2020 Has Been a Disaster for National Progressive Politics (and Pretty Much Everything Else)

Joe Biden is the Democratic Party presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders gave up the fight and endorsed him, and Elizabeth Warren has evidently abandoned her principles to try to become Biden’s VP pick. So yeah, a great time for progressives on the national stage. (Photo Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Speaking as a progressive, the fight for economic, political, and social justice is such that, despite any setbacks, there are always more battles to fight. In other words, there is always work to be done and voices to be amplified. But damn if it doesn’t get disheartening sometimes.

Of course, as the death count related to COVID-19 in the United States makes its inexorable climb toward 100,000-plus, the immediate health and safety of all Americans is of paramount importance. Still, taking a snapshot of progressive politics at this moment in time, it’s worth noting that, at the national level, progressive leadership and power doesn’t seem all that it’s cracked up to be or could be.

Let’s start with the Senate. Who are your progressive leaders and how do you feel about them lately? Bernie Sanders, who has missed at least one key vote in recent memory, is reportedly asking some delegates to sign agreements barring them from attacking other candidates or leaders, getting involved in social media confrontations, or doing interviews with reporters without approval. If true, it’s a disappointing development from a man who suspended his presidential bid with a whimper and gave up the fight with so much at stake and with so little conceded from Joe Biden’s camp.

Elizabeth Warren? After a disappointing campaign that ultimately saw her fail to catch on with progressives and party loyalists alike and only manage a third-place finish in her home state, her progressive credentials are in question now more than ever. Her attacks on Bernie, her reversal on super PAC funding, and her self-identification alongside Amy Klobuchar from primary season notwithstanding, her apparent abandonment of Medicare for All, a central tenet of the progressive movement in the U.S., invites charges of selling out for a chance to be Biden’s vice president—an unlikely eventuality to begin with given Joe’s ties to the banking industry.

Kamala Harris? Kirsten Gillibrand? Cory Booker? Like Sanders and Warren, they’re all carrying water for Biden despite a credible sexual assault allegation against him and other claims of unwanted touching or close physical proximity. Poor Ed Markey might not survive a primary challenge from Joe Kennedy III, the Pete Buttigieg of the Senate Democratic races—and no, that “Mayo Pete” comparison is not a compliment. Jeff Merkley. Mazie Hirono. Sherrod Brown. They’re not exactly household names outside of progressive circles and none are younger than 60.

In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, we thankfully have members who are making a name for themselves as progressives on the national stage—and younger ones at that. The problem here is that these reps are seemingly having their influence circumscribed at every possible turn (or at least the attempt is there) by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other dyed-in-the-wool establishment Democrats.

Faced with an unprecedented economic and health crisis, Pelosi and Co. have largely capitulated to moneyed interests, offering little in the way of substantive relief to everyday Americans beyond the minimum standards Republicans have proposed. All the while, Pelosi, like her other moderate colleagues, has endorsed Biden’s presidential bid and has allowed herself to get dragged down in the mud with Donald Trump, making references to his weight and other performative gestures which neither do anything to help people in need nor do they help rally support for the party cause outside of loyalists (and also risk alienating people who don’t take kindly to body shaming regardless of the source).

To recap then, we have a promising group of younger progressives in the House amid Democratic Party control, but old-guard leadership is evidently determined to thwart them as part of a last-gasp effort to flex its might. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell is majority leader, Chuck Schumer is the party’s face, and even the members with the best voting records have made questionable alliances/decisions of late. In addition, as alluded to, the most progressive options of the 2020 presidential campaign saw their hopes dashed in dramatic fashion following Super Tuesday.

All of this on top of a coronavirus crisis that has seen tens of thousands of Americans die, millions of people file for unemployment and/or lose health insurance, and the world’s richest individuals get even richer as a direct result of the global pandemic has made the first half of 2020 so far a little frustrating, to put it mildly. What’s more, it doesn’t appear things will improve over the rest of the year or anytime soon for that matter.

Small businesses will continue struggling to survive in the absence of needed aid from the federal government. Another wave of COVID-19 infections is probable if not certain. And while Biden is enjoying a national polling lead in some cases of eight or more percentage points, that he’s not doing better given the depths of Trump’s inadequacies and that he continues to lag behind in the enthusiasm department is deeply troubling with November fast approaching. In short, 2020 has sucked royally—and for progressives in particular, there is every reason to worry the worst is yet to come.


Lest I relegate myself purely to the realms of doom and gloom, it’s not all bad for the progressive movement in the United States of America. If the popularity of figures like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is any indication, it’s that there is a real appetite for new leadership within a growing subset of the left-leaning electorate. As ignominious as the end to Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign was, too, exit poll after exit poll showed that despite primary voters’ preference for Joe Biden to take on Donald Trump, on issues like Medicare for All, they favored the progressive position over the standard alternative. So many voters are desperate for real change.

As the late great philosopher Tom Petty once said, however, the waiting is the hardest part. Whilst progressives helped organize a campaign for Bernie that was poised to go the distance—and there’s much to discuss in the postmortem period of analysis about why it didn’t but there’s not enough space in this article or perhaps one article in it of itself to do that—the Biden campaign struggled to raise finances, limped out of the gates in early contests, and didn’t even have a presence in a number of bygone primary states.

And yet he still romped in the South and managed numerous upset wins following his dominant showing in South Carolina. Whether Elizabeth Warren’s presence in the race long after it was clear her electoral chances were dead on arrival hurt Bernie is yet a subject of debate in leftist circles (among Sanders supporters, I feel like this may be overblown), but regardless, the two best candidates to ever be in striking distance of the overall polling lead came up well short of winning the nomination despite being better-funded and better-organized than the campaign that actually has Biden on a path to win the Democratic Party nomination and maybe even defeat Trump in November. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and increasingly so as real life proves candidates like Sanders, Warren, and even Andrew Yang on the topic of universal basic income right.

The news is better further down ballots, where there are real electoral successes to be found. AOC’s meteoric rise to prominence aside, though, primary challenges ending in progressive wins are fewer and farther between than eager leftists sifting through voting results would obviously like to see. The Democratic Party establishment has been more than hostile toward primary challenges from the left. (If you’re Ed Markey and facing a challenge from the right in the form of a corporate-funded candidate with the Kennedy name, that’s apparently fine.) Though this doesn’t mean that challengers’ efforts aren’t worthy if not necessary to compel Democratic incumbents to actually try to earn their votes, it’s nonetheless deflating when effort and good intent alone can’t overcome voter aversion to change and a party apparatus specifically constructed to quell dissent.

Inherently, these circumstances promote tension, for while progressives ideally would like to think about how to organize over the long term, the realities of the short term compel action even at the expense of immediate political capital. Regardless of the “color” of one’s district, someone should be running to represent policy goals like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, cancellation of student debt, universal basic income, and other progressive priorities. No one wants to be running without a genuine chance at winning when the optics surrounding a landslide loss loom large. The need for involvement at the lower levels of government because of the magnitude of suffering for millions of Americans creates urgency, and progressive groups across key voting blocs are often fighting one another for relevance when cooperation should be the order of the day.

For me, what is especially challenging about all of this is how, despite progressives’ collective efforts since the 2016 election, we yet find ourselves in a precarious position. After Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Democrats haven’t learned their lesson, that much more determined to return to the days before President Trump no matter what in coalescing behind a candidate in Biden who generates even less enthusiasm than the woman who just lost.

Regarding COVID-19, America lags behind the rest of the world in curbing the spread of infection despite its wealth of resources, and at a time when we should be rethinking the role of capitalism in how our society functions (or doesn’t), some people seem only that much more willing to sacrifice others on capitalism’s altar so they can get a haircut or prevent a decline in stock prices. If there is a lesson to be learned herein, it’s sadly that 90,000 deaths is not enough to spur a movement of sufficient size toward fundamental change. A few months into widespread quarantines across the country, many of us are restless to the point of advocating for armed rebellion. What happens when the ravages of climate changes really start hitting home? If current developments are any indication, it, um, won’t go well.

In belaboring progressives’ struggles within the Democratic Party, I don’t mean to paper over the differences between the Dems and the death cult that is the Republican Party. For example, Joe Biden deserves your vote more than Donald Trump—full stop. I also don’t mean to insist that leaving the Democratic Party altogether is necessarily the correct tactic. The #DemExit movement is fraught with its own difficulties and potential shortcomings, though I also don’t blame progressives for wanting to move on after the litany of abuses they’ve suffered in such a short time, only wanting to do their part to make the Democratic Party better.

Though I think progressives might do well to place a greater emphasis on winning and grassroots organizing at the lower levels of government and though I have reservations about watching the Democratic Party burn to the ground, politics is ultimately a two-way street. Democratic leadership would do well not to take progressive votes for granted and offer at least some meaningful concessions to the left rather than mere table scraps. 2020 has been a disaster for progressive politics on the national stage thus far, but it doesn’t have to end that way—and the Democrats would be all the stronger by recognizing it.

For the Democratic Nomination, It’s Now Bernie or Bust

If we don’t vote for Bernie Sanders, we get gaffe machine Joe Biden as the Democratic Party presidential nominee. (Photo Credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a better world, Elizabeth Warren would be one of the final two (technically three if you count Tulsi Gabbard and her two delegates) candidates in a Democratic Party primary that has seen the field shrink dramatically just since Super Tuesday, if not the front-runner outright. She has the smarts and credentials to be president, not to mention her policy plans were remarkably detailed and she inspired an intense devotion from her supporters.

Instead, Warren, following a disappointing Super Tuesday in which she failed to win any state—including her own, only managing third—has decided to bow out of the race. At this writing, she has yet to endorse either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, though both campaigns are eager to add her to their ranks. Hell, if she does decide to back either one, she might earn herself a chance to be a vice presidential pick.

Warren’s departure from a race that already saw most of its women and candidates of color fall by the wayside is deeply disappointing to many observing the presidential race. It all but guarantees that America will have to wait at least four more years for a female president to break apart the stronghold men have had on the office, a reality especially galling when considering that Warren has less baggage than Hillary Clinton and was, by many accounts, the most intelligent and qualified candidate of the 2020 field.

While Elizabeth Warren’s supporters deserve the time and space to mourn their candidate’s exit from the primaries and while she is under no absolute obligation to get behind either of the last two survivors, if her followers are to truly embrace the kind of vision that Warren put forth, the choice of whom to vote for now is painfully evident: they must back Bernie Sanders.

Though not to say that Warren’s and Sanders’s visions for America were identical, there are a lot of similarities to be appreciated. Both candidates put the climate crisis front and center as part of their platforms. Both made ending political corruption, fixing our democracy, and making the wealthiest Americans and corporations pay their fair share central to their campaigns. Both made repairing a broken health care system and addressing the rising costs of college that are plunging scores of Americans into debt critical tenets of their policy fixes. Economic and racial justice for all. Raising wages. Putting a stop to the country’s promotion of endless war. As progressives, Liz and Bernie tick off many of the same boxes.

Such is why it’s disturbing to go on social media and see Warren supporters indicating they will now switch their allegiance to Biden, not Bernie. Granted, not every Warren stan is guaranteed to be a progressive. Within any candidate’s base of support, there is any number of reasons why voters may get on the bandwagon. American Samoa gave its majority of delegates to Mike “Stop and Frisk” Bloomberg and the rest to Tulsi Gabbard (Gabbard was born in American Samoa). Presumably, Bloomberg won there because he inundated the islands with advertisements like he did, well, pretty much the rest of the United States and its territories. Or—who knows?—maybe the Bloomberg campaign slipped money under everyone’s pillow on the eve of the primary. At this point, would you really be so surprised?

Still, Joe Biden’s policies? First of all, do you know what they are? No peeking, either. I admittedly don’t and I doubt you’ve gotten a sense of this from the ten (!) debates the Democrats have had so far. I’ve even been to his official campaign website and still don’t have a solid idea.

Beyond supporting a $15 minimum wage, which should be seen as mandatory for all Democratic candidates in this election cycle, Biden speaks about about restoring the “dignity” and “respect” of work, especially that of the middle class, in broad strokes. He talks more about a “public option” and the Affordable Care Act than universal healthcare even in the face of the exigent need of many. His timelines for ending our dependence on fossil fuels and fracking are too far in the future, if disturbingly undefined. He emphasizes enforcing existing trade laws and vaguely upholding a “modern, inclusive process” for addressing international trade rather than explicitly re-writing these rules with workers and activist groups at the table. He advocates securing our border to the south over reforming our immigration enforcement system and reinstating/expanding DACA. Across the board, Biden’s policy goals fall far short of what Sanders and Warren have asked for. Given his legacy as the quintessential moderate, one gets the sense this is by design, too.

Biden has also been—and I’m putting this delicately—less than forthcoming on his record, if not proliferating falsehoods on elements of his legacy. Despite his insistence otherwise, as part of his identity as a budget hawk in the Senate, Biden repeatedly called for cuts to popular entitlement plans like Social Security. He and his campaign for weeks adhered to a completely fabricated account of his arrest in South Africa en route to supposedly trying to meet with Nelson Mandela. He has a habit of plagiarizing others’ speeches. He practically wrote the book on partisan obstruction of Supreme Court candidates with what some have derided as a “smear campaign” against judicial nominee Robert Bork in 1987. As he has done his whole career, Biden is playing the role of the consummate politician.

His authorship of a disastrous 90s-era crime bill that helped fuel America’s history of mass incarceration. His vote on the Iraq War. His touting of working alongside segregationists. His siding with banks and with predatory lenders on the subject of bankruptcy protection for consumers and siding with the health insurance industry against Medicare-for-all. Anita bleeping Hill. So much is problematic about Joe Biden’s record and this is all before we get to present concerns about his cognitive decline.

Biden has long been regarded as a gaffe machine, but this goes beyond the pale. Forgetting Barack Obama’s name. Mixing up his wife and sister. Forgetting what state he’s in or what office he’s running for. It would be laughable if we weren’t staring at a second term (let’s hope it would end there, the way he talks) of President Donald J. Trump. This is the man who may stand between us and that eventuality. If you’re a Democratic Party supporter, can you honestly tell me you feel good about this?

Sure, no one knows who would truly be “electable” in this race and who wouldn’t be. That’s something that can only be assessed in retrospect after testing a candidate in the general election. Nevertheless, Biden’s baggage, his health, and—hello!—certain Republican attacks on him and his son Hunter’s involvement with Ukrainian gas producer Burisma Holdings, however, ahem, trumped-up they may be all make for significant liabilities in a showdown with Trump.

Bernie Sanders, of course, is not without lines of attack, disingenuous as they may be. He’s a socialist (or communist)! He wants to give away free stuff without regard for the cost! He praises brutal dictators! Unlike Biden, though, he actually has a vision for the United States beyond mere “civility,” a quality championed in the former vice president despite his public rebukes of voters, calling them everything from overweight to lying, dog-faced pony soldiers—whatever that means.

Moreover, if Bernie’s the Democratic Party nominee, he is far more likely to generate much-needed turnout from younger voters than “Uncle Joe.” For all Warren’s insistence on being the “unity candidate” Democratic supporters have sought, Sanders has broad appeal and is well-liked by Americans across the political spectrum. In a showdown with someone in Trump who has his own fervent backers, his coalition could prove pivotal to Democrats looking to regain control of the White House.


One of the biggest knocks I have seen against Bernie Sanders from Elizabeth Warren supporters and fans of other candidates is the supposed vitriol that is unique to Bernie and his ilk. It’s Bernie’s fault for stirring up all that anger! All that sexism! Anyone who disagrees with him is a corporate sellout or member of “the establishment!” The Bernie Bros! The snake emojis! The yelling!

Speaking as a Bernie supporter, I’m not going to deny that there is bad behavior on some of our parts. With Warren in particular, disparaging comments about her appearance (out of bounds for anyone but especially egregious coming from male chauvinists), her claims of Native American ancestry (enough with the “Pocahontas” jeers; it’s a tired line), and even that she used to be a conservative Republican (people do change) do nothing for the creation of a unified progressive front. And seriously—cut it out with the snake emojis. I may not be a fan of how Warren ran her campaign in several respects (the allegation that Bernie said a woman couldn’t be president, her girl-power allegiance with Amy “I Throw Things at My Staffers” Klobuchar, her reversal on taking super PAC money), but she is one of the most progressive lawmakers in the Senate. Full stop.

Personal attacks by users online and in comments sections aside, what exactly would we have Bernie do? Sen. Sanders is not the boss of the Internet. He has condemned his supporters’ “ugly, personal attacks” on Warren and other candidates in the past and recently re-upped on his disgust for this conduct following Warren’s departure from the race. Bernie shouldn’t be expected to police his fans’ posts any more than Warren did or Biden should, at that.

Speaking of the Internet, um, it’s the Internet. Like, you’ve used it, right? I’m not saying I condone sexism and other forms of bigotry, and certainly, death threats, doxxing, and other forms of intimidation are to be roundly decried. People say awful things on social media and in other forums in which public accountability is limited, if not absent altogether. It sucks. It’s not a great reason to abandon one’s principles, however, assuming these beliefs are firmly held to begin with. I don’t know about you, but people being mean to me wouldn’t dissuade me from believing that health care is a human right. It’s a matter of conviction, even in the face of disinformation, misinformation, and hostility.

One thing that is abundantly clear from political campaigning in the era of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media outlets is that enthusiasm among users doesn’t always translate to the real world. Sanders and Warren supporters alike should understand this after a disheartening Super Tuesday that saw Joe Biden leverage an impressive showing in South Carolina days before into a dominating performance.

Biden, likely aided by last-minute dropouts and endorsements from Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, as well as a seal of approval from Beto “I Eat at Whataburger” O’Rourke, won states he barely even campaigned in, if at all. Sanders went from presumptive front-runner to trailing Biden and looking much in doubt of capturing the necessary 1,991 pledged delegates to avoid a second round of voting at the convention. Warren saw her path to the nomination effectively closed.

In a rather deflating sense, what we see online and what we hear on cable news may not be reality. There’s a reverse to this, meanwhile, and it is much more encouraging. I may be biased, but so many of my interactions with Bernie supporters outside of chats and tweets have been positive. I think this speaks to a larger social phenomenon. I know plenty of Elizabeth Warren supporters who are terrific people and want substantive change. Getting to know and speak to them in person has been critical to my positive appraisal therein. Much has been made of political “bubbles” and “echo chambers” which make all of us susceptible to groupthink and persuasion at the hands of misleading data, and there is at least some degree of validity to this effect.

I get it—Elizabeth Warren didn’t get a fair shake in her presidential run. Sexism definitely played a role for many of her detractors and the coverage she didn’t get enough of during the campaign is bittersweet as part of the flattering postmortem analysis she’s receiving now that she’s suspended her bid. I also get that Bernie Sanders is, yes, another old white guy. On the other hand, let’s not rush to conflate him and Joe Biden. For one, Bernie winning the nomination and/or the presidency would be historic. No Jew has ever accomplished that feat. That’s no small potatoes if he does clinch one or both.

Religion aside, and more to the point, Sanders and Biden are miles apart on policy and vision. Bernie has a movement behind him and his ideas have, to a large extent, shaped the 2020 presidential race. Biden has his association with Barack Obama and a romanticized version of his career to rely on, but no clear path forward for the nation. At a time when real progress is called for, Biden’s incrementalism doesn’t rise to the occasion. Simply returning to a time before the rise of Trumpism is insufficient and illusory now that the proverbial cat’s out of the bag.

Whether you’re a progressive or a moderate Democrat who only wants to see Donald Trump defeated in November, Bernie Sanders, not Joe Biden, is the imperative choice for the Democratic Party come the fall. If you’re not convinced yet, read his stances on the issues on his campaign website. Come out to a Bernie Sanders event. Get to know some of his supporters. He may not be the candidate you envisioned at the start of primary season, but he is our best hope.