The Left Gets Ready to Pressure the Biden Administration
Left-wing activists joined forces with Biden to defeat Trump, but their silence is already ending
For most of 2020, the left played nice. Many progressive leaders joined Joe Biden’s coalition because they believed defeating Donald Trump was paramount and the only way to advance their agenda. But now that Trump is almost out of the way, they’ve made it clear that they are expecting a return on their investment.
That starts with publicly pressuring Biden during the transition period.
In conversations with GEN, seven progressive organizers showed a mix of optimism and cynicism about what they could expect from Biden. Some are anticipating a hard fight with him on issues ranging from immigration and racial justice to foreign policy. Others believe he can be more gently nudged to the left, particularly after their movements gained policy ground on the Biden campaign’s “unity task forces.” Activists are now busy identifying windows of opportunity: On Monday, Biden mentioned the House Democrats’ pandemic relief bill, which calls for immediate forgiveness of $10,000 in student loan debt. High-profile progressives quickly used the momentum to call for Biden to cancel all of it. Meanwhile, the climate justice group Sunrise Movement and the left-wing Justice Democrats PAC, perhaps best known for helping to elect Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House, released a list of preferred Cabinet appointments. Justice Democrats also criticized some Biden White House staff appointments for their ties to Big Pharma and the fossil fuel industry.
Ahead, organizers tell GEN how they are preparing for the new administration.
Maurice Mitchell, a leader of the Movement for Black Lives and national director of the Working Families Party
Since we delivered this victory electorally, it’s very appropriate for us to expect that Biden-Harris takes Black voters — not just our votes, but our voice — pretty seriously. Imagine if Black voters hadn’t been turning out at the numbers that we turned out in Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta. This election would have swung in a different direction. Those voters turned out for a very particular reason. It wasn’t simply for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. It was to advance an agenda: investments in our folks and creating policies that close up the racial wealth gap, that end police violence, that ensures Black folks can have dignified work. We want to see policies starting in the first 30 days that put working people first and that are not race-neutral, that are specific to our conditions. Because if you live in Native country, if you are a Latinx person in the Southwest, if you are a Black person living in Atlanta, Milwaukee, or Philly, you have a unique set of conditions. Race-neutral policies act against that. We need an administration that is sensitive about tackling racism, closing the racial health gap, and calling for racial justice. We’re going to be looking at appointments and executive orders and, like the Working Families Party, working to flip the Senate. But even if the Democrats lost, that’s no excuse to do everything they can, anything in their power.
John Paul Mejia, spokesperson for Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate justice group
The Biden-Harris ticket was elected by this historic mandate for action on climate, Covid-19, systemic racism, the economy, and so on. To fulfill those promises to “build back better,” they’re going to need a team who represents the ambition of their vision, not people who got us into this mess. Now we have something to work with, but we’re ready to do a whole lot more and put the pressure on a Biden administration. To be quite honest with you, [if he doesn’t make climate a priority], I think it’s going to bite him in the ass — for lack of better words. Young people, Black people, Indigenous people, people of color delivered this victory in key states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin. The ambition on climate was a huge driving factor to why those turnout rates were what they were. If Biden fails to meet the heat of the moment, he’s going to end up becoming an unpopular figure and will likely not amount to much governing power at all. We want Biden to be a visionary or an executive of our views. We don’t want him to be Mitch McConnell’s vice president.
Tania Unzueta, political director at Mijente, a Latinx political advocacy group
We’ve actually been able to move Biden on things that weren’t happening under Obama. For example, there has been a pretty firm commitment from the Biden campaign to do a moratorium on deportations in the first 100 days of his presidency. To me, that says it’s not going to be the same as [under Obama.] That says there’s more community power. When Trump came, what happened was that [detentions, deportations, and immigration policy] became that much more extreme, but people knew what ICE was because of what organizers did under Obama.
We know what it’s like to fight under a Democrat, right? And we know what it’s like to not have any possibility for organizing under Trump. I hear a lot of people being either on the side of “Biden is going to be our savior and now everything is going to be fine” or on the side of “We’re ready to attack Biden for all the things he’s not going to do.” It has to be a middle ground in being able to say, “We’ll take the opportunities where we see them, and we’ll push back whenever we need to push back.”
Oluchi Omeoga, co-founder of Black Visions Collective, a Minnesota-based Black liberation group
I’m very happy that we do not have to fight blatant fascism at this time, but I don’t necessarily have faith in Democrats actually implementing policy that’s going to help Black folks, specifically Black folks who are on the margins, who are working class, who are immigrants, who are queer and trans. As we’ve seen before, right? What we should be advocating for is to reallocate our resources from things that are killing us to things that would regenerate us. How are we actually investing in reversing climate change? How are we investing in housing for folks who don’t have housing? We know the issues, but instead of finding new solutions, we’re just putting more money into the solutions we know aren’t working. One thing we have been doing a lot [as an organization] is community political education. We have to actually implement policies that are not reforms for reform’s sake but are on the pathway toward a new future of safety, a new future of equity.
Emily Mayer, political director at IfNotNow, a Jewish organization critical of Israel
After decades of a failed U.S. foreign policy approach to Israel/Palestine — from Democrats and Republicans — President-elect Biden has an opportunity to chart a new course that will ensure a future of freedom and safety for all Israelis and Palestinians. That must include taking action to hold the Israeli government accountable for violating the human rights of the Palestinians. IfNotNow will stand proudly with other progressive, youth-led organizations to ensure that the Biden administration does everything within their power to end the Israeli military occupation and put human rights at the center of its policy approach, at home and abroad.
Daye Pope, organizing director at Trans United Fund, a transgender rights advocacy group
The Biden administration has a real opportunity to accomplish broadly popular policies, like expanding health care coverage, increasing the minimum wage, and taking action on climate change, that will go a long way to help marginalized people like trans communities. But trans leaders will continue organizing toward decriminalizing sex work, abolishing ICE, and more meaningful structural reforms that center the most marginalized, such as trans people of color, and we expect that to be an uphill battle in a moderate Biden presidency.
Natalie Sweet, communications director at Zero Hour, a youth-led climate justice organization
Zero Hour wants Biden to take stronger stances on climate change, in both the selection of his cabinet and his policy. We’re supporting Sunrise Movement’s cabinet appointment push, featuring Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and many others. We also want Biden to ban fracking nationwide, using the principles of climate justice outlined in the Green New Deal to facilitate a just transition for workers and communities to clean energy. This past spring and summer, we developed a “Getting to the Roots of the Green New Deal” campaign and adapted this educational series to specific swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan. Along with lobbying against fracking, we’re going to be continuing these presentations with a specific emphasis on pushing Biden farther to the left. Though Biden’s election is a step in the right direction for the environmental movement, we still have a long way to go in the fight for climate justice, and we’re definitely not stopping now.
These interviews have been edited for clarity.