Electing Joe Biden Was Never a Reset Button

To implement progressive policies, Democrats need a longer narrative than the four-year presidential election cycle.

Although the Democrats did win the presidency, the majority in the Senate will be determined only next January. At stake is the ability to pass laws and enact the political reform that Joe Biden campaigned on. Four perpetual political themes will determine if the Democrats are successful in January and beyond.

In a fast-paced political world that is swirling with disinformation and facts that come at a blitz-pace, it is important to take a step back to see the larger picture. The November 3rd election was always just a stepping stone towards a more just and equitable United States – a Biden victory never was a reset button to a harmonious past. The current disappointment on the left is justified, from struggling to take back the United States Senate to the reality of 70 million Americans voting for Donald Trump. However,

Progress is created by winning the moment

– and the 2020 Presidential election belongs to Biden, Harris, and the Democratic Party.

When Biden and Harris take office in January, the next chapter of politics will begin with a new configuration of political actors. The question is: how can Democrats channel their momentum into making this chapter of US political history one of progress? They must not only repair the aftermath of Trump, but also address everything from the coronavirus pandemic to climate change. Democrats need to strategize beyond the present by thinking outside of the two and four-year election cycles.

Democrats have the potential to lead the way into a new political era. Below is a closer look at four themes that brought the country to this political moment and how they could determine the next decade of politics in the United States.

Modern American Progressivism

It’s difficult to understand the rise of Trump or the current state of the Democratic party without revisiting the influence of Bernie Sanders. Declaring his candidacy for President in 2015, Sanders was viewed as a longshot. During the 2016 Democratic Primary, he won in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as in red states, such as Oklahoma and Utah. His “for all” policies were more popular than expected, and also in corners of the country that eventually went to Trump – challenging conceptions of a binary red and blue America. Under the motto #NotmeUs, Sanders’ movement continued and helped bring a new wave of progressive politicians, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The progressive wing is still a minority within the Democratic Party, but moved Biden and his political platform to the left on issues ranging from healthcare to combating climate change. Bernie’s legacy will remain within the party, rooted in the House of Representatives with newly elected Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and Marie Newman as well as in the Senate with the 15 Senators who introduced the Medicare for All Act. And whether they #feelthebern or not, Millennials and Gen Zers view a political world with Sanders’ vision as a potential political path. As they come of age and occupy political space, political debates will continue to center around issues that used to be considered fringe. Progress, if you like.

Courting the Courts: A Partisan Battle

In a span of four weeks, Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice and tilted the court to the right for decades to come. Although the confirmation happened in the blink of an eye, this monumental political shift was a long time coming. Beginning in 2008, the Obama years saw the country begin to sharply splinter on decade-long debates on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.

These social issues and identity battles mobilized and energized many on the right, with the aim of securing a more conservative Supreme Court to uphold a strict interpretation of the constitution and traditional values of the country – at any cost. Voting for Trump was justified as a means to an end. Although the Supreme Court has shifted profoundly to the right, that does not mean that the political battle for the court is over.

Calls to reform the Supreme Court are not coming just from the progressive wing of the Democratic party. A new moderate generation of Democratic politicians such as Pete Buttigieg advocate for reforming and adding more justices to the Supreme Court. As the legislative and judicial branches become more intertwined, the configuration of the Supreme Court will be up for debate.

This is especially true as the last ten years have seen the American public tie their political goals and image of the United States to the state of the Supreme Court. As long as women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, as well as the right to healthcare are tied to the decision of the highest court in the land, Democrats must focus on court reform. The health, safety, and human rights of too many are at stake.

Federalism at its Finest?

For centuries, the United States has been working towards a more perfect union. Underlying many of the economic, social, and political differences in the United States is the question: is this for the State or Federal Government to decide? Too many still maintain that the civil war was about state rights’ issues (although it was fundamentally about racism and slavery). Many challenges to Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act are based on states rights’ grounds, and crucial parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, namely that areas with a history of racial discrimination must seek federal approval before changing voting laws, have been ruled unconstitutional.

We urgently need reform that is able to uphold our federal political system without sacrificing individual rights.

These are just a sampling of debates on federalism that have been brought to the Supreme Court. Time and time again, the cases relate directly to the rights of individuals, often from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds or minority groups. As the Supreme Court sides with states’ rights over individual rights, the country’s fundamental values of liberty and justice for all are increasingly challenged. We urgently need reform that is able to uphold our federal political system without sacrificing individual rights.

Unifying for Justice

Since Biden’s victory last week, there have been calls for unity and lowering the political temperature. This is a righteous political goal, but should be seen as conditional. When conservative political leaders sided continuously with a climate-denying and racist President and after blocking any form of political collaboration during the Obama years, there must be some form of reckoning before calls for bipartisanship can be heard.

The electorate that has put the Democrats in the House of Representatives and Joe Biden in the White House did so as a clear rejection of Trump and the Republican party. In contrast to Trump, Democrats campaigned on listening to science, decency, and standing up to racism.

These values should be prioritized, and messages of political unity should return once ground rules, such as not villainizing the media, trust science, and not campaigning against ‘the Other’, have been achieved. That’s not to mention the slew of prominent Republican Senators at the time of writing who are still not accepting that Biden has won the election.

Until then, Democrats should act with the mandate that they received to pass and implement bold policies against the coronavirus, against climate change, and for a socially and economically just United States. Strong action to bring the pandemic under control, guaranteeing healthcare, providing economic relief, and creating green jobs help everyone, not just Democrats. Such policies will do exactly what Joe Biden has promised: to serve the people of the United States of America.

Fighting for a Progressive Decade

Presidential transitions are always historic moments, but the ongoing transfer of power between Donald Trump and Joe Biden feels more monumental than normal. Maybe because it is clear that Biden himself will be a transitional President, elected by many for one reason: to prevent the United States from suffering from irreparable damage to its democracy. Or, perhaps because we will have our first woman Vice-President, Kamala Harris. Likely also because Donald Trump has still not conceded and we are still understanding the damage he has done and the ghosts that will remain long after he is gone.

Heightening this moment is the pandemic that has created a strange sense of time. Days and months blend together as our social life is confined to the digital realm. However, even under these circumstances, it is important for progressives to grasp this moment and place it within a larger political context.

As issues that surpass the boundaries of our constructed election cycles, it’s time for the Democrats to address these fundamental topics of democracy on a different scale of time.

These themes of progress, the judicial branch, federalism, racism, and bipartisanship are not new. They have accompanied political actors and the electorate since the founding of the nation. It would be a mistake to understand them as exceptional to this political moment. As issues that surpass the boundaries of our constructed election cycles, it’s time for the Democrats to address these fundamental topics of democracy on a different scale of time.

In other words, now is the time to understand how we got here and where we need to go. Bold visions of the future could help break inhibitive short term, present-centered thinking and provide the political space to work towards the futures we need, want, and deserve. Such an endeavor is worth unifying around.

#USinProgress: Progressive Analysis of the US Elections 2020

Diego Rivas analyses the US Elections and opportunities for progressive change. Check out his video analyses and other texts on the #USinprogress page.


Diego war Projektmanager und koordinierte vor allem den jährlichen Progressive Governance Summit sowie den transatlantischen Dialog New Urban Progress. Diego ist derzeit auch der Get-Out-the-Vote-Coordinator für Europa, den Nahen Osten und Afrika für Democrats Abroad.

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