Biden’s Bad Deal: How “Build Back Better” Got Botched, and Why We Need a New Party

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Less than a year into his administration, the shine on Biden’s honeymoon is gone, tarnished under the enormous scale of the multiple crises facing ordinary people. The public is becoming increasingly frustrated with his disinterest and inaction in advancing his own promised agenda. Driven by deep discontent, broad layers of working people have started to realize how unacceptable the working and living standards they’ve been conditioned to accept for so long are. 

So far, throughout Biden’s tenure, the corporate and centrist elements within the Democratic Party have set the pace, but by not standing up to them in any serious way, Bernie Sanders and the Squad are opening the door to the rising threat of far-right populism. As people become more disillusioned with the lack of urgent action due to internecine Democrat quarreling, they may seek easy answers to complex problems, and the likelihood they’ll be funneled towards right-populist ideas like Trump’s greatly increases. 

Dubbed “Striketober,” tens of thousands of workers across various industries prepared to take action this month against low pay, long hours, pitiful benefits, and unsafe or abusive working conditions. Anyone who doubts that the American working class will fight for a life worth living should simply take a look around.

The context for this working class fightback is the system of capitalism in visible decay. The price of food has been climbing amidst the pandemic’s rupture of global supply chain routes, with rents and homelessness soaring all across the country. Parents are still being offered unequal learning options and services for their students, revealing that the broader underfunding of schools remains unchanged. Many inner-city communities are experiencing gun violence epidemics, particularly devastating Black working class neighborhoods. We also see both the right and the Democrats using vaccine mandates to seek to divide and polarize workers. 2021 showcased an unprecedented cold snap that froze Texas, a record-breaking heatwave that savaged the Pacific Northwest, and hurricanes traveling hundreds of miles on land; forefront on many people’s minds, too, is the intensifying threat of the climate crisis. 

Despite deftly moving from “political revolution” to “push him left,” Bernie Sanders, the Squad, and Justice Democrats set progressive expectations high through their initial anointing of Biden as a new Franklin D. Roosevelt. Democrats were awarded the White House, Senate, and the House of Representatives by selling working people a bill of goods that if given control, they’d put an end to the terrible racism and xenophobia of Trump-era policies and that they’d also usher in transformative economic and environmental action. They promised to raise the minimum wage, cancel at least some student loan debt, transform our energy grid, tax the rich and lower prescription drug costs. On top of this, Biden promised to be “the most pro-union president in U.S. history.”

Now, as Biden’s first year comes to a close and midterm battle lines are being drawn, Democrats are embroiled in yet another Congressional mess, wholly amongst themselves, with major campaign promises heavily shaved down or outright abandoned. Taken together these conditions are the reason why Biden’s approval ratings have fallen to as low as 38% in one recent poll. 

Bare Bones Bill

The congressional skirmishes over top-line numbers around Biden’s infrastructure & reconciliation bills are highly theatrical and, by design, incredibly difficult and confusing for working people to follow. 

To summarize: the infrastructure bill — already passed by the Senate with significant Republican support —  is strongly supported by Manchin, Sinema, and corporate House Democrats. This bipartisan infrastructure bill favors public investment in private, for-profit outfits and includes barebones funding for roads, bridges, and broadband expansion. Though originally configured to redo the country’s energy grid, Exxon was recently revealed on tape boasting that they’d successfully lobbied corporate Democrats in the Senate to strip the most consequential climate provisions from the bill. House progressives have withheld their support unless it is paired with the “reconciliation bill”.

The reconciliation bill, originally written by Bernie Sanders and championed by the Squad, contains the entirety of the Biden “Build Back Better” agenda. It started off as a $6 trillion plan, then Manchin said he’d accept $4 trillion, it got cut to $3.5 trillion and is now landing somewhere around $1.75 trillion. Numbers aside, as originally proposed, this reconciliation bill would include the bulk of Biden’s climate program, free community college, an extension to the popular child tax credits, universal pre-K, 12 weeks of paid parental and family leave and it would lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60 while expanding coverage to include dental, hearing, vision and eldercare. It would pay for itself by reversing the Trump tax cuts, fining polluters, and through massive savings from finally allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices (a Democrat promise since 2006). While still deeply inadequate, and a far cry from Bernie’s own 2020 platform, the passage of such a bill would provide real gains for working people and represent a significant concession from the ruling class in recognition of the enormity of the compounding capitalist crises they find themselves in.

Yet, as of the time of writing, we have already seen free community college, Medicare eligibility age lowering, paid parental and family leave, the reversal of Trump’s tax cuts, and the key to Biden’s climate plan, the Clean Energy Performance Plan, all cut from the reconciliation bill. The remaining contents have all been drastically slashed, heavily means-tested, or set up as short-term pilot programs intended to only run for a year or so before needing reauthorization. In short, it’s now a dog of a bill and should be wholly rejected, along with the infrastructure bill, by Bernie Sanders and the Squad, who should campaign for a return to at least the original $3.5 trillion plan.

Progressives’ weak tea handling of the reconciliation bill negotiations is just the latest in a year-long trend of capitulations and heavy compromises. They have folded themselves into a completely pro-corporate Democratic Party which is on track for an absolute shellacking by the GOP in the 2022 midterms, with some of the most reactionary Republicans likely rising to prominence. Demoralized, key constituency groups will stay home. Or, due to Biden and the Democrats’ failure to provide federal relief against the right wing’s unprecedented assault on voting rights, they’ll be disenfranchised. This almost guarantees that if the GOP wins, barring a major social movement, nothing progressive will be won for at least another two years. There will be no one to blame for this outcome but the Democrats themselves.

Progressive Politicians Fail to Fight

Bernie and the Squad, operating solely within the confines of the allowances of the Democratic Party, are relying on the bare-bones approaches of backroom horse-trading and leveraging their votes, not bringing to bear the full power of the organized working class. Genuine mass mobilization, the one thing that could actually push Biden left, is a strategy they’re strongly prohibited from using due to their affiliation with the Democratic Party. This would not be the case if they were in a true working class party.

We consistently pointed out the impossibility of trying to stage a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party as advocated by Bernie Sanders, Justice Democrats, and the Democratic Socialists of America. However, Socialist Alternative supported Sanders in 2016 and 2020 as well as DSA socialists like AOC while clearly explaining the limitations of that program. We did so because of their call for a political revolution against the billionaire class and how profoundly this message resonated with millions of working class Americans. 

We were clear then that, “Socialist representatives should use their positions as a platform to call for mass struggles that go beyond what is acceptable to this system and point toward the need for a socialist society.” 

Building fighting mass movements is how the working class changes society, and helping everyday working people organize against the establishment is what building a fighting movement entails. We relentlessly pointed to all of the obstacles these progressives would face in building such a movement within the prison of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately for the working class, we have been proven right. 

The failed hostile takeover project has resulted in all involved essentially serving as loyal soldiers in the Democratic Party’s left wing. Instead of calling for mass movements to defend a far reaching program beyond even what was in the $3.5 trillion plan, as Bernie claimed he would do during his run for President, and using his office as a focal point to organize working people, labor and social movements against big business and their cronies in Congress, he has settled for writing op-eds. Instead of fighting to build a truly independent force of organizers defending ordinary people funded by the grassroots, AOC and the Justice Democrats have been feeding millions to DNC consultants. 

It’s clear that the Squad and Bernie’s “inside/outside” strategy is in fact cover for the truth that they are in a political alliance with the Democratic establishment. By its nature such alliances between the left and a section of the ruling class are on the terms set by the ruling class. Spanning from their failure to force a vote on Medicare for All to their support for a Capitol police militarization bill to funding Israel’s Iron Dome, their legislative approach has been broadly marred by cowardice. Add to this their compulsive need to heap effusive praise on Biden as a good faith partner, which AOC and Pramila Jayapal both did in recent interviews, and it is clear as day that these progressives are providing left cover for the thoroughly bankrupt Joe Biden.

As Kshama Sawant has said, “If you are a progressive, the road for your movement inside the Democratic Party leads to a graveyard.” Socialist Alternative calls for a new party for the working class because we know attempts to reform the thoroughly undemocratic Democratic Party are doomed from the start. 

The Democratic Party is Undemocratic

The Democratic Party has several inherent mechanisms that prevent it from being a political vessel of progressive change for working people.

To start, it allows rich and wealthy connected donors to completely usurp party structures, meaning party rules are arbitrarily determined by party insiders on how, when, and for whom they apply. The party’s penchant for this can be seen nowhere more clearly than in their Presidential primary nomination process, most blatantly with the use of superdelegates for party conventions whose purpose is to make sure no one who is not acceptable to the establishment gets through. In the 2020 primary election the Democrats allowed billionaire Michael Bloomberg to stage a dark horse candidacy and participate in debates well after their own cutoff date and well below the poll requirements, because he paid a $7 million entrance fee to the Democratic National Committee. It didn’t matter that Bloomberg was a right wing former Republican mayor of New York City who had overseen a massive racist “Stop and Frisk” program which targeted Black and Latino youth. Working class people need a party totally free from billionaire and corporate influence or patronage in order to genuinely fight racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, oppression and capitalist exploitation.

The Democratic Party’s internal structures are set up to benefit big business. In the House of Representatives, committee seats are essentially up for sale, with assignments being doled out based on how much one raises for the party – not based on areas of experience or interest in the public good. AOC was outflanked by corporate Democrat Kathleen Rice for a spot on the Energy & Commerce committee. Despite being one of the most notable members of the party and a leading voice for climate and healthcare reform, her socialist politics appeared to represent a threat to the bottom line of the party’s corporate donors, so she was iced out. 

Cooptation or isolation to the point of impotence are the inevitable twin fates of progressives operating within the confines of the Democratic party. This bitter dynamic AOC painfully examples best. Recently she was caught trying to lobby for juice in the party by sending grassroots funds to the reelection campaigns of several of the worst corporate Democrats and when rejected by them, was relegated to ineffectual displays like attending a billionaire gala draped in a much-pilloried “Tax the Rich” gown.

The Democratic Party is loyal to the politics of big business. Democrats subordinate the material concerns of everyday people to those of billionaires and corporations, substituting woke sloganeering and superficial overtures like kneeling in kente cloth instead. All this makes an inhospitable home for socialists looking to advance the working class movement. This lesson was evident during both of Bernie Sanders’ runs, where the Democratic Party establishment colluded to crush him, but also more recently in Nina Turner’s unsuccessful race for Congress and DSA socialist India Walton’s ongoing campaign for mayor of Buffalo, New York. In all these cases, the Democratic establishment’s chicanery is on full display.

Due to all this, the left public representatives operating within the Democratic Party are unwilling or unable to fully rely on building fighting mass movements as the strategy to best fight for climate action, increasing the minimum wage, defending voting rights and advancing the political revolution. Election after election, working people have looked to Democrats for transformative progressive reform, but as the party is only able to offer its meager incremental politics – it is the Democrats who are behind the public’s broad feeling of despondency, which is fertilizing the soil for the growth of the reactionary right.

Building a New Working Class Party

What would it mean to have a truly democratic left party in Congress and state legislatures?

A workers’ party would earnestly engage in the current upsurge of strike activity by rank & file members of unions. A new workers party would depend on its ability to mobilize everyday working people for its political power, not alliances with the bosses. The traditional relationship between the Democrats and the unions is one of dependency where the labor leaders give massive financial concessions and get precious little in return.

Several of the recent worker rebellions have reported the same story: broad discontent within a union by the rank & file and a growing militancy to fight for better wages, working conditions and to reverse all the concessions made during labor’s long retreat. In many cases, union leaders who are wedded to the “business unionist” model which accepts the logic of capitalism have been an obstacle to building the type of fightback needed. A new workers’ party would stand on the side of rank and file workers who seek to develop a fighting leadership in the unions.

The potential support for a new party on the left is clearly shown by the growing support for a third party which now stands at 60%.

Imagine if DSA socialists, AOC, the Squad and popular anti-establishment progressives like Nina Turner were to fully break with the Democratic Party and run coordinated independent campaigns in 2022 and beyond, stressing the urgent need for a new party as an explicit part of their campaign platforms? This would be a decisive shift in American politics. A new broad left party would of course encompass a range of views but its very existence would bring the debate on how to achieve a better future to a new level.

This is why we are fighting so hard to defeat the right wing, racist recall in Seattle which seeks to remove the foremost independent socialist in the country, councilmember Kshama Sawant. Socialist Alternative is using this struggle to highlight what independent working politics can achieve as part of laying the basis for a new party in the next period. 

Such a new party would include democratic structures to ensure concerns from working class people took the fore and that elected officials were held accountable to the expectations placed on them. Elected representatives would be required to fight for an explicitly pro-worker platform, and elected political and union officials would be mandated to only take home the average worker’s wage (with the rest donated to movement building).

With a clear understanding that democratic mass movements are how we change society, we need a party whose power rests in its ability to cultivate and guide movements, not its ability to deceive them.

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