Virtually all Democrats and progressive independents agree that the principle issue for the 2020 election is the defeat of Donald Trump. Indeed, Nancy Pelosi recently stated that winning is not enough: it will be necessary to beat Trump decisively, because Trump might very well not concede if his defeat is by a small margin. (The worry that Trump might not concede defeat in 2020 was first raised by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, in his March 2019 Congressional testimony).
One thing for sure: the only candidate who can beat Trump will be the candidate of the Democratic Party. While progressives who feel alienated from the Democrats might not like this, there is no possibility in 2020 for a third-party candidate to get more than a tiny percentage of the vote. But there certainly is the danger that a progressive third-party candidate could siphon off enough votes to give the election to Trump (remember the Green Party in 2000 in Florida). For this reason alone, progressives are going to have to fight for influence within the Democratic Party. But there is another reason: the vast majority of organized progressives in the United States are in the Democratic Party—labor unions, communities of color, women of all colors, etc. are not about to re-align with a third party in 2020. Thus, efforts to unite progressives around a common agenda and vision for the future will take place within the Democratic Party. Those who, out of self-righteous ideological purity, disdain this process and leave to form a third party will simply doom themselves to political irrelevance.
So, what are progressive Democrats to do now?
Let’s start with the state of the Democratic Party today. It is indisputable that progressives have greater potential influence within the Democratic Party now than at any time since Jesse Jackson’s historic Presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988. The 2018 midterm election brought nearly a hundred progressives to Congress and gave women of color a far greater voice in the Democratic caucus than they have ever had. As well, so-called centrist Democrats (i.e. those who appeal to white suburban voters) have lost their hegemonic control over the Democrats with Hillary’s defeat (and Bill Clinton exposing his racism) in 2016. Unlike 2016, when centrist Democrats could assert Hillary as the nominee apparent, there is no presumptive Presidential candidate this time around. As a result, there are 23 candidates engaged in a rich and far flung debate over the way to beat Trump in 2020.
On the one hand are so-called centrist Democrats like Joe Biden, who continue to argue for policies to woo back white male workers and suburban white voters whose defection allegedly cost the Democrats the 2016 election. These centrists believe the winning strategy is to offer white workers and suburban independents pragmatic ideas, like strengthening the Affordable Care Act, raising minimum wages and improving schools.
On the other hand, progressives such as Stacy Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Berne Sanders argue that the Democratic Party’s problem in 2016 was its inability to get people of color, youth and poor people of all races to vote in sufficient numbers. Progressives argue that Trump cannot be decisively defeated by pragmatic policy proposals that appeal to a small number of middle-class whites. Instead, they are calling for the Democrats to appeal to disaffected potential voters (41 percent of all eligible voters did not vote in 2016) with bold new ideas that address threats to democracy, climate change, hyper-inequality and attacks on women’s reproductive rights.
While progressives have a stronger hand to play as the Democrats shape their 2020 strategy, there is also the danger that progressives could overplay their hand. Progressives can and should develop a progressive agenda and push for candidates that embrace it. But progressives cannot win the 2020 Presidential election and take control of the Senate by themselves. The simple fact of the matter is that progressives do not have the political clout, organizational capacity and access to money that it would take to go it alone. Developing this capacity is a long-term matter, requiring a new leadership, new agendas, and new members for many organizations, including labor unions, women’s organizations, environmental organizations, immigrant rights organizations, LGBTQI organizations, etc. It also requires coalition building around many campaigns and issues, some of which might be electoral, and others not.
Progressives have already shown their ability to generate enthusiasm with youth, communities of color and poor people. Because of their 2018 Congressional and local electoral victories, progressives have won the right to demand that centrists agree to a strategy that places voter registration, the concerns of communities of color and environmentalism at the center of their strategy. It is clear that, to beat Trump in 2020, centrists will have to make room for progressive issues and candidates.
Whether or not centrists and progressives can hammer out a common understanding remains to be seen. The formerly Clinton-led centrists still hold most of the power in the Democratic Party. And, while the boldness of AOC, Ilhan Omar, Stacey Abrams and others is inspirational, their appeal is mainly through social media. Progressives are still untested at the state and national level and have not yet developed the organizational clout they need.
So, if the Democrats are to beat Trump, they will need to come to a common agreement, and develop a center-left coalition. (Let there be no misunderstanding: the coalition will continue to be dominated by the centrists because they have more political muscle and financial backing). There are different ways to do this: Kamala Harris is trying to run as a center-left candidate, for example. Joe Biden, who hit the ground hard as a centrist appealing to white workers, might be able to lead a center-left coalition if he chooses a progressive like Stacey Abrams or Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris as his running mate and adopts key progressive policies.
Above all, progressives need to take a long view of their strategy. While another four years of Trump would do terrible damage to this country and the world, progressives need to remember that Trump and his supporters are the resistance and that people of color, women, and young people represent the future. History is on our side, not the side of white nationalism. Already, progressive issues that have been marginalized for many years—the devastating effects of neo-liberalism, mass incarceration, attacks on reproductive rights, attacks on immigrant, the mounting environmental crisis, etc.—are now on the front burner. Already, a new progressive leadership is emerging. Progressives need to be in it for the long haul: the process of building progressive organizations and coalitions is not easy and happens at a pace dictated by historic forces outside anyone’s control. Progressives must dig in for the hard work of re-invigorating labor unions, reigning in corporations’ greed, organizing resistance to state violence against Black and Latinx communities, fighting for reproductive rights, and working on behalf of environmental justice no matter what happens in 2020.
There can be no doubt that organizing for a progressive agenda within the Democratic Party must and will be one of the most important arenas for progressives for the next year and a half. Specifically, progressives are leading the fight against the Republicans’ racist gerrymandering strategy. To the extent that we succeed at this, we both safeguard democracy and increase progressives’ influence. Whether or not centrists will agree to a center-left strategy and candidate for 2020 remains to be seen. But early signs, exemplified by Nancy Pelosi’s steady leadership in the House of Representatives (such as her handling of the attacks on Ilhan Omar) are encouraging.
It is incumbent on progressives to not be swept away by our ideals. We must keep a sober eye on our own capacities as we undertake the main political task in front of us: the defeat of Trump in 2020. This task will require progressives to enter into a coalition with centrists, and likely to back a candidate who tilts towards the centrists’ agenda. Every progressive candidate needs to sign the Indivisible Pledge and agree to back whomever the Democrats nominate in 2020. Progressives will be rewarded by such discipline by growing progressive organizations, building more unity among progressive causes, and with greater influence in the re-making of Democratic Party.
The days of the centrists, who came to power supporting Clinton’s neo-liberal agenda are coming to an end. But progressives have a lot of capacity-building to do before we can provide this country with the leadership needed to heal us from the destabilizing forces of inequality and white supremacy. Let us remember that redeeming this country is a long game, and we need to be very self-aware of our strengths and limitations at every step along the way. 2020 is an important test of this resolve.