biden’s presidency, when none of the House’s progressives heeded a call by some former Sanders influencers to force a vote on Medicare-for-All as a condition for re-electing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And the left’s incremental wins, celebrated by some allies, are dismissed by others.

In a recent interview with The Dig, a Providence-based socialist podcast, Ocasio-Cortez said that she was frustrated by the “binary” between revolutionary action and electoral politics that some leftists obsessed over.

“That creates this kind of cynical vortex,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who’d endorsed Regunberg in the campaign’s final week. “You can be very radical and do your thing, but you’re gonna be very small; or it’s this electoralism, where more radical movements and radical action is dismissed, and seen as naive.”

The constant suspicion that politicians who win elections will quickly join the old guard once in office is a growing problem. Uygur said in an interview that post-Sanders organizations had lost their influence through a combination of infighting and failure to deliver on the promise of their campaigns, as priorities like a $15 minimum wage died in the Senate.

“I don’t care about AOC or any of them,” said Uygur, who was ousted from Justice Democrats in Dec. 2017, after reporting emerged on sexist comments he’d made years earlier.“The squad is waiting for the Democratic Party’s permission? No, they need to be waiting for our permission: We are the outsiders, pushing the insiders. They were supposed to be a cohesive group, getting our priorities passed in legislation. And when it was crunch time, they blinked.”

They also faced massive opposition from the center-left and the right — a third reason for the left’s often-disappointing year. While the PACs that have spent millions to defeat left-leaning Democrats didn’t engage fully in Rhode Island, their involvement in earlier races had ground down Justice Democrats, which laid off most of its staff this year and is focused on holding its gains.

“We’re still actively in candidate recruitment, reviewing districts and possible candidates across the country,” said Justice Democrats communications director Usamah Andrabi, “while also very focused on protecting our incumbents who are under more serious threat from AIPAC’s right-wing primary challenge recruitment.”

Hours after the 2020 election, Democratic Party centrists went after the left for embracing unpopular slogans like “defund the police,” and they never really let up. And left-wing Democrats who won power faced opposition that sometimes overwhelmed them. In May, a democratic socialist who’d won a 2021 city council race in New York ended her re-election campaign, abandoning the “loveless land of politics”; on Wednesday, a Des Moines city council member who’d been elected on a “defund the police” message did the same.

Strategists with the Working Families Party and Our Revolution — one group that predated the Sanders campaigns, one that grew out of it — pointed out that their key concepts, like Medicare-for-All, still enjoyed majority support from Democratic voters.

But their branding has clearly been damaged. In 2018, Sara Innamorato was one of two candidates backed by DSA who won safe Democratic legislative seats in Pittsburgh. The other winner, Summer Lee, survived millions of dollars in attacks from centrist and pro-Israel groups to win a seat in Congress last year.

In May, Innamorato won the Democratic nomination for Allegheny County executive. Her Republican opponent did what came naturally: Blasted the “socialist” Democrat as a threat to the Pittsburgh region’s prosperity. Two weeks after the primary, Innamorato told a local CBS affiliate that she wasn’t a socialist at all. “If you look me up in the voter rolls,” she said, “you’ll see ‘Democrat’ next to my name.”

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The View From Third Way

Jim Kessler, the executive vice president of the centrist Democratic group, said that the debate inside the party wasn’t over, but that the left had been losing influence. More people were voting in Democratic primaries; more of those Democrats wanted a Biden-shaped party than a left-wing one.

“The extremes have completely taken over the GOP, and there are a lot of voters saying: I want to make sure that at least one party is normal,” said Kessler. “After Dobbs, it’s clear to people that if you lose the wrong race, things can get very real, very fast.”

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Room for Disagreement

Some prominent leftists see the movement’s current slump as just a natural phase of a rebuilding period. “We had no socialist movement, then we had this guy, Bernie Sanders, vying seriously — twice! — for the most powerful office in the land,” said Micah Uetricht, the co-author of 2020’s “Bigger Than Bernie” and editor at the socialist magazine Jacobin. “Now, things are where you’d expect them to be for a movement being reborn.’

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Notable

  • In The American Prospect, Luke Goldstein studies what went wrong in Rhode Island, and what it means for “national progressive groups as they limp into the next election cycle.”
  • The Democratic National Committee, like Sanders, has endorsed Biden for re-election; Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s campaign is asking for time with DNC leadership next week, urging “full transparency in all matters relating to the nomination process and delegate selection operations.”
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Correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that DSA national delegates voted against a proposal to become an independent political party by 704-184.

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