When the House reconvenes on Jan. 3, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will have the opportunity once again to introduce H.R. 1, the For the People Act. The bill would expand voting rights, fight governmental corruption and increase campaign-finance transparency. In 2019, when there was no chance of the bill getting past Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), it passed the House easily. In 2021, however, sources say that Pelosi may face pressure to whittle down the bill to get support from both chambers and both sides of the aisle. But the provisions in H.R. 1 work best as a package and as systemic legislation to stop the right wing’s march to minoritarian rule. Progressives in the House will have to work to make sure the sausage-making on next year’s version of H.R. 1 does not weaken the final product.
Democrats in the Senate will face a different challenge. Polling currently suggests that Democrats will win a slight majority in the Senate next month. While this gives progressives reason to hope, that hope is tempered with the realization that Democrats are unlikely to claim the 60 seats needed to avoid the filibuster. They are even less likely to gain the support of the eight or nine Republicans they need to pass progressive legislation.
As Harold Meyerson wrote in the American Prospect, Senate Democrats’ hopes for governing rest on the filibuster’s repeal. A growing movement in the Senate has come to the same conclusion, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) telling activists, “We need to be educating and organizing now so that our allies understand why making progress on anything in Congress will require changing the rules in Congress.”
But not every Democrat seems intent on pursuing a bolder agenda. Moderate Democratic senators have said that the filibuster helps them grab more federal funding. Their progressive counterparts must continue to push their colleagues to look at the big picture: Working families don’t just need federal funds; they also need legislation that ensures affordable housing, public works programs and accessible health care.
And then there’s the White House, which will hopefully be occupied by President Joe Biden. His coalition will determine what he achieves. So far, Biden has distanced himself from the progressive wing of the party and allied himself with moderates. But if he’s elected, it will be with the help of progressives. Those who once supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have raised and spent millions for Biden’s campaign. The Biden-Sanders joint task forces put forth progressive policies on health care, climate change and the economy. Progressive groups have provided an aggressive ad campaign, a nationwide network of activists and a new approach to rural organizing to help move working-class voters beyond Trumpist resentments.
The progressives who support Biden now must prepare to push him later. On Friday, a group of progressive organizations and individuals called on Biden not to appoint chief executives and corporate lobbyists to his administration. As Robert L. Borosage wrote in the Nation, if Biden wins next month, “progressives will not give him a pass but will seek to drive bold reforms from the get-go” — ensuring that Biden forms and consults an inclusive coalition as he advances his agenda.
For an example of how to do this, Democrats can look to New York’s Working Families Party. The WFP has spent 22 years forming such a coalition, organizing progressive organizations and replacing moderate Democrats in Albany with WFP-endorsed lawmakers. In 2018, its activism paid off: The New York legislature had enough progressive members to pass long-overdue bills on issues ranging from climate change to voting rights. The WFP’s effective progressivism has refocused the legislature’s work squarely on populism.
At the same time, the WFP’s progressive push has challenged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s tight grip on New York politics — a challenge the centrist governor has not taken kindly to. This year, Cuomo (D) retaliated by more than tripling the vote threshold that the WFP must cross to maintain its legal status — to more than 160,000 votes, based on this year’s turnout estimates. Now, even though the party is backing the likely-to-win Biden/Harris ticket, it could be removed from the state ballot.
But let’s assume that the WFP gets the 160,000-odd votes needed. Let’s assume the gavel remains in Pelosi’s hands and McConnell is sent packing. Let’s assume the White House is occupied by a qualified leader.
Just because we’ve won doesn’t mean the work of progressives is done. On the contrary — it is just beginning. Looking past the election, the WFP’s recent People’s Charter provides guidance for policymaking moving forward — a “roadmap out of our current state of crisis, and to an America that works for the many, not the privileged and powerful few.” It suggests universal health care, a tax increase on corporations and job creation through public works programs. Whether these policies will be enacted will depend on the actions of Democrats at every level of government.
The chaos of recent years — from the pandemic to inequities, structural racism to climate change — demands a paradigm shift. In 2020 and beyond, that will determine the future of the Democratic Party and the nation. It’s time to think ahead.
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