Given the state of the race, people are starting to ask what this would mean for the future of progressive politics in America.
James Kwak is gloomy:
I think the policy solutions are obvious . . .
The problem, of course, is the politics—not just President Trump and the Republicans, but a Democratic Party controlled by its conservative wing, defined primarily by its insistence on fiscal responsibility, and terrified of doing anything that anyone might call socialist . . .
Julia Azari is more open to the possibility of a new political era:
An important feature of these orders are the social movements that energize the parties in power and help to define the issues. These movements tend to start their work creating a new political order well before the transition to a full reconstructive politics. The conservative movement that defined the Reagan years began to really gain influence during the Nixon years. The abolition movement helped shape the politics of Lincoln’s presidency. FDR was drawing on decades of Progressive movement thinking and action.
Simply put, Biden’s party affiliation allows him to reject the politics of Trump, Reagan and the Republicans in between – but no matter who the Democrats nominated this year, that person was never going to actually be the engine for major political change. Rather, that groundwork has been in progress for many years. If Biden wins in November, he might be in a good position to be a reconstructive leader. He’s an odd candidate for such a position – he seems much less likely than Obama at first glance. The thing is that reconstructive politics is about more than the president.
I see arguments on both sides . . .
Beginning with the case for pessimism. There are several reasons for doubting that a big Democratic win in November will signify the beginning of a long run shift in American politics to the left.
The election will be mostly driven by dislike of Trump, not support for Biden or for a (comparatively) progressive Democratic policy agenda. Trump is beating himself through relentless incompetence and an almost unfathomable unwillingness to reach out beyond his political base. It is true that almost all Republican politicians supported and enabled Trump, but memories are short, and many people who do not like Trump’s racism or his handling of the coronavirus pandemic may be more than willing to vote for a less overtly racist and incompetent Republican for president in four years, or for a Republican Senate in two years, especially if the economy is weak or the Democrats pursue a controversial domestic policy agenda (remember that research suggests that support for Obamacare cost Democrats control of the House in 2010).
A big democratic victory in November could be seen as part of a pattern in which Democrats can gain unified control of government only following a period of blatant Republican misrule. Obama won the popular vote and electoral college by substantial margins in 2008, but he ran against a Republican opponent who was trying to succeed George W. Bush, one of the worst presidents in US history (Iraq War, Katrina, financial crisis). The same will be true for Biden, assuming he wins. This does not suggest that a durable coalition exists that can make the Democrats a majority party or force the Republicans to move towards the center to remain competitive.
Of course, becoming somewhat more optimistic, Democratic control of the presidency and Congress would give Democrats a momentary opportunity to advance some of their key policy objectives. Universal health care, expanded support for child care, and major reform of unemployment insurance (including turning it into much more of an automatic stabilizer) seem likely to gain a significant tailwind from the pandemic. A big infrastructure package also seems quite possible, although whether it will be a major step towards decarbonizing the economy is far from clear (the devil will be in the details). Criminal justice reform also seems likely to make significant progress. Once these reforms are put into place, they will be difficult to undo, even if the Democrats lose control of the Senate in 2022 and the Presidency in 2024.
Finally, there is also a possibility that 2020 will mark the start of a new era of progressive politics.
There is a reasonable chance that the country will become more progressive over time due to generational replacement and ongoing attitude change. When and if this happens, either the Democrats will become a majority party, or the Republicans will moderate and move to the center.
It is possible that Trump’s presidency will move attitudes to the left in a permanent way (rather than just transiently). Trump’s overt racism and videos of police brutality have made the burden of racial inequality real to Americans in a way that words alone could not. If the President is this racist, it is hard to deny that our society has a serious problem. There is a possibility that the emerging narrative about systemic racism could have an impact on American culture that goes beyond police reform. Resistance to social insurance in America is driven in large part by racism, and as white Americans come to see black Americans in a more sympathetic light this barrier to development of the American welfare state could crumble. Furthermore, Trump’s racism and videos of police brutality and oppression make it plain that we do not have a level playing field in this country, and that what people achieve in life is very much a reflection of how social institutions – families, schools, police, the health care system, etc. – help them achieve their potential. The fact that many people are talking about mental health care as an alternative to police intervention for people struggling with mental illness reflects this awareness. In short, The Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd protests could make us aware of inequality of opportunity as well as police brutality; it could help to kill the Horatio Alger myth in America. That would be a big step in the right direction.