It’s Time to Reimagine What Progressive Politics Can (and Cannot) Do

Can progressive politics save us? The capital through barbed wire
Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA, <a href=", CC BY-SA 2.0

There are many people in the U.S. and abroad whose lives were devastated in one way or another by the chaos of the Trump era. Among them there is a desperation for the Joe Biden presidency to heal the wounds that were, while not newly inflicted, viciously torn open over the past four years. For those of us who were already experiencing racism, xenophobia, economic oppression, ableism, transphobia, and/or homophobia, that period was not a revelation, but an ugly reminder about where we live and how people who aren’t white, cisgender, able-bodied men are meant to be treated in this country. 

From the mismanagement of the pandemic, to the racist police violence against Black Lives Matter protesters last summer, to the horrific xenophobia wrought by the Trump administration, and, in his final act, inciting white supremacist violence against congresspeople — now, even more privileged progressives have had enough. Sectors of U.S. society that previously had seemed unbothered by systemic oppression are suddenly interested in being a part of the solution. Last June, as the Movement for Black Lives was intensely reignited following the police murder of George Floyd, searches for “how to be antiracist” skyrocketed on Google. Ibram X Kendi’s book, How to be an Anti-Racist, released in 2019, became wildly popular again during the uprisings against police violence. Calls to defund the police rang through the streets, as protesters advocated for a reallocation of funds from police to social services, education, and other underfunded institutions. 

However, the pandemic and related economic crisis have driven many people into an increasing state of exhaustion and suffering. Some have simply become burnt out by fighting against so many regressive, undemocratic policies. In November, many held their noses as they voted for Biden—historically a centrist—and accepted that he was the lesser evil. We’re all fatigued, and many have latched onto the hope that a combination of Biden’s presidential win and progressive members of Congress pushing him left will be the antidote to the chaos of the Trump years. Indeed, there was unprecedented voter turnout in the November election, and a growing number of progressive politicians voted into Congress.

The rise in prominence of progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, more recently, Cori Bush certainly instills the belief that larger systemic oppression can be broken down from the inside, as long as the right people are in power. However, the emergence of these politicians, while galvanizing a progressive base, will not ultimately result in liberation. The enthusiasm for progressive politicians to create a better system should instead be directed into building movements that break down systems of oppression, rather than reforming them into slightly less violent ones. Genuine change can only come from pushing politicians as far as they can be expected to go, shifting the excitement around this effort to building up truly transformative grassroots movements. 

Progressive Politics and How They Fall Short

These days, it can feel like the terms “progressive,” “liberal,” “left-wing,” and “Democrat” get thrown around to mean any politics that are opposed to those of Donald Trump. But these words have their own distinct, albeit sometimes overlapping, meanings. Progressive politics have a long history in the U.S. and can be summed up as prioritizing social reform by way of broad policy decisions that, for instance, address economic inequality and implement regulation on private business; good examples are Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.  

Throughout the Trump era, many looked desperately toward progressive politicians to be a counterweight to the right-wing tyranny of the 45th president and his Republican enablers. It’s reasonable to believe that the best way to undermine bad political actors is to have good political actors at the decision-making table. But, in the perpetually resonant words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The frequently referenced Lorde quote continues “…[the master’s tools] may allow us to beat him at his own game but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” 

The U.S. government was built on a history of slavery and genocide. This brutal legacy has merely been transformed into imperial violence, mass incarceration, and the neglect and continued violence toward Indigenous people and their lands. If this is the case, how can we expect politicians, even progressive ones, within the U.S. government to be our saviors? Progressive politics will not liberate us. In fact, they have the capacity to legitimize the system of racial capitalism that we live under, as they primarily operate within the realm of U.S. electoral and congressional politics. Providing this broken system with more legitimacy only serves to stifle the possibility for liberation. 

A Racist Foundation

Transferring Lorde’s words to the political context, progressive politics fail because they cannot go far enough by nature of operating within the “master’s house.” Evidence of this can be found in the very structure of the U.S. senate, which so often precludes lawmakers from allowing significant change to happen, even if they have the most genuine of intentions. Each state is represented by two senators, inherently giving disproportionate power to less populated states like Wyoming and South Dakota, which also tend to be whiter and more conservative. 

The senate perpetuates this disproportionate power dynamic through the filibuster which, as we know it today, was designed by John C. Calhoun who led the confederacy and introduced the talking filibuster explicitly as a way to grant more power to slave holding states. Today we see how the filibuster maintains a similar role, as Mitch McConnell fights tooth and nail to maintain its power on the heels of an election determined by the organizing efforts of Black women organizers in the south. If the filibuster remains in a 50/50 senate, Republicans will surely use it to block progressive legislation. 

Even before legislation reaches the Senate, it still must pass through a body steeped in racism: The House of Representatives. The House is haunted by the ⅗ compromise, referring to slaves being counted as ⅗ of a person from 1787 to 1868, which served to bolster population counts of slave states, providing them with greater representation in the house without having to worry about actually earning the votes of enslaved people. The compromise ended in 1868, but functionally still exists today in the way that those who are incarcerated are counted as residents of the districts they are imprisoned in, yet unable to vote. This dynamic has occurred since 1790 but has become much more problematic in the age of mass incarceration where prison populations can be used to significantly alter the size of districts. This is even more troubling when we look at the fact that there are more incarcerated Black people today than there were slaves in 1850. 

The composition of the House, the most directly representative body in the U.S. government has consistently been based on the exploitation of Black bodies. When genuinely progressive legislation does pass the house, it must make its way through a Senate structured to uphold white supremacy. Bipartisan legislation is almost always ridden with troubling compromises that undermine its most promising aspects. The last stimulus package which provided Americans with $600 checks also funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into sites of imperialist violence, namely the Israeli apartheid state, and Venezuelan “pro-democracy” programs. Progressive politicians in this position are forced to either vote against providing struggling working and poor people with desperately needed support, or directly perpetuating U.S.-backed imperialist violence. This is not a unique situation, and demonstrates the fraught nature of attempting to genuinely transform this society from within the halls of power. 

A Dangerous Line to Tow

This examination of the structure of the U.S. government reminds us just how critical the fight for Black liberation, and the dismantling of policing and prison systems is to any hope of a truly democratic society. When it comes to prison and police abolition, progressives don’t go farther than saying “defund the police.” They focus on the excessively militaristic weapons being used against civilians, as if police power is not oppressive in the first place. Similarly, progressive politicians acknowledge the abhorrence of private prisons, and fight for things like felon voting rights. However, incarceration in and of itself is never really questioned. 

The capitol insurrection of January 6th brings to light how ultimately, when the power structure of the American government is challenged, protecting it takes top priority, even at the expense of other important issues such as policing and militarism. Since the insurrection, left of center politicians are straying further away from stances that question police power. AOC recently went on Instagram Live to talk about the capitol insurrection and at one point called out Republican representatives who supported the insurrection for not genuinely supporting law and order. “If they actually cared about the rule of law they would speak up when people break the law” she said. “They don’t give a damn about law. They don’t give a damn about order.” I think what AOC was attempting to do here is call out Republicans who use this language on their disingenuity. Regardless, it’s a dangerous line to tow. It implies that there is something valuable in a concern for maintaining the law for the law’s sake. In the same portion of that Instagram Live, AOC called out Trump saying “He is a traitor to our country. A traitor to the United States.” Again, she is implying there is something valuable to be maintained here. 

The problem with the insurrection was not a lack of concern for the law, or a lack of loyalty for the United States. The problem was white supremacist violence. AOC acknowledged this, but the need to defend the white supremacist structure of this country was still there, even as she called out the white supremacy of those white supremacists rioters. This was of course coupled with an intensely militarized security presence in D.C., a city with a Black population of nearly 50%, in the days leading up to the inauguration, justified because of the events of January 6th. These words from AOC also come on top of the fact that Biden has plans to funnel $300 million into the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program which primarily serves to put more officers on the street and pay for training

So this slight shift toward the right from progressive politicians like AOC is not inconsequential. It strengthens the platforms of centrists like Biden, and makes it more difficult to sustain momentum for causes like defunding the police. Fighting for prison and police abolition, which are foundational in the fight for Black liberation, means fundamentally questioning and undermining the power of U.S. law, and the validity of concepts like “law and order.” Truly getting behind either of this movement means working to completely dismantle the mechanisms that empower the U.S. government, including the police. When progressive politicians pivot to the center like AOC did, it becomes clear that liberation cannot be advanced within the realm of U.S. electoral politics.

So What Do We Do? 

Political action that aims to be liberatory for Black and Indigenous people, but takes place within a government structure built on white supremacy, cannot possibly tear down those systems. AOC, for all the good she has done, is still working within a system envisioned by white, wealthy slave owners. To this day, Congress continues to be dominated by a group of predominantly white politicians, a majority of whom are millionaires, who allow exploitative corporations to directly influence their actions. To engage earnestly in U.S. electoral politics, even as a progressive, and claim you are fighting for the full liberation of Black and indigenous people is a contradiction that we must be honest about. 

When we look at the progressive gains politicians have won throughout history — the Civil Rights Act, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the end of the Vietnam War, the New Deal — there’s an important commonality. Grassroots movements undergirded all of these political accomplishments. The establishment of the EPA and the end of the Vietnam War occurred under President Nixon, and it certainly wasn’t because he was a progressive politician. It was because these movements had grown too strong to be ignored.  

However, once bills were passed in Congress, progress was essentially halted in that space. Racist violence persists in this country despite the Civil Rights Act. The U.S. continues to be a primary purveyor of imperial domination despite the strength of the 1970s anti-war movement. Movements do not flourish in the halls of power; they die. This is because the system is steeped in the oppression and violence these movements are working against. 

Over this past summer organizers from Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block in Minneapolis successfully pressured Minneapolis city council to commit to dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department. This is a hugely powerful way to halt violence against Black and brown bodies, and the win started a wave of similar efforts across the country. Millions of dollars have been reallocated from police forces across the country, and police abolition is being discussed on a broader level than ever before. Despite all of this, the Minneapolis City Council has yet to make good on their promise. This doesn’t negate the power of organizers’ win last June. It merely highlights the need for our movements to not fixate solely on legislation and policy. 

Ultimately, what we need is to build an entirely new system, based in the humanity and dignity of all people. This will not evolve out of the current political structures. Movements like Land Back, the prison abolition movement, and the movement to abolish ICE work to tear down oppressive systems, leaving space to build new structures. These movements hold a liberatory and uncompromising politic, but currently lack the strength to upend the dominant systems. 

Building New Tools

In this political moment we’ve seen the rise of amazing mutual aid efforts such as the massive fundraisers to bail out protestors during the uprisings of last summer, and the organization of groundbreaking prisoner correspondence efforts by organizations like Critical Resistance Portland. A society that is truly democratic should be guided by grassroots mechanisms which truly prioritize community care, and so our movements must build with this vision in mind. 

When moments of mass uprising like the summer of 2020 come along, they must be used to call out the violence of the current system, as well as to build community organizing efforts. These efforts should prioritize halting oppressive violence as well as political education and mutual aid. Small material gains certainly come through legislation, but wins like this should be seen as small steps in the right direction, and as a means to galvanize people, not the end all be all. 

We are in an uphill battle towards liberation, but leaving the most oppressed behind for convenient lesser-evilism is not pragmatic, heroic, or righteous. Bernie won’t save us, the “Squad” won’t save us, and Biden certainly won’t save us. The masses of us involved in the grassroots movements which have made way for political ascendance of people like Bernie Sanders and AOC, and our determination to continue to build movements that can fundamentally transform society: we are the only ones who can save us.

I’m not saying that we abandon the realm of electoralism all together, but we need to be extremely strategic in how we orient to it. We need to use the popularity of progressive politicians to grow enthusiasm for mass movements, not to relieve ourselves of the task of addressing systemic violence. We see the power behind this strategy when we look at how many have been radicalized by the campaigns of Bernie Sanders or Stacie Abrams. Progressive politics and policy change will not be the end all be all. Being realistic about what we’re up against, and fighting for what we deserve, is how we will see true progress. 

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