As the 2024 campaign ramps up, stalwart Democrats are starting to panic over President Biden’s re-election prospects. This, even as America’s post-pandemic recovery has been unparalleled among Western nations, the economy is growing at a rapid clip, unemployment remains near historic lows, green manufacturing and infrastructure investment have soared, and the administration has struck a decisively pro-worker posture.
Yet if recent polls are a guide, Biden is dangerously unpopular for a president who has advanced a much-sought-after break from neoliberalism. Although Bidenomics amounts to a repudiation of austerity and market fundamentalism, prominent voices on the left have derided it as a desperate revival of state capitalism, while Rust Belt and small-town areas, key sites for Biden’s industrial strategy, remain doubtful of the administration’s outreach. Many voters indicate that they are dissatisfied with the economy and convinced that Donald Trump would handle it better.
What accounts for these doldrums? The short answer is that while Bidenomics has many laudable elements, the administration and congressional Democrats have failed to make progress toward a new, more equitable social contract. This failure owes not just to contingent developments like the war in Gaza or the perennial zealotry of GOP budget hawks. Rather, it follows from the inner logic of modern progressivism, which blends neoliberal-friendly identity politics with the worst forms of sectarian leftism.
“A president with Biden’s raft of domestic accomplishments should be favored to win.”
Some on the left have long urged the Democrats to reclaim the party’s populist and New Deal roots and thus emerge, once more, as a true majority party. According to this logic, going “big” should have resulted in a far more favorable electoral environment for Biden today. He has gone “big,” and a president with Biden’s raft of domestic accomplishments should be favored to win under conventional conditions. His party would likewise be poised to make inroads in several districts usually deemed safe for Republicans.
Conditions, to be sure, remain far from conventional, and not only because of Donald Trump’s unshakeable hold on the GOP. The hardships wrought by the pandemic have left some Americans deeply pessimistic. The expansion and then retrenchment of the emergency welfare state on Biden’s watch has likely added to the disillusionment of low-income workers stung by inflation. The administration’s foreign policy has also exposed serious fault lines on the liberal left. Anger over Biden’s unquestioning support for Israel’s brutal war in Gaza following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack could depress turnout in November if alienated young progressives, Arab-Americans, and other minorities choose to penalize the whole Democratic Party, as they well might in battleground states like Michigan. Indeed, a wider conflict in the Middle East sparking a large-scale US intervention would all but ensure that Vietnam-level internecine conflict consumes the Democratic coalition.
For now, though, the persistence of national malaise despite strong economic growth and major federal initiatives remains the central issue facing the party. Its crisis of strategy—its failure, in particular, to transcend our regional divides and reconstitute a labor-centered politics—can no longer be blamed on the dominance of Reaganite and neoconservative paradigms in the late 20th century. While it was once possible for the Democrats to pin widening inequality and policy capture by plutocratic interests on the GOP, this is no longer the case. The slow recovery from the Great Recession under then-President Barack Obama was severely stratified, huge socioeconomic disparities afflict deep-blue cities and states, and the Democrats’ closeness with Wall Street seems only to deepen. No matter how bold in relative terms, an agenda primarily oriented to myriad “supply-side” issues can’t suddenly counteract the country’s pervasive discontent. A more thoroughgoing approach to economic statecraft was called for, but the political base that might have forced this reckoning hasn’t materialized.
Although progressives might agree with this assessment, they are wrong to assume Biden’s troubles are separable from their own: The crisis of the Biden administration and the Democratic Party is a stark reflection, too, of the limits of progressivism itself. Neither Bidenomics nor progressivism, now the party’s de facto ideology, has grown the Democrats’ governing coalition. What Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) recently lamented in an essay for The New Republic as our “spiritual unspooling” stems not only from the policy shortcomings of the past, but from the failure of modern progressivism to advance social democracy in America.
The idea that modern progressivism is in crisis may seem odd at first blush. An activist-oriented worldview that gradually displaced the “Third Way” centrism of the Clintons following the global financial crisis of 2007-08, progressivism combined many strands of “post-materialist” and identitarian politics with a critique of inequality not leveled since the 1960s. Composing a multiracial cross-section of the college-educated and the urban “precariat,” progressives essentially positioned themselves as a new New Left determined to transform the system, not smash it. Older liberals who felt the Democrats had lost their way in the 1990s and the post-9/11 era were heartened: The new progressivism seemed to reclaim a role for government action that harked back to the reforms of the New Deal and the original Progressive Era.
Momentum built in the hazy aftermath of Occupy Wall Street. Frustrated by the drift of Obama’s second term and emboldened by Bernie Sanders’s attacks on the billionaire class, a new generation of activists, left-wing politicians, and progressive economists coalesced into a force that had, by the 2020 Democratic primary, compelled a number of leading Democrats to portray themselves as part of the progressive vanguard on both cultural and economic questions.
At the start of Biden’s presidency, this influence seemed to finally translate into bold legislation and congressional votes. Many analysts were surprised by the sheer size of the fiscal stimulus congressional Democrats championed in 2021 and 2022. Senior Democrats conceded that the Obama administration had been too cautious during the Great Recession. This time around, by matching their rhetoric with Keynesian and pro-worker policies, Democrats proved far more decisive and ideologically cohesive than they had under Obama. The combined efforts of the cultural and economic left also appeared to be working. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and The Squad channeled the concerns of millennials—whose adult lives had been marked by patterns of disinvestment, austerity, and low wages—by embracing a focus on “marginalized communities” and “systemic racism” alongside Sanders’s old-left critique of economic inequality.
The unexpected turn toward industrial policy, though not a distinct priority for millennial progressives, was also significant. In a tacit admission of neoliberalism’s mounting failures, Biden telegraphed to the entire political and economic establishment that the Democratic Party wouldn’t hesitate to use government to steer economic growth and shape markets in ways that better serve society. The range of political-economic possibilities unmistakably widened under a president whose reputation had suggested nothing of the sort.
Just how much credit progressives deserve for the Democratic Party’s turn away from the incremental reformism of the Clintons and Obama is less clear than it may seem, however. Champions of the realignment strategy marvel at the number of “democratic socialists” who hold elected office. But most policy expertise and legislative influence still reside with mainstream liberals in Congress and the states, some of whom first won election in the late 1970s. Biden’s policies, much like Obama’s Affordable Care Act, were largely products of center-left negotiation and seasoned politicians, rather than a progressive insurgency. Unlike with the signature achievements of the New Deal, which reflected years of mass mobilization by labor and agrarian movements, it is difficult to point to a single policy or reform in our time that bears the clear imprint of progressive activists.
Progressive strategists would offer two counterarguments. First, that the regeneration of the left flank of the Democratic Party merely attests to the urgency of ousting “corporate Democrats.” On these grounds, purging the moderates takes precedence over riskier campaigns outside of liberal strongholds; only with a hegemonic and ideologically homogeneous left flank can the party turn its attention to elections in other regions and attempt a realignment of the party system itself. The second counterargument is that seniority is an obvious factor behind the asymmetry in power between progressives and the liberal establishment. Whether in urban politics or the realm of congressional committee appointments, progressives still need time to accrue bargaining power and other sources of policy leverage.
These are fair points—to a degree. However, progressives’ strategy of challenging incumbents in safe blue districts appears to have petered out, as evident in left-wing challengers’ lackluster outcomes in the 2022 midterm primaries. (In the midterm general elections, progressives who did prevail in the primary lost key races.)** In the meantime, coastal progressives seem indifferent to the challenges faced by Democratic populists like Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who must stress bread-and-butter issues and economic patriotism to appeal to culturally conservative electorates. **An insurgent wing serious about power and policy would surely grant greater ideological and rhetorical flexibility on certain issues to strong allies of labor, especially those in more rural and conservative states.
“Progressives’ vision of change hasn’t successfully revived working-class power.”
At the same time, as Julius Krein has observed, “when it comes to actual governance, Democrats’ performance, particularly in progressive states and cities, is somewhere between weak and abysmal.” Most on the left are inclined to disregard such external critiques. But few progressives can point to any Democratic-controlled city where they enjoy influence and claim success on basic metrics of poverty, housing, residential and educational segregation, and other developmental outcomes. Perhaps the clearest sign of progressives’ influence on socioeconomic policy are the recent hikes in local minimum wages, but credit is also due to ordinary workers who have pressed their demands outside the national spotlight.
Thus, while progressives may have underestimated how hard it is to rein in the vested interests of blue regions, their intraparty battles have done little to reduce blue-state inequality or expand the liberal-left coalition in the manner that Sanders had sought to do. In blue cities and ailing post-industrial regions alike, progressives’ vision of change hasn’t successfully revived working-class power—certainly not in a manner that would shake up the regional basis of the two-party system.
For all its ability to activate political consciousness in young people and perpetually stimulate a personal need to be outwardly political—to be on the “right side of history” on every issue—most of progressivism’s accomplishments on bread-and-butter issues are opaque. As both disaffected liberals and Marxists of a populist bent have contended, progressives have leveled radical critiques of society without fundamentally disturbing the concentration of economic power and cultural capital. The result is that progressive ideas have permeated society without opening up new horizons for real change.
Much of the problem pertains to the space—geographic, social, professional, and ideological—that progressives have occupied since Obama’s 2008 election. As the difficult recovery of the 2010s wore on, progressives in search of opportunity were further pulled into blue coastal cities, where grassroots activism was more likely to provide a ladder to the professional networks afforded by liberal civil society. Over time, this enmeshment with the winners of the knowledge economy would undermine the larger realignment project.
Around the same time, left populists in Europe and Latin America strove to center class issues that linked the services-based precariat and traditional working class across regions, much as Sanders attempted in 2016. American progressives, by contrast, embraced the neo-sectionalist idea that the first order of business was making sure blue cities and states lived up to their “values”—a project with no end in sight but that was sure to prevent most activists from evaluating their calculus about how to transform national politics.
For the most part, American progressives’ networks became inextricable from the foundations, nonprofits, and other civil-society organizations that already constituted the Democrats’ “shadow party,” as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira call it. They were overwhelmingly coastal, dominated by the college-educated, and, with the exception of those who devoted themselves to the labor movement and community organizing in poor neighborhoods, remote from the working-class constituencies they purported to represent.
Progressives also duplicated the interest-group politics of the Democratic Party while amplifying its most counterproductive aspects. To the consternation of those left populists who dreamed of a labor-centric movement in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, the tendency committed to causes such as “dismantling white supremacy” and “decolonization” became increasingly unbounded in its prosecutorial zeal. A preoccupation with elite recognition of marginalized communities, often expressed through novel demands expressed in esoteric jargon, perpetually overshadowed questions of political economy and universal social rights. Even during Sanders’s two campaigns for president, progressives struggled to persuade non-Democrats that empowering workers of all backgrounds was central to their agenda.
Progressives thus failed to draw a sharp contrast with the neoliberal elites upon whom many of them directly or indirectly depended. As much as young people ostensibly began to favor socialism, the contemporary left could never fully disentangle itself from what the scholar Nancy Fraser dubbed “progressive neoliberalism.” The irony of this is that progressivism took on a more hypervigilant, moralistic, and absolutist air in the same period. The growing preponderance of movement jargon combined the worst tendencies of the campus left and the professional-managerial class. In practical terms, this meant that progressivism was associated with celebrity “anti-racism” specialists like Ibram X. Kendi, as well as far-left anti-Americanism, as recently exemplified by the presence of Hamas apologists among the Democratic Socialists of America and other movement circles.
“Militant progressives set out to delegitimize other perspectives on social norms.”
The language of social justice consequently departed from the efforts of 20th-century liberals and social democrats. An earlier generation of progressives had sought to reconcile their egalitarian ends with a commitment to pluralism while also emphasizing common bonds. Modern progressives, by contrast, prioritized identitarian claims that were strikingly essentialist—from ritualized acknowledgments, special glossaries, and other ostensible sources of redress for the historically marginalized to the transhistorical moral debt of those descending from “oppressor” groups. Meanwhile, outré concepts like “degrowth,” “family abolition,” and “harm reduction”—that last an increasingly pseudo-ethical justification for laissez-faire public safety—gained broader currency in progressive circles. Armed with their own rarefied lexicon and boutique epistemology, militant progressives set out to delegitimize other perspectives on social norms.
Leftists who worried that these tendencies would alienate major segments of the working class were branded as reactionaries and bedfellows of the populist right. But left critics of progressivism had been perceptive about the changes that had unfolded since the days when activists chanted, “We are the 99 percent.” Following the chaotic events of 2020, progressive optimism fell prey to a downright misanthropic outlook. Where progressives had once emphasized solidarity, too many became consumed by America’s brokenness and irredeemable legacies. The growing predilection to condemn history and past generations of Americans made it all the more difficult to claim progressivism was for the people, rather than an inherently elitist project to sift the righteous from the benighted. Perhaps unwittingly, progressives came to differentiate the deserving from the undeserving poor, and then took this narrative deep into mainstream and elite institutions via consultancy gigs, NGO grants, and the like.
This dynamic fatefully undermined progressives’ identification with the labor movement. Many of them were intimately familiar with the ways in which neoliberalism had removed economic security from ordinary people’s grasp. Yet their identitarian obsessions and purity tests didn’t alter perceptions that progressivism had little to do with New Deal-style goals like inclusive economic development and upward mobility. Given, too, that denunciations of America’s sins emanated from some of the wealthiest zip codes and most prestigious universities, Rust Belt and rural voters weren’t necessarily wrong to look askance at progressives’ climate goals and selective emphasis on marginalized communities. Despite recent efforts by progressive groups to align more vocally with striking unions and to organize new workplaces, wage-laborers in key industrial sectors continue to see progressivism as hostile to their material interests.
In retrospect, progressivism’s social and cultural impact was always bound to be disproportionate to its modest policy achievements. Because of its kaleidoscopic agenda, progressivism suffered from an incoherence that made it all the more assimilable to the status quo. By parroting themes such as intersectionality and “dismantling patriarchy,” cultural and economic elites muffled more pointed attacks on the largest owners of capital and their high managers. At the same time, progressives’ embrace of maximalist positions on a range of complex social and cultural issues ultimately ran counter to efforts to forge a new economic consensus.
Thus, while some activists devoted themselves to the pursuit of goals like Medicare for All and the PRO Act (which would effectively undo the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947), progressivism never gained force as a national project the way the New Deal did. From the burnout that followed protest cycles to the continuing decline of private-sector unions to the disdain held for anyone who questioned the increasingly Manichaean and conformist logic behind every “movement” position—progressivism proved at every turn to be an affective politics more than an egalitarian program. As the Democrats became identified with the economy’s advanced sectors and most prosperous regions, progressivism reinforced the trend, rather than countering it.
“The coordinates for a post-neoliberal path were not set by a mass politics of the left.”
Still, the actual business of reform remains in the hands of our reluctant party of government—the Democrats. Despite years of high-profile activism, the coordinates for a post-neoliberal path were not set by a mass politics of the left, but by presidential advisers: by appointees like Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Lina Khan, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan; and by overlooked workhorse liberals in Congress. Indeed, one of the more striking aspects of Bidenomics is that it isn’t the culmination of progressive mobilization, but elite recognition that neoliberalism’s pathologies, left unchecked, would imperil the legitimacy of the center-left establishment. Thus, the existence of Bidenomics speaks less to progressivism’s influence than its limitations, distractions, and contradictions. For all its moving parts, Bidenomics is a treatment for the failures of neoliberalism that no single powerful constituency on the left had sought—and that too few progressives are prepared to rally behind even today.
This disjuncture—exacerbated by the calamitous war in Gaza—suggests progressivism is no longer equipped to resolve the coalition question, if it ever was. Between its failure to broaden the geographic reach of the Democratic Party and its inability to revive labor politics at the national level, progressivism has retreated from the pursuit of national realignment that many progressives, both liberal and socialist, once thought was possible. The persistence, meanwhile, of progressive neoliberalism in everyday life, of the proliferation of needless dogmas that sidestep material conditions and outcomes, must be understood as arising from the incorporation by the “shadow party” of sectarian impulses recalling the old New Left’s most dead-end excesses. On this score, Bidenomics seems to be operating on an entirely different plane than the nexus of professionals, social-media influencers, and elite donors who have crafted the progressive brand over the last 15 years.
Is there an alternative? As Sen. Murphy recently asked: “Might a new, more capacious coalition be the key to making progress … even if that coalition included some dissenting voices?” This is a question that left populists, dissenting old-school liberals, and a few voices on the heterodox right have oddly converged on, even if they disagree—sharply—on what a new settlement should look like. For today’s vanguard progressives, one thing should be clear: Whatever Biden’s fate, the evolving hybrid of progressive neoliberalism and far-left sectarianism isn’t a viable path forward. For the rest who dream of social democracy—and of an epochal realignment—now is the time to confront, without illusions, why a majoritarian politics still eludes them.