Recent discussion among progressives has focused on the need to “push Joe Biden to the left” on health care, climate, the police, and other issues. That can be done, but there are more and less effective ways to go about it. It requires understanding Biden’s motivations, the ways that past movements have won concessions from Democratic presidents, and the reasons why we failed (mostly) to do so with Barack Obama.
As many commentators have suggested recently, the establishment Democrats would rather lose elections than embrace a progressive agenda, which would appeal to voters but alienate big business. That was a major reason for Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, and Biden’s milquetoast campaign would have ensured a repeat performance if not for Donald Trump’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic. Even then, Biden’s razor-thin victory depended largely on the efforts of progressives who mobilized voters in places like southeast Michigan, Philadelphia, Georgia and Arizona.
Biden doesn’t feel indebted to progressives, though. His prospective cabinet picks come heavily from weapons companies and other institutions dedicated to fulfilling his campaign promise that “nothing would fundamentally change” after he was elected.
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Winning progressive concessions from Biden will thus be an uphill battle. And given establishment Democrats’ commitment to attacking progressives, criticizing Biden or protesting outside the White House isn’t enough.
If we want to push policy to the left, we must attack the real sources of power in U.S. politics: the corporations and other institutions that call the shots behind the scenes. Social movements have historically been most powerful when they’ve directly threatened the profits and stability of society’s elites. Recognizing that politicians are merely the servants, they’ve targeted the masters.
The New Deal of the 1930s owed less to Democratic politicians than to workers’ disruption of their workplaces. A central piece of the New Deal, the 1935 Wagner Act that guaranteed collective bargaining rights for private-sector workers, had not been on Franklin Roosevelt’s agenda in 1933. By mid-1934, however, “the administration found itself suddenly confronted with a massive strike wave in mass production industries without any policy to deal with it,” notes historian Christopher Tomlins. Roosevelt responded by creating a new labor negotiation board, and in 1935, he reluctantly lent his support to Senator Robert F. Wagner’s labor bill.
The newly signed Wagner Act was initially ignored by employers, even after the Supreme Court upheld it. It took another wave of worker militancy — almost 9,000 strikes between 1935 and 1937 — to force employers to agree to its implementation. Faced with that disruption, even notoriously anti-union bosses like Henry Ford decided that a unionized workforce was the lesser evil if it could restore stability.
Workers’ main strategy was to disrupt the functioning of their workplaces, which they understood could bring the economy (and thus profits) to a halt. Instead of marching on Washington or calling their legislators, they just jammed their wrenches in the gears. Business and government alike had no choice but to move left.
Black organizers working for desegregation in the South in the 1950s and 1960s succeeded for similar reasons. They did not focus primarily on pressuring politicians. Instead, they organized sustained campaigns involving boycotts, sit-ins, and other disruptions that imposed direct costs on the Southern economic elite.
In Birmingham, Alabama, a movement boycott cost white merchants millions of dollars in 1963. Facing the prospect of continued losses, the merchants told the city government and police to stop repressing the movement and allow integration. It worked, because as Martin Luther King Jr. later noted, “the political power structure listens to the economic power structure.”
The same dynamic played out at the national level. John F. Kennedy had been president for almost two and a half years and had done virtually nothing constructive on civil rights. A month after the Birmingham victory, he finally sent a civil rights bill to Congress, which passed it the following year. Kennedy conceded not because of the skillful lobbying of civil rights leaders, nor due to direct protests against his administration, but because of the economic destabilization generated by a mass movement in the South.
The contrast with the Obama presidency is stark. Despite Democratic control of both houses of Congress during his first two years, Obama continued most of his predecessor’s pro-corporate and militaristic policies, and his few progressive reforms were highly compromised from the start. Non-electoral social movements were not large or disruptive enough to alter the calculus of elite decision-making. Had we been able to make business pay a real price during the Obama era, as the organizers of the 1930s and 1960s did, we could have pushed government policy to the left.
Measuring ourselves against those prior generations may seem demoralizing: It’s unlikely that we’ll organize 9,000 strikes under Biden. But a strategy of targeting business need not reach that scale to have a real impact. It starts by building strong organizations in our workplaces and communities, and thinking about how we can wield collective economic pressure in conjunction with other tactics such as lawsuits. It also means supporting others who refuse to work, or to buy, or to pay their rent. For instance, we can donate to union strike funds or mobilize community support for workers who are challenging their bosses.
Some of the most promising current examples are in the climate and Indigenous rights movements. Disruptive protests and legal action helped stop scores of coal-fired power plants from being constructed during the Obama era, which ultimately had a far bigger impact on fighting climate change than anything Obama did. Organizers also obstructed the building of pipelines like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access projects, using a combination of protests, economic pressure targeting the investors and lawsuits to halt construction. (That’s why I said at the beginning that we mostly failed under Obama; there were a few bright spots.)
Believe it or not, organizers have even pushed policy to the left under Trump — not by influencing Trump himself, but by pressuring investors, businesses and judges to constrain his power. Trump’s agenda of full-throttle ecocide has been hampered to a significant degree by the anti-pipeline movement, which has carried out a “rising tide of protests, litigation and vandalism,” as fossil fuel executives have bemoaned. In 2018, the CEO of Kinder Morgan warned that “the level of intensity” of the resistance “has ramped up.… There’s more opponents, and it’s more organized.” Earlier this year, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project was cancelled, thanks to what Trump’s irate energy secretary called the “obstructionist environmental” movement.
Fossil fuel executives, and more importantly their investors, have even started to conclude that “the mega-projects of the past are no longer feasible in the face of unprecedented opposition to fossil fuels and the infrastructure that supports them.” It’s a sign that non-electoral pressure is having a real impact.
This doesn’t mean we should ignore elections entirely. But the best way to get better electoral outcomes is, ironically, to build strong non-electoral movements. In addition to winning immediate gains, non-electoral movements serve a powerful educational function, for both their participants and the broader society. By organizing people around clear shared goals and by triggering resistance from entrenched elites, they throw injustice into relief in a way that electoral movements do not.
We often hear that disruptive and radical movements alienate “moderate” voters. There is mounting evidence to the contrary. The nationwide protests against police violence in 2020 seem to have benefited Democratic candidates in the November 3 election. While some voters undoubtedly responded by embracing the right’s racist “law and order” message, many others responded by voting for Democrats. The uprisings raised the public’s awareness of racist state violence and galvanized people’s commitment to do something about it, even if just by voting.
A July 2020 report from Democratic strategists acknowledged that protests in Atlanta had been followed by “a significant surge in turnout” for early voting in Georgia among Black and youth voters. The report also noted that, nationwide, new voter registrations had been skewing Democratic at a much higher rate since the protests began, including in Republican-leaning states. It’s even possible that Biden would’ve lost to Trump without the summer’s uprisings.
The Biden wing of the Democratic Party probably won’t learn any of these lessons. But the course of the Biden years will depend partly on the lessons that we ourselves have learned from the past.