By Pam Campos-Palma
In the past few weeks, I have had more flashbacks to my days in the military than at any other time since stepping out of uniform four years ago. The military wired me to make battlefield predictions in uncertain situations, and that training feels eerily activated today. Between living a stone’s throw away from New York City – the current epicenter of COVID-19 in the US; getting texts from my mom who works in a hospital emergency room; and seeing politicians react to the mounting death toll with a mixture of dangerous buffoonery and vicious xenophobia, I find myself thinking constantly about our society’s many vulnerabilities. I’m also thinking a lot about the normalization of death, a disturbing aspect of our current phase of the crisis. At this deeply turbulent moment, I worry that the absence of a strategic alignment between progressive grassroots movement and the Democratic party establishment will leave the survival of our democracy in a fragile balance.
Alongside the emotional cyclone of the pandemic, the Left is also grappling with the rage and grief of re-witnessing just how bitterly broken, toxic, and rigidly obtuse our political system and the Democratic Party have remained. The astounding reality is that what started as a wide presidential field filled with popular, transformative policy positions ended up shaking out Joe Biden as the presumptive nominee. Despite the 2020 Democratic primary season featuring one of the largest fields ever, with 28 candidates competing to take on President Donald Trump, unbelievably, we currently sit in a weaker position than we found ourselves in at this time in 2016.
One day after Bernie Sanders announced his concessionary endorsement of Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama popped into the electoral arena with an endorsement message of Biden that attempted to bridge the progressive and moderate poles of the Democratic Party. A day after that, Elizabeth Warren also endorsed Biden. Given this scenario I want to focus on two things that should be obvious but are rarely discussed:
- Joe Biden cannot win without the progressives and leftists, who have amassed power during Trump’s first term;
- Biden’s nomination further affirms that foreign policy and national security will be central to the election, a fact that progressives cannot afford to overlook.
While there have been positive signs of connectivity between the Biden, Sanders, and Warren camps, and some key movement leaders, it’s telling that concrete prospects for a united front to defeat Trump remain uncomfortably uncertain. The power contest between moderates and progressives within the party is still ongoing. This friction between the grassroots and grasstops, ruptures within both ecologies, and traditionalists’ continued resistance to new voices inside the Democratic Party has set us up poorly for this moment. It’s clear that many across the spectrum have failed to learn key lessons from the last presidential cycle.
This dynamic is evident in the letter to Team Biden from progressive movement leaders who outlined the need to build a coalition that earns the youth vote. The letter was smart, succinct, and generous in offering strategic advice and tactical partnership to win over this key constituency Biden is struggling to capture. Importantly, the letter included an explicit foreign policy demand: “commit to seek congressional approval on any authorization of war and support repeal of 2001 and 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force.” It also made specific personnel requests and demands on climate change, gun violence prevention, healthcare, immigration, criminalization, education, democracy protection, and wealth inequality — all areas of disproportionate urgency and magnified insecurity for communities in acute danger from the COVID-19 crisis.
Yet despite the good sense and good faith offered, the Biden camp has been tepid and somewhat indecisive in its approach to deepening the Democratic base, seemingly preferring a strategy to appeal to conservative, traditional, elite hegemonic power. While there are some optimistic indicators, it’s yet to be seen whether Team Biden will meaningfully commit to expanded policy plans, personnel decisions, and coalitional task forces.
As more Americans face social and economic depression, an unstable and violent right wing faction that is capitalizing on the pandemic, and a rising death count, it is bewildering to watch Biden be lukewarm towards progressives in favor of trying to beat Trump at his own game. Even as China policy experts warned against rhetoric that inflames xenophobic hate crimes, Biden launched an anti-China ad that raised alarm and had many Asian Americans feeling betrayed. Biden’s confused strategy to out-strong man Trump and double down on a sloppy blue nationalism says a lot about Biden’s instincts. Moreover, his team’s technocratic impulse to push back against transformative change can feel at times like belittlement of different power building roles and even overt resentment of the progressive grassroots movements that have spilt sweat and blood to counter the Trump administration.
Adding to this glaring rift, the painful reality that Trump’s presumed opponent will now be another powerful man accused of sexual harm and abuse is a dagger to the health and resilience of our broader grassroots movement that has largely been carried on the backs of women and femmes. It’s hard to forget the mortifying way this happened during Brett Kavanugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, or Gen. John Hyten’s confirmation as the Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice-Chairman last year.
Democratic Party leaders have chosen to continue cracking the whip to enforce conformity within the party, arguing that Trump is a threat so daunting that loyalty is the only acceptable response. Except we’ve been playing this scared, losing strategy forever and it’s exactly what helped put a corrupt ethno-nationalist reality star in the White House to begin with. The hard reality is that the establishment cannot whitewash Biden’s failings or their collective lack of humility. Simultaneously, the Left cannot avoid the reality that in the immediate term removing Trump means electing his flawed opponent. To get to a place where both sides recognize those realities, the onus is on Team Biden to accept the grassroots wisdom on offer, rather than dig in their heels behind failed logic and scarcity thinking.
More than anything, it is short-sighted for anyone to underestimate and undermine the strategic vision and power that the broader progressive movements bring to the table for the upcoming election and beyond. To do so will be our undoing in these uncertain and likely fast moving, pandemic-ridden months until November.
In short we’re living in a crazy-making moment where our house is on fire, an arsonist is in power, and various levers of power keep giving that arsonist gasoline. We’re given empty, symbolic overtures, like costly military flyovers, while workers like my mom remain dangerously low on protective equipment, and we’re told to be content for our own good. If Trump loses – or if Trump wins – we are fucked without a strong center-Left coalition from the grassroots to the grasstops at home connected to international solidarity. This is not only on the Biden campaign but also on the Democratic Party, the Beltway traditionalists, and progressives to get serious about the quickly closing window of strategic and tactical alignment. We need to decide if we’ve robustly learned the lessons of 2016 or if the Democratic Party and its most fervent loyalists will continue to treat the rising, multi-racial, multi-generational progressive power base in America as tokens to play with or threats to their own crumbling ivory towers, rather than serious partners in our bigger, increasingly existential, fight.
Pam Campos-Palma is a political strategist, advisor and organizer focused on peace & security. She served in the US Air Force for over a decade as an operations intelligence analyst and is a trusted leader and advocate bridging grasstops policy and grassroots movement worlds. You can find her on twitter at @_pamcampos.