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The Emerging U.S. Left in Times of Pandemic (and Worse)

May 25, 2020


by James Cohen is professor of American studies at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3).




A few days before the COVID-19 crisis began disrupting all aspects of life, the emerging left wing bloc in U.S. politics was reaching the summit to date of its level of recognition as a force. 

In the first three Democratic primary elections of early 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders either tied for first place (Iowa) or was the clear winner (New Hampshire, Nevada). The Sanders campaign was not simply an electoral apparatus but was becoming a broad space of convergence of social movement currents and organizations making their voice heard nationally and whose most basic demands – guaranteed health care for all, higher wages and labor rights, higher education as a publicly guaranteed service, a transition from fossil fuels to a green future – have become genuinely popular. Despite his age, Sanders was by far the most popular candidate among younger voters.  



In March, Bernie Sanders pursued a modified campaign on-line, discussing the pandemic in itself, but also as a powerful argument for guaranteed universal health care. (Source: Sanders campaign)
In March, Bernie Sanders pursued a modified campaign on-line, discussing the pandemic in itself, but also as a powerful argument for guaranteed universal health care. (Source: Sanders campaign)

However, the Sanders campaign’s electoral strength soon proved unequal by region and by state, not to mention by age group. The first defeat, a sound one, came at the hands of Joseph Biden in South Carolina (Feb. 29), a deeply conservative southern state. “Super Tuesday” (March 3), when 14 states held primaries at once, proved a turning point. While winning in four states including California, Sanders lost to Biden in all 10 others. Taking these results as confirmation of an unstoppable trend, several other candidates withdrew from the race and rallied to Biden, leaving Sanders with a very difficult path to victory – though still mathematically possible – in the remaining 30 or so primaries. 


What the results of the Sanders-Biden primary battle would have been will never be known because when the pandemic struck, ordinary electoral campaigning was suspended. Sanders, who drew huge crowds whererever he campaigned, could no longer hold public gatherings. Throughout March he was reduced to holding livestream social media discussions with supporters and specialists in the aim of helping the public make sense of the pandemic in ways that the Trump administration was not doing.


For a short time it appeared that the coronavirus crisis, however tragic, compounded by economic depression and, to make things much worse, the constantly polarized political atmosphere under Trump, might prove, even in the short term, an opportunity for the left. Millions of people found themselves without a job and without health coverage at a time when they most needed it. The workers most essential to the daily life of society were also the most exposed to infection by the virus. The demand for a guaranteed public health care program and for adequate labor protection could only prosper in such a catastrophic situation. 


Nothing could compensate, however, for the Sanders campaign’s loss of national media visibility. On April 8th, Sanders announced his decision to withdraw from active campaign for the nomination, while keeping his name on the remaining primary ballots in order to continue accumulating delegates to the Democratic convention.

Bernie Sanders evoked Franklin Roosevelt as a precedent for bold policymaking. Could Joe Biden be imagined in such a role?
Bernie Sanders evoked Franklin Roosevelt as a precedent for bold policymaking. Could Joe Biden be imagined in such a role?

Sanders made his withdrawal announcement in a half-hour video conversation with Joe Biden in person in which he also explicitly endorsed Biden for president. As he stated frankly, he did not expect everyone on the left to share this endorsement. Biden, after all, embodies much of what the rising left has most clearly rejected in the Democratic Party. Nonetheless Sanders called for the formation of a broad common front against a clear threat not just to social and ecological well-being but to democratic institutions. 


Biden and Sanders adopted a process whereby joint task forces in several key policy areas would give the left some voice and influence in fashioning the Democratic campaign platform. (As is well known, however, the two major U.S. parties do not have actual programs, nor does their structure allow for that. The platform represents much less than a program a firm commitment to act.) The six task forces will deal with climate change, education, criminal justice reform, health care, the economy, and immigration. By mutual agreement, Biden would select five members for each task force while Sanders would select three. Among the Sanders representatives are his most famous supporter, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, elected from New York in 2018 at age 29, Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. 




Some political commentators, such as David Dayen of The American Prospect and Jeet Heer of The Nation, have lately been asking a question that many on the left would share: in this deep crisis that has thrown millions into distress, and which seems to require a response at least as bold as the New Deal, is there any chance whatsoever that Biden could become another Franklin D. Roosevelt? There is little in his record as a senator (1973-2009) to suggest that he could play such a role. As Heer writes, Biden often “sounds like a 1990s Clintonian, ready to triangulate his way to the center or even the center right. Yet at other times “he sounds like he wants to be a Franklin Roosevelt–style progressive.” He has indeed, of late, spoken of “going big” in response to the crisis.


Which will it be then, asks David Dayen: “Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Biden?” Having spoken to several people within the Biden campaign, he notes that “it’s too soon to know how this will break. Not even Biden knows yet.” Within his circle of advisors, there are not only progressives of various shades, including economist Jared Bernstein, but also the decidedly establishment figure of Lawrence Summers, who served in the Clinton and Obama adminisrations and whose influence must be assumed to be greater than that of the progressives. Then again, Biden could be pushed into a more ambitious program of change by the sheer scale of the problems he’ll inherit if he wins in November. The left will certainly try to hold him accountable “If he is pushed to the left,” observes Heer, “it will only be through relentless effort.” 




In the absence of a coherent Trump administration policy to guide the population through COVID-19, Congress is a key arena in which some semblance of national response has been fashioned. Two stimulus and relief packages have been passed to date: the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”), signed into law on March 19th, and the $3 trillion HEROES Act, passed by the House on May 15th and very coldly received in the Senate. Both have been engineered, on the Democratic side, by leaders – above all House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – who have been unaccountable to other Democrats. Both bills have been widely denounced on the left as skewed toward the interests of large corporate interests and lacking in serious and sustainable guarantees for working people. 


Would it not have been possible, many on the left have asked, to turn these bills into examples of what Democrats want for the people rather than a hodgepodge of appropriation measures with no underlying vision? Shouldn’t the Democrats, who hope to defeat Donald Trump in November, start making their intentions clear and gathering support for them now? The fact that such questions are being asked shows that the left, while not strong enough yet to shape the agenda, is starting to develop a strategic approach to Washington politics. 



Medicare for All, a central stake for the left.
Medicare for All, a central stake for the left.

Recent polls show that nearly 70% of U.S. voters, including nearly 90% of Democratic voters, are in favor of the Sanders campaign’s objective of “Medicare for All”, that is, a publicly guaranteed system of health care that would replace private insurance and bring costs down considerably.  This is presumably what Sanders meant when, on the day he abandoned the race for the Democratic nomination, he also declared that the left had “won the ideological battle.” 


Despite these difficulties, in many ways, from a left perspective, this would seem like a time for the left to continue its expansion. The heightening social contradictions of the past several decades are now greatly magnified by the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic. The condition of health care workers, meatpacking workers, transport and delivery workers, is more visible to the public than ever before, as are the demands they formulate. The solutions proposed by the left make more sense to more people than ever before. 

Marcela Mitaynes, Peruvian American, activist for housing  rights, campaigns for a seat in the New York State Assembly.
Marcela Mitaynes, Peruvian American, activist for housing rights, campaigns for a seat in the New York State Assembly.

Although it cannot yet boast large numbers of elected officials, the left can draw on what historian Max Elbaum has called “a whole ecosystem” of left or progressive forces – literally thousands of national, state or local groups. Among the national groups that actively supported Sanders are a number of ecology movement organizations as, Friends of the Earth, the Sunrise Movement, the U.S. Youth Climate Strike and the Zero Hour Movement; immigrants’ rights groups such as Mijente and United We Dream; groups of Muslim citizens, such as Engage and Muslim Caucus of America, and many others. 


Other than Sanders’s own electoral organization known as Our Revolution, several other groups have been, over the past decade at least, training activists for positions of leadership including electoral office. These include the Center for Popular Democracy, Justice Democrats, People’s Action, Progressive Democrats of America, the Indivisibles, Roots Action and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). 


DSA has in recent years experienced an unprecedented explosion in membership. In 2012 it had 6500 members, disproportionately of retirement age. Since the election of Trump that number has skyrocketed to 70,000, including 10,000 in the weeks since the COVID-19 crisis. Its two most prominent members are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American labor activist from Detroit who also arrived in Congress in 2019. DSA is not a party per se, but it claims as members about 30 elected officials nationally, at all levels, including six members of the 50-member Chicago Board of Aldermen. 


Although the primary elections have been seriously perturbed by COVID-19, they continue and will soon give rise to a small but determined new cohort of left-trained and left-sponsored candidate for several of seats in Congress, state legislatures, county and city councils. The high visibility of Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” of newly-elected, left-leaning women of color in the House – also including Rashida Tlaib; Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), former Somalian refugee; and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts – show that numbers are not everything in politics. But greater numbers can only help if the left is to develop a degree of clout that matches the popularity of its ideas.


Just a few weeks ago the presidential election of 2020 looked like a way for the left to accelerate the growth of its power. Now it is clear that its “long march” must continue, only this time under the conditions of a crisis that has only begun to reveal its effects.




Jeet Heer, “Would You Buy a Used Progressive Agenda From This Man?”, The Nation, May 15, 2020. 

David Dayen, “Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Biden?”, TAP, May 13, 2020. 

Intercepted with Jeremy Scahill, “The Jungle and the Pandemic: The Meat Industry, Coronavirus and and Economy in Crisis”, podcast, May 20, 2020. 

The Dems’ Hapless Covid Response” with David Dayen, podcast “The Majority Report”, May 15, 2020. 

"Lessons from the New Left", podcast “The Dig”, October 10, 2018. 

James Cohen is a Professor of American studies at the University Sorbonne Nouvelle. He also teaches at the Institut des hautes études de l'Amérique Latine. He is a member of the Center for Research on the English-speaking World (CREW, EA 4399). He is the author of Spanglish America. Les enjeux de la "latinisation" des Etats-Unis (Le Félin, 2005) and A la poursuite des "illégaux". Politiques et mouvements anti-immigrés aux Etats-Unis (éd. du Croquant, 2012).