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Opinion: What Moderate Dems (and the Media) Get Wrong About Progressives

By Keir Hitchens

In the aftermath of Joe Biden’s election as President of the United States, pundits, voters and Democratic politicians began sorting through down-ballot results and looked to the party’s future. In the House and the Senate, those results were far from what the Democrats had hoped.

Moderates pointed fingers at progressives and some of their positions like supporting ‘Medicare for All,’ the Green New Deal or defunding the police. Progressives clapped back, echoing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s statement to CNN’s Jake Tapper that “every single swing seat member that co-sponsored Medicare for All won their reelection,” even those in Republican-leaning districts like Rep. Katie Porter of California. Arguments around the Green New Deal followed a similar path. In her interview with Tapper, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez also noted that “not a single member of Congress that I’m aware of campaigned on socialism or defunding the police in this general election,” and said that Democrats should become “stronger and more resilient to Republican attacks.”

Major media outlets, as they are wont to do, continue to cover the back-and-forth. In the process, some writers have blurred the line between news and editorial, centering their own opinions rather than honestly depicting the ideological differences within the Democratic Party.

An article by Sydney Ember in the New York Times brought my attention to this trend. The article, titled “Treasury Secretary Warren? Progressives Line Up to Press Their Agenda on Biden,” took some not-so-subtle shots at the progressive wing of the party. One sidenote: headlines are written by editors, though they usually reflect the writer’s stance.

Ember’s first paragraph sets a harsh tone.

“They have an extensive blacklist for possible Biden appointees they do not like. They want to elevate allies like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont to premier government posts. And they are even considering the possibility of bypassing Senate approval to fill executive branch roles.”

This paragraph alone should alert the reader to Ember’s opinion of progressives. Ember’s use of the impersonal “they” pronoun seems to place all progressives in the same bucket: supporters of Bernie Sanders who spend their time making blacklists of possible nominees “they do not like,” and conspiring to subvert congressional norms.

Not until the second half of the article, though, does Ember mention that much of the interest in appointing Sen. Sanders to a cabinet position came from both sides: “[Sen. Sanders’] camp and Mr. Biden’s team have seriously been discussing the possibility since the Vermont senator dropped out of the presidential race in April.”

Each statement in that first paragraph plays directly into the trope of the Social Justice Warrior, or SJW. According to the Random House Dictionary definition, Social Justice Warrior is a “contemptuous term” for an emblazoned online activist who “advocates a progressive orthodoxy.” The term’s roots are in the Gamergate controversy, which co-opted the term in an expression of misogyny and dismissal of anyone who calls for change via the internet.

The SJW trope pops up everywhere in Ember’s article. She says that progressives have “begun preparing to unleash a furious campaign to pressure President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. … even as they wrestle with the results of the election and the possible need to be more realistic about expectations over the next two years.” Ember ties those disappointing election results with the quote-unquote “need to be more realistic” and chooses “unleash a furious campaign” instead of just writing “plan to pressure.” For the record, pressuring elected officials is nothing new – it’s one of those five freedoms protected in the First Amendment, right up there with freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Ember’s word choice contributes to the idea that progressives’ beliefs are founded on opposition to people and policies, rather than constructive ideas or goals. Later in the article, Ember reiterates the term “blacklist,” this time clarifying that the list comes from a specific group called the “Revolving Door Project.” She describes the list as full of “possible Biden appointments that progressives may view as problematic,” another term with an established link to criticisms of Social Justice Warriors. Her choice of terms also places progressive goals in the context of an unattainable pipe-dream: “They also dreamed of structural changes to the political system such as statehood for Washington, D.C., eliminating the legislative filibuster and increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court.”

As a progressive myself, I can attest that there are no explicit leaders of the movement; just because we happen to (mostly) unite around an individual like Bernie Sanders does not tie us to that individual. During the primaries, I protested both Biden’s and Pete Buttigieg’s climate plans with members of the Sunrise Movement. Around the country, other young people did too – not because some leadership structure told us to, but because we believed that their plans were misleading and did not adequately face the reality of the climate crisis. Biden heard our calls for change and, to my surprise, changed his climate plan. Some of us supported him and some did not, even with Sanders’ endorsement.

Perhaps informed by the structure of the Democratic and Republican Parties, Ember paints us as a monolithic group that will protect (and step in line behind) our leaders at all costs. That portrayal ignores the origins of this new progressive movement: we weren’t inspired by one leader or one voice, we were fed up with still-rising wealth inequality, fundamentally racist and unjust institutions, an all-too-real climate crisis and supposed representatives who were too busy trying to win elections to care.

Moderates love to imply that progressive stances alienate voters. At the same time, progressive policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and a $15 minimum wage are wildly popular across demographics. In Florida, Donald Trump received almost 400,000 more votes than Biden – but raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour got 700,000 more votes than Trump.

Ember rounds off the article with a quote from Waleed Shahid, who she describes as “a spokesman for the insurgent liberal group Justice Democrats.” What does Shahid have to say? Nothing that would mark him as an “insurgent,” just some well-rounded, albeit progressive, thought on our current political reality:

“Basically, Joe Biden should use every tool at his disposal to appoint an administration that will deliver for the voters who elected him … There’s going to be a lot of efforts to push on the executive and what the executive can do.”

Ember’s delusions about progressives are not original nor unique to her reporting, which is why the New York Times published them not as an op-ed, but as an ostensibly “unbiased” piece of political news. The same delusions have been echoed by figures such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger (“we need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again”) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (“if we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win”).

Though pundits and moderate politicians obscure real progressive messaging, the progressive message should be abundantly clear: we will use every democratic tool available to implement policies benefiting those Americans who need it most. In the primaries, that meant unseating Democrats who let money and power get in the way of their constituents’ interests. For the next two years, it means leveraging the Democrats’ fragile hold on the House majority to advocate for innovative and popular policy solutions to our generation’s most pressing issues.

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