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For US democracy to survive, it needs progressives like Sanders and AOC | Judith Levine

In France, more than 200 candidates dropped out of their races to consolidate the left-center vote and defeat the extreme right. In Israel, Labor and the leftwing Meretz party are merging to offer “a real alternative to the path of the failed and dangerous government”.

And in the US, the Democrats are on a death march behind the zombie Joe Biden, more worried about looking disunited than winning the election.

They are disunited – and that may be their last hope. If they’re going to try to save democracy, Biden’s stated campaign goal, they must look to the faction they’ve distanced themselves from: the left. And if the left cares about democracy, it needs to get on board with the Democrats.

The only excitement that the Democrats have generated since Barack Obama’s presidency has come from its further-left members: people such as Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent senator, and erstwhile Democrat; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York City representative; and Jamie Raskin, the left-of-center Maryland representative, who brilliantly orchestrated Donald Trump’s impeachment for attempting to overturn the election.

Yet the party establishment is intent on sidelining its progressive wing. Before the 2020 elections, the Democratic congressional campaign committee changed its rules to cut business ties with any consultant who worked with primary challengers – who were coming, not coincidentally, from the left. The party has sat on its hands as the rightwing American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) pours $100m into defeating seven members of Congress’s progressive “Squad” because of their vocal opposition to Israel’s war on Gaza.

All this effort represents a suicidal denial of the politics of the Democratic base. More than three-quarters of Democrats oppose the war. As many as 750,000 presidential primary voters chose “uncommitted”, “no preference” or a blank ballot to protest Biden’s unconditional support for Israel. In early June, the Nation predicted that the uncommitted delegates, a substantial number of them from the battleground states of the upper midwest, would be a critical constituency at the Democratic convention. If Biden finally throws in the towel, that faction will become much more critical.

Pundits are calling the trouncing of Jamaal Bowman, the progressive Democratic incumbent from New York’s congressional district 16, a sign of Democratic voters’ swing to the center, even though it was money from the right – Aipac’s $15m to his moderate primary opponent – that defeated him. Yet elsewhere in New York state, progressives, including socialists, running as Democrats handily fought off primary challenges, thanks not to the Democratic party but to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Working Families party (WFP).

A 2022 Pew poll found that Democrats under 30 view socialism positively at twice the rate as they favor capitalism. In fact, all Democrats under 65 – Black and brown people more than white, women more than men, poor more than rich – have a better opinion of socialism than of capitalism.

While the Republicans cede all power to the radical right, the Democrats, since Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” of the party in the 1990s, have clung to the middle. By simultaneously marginalizing the left and depending on its votes, the party has courted only mistrust and cynicism from the social justice movements whose ideas, in milder form, they eventually co-opt.

The problem is not just that the Democrats snub progressives. The progressives are carrying on as if no more were at stake in this election than in the last one, when a lot was at stake. Jill Stein and Cornel West, presidential candidates of the Green party and the People’s party, respectively, keep campaigning – and sparring with one another – knowing that they might scrape off enough votes to give the election to Trump.

Since the debate, both are sounding delusional. “Biden’s dropping out, Trump is on his way to jail. I could be the last one standing constant and consistent,” West told the talk show host Tavis Smiley. On the media circuit, Stein is describing the exchange as “zombie versus psychopath”, proof of the two-party system’s dysfunction – and claiming a surge of support for her campaign. Surge or not, Stein is on the ballot in five swing states; according to Politico, she could determine who wins.

In spite of the animosity, progressives and progressive organizations – MoveOn, Lean Left, the DSA, the WFP – continue to pitch in. Most of the people I’ve met making get-out-the-vote phone calls for whatever mediocre candidate the Democrats put on the ballot come from the old, New, Labor, feminist, anti-war or antiracist left. The Democratic party needs the left.

And as much as the Democrats need the left, the left needs democracy. In June 2020, under Trump’s orders, National Guard troops in riot gear fired tear gas and rubber bullets at citizens peacefully protesting George Floyd’s murder in Washington’s Lafayette Park so that the president could have his picture taken holding up a Bible in front of a church. When Trump lectured governors to “dominate” – arrest, prosecute, jail and “do retribution” to – demonstrators in their cities, only Illinois Democrat JB Pritzker, whose name has been floated to replace Biden on the ticket, objected.

In an extraordinary move, Trump’s defense secretary, along with other active and retired military officers, condemned the deployment of the military against non-violent domestic protest. The next time, surrounded by vetted loyalists, Trump will not be constrained.

For the people who braved Covid and the cops, it’s more than distasteful to canvas for the party that named its reform bill after Floyd, then spent hundreds of millions to put more cops on the streets. West and Stein are right: unlike parliamentary systems, where parties large and small represent proportionate popular support within government, the US electoral duopoly fails democracy. But the duopoly is what we’ve got. And this time, the greater of two evils is far eviler than the lesser.

Overlapping crises – a US supreme court that has (most recently) coronated all past and future presidents, and the flameout of the already sputtering Democratic nominee – have muddled the rescue of democracy with the election of Democrats. If they win, they’re unlikely to do better than resuscitate the white supremacist minority-ruled oligarchy we have now.

Still, the prospect of Trumpian fascism ought to stir our fealty to the good old American oligarchy we call democracy. If the left values democracy, it must help the Democrats. And if the Democrats prevail, they must look to the left to make democracy worthy of its name.

  • Judith Levine is a Brooklyn journalist and essayist, a contributing writer to the Intercept and the author of five books

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