Joe Biden’s supporters may have been dancing in the streets this weekend, but party leaders were already bickering, tremors ahead of the quake that will rock Democrats in a Biden administration. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Conor Lamb, D-Penn., traded barbs in the press, exhibiting an important dynamic: progressives are convinced centrists like Lamb are dooming their cause and centrists like Lamb are convinced progressives are dooming theirs.
Truthfully, a Biden administration will be great for both, but a veritable boon for the far left. Like most establishment Democrats, Biden (and Kamala Harris) is a cultural leftist but an economic corporatist. He will staff his administration with people like Steve Mnuchin, even if they’re expected to work alongside people like Elizabeth Warren. His habit for waxing nostalgic about bipartisanship will inflame intraparty tensions, even if bipartisanship is not meaningfully pursued.
In short, Biden is and will continue to be a symbol of everything Ocasio-Cortez and the ascendent squad detest about politics. Glad-handing Democrats like Biden are why they’re in Congress. Like the Freedom Caucus and John Boehner, they know there’s much to be gained from rebelling against leadership.
Those rewards are even greater now that populism has taken root on both the left and right. They will feast on a Biden administration’s inevitable nods to the corporate class. It will empower them and boost leftist populism.
This ideological tug-of-war between economic leftists and moderates could be clarifying for Democrats in a Biden era. Like the GOP under Donald Trump, it’s an opportunity for the party to determine which elements of its anti-establishment wing should be central to its platform.
In a post-election interview with The New York Times, Ocasio-Cortez criticized Lamb for spending too little on Facebook ads. “If you’re not door-knocking, if you’re not on the internet, if your main points of reliance are TV and mail, then you’re not running a campaign on all cylinders,” she said. “I just don’t see how anyone could be making ideological claims when they didn’t run a full-fledged campaign.”
“I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy,” she later argued. “And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy. This isn’t even just about winning an argument. It’s that if they keep going after the wrong thing, I mean, they’re just setting up their own obsolescence.”
In other words, Democrats should embrace far-left proposals for moral and political reasons, and recalibrate their campaign strategy to include more on-the-ground and Internet-based outreach. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Cenk Uygur had a similar lament.
Since last Tuesday, Lamb and Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., have argued the party’s embrace of socialism is a net negative. Progressives worry Democrats’ underperformance will result in the party establishment amplifying its hostility towards them, shutting them out of discussions, and continuing to do the bidding of corporatists.
Biden will give his party’s democratic socialists plenty to criticize. If they take the opportunity, much like the Freedom Caucus did under Boehner, they will ride the populist wave into greater power and visibility, culturally and politically. That applies not only to lawmakers, but to pundits, journalists, and activists as well.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been able to unite her caucus against Trump. It’ll be much more difficult to unite Democrats around a corporatist agenda that stops short of proposals like Medicare for All. That gives “The Squad” and their media allies more power, which will be boosted further by the ascent of leftist populism.