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After Bernie: where next for the US left? 

The reborn progressive movement is determined to wield its influence and transform the Democratic Party from within. 

By 1980, the American political left appeared to be defeated. The civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s were long past, while the Democratic Party, which had rallied around Lyndon B. Johnson’s transformative vision of the Great Society, had retreated from its historic commitment to an interventionist state.  

One sign of this shift was president Jimmy Carter’s decision in 1980 to distance the party from the cause of universal, state-provided healthcare. Four years earlier, Carter had won the presidency by calling for a “comprehensive national health insurance system” funded by general taxation and shared contributions from bosses and workers. But in his re-election campaign in 1984, Carter argued that universal coverage should be achieved primarily through the private insurance industry. Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, who enacted a radical agenda to erase the presence of government from the political and economic life of the nation.  

In 1981, around the same time the Democratic Party abandoned the promise of national healthcare, Bernie Sanders, a 40-year-old New Yorker and anti-war activist, was elected the mayor of Burlington in Vermont. Sanders spent the next four decades fighting “lonely fights,” as he put it, first in his home state, then in Congress, and finally in his two bids for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 and 2020, the second of which he suspended on 9 April, making Joe Biden, a liberal establishment figure, the assumed presidential nominee. 

But with the 78-year-old Sanders having failed to gain control of the party, the left is once again asking where it goes from here, and what remains of its electoral prospects without its nationally recognised champion. 

Historically, the overarching goal of the American left has been the creation of a more democratic, just and equitable society in which the state plays a central role in providing for its citizens and promoting the common good. But it is a diverse movement of ideas and strategic aims. Democratic socialists such as Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term member of Congress for New York, are fundamentally opposed to capitalism. In a recent radio interview, the 30-year-old Ocasio-Cortez was asked why she calls herself a socialist: “social security – the idea that our elders should age with dignity: that’s just not capitalism,” she said. “Compassionate capitalism, to me, is raising the minimum wage a little bit. Democratic socialism is unionising your workplace.” Both Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, a grassroots political organisation that grew its membership to nearly 60,000 in mid-2019 – a remarkable feat in a country where the term “socialism” still evokes Cold War imagery.  

There are also non-socialist progressives, such as Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard professor turned-senator from Massachusetts who also ran in the 2020 Democratic primary. If Sanders is opposed to capitalism, Warren wants to reform and humanise it.  

In the taxonomy of the American left, there also exist a range of movements that adhere to different methods of political organisation and visions of the good life. Occupy Wall Street  – whose slogan “We are the 99%” highlighted wealth inequality – and Black Lives Matter – the campaign against police brutality and racial injustice – are two of the best known. Barack Obama, who worked as a community organiser in Chicago before joining Congress in 1996, is considered more a liberal than a leftist. But according to Michael Kazin, the co-editor of the left-wing magazine Dissent and a professor of history at Georgetown University, “Pretty much everyone on the left supported Obama in 2008. He talked in terms of movements.”  

Since the 2008 financial crisis, popular movements emerging from the left have helped to defang socialism of its nastier Cold War connotations. There is also now a thriving intellectual culture on the left. Occupy may have failed to solve the US’s inequality problem, but from it emerged a host of progressive publications that were openly leftist, such as Jacobin magazine (founded in 2011). Other titles followed, including The Intercept in 2014 (renowned for publishing Edward Snowden’s leaked documents) and Current Affairs a year later. (Sanders’s former press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, writes for both titles.) Veteran magazines, too, such as The Nation (established in 1865) and Mother Jones (1976) also gained greater national prominence after 2010, as did Dissent and Jewish Currents.  

But while these titles have provided room for intellectual debate, it is Sanders who has dragged the US left out from the wilderness and to the forefront of national politics. Between his first and second attempt to secure the Democratic nominations in 2016 and 2020, not only did he become a nationally known figure, building a movement of loyal supporters across the country, but the policies on which he campaigned, such as Medicare for All, free higher education, and rethinking the US’s global role, have become more mainstream. Members of Congress are no longer afraid to speak in favour of cancelling student debt, for example. Organisations and think tanks like the Quincy Institute have also emerged to promote progressive causes, such as ending the US’s “forever wars”: the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan that have entangled the military since 2001.  

“The left has not ever been dominant in American history,” Kazin told me. “It’s rarely been as influential as arguably it is now.” But with Sanders’ campaign having ended in failure once again, the question is: where does the left go now? 

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The short-term answer is to the aid of Biden’s presidential campaign ahead of the election on 3 November. But a significant schism within the US left is over the question of whether to endorse Biden outright or to insist on policy concessions as the price of that support.  

“If the left is not in power, it’s got to depend on liberals to get things through [Congress],” Kazin argued, describing “a constant tension” between what the left wants and what liberals in power want to give. “Each of those groups – liberals and leftists – have to figure out how to advance their goals without losing support from the other,” Kazin said. “A lot of people disagree with me on the left about that, but I’m sticking to it. I think it’s the only way”. 

Sanders endorsed Biden on 13 April after suspending his campaign five days earlier. But he is remaining on the ballot for the Democratic nomination to accumulate more delegates and to have more influence over the party’s direction. He also expects policy concessions from Biden. One area of cooperation between them is foreign policy. The campaigns have already discussed international security issues and Biden reportedly even asked the Sanders campaign to send over its foreign policy programme. Asked about the left’s priorities, Matt Duss, Sanders’s key international affairs adviser, said: “There are some specifics – war powers is one, re-establishing congressional authority over war, repealing the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs [Authorisation for Use of Military Force].” Another, he says, is “restoring constitutional order and restraint when it comes to the use of military force”.  

“We’re in a much stronger place than a few years ago,” agrees Ro Khanna, a representative from California and the former national co-chair of the Sanders campaign: “I don’t think Biden, if he were president now, would engage in more conflicts in the Middle East without coming to Congress. There’s been a shift in our party’s understanding in the cost of endless war”.  

But on other issues, notably healthcare, Biden has been slower to make concessions. His proposal to lower the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 60 was dismissed by Ocasio-Cortez as “almost insulting”.  

Ocasio-Cortez is one of the four members of “the Squad” – all members of Congress in their first term, all women of colour and all progressive – who are held up as the future of the left. Ocasio-Cortez has said that she will support Biden as the Democratic nominee, but that she wants more concessions from his campaign before endorsing him. Her fellow “squad” member, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, has also caveated her support for Biden by saying that he must first demonstrate that he understands the left’s priorities. Omar told me that “Covid-19 has exposed glaring disparities that have existed in our state and in our country for a while. And we have an opportunity to create policies that remake our system in a more equal way. If anything positive will come from this crisis, I hope it is that policies me and my colleagues have been advocating for – like Medicare for All, universal cash assistance and student debt cancellation – will now be seen as necessary.” 

Three of the four members of the Squad – Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts – won their seats in Congress by defeating Democratic incumbents in Congressional primaries. (The fourth member, Rashida Tlaib, won in a special election when Democratic representative John Conyers resigned amidst allegations of sexual harassment.) 

This points to a defining debate on the left: how much to work within existing Democratic structures and how much to challenge them from the outside? “We get a lot of flack for primarying Democrats, for criticising Democrats,” says Mattias Lehman, digital director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-driven organisation focused on the climate crisis. But he argues that certain actions by Democrats should be considered unacceptable or worthy of primarying, such as those politicians obstructing the fight against climate change.  

Suraj Patel, a former Obama staffer running against longtime New York congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, echoes this outsider’s perspective: “We are basically looking at a [Democratic] government that’s filled with people who lack ambition, imagination, and frankly competence.” Progress, he says, requires new voices: “How do you expect change if the same types of people get put in office time and time again?” That means taking on the status quo directly: “We have to convince people that staying the course is the risky thing to do.” 

But the left’s strategy is more nuanced than simply challenging the Democratic establishment. Some have suggested that Ocasio-Cortez’s thinking has shifted and that she has become more willing to achieve change from within institutions, rather than merely agitating from without. That too is the approach taken by the progressive campaign group Justice Democrats. “The work we’re doing is trying to build a stronger progressive caucus in the legislature that can use its leverage to get concessions from Democratic Party leadership,” said Waleed Shahid, its spokesman: “There needs to be pressure from groups like ours to run primary challengers. There also need to be people writing legislation and coming up with ideas.” 

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The majority of American voters, however, are not attending climate crisis protests or reading Jacobin. How can the left reach them? In the wake of this year’s Democratic primary, strategic arguments on that subject are raging among progressives. Thinkers such as Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, argue that if Sanders and Warren had focused on working-class economic populism – rather than wider questions of social justice, race relations, human rights and questions of identity – they could have won.  

The counter-argument is that this narrower approach would fail to draw on the political energies that exist within different groups. As a former co-chair of the Sanders campaign, Ro Khanna believes that accepting the importance of identity politics is central to the future of the left. “We need to recognise the leadership of people who have been in the trenches for the last decades.” He points to the Congressional Black Caucus which, since its formation in 1971, has been the source of major improvements to education and healthcare access.  

Suraj Patel too argues that the left needs to do a better job in not just reaching, but listening to, people of colour: “If we don’t have the guts to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we did wrong that people who we purport to help most are not voting for us, then we’re the wrong ones.” 

There is a growing generational gap in US politics: in this year’s Democratic primaries, voters under the age 45 voted for Sanders but older Americans, who turn out in higher numbers, rallied behind Biden. Building a broader coalition therefore means reaching a range of different age groups. “We’ve made a broader effort to speak to voters who tend to be older who maybe look with disdain or fear on change,” adds Patel.  

There is one word that sums up the character of the US left as it debates its next steps: multidimensional. The movement is trying to encourage the mainstream but also hold it to account; to agitate from the outside but to gain power to effect change from the inside; to reinforce its core messages but also broaden its coalition of support.  

The failure of the Sanders campaign was a profound blow to his supporters, particularly amid a pandemic that many felt reinforced his central arguments about the need for universal public healthcare. The Senator from Vermont will be 82 by the time of the next presidential election; he is not expected to run for the Democratic nomination again. 

But it is the multidimensional quality, – the range and verve – of US leftism in the wake of this defeat that gives activists grounds for optimism. “In a lot of ways our movement is still young and growing,” says Shahid of the Justice Democrats: “We’re setting up a lot of this infrastructure to be there for the long haul.” He finds hope in an improbable place: the campaign of Barry Goldwater, the outspoken libertarian and small-government Republican who lost the 1964 presidential election by a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson. “[Barry] Goldwater’s campaign was unsuccessful but paved the way for conservative activists to transform the party and led to Ronald Reagan.”  

His suggestion that Sanders might be the left’s Goldwater throws up the fascinating question of who might emerge as the left’s Reagan. Forty years after “The Gipper” took the White House, and Bernie Sanders stepped into the more modest surrounds of the mayor’s office in Burlington, perhaps the time has come for a reversal.  

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor