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Joe Biden’s Cabinet Is a Lost Cause for the Left

It’s time for insurgents to make a break from the Democratic establishment and hone America’s future outside the halls of power.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

Few portions of political discourse are as predictably shallow as presidential Cabinet discourse. Who should run the Department of Transportation? An affable also-ran in the Democratic primary who once said something about trains? A moderate politician or a businessman who might bring the country together from their perch at the agency that handles civil aviation and our highways? “No,” a sage voice somewhere in Washington, or Delaware, says. “It should be Rahm Emanuel.”

As Chicagoans know, Emanuel’s most ambitious step into transportation policy as mayor was his endorsement of a high-speed tunnel project from Elon Musk that has yet to materialize. Chicagoans also know that Emanuel’s efforts to cover up video of a black teen’s murder by a Chicago policeman probably better qualify him for a post at the CIA. That agency, we’ve been told this week, might finally be headed by a Black man; we also know a woman has been chosen to run the Department of Defense. Overall, Democratic policy professionals of all identities and stripes have been given plenty of reasons to rejoice at Biden’s choices so far. Civilians in Yemen have not.

It’s been noted elsewhere that the left has responded much more quickly and aggressively to Biden’s selections than it did to Obama’s as he put together his first presidential Cabinet. If so, it doesn’t seem like the flurries of statements, social media posts, and articles that have been written to counter every stray rumor and announcement have mattered very much at allthe process is chugging along, and Biden’s nominees are just a couple of notches left of the Obama team; activists might take a small victory in torpedoing an Emanuel nomination. There was never good reason to expect more. This is partially because a Republican Senate, should Democrats lose in Georgia’s runoff elections next month, will be an obstacle to the confirmation of even moderate nominees. But it’s more substantially because the moderates in the Democratic Party don’t share the left’s policy goals and would oppose giving them a meaningful presence in the Biden administration even if they could.

The conventional wisdom about the left’s relationship with the Democratic Party has fully reversed itself in the space of six to eight months. As the Democratic primary ended, it was often argued that Sanders and the left lost because they had marginalized themselvesanti-establishment rhetoric, refusals to accept compromise, and the toxicity of prominent voices had alienated not only most of the Democratic electorate but also Democratic elites who might have otherwise been won over. “Twitter isn’t real life,” it was said. But naturally, after Election Day, Democratic underperformance down-ballot from Biden was blamed mostly on the left’s influence. Democratic elites, it’s said now, were persuaded by the left to take on or accept unpopular messaging about socialism and policingthanks in part, evidently, to the awesome and terrible power of tweets from left activists, writers, and podcasters.

Both arguments are wrong, but the first was closer to the truth than the second. The left’s influence on Democratic elites has indeed been extremely limited. This is less a consequence of any particular feature of the Sanders eraover many years, many different progressive candidates with many different political styles and orientations toward the party establishment have similarly failed to move itthan of elite hostility to the left and its policies, which they consider substantively bad, politically risky, or both.

And while elites and major candidates have shifted noticeably on several issues in recent yearsthe minimum wage, health care, climate, and so onthose shifts, which are unlikely to make their way into federal legislation, are probably best understood as the product of specific conditions. First, a remarkable decade in organizing, spurred in part by a massive financial crisis, helped a left-wing candidate turn in a surprisingly strong performance in the 2016 Democratic primary. And second, Clinton’s narrow loss led to a wide-open primary this year in which multiple candidates made self-interested efforts to appeal to the constituency that Sanders revealed and activated. The period from the launch of Sanders’s first campaign in April 2015 to his concession this past April was an unusual half-decade in American politics, and a window of opportunity for the left that has now closed. Another will not open for another eight years at an absolute minimum. Yes, a left-wing candidate might mount a challenge to Biden or Kamala Harris in 2024. But it is almost certain that they will lose, as incumbent challengers in the modern primary system always have.

Given this, what should we take away from the last several weeks about how the left should spend the next several years? Obviously, vigilance and a critical posture toward the incoming administration will be important, as will finding more productive and efficacious ways of channeling the left’s energy beyond articles, wishlists, and tweets that few who matter will ever read or care about.

In 1970, the political economist Albert Hirschman published a short book on the relationships between institutions and their unhappy consumers or members called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The schema laid out in the title is fairly self-explanatory: The disgruntled can voice their complaints within an institution and work toward changing it, or they can exit it. The responses chosen depend largely on the extent to which they feel a sense of loyalty or commitment to the institution in question. Hirschman understood immediately that the internal dynamics within political parties and coalitions could be understood in this way.

For instance, while the Republican Party would have been better off nominating a candidate far closer to the center of the general electorate in 1964, Goldwater won out, Hirschman noted, because activists in the party were loud, organized, and assertive enough to mount a viable bid for the nomination and control of the GOP. “A party which is beleaguered by protests from disgruntled members because they dislike proposed ‘wishy-washy’ platforms or policies will often be tempted to give in to these voices because they are very real here and now,” he wrote. “While the benefits that accrue from wishy-washiness are highly conjectural.” He went on to speculate that the influence of dissidents against wishy-washiness on parties might actually be deepened in political duopolies like the United States. Trapped inside the two parties with nowhere to go, the thinking went, dissidents work toward changes that might be less likely if they simply gave up and left.

But voice doesn’t always work and works only up to a point when it does. The actual dynamics underpinning the relationships between the two parties and their dissidents today are worth examining. While it would be easy to see Trump as a Goldwater-esque candidate who managed to prevail in 2016the Republican establishment did not want him, a large and loud constituency didhe owed his victory in the primary less to the fervor of his supporters than to the establishment’s inability to solve a simple collective action problem. Had there been just one or two establishment candidates rather than seven or eight, he might have been beaten. And this year, on the Democratic side, elites did exactly what Republicans in 2016 failed to do: Had the field not shrunk before Super Tuesday, Sanders might have ridden modest plurality wins to the nomination even having lost in South Carolina; in fact, his campaign was seemingly premised entirely on the assumption that this would be his path.

In the final analysis, both insurgencies were functionally defeated. Barack Obama’s vice president will return to the White House as president, and he’s bringing many members of the Obama team back with him. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is leaving the presidency as a more conventional Republican than he was when he came in. His supporters don’t care in the slightest about Trump’s reversion, and establishment Republicans on the Hill can probably count on the support of most of them once they return to conventional austerity politics in January. On both sides, there have been fewer substantive policy shifts than shifts in rhetoric and political affect.

So much, then, for voice. But what about exit? The structural barriers that would limit the viability of another alternative left-wing party in the U.S. have been written about extensively elsewhere and won’t be repeated here. That said, it seems fairly clear at this point that the left should, somehow, put itself at a more meaningful remove from the Democratic Party—that it should abandon the notion it might significantly move Democratic elites from below, and instead build out a detached movement adjacent to the Democratic Party that might interact with it only when it makes strategic sense to do so. Democratic socialists refer to this as an “inside-outside” strategy; frankly the inside portion of the term should probably be dropped. After all, a party that’s unwilling to turn over the reins even to younger moderates ideologically aligned with leadership isn’t ripe for further ideological transformation on a timescale adequate to meeting the crises the country faces, including, obviously, climate change.

Once the hope of transforming the Democratic Party is abandoned, the tasks ahead for the left appear less nebulous. First, activists should identify specific policy questions where the White House might simply be browbeaten by direct action into doing the right thing. ⁠The protests against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and the demonstrations that led to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program under Obama were good examples of this. In general, engagement with state and local politics should be deepened, especially given the success of progressive ballot initiatives, issue campaigns, and candidates in recent years. Incumbent Democrats should continue to be primaried, but the major electoral project ahead should be an abstract one: developing strategies for consistently winning federal elections outside of major cities without compromising on policy substance. It’s entirely possible that this isn’t possible; either way, nonelectoral effortslabor organizing, mobilizing to provide direct aid to people who are struggling, particularly over the next few months as the coronavirus pandemic deepens and the economy worsens—will also be critical.

Broadly speaking, instead of holding to the idea that the Democratic Party is the primary medium through which progressives have to act and communicate, the left should be taking itself directly to the American people, just as the conservative movement ultimately did after Goldwater’s loss in 1964. Democratic leaders and pundits who want to put distance between the party and the left should be given what they want. They’ll soon fully return to the effort that occupied them before Sanders threw a wrench in everything: recreating Rahm Emanuel’s class of 2006 without the erosion in the Democratic coalition that followed in 2010 and thereafter until Trump arrivedan electoral decline that had nothing whatsoever to do with a resurgent left, which came to prominence and wide attention only as Obama’s term was ending. The same hill will be charged again; there’s not much to be done about it. In a few years’ time, we can meet back up and see how well they did.