Once Joe Biden secured the Democratic presidential nomination, many progressives pivoted to the task of “pushing him left.” Some urged an “inside approach” to influence his campaign, exemplified by the Democratic Party’s Unity Task Forces that brought Biden’s backers together with those of Bernie Sanders. Yet, since becoming president-elect, Biden has shown some hostility to a progressive turn, stacking his administration with war profiteers, Wall Street bigwigs and others pulled from the revolving door between Washington and corporate America.
While Biden has made some progressive nominations such as Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) for interior secretary, there are also causes for concern in his cabinet selections. Brian Deese, global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock (the “world’s largest investor in deforestation”), is to head the Council of Economic Advisors. Gen. Lloyd Austin, board member at weapons manufacturer Raytheon, is Biden’s pick for defense secretary. Multiple alums from Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Co. and Boston Consulting Group are on the transition team. These individuals will hold vast sway over decision making in the Biden administration.
When media outlets and left-wing groups such as Justice Democrats voiced their objections, some Democratic strategists chastised them. One told Politico, “They can either continue to just beat the drums on the streets or they can start to leverage the relationship they have.” Another warned, bluntly, “We don't negotiate with terrorists.” But history suggests this deferential approach is a mistake: It’s not making nice, but making the administration’s life difficult, that gets results.
President Barack Obama rode a swell of goodwill and public trust with scant resistance from progressives in the early years of his administration. The right-wing Tea Party movement, however, staged 500 rallies numbering over 800,000 people on Tax Day 2009 alone, crashing public hearings on healthcare policy and demanding to address the national debt. That popular anger (and their electoral victories) soon pushed Obama toward austerity.
Where Obama did face progressive pushback, the results speak for themselves. He defended the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, then faced down years of gay rights protesters disrupting fundraisers and public events. He ended up the most progressive president in U.S. history on LGBTQ issues. Similarly, his executive orders on immigration—including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—came only after years of similar protest.
The creation of Medicare and Medicaid, in 1965, was achieved in the face of opposition from the American Medical Association and other industry groups—thanks to agitation by organized labor and a host of church and civil society groups. President Lyndon B. Johnson was sympathetic to the cause, but such pressure can work regardless of the attitudes of those in leadership.
An escalation of protest in 1963—a whopping 758 protests and 13,000 arrests over 10 weeks in spring 1963 alone—forced the reticent hand of President John F. Kennedy. “Mr. Kennedy got disturbed,” said Martin Luther King Jr., who added that the world is not going to “respect the United States of America if she deprives men and women of the basic rights of life because of the color of their skin.”
Biden has pledged to be “the most progressive president since FDR.” But Roosevelt was himself “pushed left” by what he saw as political threats. Alarmed at socialist civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph’s warning that he planned to lead 100,000 Black marchers to Washington, Roosevelt banned racial discrimination in federal jobs.
Roosevelt took power at a time when the Communist Party was exerting noticeable influence on American politics. He brought radicals and protest leaders into the fold not out of generosity, but to control threats. The major initiatives of Roosevelt’s “Second New Deal”—Social Security, the Works Progress Administration and the Wealth Tax Act—were motivated in part by populist Louisiana Sen. Huey Long and his “Share Our Wealth” movement; Roosevelt wanted “to steal Long’s thunder.” This dynamic illustrates the importance of building a left-wing opposition in the halls of power.
But Roosevelt was also pushed from the outside. Strikes more than doubled from 1932 to 1933, with the number of workers involved leaping by nearly a million. These work stoppages often ended in police violence, as did other protests by the poor, spurring action on jobs programs. The Farmers’ Holiday Association, a protest movement that saw farmers use strikes and barricades to return foreclosed farms to their owners, led to foreclosure moratoriums in 25 states, with Roosevelt fearing an “agrarian revolution.”
Biden and the Democratic Party want to bring back “normalcy” in the post-Trump era. But history suggests the normal we should return to is that of a combative Left. Whether it’s climate protesters blocking pipeline construction, racial justice advocates flooding the streets or workers in key sectors withholding their labor, such civil unrest and relentless advocacy may be the only way to spur the Biden administration to meet at least some progressive demands. That’s where the real leverage lies.