Which is why this news about Our Revolution, the organization that grew out of Sanders’s 2016 campaign and worked hard to see him elected in 2020, is so interesting:
After another defeat in 2020, the 79-year-old Vermont senator is unlikely to run for president a third time. And the organization centered on his fiery brand of politics is undergoing a rebranding.Rather than insisting on “Medicare for All” — Sanders’ trademark universal, government-funded health care plan — or the climate-change-fighting Green New Deal, Our Revolution is focusing on the more modest alternatives endorsed by President Joe Biden. Those include expanding eligibility for the existing Medicare program and curtailing federal subsidies for fossil fuel companies.
To be clear, Our Revolution is not abandoning its support for Medicare-for-all or the Green New Deal; the group seems just to be changing its short-term focus for organizing. But it’s still a revealing window into the challenges of left politics when there’s a Democrat in the White House — especially one who in many ways is turning out to be more liberal than most people predicted.
The job of activist groups such as Our Revolution is in no small part to criticize Democrats for not going far enough. For instance, when the bipartisan infrastructure deal was announced, the Sunrise Movement, a climate advocacy group, issued a statement calling it a “pathetic version of an infrastructure package that only waters down much needed climate priorities, like transit, even further.” Sunrise Movement members went on to give a list of much more ambitious spending initiatives that should be included in a reconciliation bill.
If you were one of the Democrats who negotiated the deal, you might find that irritating, but that’s what activists are there for; if they just gave a thumbs-up to everything Democrats did, they wouldn’t be much good.
Though their public advocacy can potentially change people’s perspective on their issues, left activists’ chance to exercise power comes when Democrats are in charge. If Democrats feel pressure from their left, they may move in response, making their legislation and policy choices more liberal.
But Biden presents an interesting case, because the policy proposals he made during the campaign — many of which came out of working groups created to bring Sanders supporters into the fold (the “unity task force”) — were far more liberal than what Biden had advocated in the past or the Obama administration pursued. Not only that, this administration has worked harder than President Barack Obama’s did to maintain a good relationship with what an Obama staffer once dismissively called the "professional left.”
So long as the filibuster remains in place and Democrats cling to razor-thin congressional majorities, all of Biden’s grand campaign promises will be extremely difficult to achieve. That creates a space where a group like Our Revolution can pull Biden from the left by insisting he live up to what he himself promised, which is usually going to be more than he’s able to deliver at any given moment. Telling him that he should do more to expand Medicare and create a public option — which he promised during the campaign he would do — may be more effective than saying everything he’s doing is worthless because it isn’t Medicare-for-all, even if that’s still what they support in the long term.
And you know whose example they’re following? Sanders himself. For all his reputation as a revolutionary and his unwavering belief in a few big ideas that he has advocated for decades, Sanders is actually an extremely pragmatic politician. He may be a longtime advocate of single-payer health care, but he worked to pass the Affordable Care Act and protect it from Republican assault. And today, as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, he’s playing a central role in trying to move the Biden agenda through Congress.
Groups such as Our Revolution that are born from campaigns always struggle when the campaign is over. How do you take the energy and urgency of a campaign and turn it into something that sustains itself over time? All too often, you just can’t. Nobody says they want to run a cult of personality, but it’s usually easier to get people revved up over an individual figure like Sanders than to keep them activated on a wide range of issues. The inspiring future every campaign promises, with its charismatic leader bringing us to utopia, is more compelling than the long slog of legislating and policymaking.
It’s still early, but Biden and left activists are getting along about as well as anyone could have expected — they may not agree all the time, and the activists will still express their displeasure, but so far neither one considers the other an enemy. If that’s the way it is at the end of Biden’s term, both sides will consider it a success.