As members of the “Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces” put the final touches on their policy recommendations, there were smiles and gushing compliments all round. The task forces were established earlier this year to unify the Democratic Party behind a range of policies acceptable to Sanders and Biden supporters. In theory, their recommendations will shape the policies of a Biden presidency.
But beyond the inner sanctum of Democrats and the journalists they speak to, it was a bit of a non-event. The proposed policies mostly range from anodyne to right wing. Even policies that have some progressive content are undermined by the fact that they are merely recommendations, to be reviewed by the ultra-neoliberal Democratic National Committee and Biden’s campaign team.
The real significance of the task forces is that they represent the ever stronger unity between the Sanders camp and the Biden camp. Sanders became popular because he was viewed as a challenge to the neoliberal, right wing establishment that Biden embodies. But Sanders himself, and the “Squad” of left Democratic politicians who support him, have always advocated party unity. When Sanders withdrew from the presidential primary race, he gave his full-throated endorsement to Biden and has pushed for greater collaboration with the right ever since.
Team Biden is keen for this collaboration, not because they find Sanders’ program compelling, but because it offers a way of neutralising a challenge. Biden first proposed the task forces when Sanders was still in the race, as an incentive for him to withdraw. The idea could just as easily have come from a political skit show. It’s a classic mechanism to allow a political rival to retreat while saving face: plonking them onto a time-consuming, toothless committee with a fancy name. In this case, they went above and beyond, establishing not one but six mini-task forces that all come together within one mega-task force. The skit show writers would likely have found it slightly crude and overdone.
As well as neutralising a rival, the fanfare about unity allows the Biden camp to boost its credibility by absorbing some of the more benign policies popularised by the Sanders campaign. Biden’s support for a $15 an hour federal minimum wage allows him to pose as pro-worker without biting the capitalist hands that feed him – corporate giants Amazon, Costco, Target and Walmart are all also calling for the minimum wage rise.
There is no doubt that corporate America and the vast majority in the capitalist class back Biden and that he, in turn, will rule for them. And despite attempting to remake himself as mildly progressive for the election, his conservative politics constantly betray him. In response to the George Floyd protests, Biden attempted to come across as moderately, ambivalently sympathetic by suggesting that instead of aiming for the heart, cops should “shoot ’em in the leg”. It’s hard to think of a more eloquent metaphor for Democratic Party policies.
That Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Squad have given their political support to this odious creep is bad enough. That they are now cheerily working alongside him and endorsing his program is just pathetic. This charade is the latest example of the major fault lines present in the Sanders campaign from the beginning. The most important one is the political differences between the rank and file and the leadership.
Sanders was a lightning rod for millions of people fed up with the deepening economic inequality and political corruption in the US. He called out the billionaires on Wall Street, arguing for an end to their grotesque wealth and power. And though he never put forward a socialist program, he called himself a socialist and argued for a series of decent welfare reforms. With all of this, he tapped into the smouldering rage, radicalism and desire for change that is growing in US society.
This fire is constantly being stoked by the crimes of Trump, by the brutality of the pandemic response, by the experiences of police brutality. And it has found partial representation in various movements over the past decade: the Occupy movement, the Sanders campaign and now the enormous Black Lives Matter movement.
But the Sanders moment has passed, and his politics are increasingly diverging from the phenomena that he tapped into and that fuelled his rise. Sanders’ statement that the task force recommendations will “move this country in a much needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country” cannot possibly square with the hopes of millions of Sanders supporters who mobilised for Medicare for all and free education, neither of which made it into the recommendations.
Ocasio-Cortez’s claim that the climate task force “accomplished a great deal” is hard to reconcile with the results. The recommendations conspicuously fail to call for an end to fossil fuel extraction or a reduction of fracking, and do not mention the phrase “Green New Deal”. The main accomplishment seems to be a proposal to shift Biden’s 100 percent clean energy target forward by 15 years to 2035. Like many such environmental targets globally, it smells very much like empty promises. Timelines are flexible, as is the interpretation of “clean”. This is partly explained by Ocasio-Cortez’s co-chair, right winger John Kerry, who, despite being described as an honour to work with by AOC, is a supporter of the fossil fuel industry.
The struggles against racism cannot possibly find their reflection in the work of “progressive” Democrats who call for support for “shoot ’em in the leg” Joe and who presided over the immigration task force, which does not call for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and the criminal justice task force, which does not call for a defunding of the police. In fact, the recommendations propose more funding for “community” policing, in keeping with Sanders’ disgraceful position that has placed him on the wrong side of one of the biggest movements in US history.
The fact that Sanders and other left Democrats are cynically using this operation to drum up support for Biden and the mainstream Democrats is not an accidental misstep or the result of political naivete. Sanders has demonstrated unshakable commitment to the Democrats over a long period of time. This loyalty was central to the major contradiction between the potential he tapped into and the strategy he offered. In 2016, he backed Clinton and argued that she would continue his “political revolution”. Just recently, Sanders and the Squad, bar AOC, voted for a US$2 trillion corporate bailout package, despite offering some criticisms prior to the vote.
As long time US socialist Kim Moody remarked, the Democrats are rather like a Leninist party when it comes down to it, except in the case of the Democrats, the principles that bind it are the defence and stability of capitalism. We don’t need joint task forces, we need a socialist party of our own.