It’s easy enough to stay united as a political party against a common adversary (in this case, Donald Trump). But, whenever the Democratic Party is in power, it gets harder for different factions, with distinct policy visions, to come together in the same way—and that may be the challenge for the progressive wing under a potential President Joe Biden in 2021.
That was one of the resounding messages from Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal during a panel on the rising power of the progressive movement at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. Jayapal, who represents Washington’s 7th District, was joined by Mondaire Jones, the Democratic nominee for New York’s 17th District. Both represent a new class of leaders self-characterized as progressives, a term that Jayapal explains as: “You’re the first to the best and most just idea, and eventually others come along.”
Jayapal and Jones both looked ahead to the promise of a President Biden, who ran in the primaries as a moderate, and who is now actively appealing across the aisle, recently gaining the support of staunch Republicans such as Cindy McCain and Colin Powell. But despite his attempts to form such a broad coalition to his right, both politicians were optimistic about their chances of working with a potential administration, especially for passing many immediate actions, including substantial COVID-19 relief. “The issue always with the Democratic administration is: how do we get more?” said Jayapal. “I think that this will be a different scenario, because we have such a set of crises in front of us, and I think the Biden administration understands that we need bold reforms, quickly.”
But it’s after those initial recovery bills that progressives will strive for more permanent reform, for which they’ll be less open to compromise, and where they expect they may encounter some resistance. But they’re also not planning on remaining unyielding on those policy positions simply for progressive symbolism. “For me, policy is personal,” Jones said. He explained that he grew up in poverty, living in Section 8 Housing and living off food stamps. “So, debates over the need for a $15 minimum wage are not academic for me.”
Both have already been encouraged by Biden’s outreach to his left wing, in creating a Unity Task Force with Senator Bernie Sanders (Jayapal served as the cochair for the healthcare group of the task force). “We’re not going to turn Joe Biden into Bernie Sanders,” Jayapal said. But, though the platform has stopped short of objectives such as Medicare for All, progressives on the task force managed to include such significant ambitions as a livable minimum wage, debt-free college, and the untethering of healthcare from people’s employment.
Jayapal and Jones are also focused on more sweeping democracy reforms, such as adding more justices to the Supreme Court, removing the filibuster, and eliminating the electoral college, all of which are currently helping uncompromising Republicans retain power. While Biden may still have memories of a past Senate where people from both parties worked together, “we no longer exist in a world where Republicans are willing to do what is right,” Jayapal said. She was first elected on the same day as Donald Trump, and she’s seen little bipartisanship in four years. That’s a reason to fundamentally reshape the democratic system. “Our framers thought of a lot of things in the Constitution, but one thing they did not perhaps anticipate is the ability of a bully to create a cult,” she said, “where even members of that person’s party would never stand up for what was right for the country.”
For all the post-election talk, Jayapal stressed that the focus should still be on winning the presidency and Senate, neither of which is a given. “The reality is that no progress on anything that we care about . . . is possible with Donald Trump in the White House,” Jayapal said. “He is a xenophobic, Constitution-destroying, racist president. And he’s destroying our democracy.”
If Biden does defeat Trump, Jones said that despite his moderate record and campaign stances, he’d still be “the most progressive president of the United States that we’ve ever had.” And should Jones win his own race, he’d be a part of the most progressive Congress ever. That’s when the fight for progressive change will begin. Sending up President Bill Clinton’s famously conservative-appeasing statement in 1996, that “the era of big government is over,” Jones said, in 2020, “The era of small ideas is over.”