In the aftermath of the election, many are wondering: Where can the progressive movement go from here?
Progressives “crashed the party by sort of becoming part of it, but also fundamentally changing its course,” said Heather Gautney, associate professor of sociology, in regards to her book Crashing the Party: From the Bernie Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement. “In the book, what I do is outline the development of the new Democrat model in which the Democratic Party was shifting rightward.”
Gautney and Zephyr Teachout, associate professor of law, discussed the progressive movement and their respective books for Fordham Law’s Behind the Book series, organized by the Maloney Library and moderated by Todd Melnick, clinical associate professor of law and director of the library.
In the Nov. 16 event, the two professors offered thoughtful analysis of the future of the progressive movement, punctuated by details from their many active years in politics.
Teachout, who has been at Fordham Law since 2009, ran for governor of New York in 2014 and for the United States House of Representatives in New York’s 19th congressional district in 2016. She published her antitrust book Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money this past May.
Gautney, who published her book in 2018, has worked on both Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns—as a senior policy adviser in 2020 and a volunteer organizer and researcher in 2016.
Neoliberalism comes up in both books, Melnick noted. Gautney said for her, the definition of neoliberalism is less about what it is, and more about what it has accomplished and defeated. “I don’t have the exact words, but the concept is that neoliberalism has achieved the successful removal of working-class resistance,” she said. She gave the example of Reagan firing thousands of air traffic control workers who were on strike in 1981, saying “It was a message to labor: ‘Hey, you’re not safe anymore. The protections that you think that you enjoy, you don’t enjoy anymore.’”
“All of these forces kind of coming together and pushing down working people and moving resistance aside—and fundamentally neoliberalism is about the primacy of the market.”
Similarly, Teachout defined neoliberalism as “the belief that markets are the best mechanism for allocating goods and services as opposed to publicly elected officials.” She said this depends on the fantasy that markets exist before people, and is an attempt by neoliberals to “naturalize what is wholly unnatural,” by framing market regulation as hampering the growth of something natural.
“Laws that enable workers to organize are absolutely essential,” Teachout continued, tying back to her book. “And the key tool to prevent capital from organizing is antitrust.”
The Impact of the Sanders Campaign
According to Gautney, neoliberal identity politics also played a role in the end of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Neoliberals considered diversity within the “1%” enough, she said, and they tried to paint Sanders as someone who didn’t care about diversity when what he really cared about was dismantling the 1% and helping the less fortunate.
Gautney said both she and Sanders himself were surprised about his appeal to young people, since a good chunk of his political career was spent fighting for social security and working with seniors. But she believed that young people flocked to him because he ran a “very counter-cultural” campaign in 2016 when people were disillusioned with what the democratic party had become. And, she said, young people aren’t afraid of socialism the way that older generations are.
Gautney pointed out that even though Sanders lost, progressives who were inspired by his campaign like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were elected.
“In a way he didn’t lose because he shifted the horizon of possibility back,” she said. “We have people who clearly were running on the same agenda that Bernie had injected in 2016… having a substantial appeal. … I would consider that big wins.”
The Future of the Progressive Movement
In terms of the future of the progressive movement, Gautney said that Sanders had negotiated a number of task forces with the Biden campaign after the primary, one of which she co-chaired on education. These task forces, which in her view are “pretty darn good,” coupled with the possibility of a Democratic Senate due to the Georgia runoff, means that the progressive movement could have power in the Biden administration.
Teachout offered the next steps for the progressive movement from both an antitrust and a non-antitrust perspective. On the non-antitrust front, she said organizational work within Congress is essential.
“Use the power you have,” she advised congressional leaders. “Use subpoena power. Take on those hospitals that are merging and overcharging people. Do the investigations. Show that you are fighting for people against the middlemen that are squeezing them. And you can do that even without the Senate.”
On the antitrust side, Teachout said that Biden has the power to revive the economy using anti-monopoly policy. “And it’s not just that he should. It’s that I think, eventually, he’s going to have to, because if you are running into a wall on a Senate that will not pass a stimulus package, you know what a stimulus package is? Anti-monopoly. There’s recent research showing that $15,000 a year is being taken away from workers per year, from each worker per year, to investors, because of concentration in our society.”
When asked by Melnick about whether she felt optimistic moving forward, Gautney replied, “I’m somewhere in the middle, I have to say.”
But she believes Sanders’ influence on this Senate will make a big difference. “[Bernie] is running around with the manifesto and really trying to make sure that the Democratic party and Biden in particular sticks to it.” She said his pragmatic attitude, the force of the movement, and his popularity is what’s made him so successful. “I think he’s ready to go.”
Watch the conversation in full here.