As we pass the second-month mark since Joe Biden’s inauguration, it has become apparent that his administration does not intend to follow through on many of the progressive causes he championed during the election. Throughout his campaign, Biden continuously vowed to “heal the soul of the nation,” following former President Donald Trump’s exacerbation of pre-existing divisions within American society. While such hyperbolic language is often used by incoming presidents and not taken at direct face value, there was still a public expectation from tentative Biden voters that he would follow through materially on coyly-made promises. Such promises include the implementation of a $15 minimum wage, reversing Trump’s immigration policies, and bringing “diplomacy… back at the center of our foreign policy.”
The disillusioned working-class and progressive voters were willing to compromise with the DNC’s establishment pick in Biden in the hopes that it could help to deter a future far-right populist from capitalizing on the Democratic party’s shortcomings — as had happened in 2016. Within a few months of the presidential inauguration, the Biden administration has not only failed to follow through on these campaign promises but has actively worked against them.
In early March of 2021, the inclusion of a $15 minimum wage in the $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus relief package was voted down by Congress, including eight Democrat Senate members, most notably Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. In response, progressive lawmakers and members of the Senate called on Vice President Kamala Harris to use her power as presiding officer of the Senate to immediately push forward the $15 minimum wage policy that she has long said she supports. Despite this dismissal of this campaign promise on the Senate floor and the subsequent efforts by progressive politicians, there has been no response from President Biden or Vice President Harris.
Regarding immigration policy, while it is recognized it would take months (if not years) for courts to reverse many policies put in place by the Trump administration, Biden signalled his intent on maintaining the overall status quo. The President appointed former President Obama’s immigration adviser Cecilia Muñoz to his transition team. Muñoz was a controversial figure during the Obama administration, as she defended Obama’s policy of immigrant family separation, stating “even broken laws have to be enforced.”
On the foreign policy front, Joe Biden quickly went against the diplomacy he espoused by engaging in a legally dubious airstrike in Syria against Iranian-backed militant groups. The Biden administration claims the airstrikes required no congressional vote because they were deployed in “self-defence,” responding to attacks targeting occupying US military forces in Iraq and Syria earlier in February. While legal and moral ambiguity has long been part of US foreign policy, it should shock American media and citizens that President Biden conjured the funds and political will to push through an unauthorized air strike— but not to raise the minimum wage during an economic crisis. Instead of the intense criticism of the president from the mainstream media as seen over the past four years, liberal news outlets published numerous opinion pieces praising or defending the airstrikes for their efficiency and mercy compared to the Trump administration’s equally disastrous endeavours in the Middle East.
Liberal Self-Preservation in the Post-Trump Political Landscape
In general, the response to the Biden administration’s actions from liberal media and the center(-right) Democratic base has been limp criticism at best and outright self-rationalized praise at worst. Many progressives hoped that Trump’s exposure and encouragement of discrimination and hate-fuelled politics would be a turning point for the Democratic Party. They hoped liberal voters would embrace politics that were more activist-led and push for more left-leaning policies, including universal health care and a higher minimum wage. Instead, the first few weeks of the Biden administration were reminiscent of the Obama years where drone strikes and harsh immigration laws were shrugged off.
Despite a light brush with far-right populism teetering on fascism, why are liberals in the US so averse to pushing for policy-based politics? The commonly cited factor is the extent of political lobbying in the US by corporate and private interests which influences the electability of certain candidates. However, the bureaucratic answer pointing to lobbying does not explain the hostility and anxiety felt on both sides of the American political spectrum.
Political arguments in the US are increasingly being judged on their popular cultural currency versus their feasibility or effectiveness as policy. Appeals to traditional or liberal sensibilities hold more weight than policy-based politics, which has meant that American politics have become identity-based rather than policy-based. In a sense, political conflict in America resembles team sports where only one side can emerge victorious, rather than having a democratic debate to reach a sound conclusion.
With the lines between politics and culture blurring, this polarization is exemplified in the popularity of the buzz term “Culture War” in both Left and Right media circles since the Trump administration. Rather than being seen as matters of policy, the issues of the country are blamed on conspiratorial enemies and their corrosive values in the “Culture War,” with the rise of QAnon the ultimate expression of this. Given this contemporary state of affairs, it would stand to reason that the range of politically-accepted views within the Democratic party may be permanently widened to counter a Republican party now firmly overlapping with the populist far-right to prevent another loss like in 2016 or narrow win as in 2020. We had begun seeing that with the rise of “The Squad” and other progressive politicians during the Trump years.
However, with the controversial re-election of Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House, the quick dismissal of the prospect of Medicare for All, and now the dismissal of a minimum wage increase, the progressive cohort within the Democratic party appears to have failed in their mission of pressuring their colleagues to adopt more progressive policies to meet the challenges of the pandemic and are currently receiving scrutiny from their supporters for what is seen as unsatisfying efforts.
A Shift for the Democratic Party?
Was the Trump administration’s damage not enough to motivate liberal politicians to push for drastic change within the Democratic Party? Or perhaps did the spectacle of Trumpism consolidate—rather than disrupt—establishment politics contrary to what progressives, and even Trump supporters, anticipated? Instead of Trump serving as a warning of the shortcomings of business-as-usual, the Trump era is now projected by liberal media as a boogeyman that may return as a consequence of engaging in internal critique of the Democratic Party and the two-party system.
However, the pressure placed by progressives since 2016 has not been redundant. The $1.9 trillion stimulus bill signed in mid-March, which included the long-awaited $1,400 stimulus cheques and increased funding for vaccine distribution, is a historically monumental increase in US governmental public spending, doubling Obama’s relief package in 2009. The pressure placed by progressives in tandem with the economic devastation created by the pandemic has opened a window for an ideological shift in the Democratic party, if not the shift itself that was hoped for. Progressive activists and politicians must capitalize on this window and continuously push for this shift, rather than recede into the trappings of Trump-era identity politics.
Political scientist Dave Hopkins aptly summarizes the potential significance of the bill for the Democratic Party’s ideological character and political will going forward, telling the Washington Post: “….moderate vulnerable Democrats feel a lot more freedom to vote for a big spending bill in the current moment — because the polls suggest it’s popular, and because the case against Democrats is being made on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, not the debt.”
While the $1.9 trillion dollar relief plan is certainly cause to celebrate, the unabashed actions of the Biden administration’s first two months must not be allowed to continue to go unchecked and unscrutinised in mainstream discourse as they have so far. Shying away from the conversation of raising the minimum wage is something America cannot afford. Similarly, ramping up American interference in the Middle East through illegal airstrikes will only serve to further undermine the United States’ position on the international stage. There must be a post-Trump political rhetoric that takes a frank look at the policy demands of the present rather than prolonging the politics of spectacle of the Trump era.