Biden is triangulating the Left

How will they respond?

When it comes to the politics of the Biden administration, most of the attention is on the fights with the Republicans — and rightly so, since they have the power to block legislation in the Senate, and because they have a good chance of mounting a comeback in the 2022 midterms. But there’s an interesting little side dynamic between Biden and the Left. Essentially, on domestic policy, Biden has triangulated — enacting the kind of economic policies the Left tends to like, while largely shutting their faction out of direct influence. And that’s pulling the Left in two different directions.

Five years ago you could say with a straight face that America didn’t really have a Left. But Bernie’s presidential campaigns unleashed a flood of pent-up leftism that has now crystallized into the DSA, the Justice Dems, and a whole vast media ecosystem of podcasts, online publications, Twitch streamers, Twitter personalities, and so on. At the electoral level, Bernie fell short, but the DSA and Justice Dems have been racking up some victories at the Congressional, state, and local level. Meanwhile, I’m not sure how much youth culture matters when it comes to politics, but it’s undeniable that the new leftism is popular with The Kids.

There’s a lot to be written about this new Left, but I want to focus on an interesting dynamic that’s going on between it and the Biden administration. In his first few weeks in office, Biden executed on a large number of progressive priorities — rejoining the Paris climate talks, canceling the Keystone pipeline, ending the Muslim Ban, and much more. Then he passed a huge $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill (or “stimmy”, as the kids are now calling it), which also contained an incredibly generous unconditional child allowance that will transform American’s welfare state (assuming it becomes permanent at the end of the year, which many expect). But that’s only the beginning — Biden’s next moves include a big immigration bill with a path to citizenship, minimum wage, and a green infrastructure bill that’s not called a “Green New Deal” but certainly has some similarities.

In other words, Biden is bringing the most transformational progressive agenda since LBJ. And this presents the Left with a bit of a dilemma, because one of their core bedrock beliefs during the campaign season was that Biden was a basically Clintonite centrist. The fact that their predictions have been hilariously wide of the mark, and Biden is governing more like FDR, presents leftists with a choice: They can either admit (however grudgingly and provisionally) that Biden is a lot better than they thought, or they can find reasons to denounce Biden in spite of all he’s doing. And I think those impulses are going to pull the Left in two different directions, and possibly even lead to a parting of the ways.

Ideology vs. factionalism

As I wrote in my retrospective on Bernie’s campaigns, I see the new American Left as being motivated by two basic forces: Ideology and factionalism. The ideology part actually isn’t that radical; it’s basically just European social democracy stuff. There probably are a few DSA members who denounce Biden for refusing to abolish private property, but I think the vast majority just want a strong welfare state, unions, less inequality, national health insurance, some better trains, and so on. The factionalism piece, in contrast, is all about the Democratic party — it entails a conviction that the party establishment is corrupt and under the sway of billionaires and corporate lobbies, and that overthrowing this establishment is a prerequisite for things to get better in America.

Those two imperatives dovetail just fine in a primary campaign, but once an establishment Democrat wins and starts governing like a bold progressive, it gets harder to square the two. It’s interesting to watch Bernie’s own evolution over this time period. Back in February he was breathing hot populist fire at the establishment:

But ever since his primary defeat, Bernie been working closely with Biden, and recently he was seen on CNN defending the notion that $1400 checks represent a fulfillment of Biden’s promise of $2000 (when added to the $600 in the December bill):

Of course, Bernie is just one guy; the new American Left is not a cult of personality. Rashida Tlaib was loudly dissatisfied with the $1400:

A few prominent former Bernie campaign staffers were even harsher. AOC took a sensible middle path, celebrating the $1400 while wishing it was bigger.

The choice of whether to denounce Biden over the $1400 is basically a choice between ideology and factionalism. Since this is almost certainly the last round of COVID relief, there’s no chance of pushing Biden to do more. Nor is there any esoteric Marxist principle or Swedish social democratic precedent that says that a $1400 check added to a $600 check doesn’t fulfill a “promise” of $2000. It’s basically just whether one has decided that Biden, as a pillar of the establishment, must be attacked.

Of course, the problem with the “$1400 isn’t $2000” grudge is that it just ends up looking petty. Everyone knows that politicians’ promises, if they mean anything, simply denote an intent to try to do something. Everyone knows that this means making compromises. So the “Biden broke a promise” line is a slender stick indeed with which to beat the establishment.

The same is true of the various other denunciations of Biden’s relief bill flying around Left Twitter. It’s utterly risible to respond to Biden’s child allowance — which some economists estimate would cut child poverty in half — by saying “well why didn’t he just get rid of child poverty completely”, as if Biden is a neoliberal corporate centrist ghoul who wants to keep a bit of child poverty around just for shits and giggles. At some point even Twitter people, who are used to histrionic overstatements, are going to roll their eyes, because at that point it becomes obvious that nothing Biden could actually have done would satisfy the Left’s diehard factionalists.

So Biden’s bold progressive policy is triangulating the Left. By largely shutting their faction out of his administration while championing many of their economic policy priorities, he forces the Left to decide whether they care more about principles or about power.

This is why I predict that the more factionally inclined folks on the Left will be inexorably drawn to foreign policy issues.

Foreign policy wedge issues

If you want to bash the establishment, foreign policy is usually a good thing to focus on. It’s simply a much more elitist endeavor than domestic policy; leaders tend to listen to a relatively small group of foreign policy experts rather than to the passions of the public. That makes it an easy thing to get mad about.

For example, take Biden’s airstrike in Syria on February 25th. An Iraqi militia had been lobbing rockets at U.S. contractors in Iraq, from across the Syrian border. When they killed a contractor, Biden called in an airstrike on some buildings where the militia was thought to be hiding, killing several people (though apparently no Syrians, thankfully).

Now, people getting killed in war is a very bad thing, but as military actions go this is pretty normal stuff. Whether or not you think the U.S. should have its troops in that part of the world (and I think we should not!), when people attack our troops, or contractors being employed by those troops, it’s pretty obvious our troops are at some point going to fire back. The Iraqi militiamen who were killed in Syria were soldiers, not civilians; they came to fight, they attacked, and they got blown up.

To a portion of the online Left, this makes Joe Biden a “war criminal”. That’s obviously a matter of opinion, given that the Hague is unlikely to weigh in on the matter. But the allegation can’t really be laughed off like the $1400/$2000 thing, because everyone remembers the Iraq War, and because people are rightfully concerned about U.S. interventions in the Middle East.

I predict that this is increasingly going to be the pattern going forward. Leftists who are more focused on the ideology of social democracy will grudgingly admit that Biden’s economic policies are good, while leftists who want a reason to denounce the establishment will focus more and more on foreign policy.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that any leftist who gets upset about America’s foreign policy is being cynical and performative. Many care very deeply about the issue, and have substantive reasons to be upset. What I’m saying, rather, is that those leftists who have decided from well before Day 1 to write off the Biden administration will find foreign policy a much easier arena in which to draw distinctions.

In other words, I see foreign policy as becoming something of a wedge issue for the Left — one that ultimately might force a split. In fact I think you can already see hints of this split emerging in online youth culture, in the form of ferocious Twitter battles between socdems (social democrats) and tankies. I guess these were the tweets that got me thinking along these lines:

Anyway, I think there are some potential downsides here for American politics. If the new American Left breaks down into infighting over foreign policy — and leftist movements are the undisputed champions of “breaking down into infighting” — it could cut short the social-democratic renaissance that Bernie unleashed. Progressives might be forced to constantly disavow foreign-policy-obsessed activists to their left, for fear of being seen as tankies — especially as attitudes harden toward China.

But perhaps this is just the natural evolution of populist uprisings. When the establishment takes action to partly appease the public’s anger (because it can never be 100% appeased), members of the angry public have to decide whether to be appeased. If the Left does splinter, perhaps that will be a testament to its success in shifting the policy landscape as fast as it did.