Progressives Can’t Repeat the Mistakes of 2008

Barack Obama and Joe Biden
Erin Schaff / The New York Times / REDUX

Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET on November 29, 2020.

Emotionally and politically, 2008 stands as a high-water mark for many American liberals—a year that brought both electoral triumph and national renewal as Barack Obama was swept into office and Democrats took the House and Senate. For those on the progressive left today, however, it should serve as a warning and case study in the way that popular energy and progressive agitation can dissipate when a Democratic administration takes power.

In purely electoral terms, 2020 is unlike 2008: The Democrats defeated Donald Trump but suffered unexpected losses down-ballot, failing to produce the highly anticipated blue wave. Political analogies are rarely exact. Notwithstanding their obvious points of contrast, however, 2020 and 2008 have several useful points of comparison, well beyond a shared context of economic calamity, global crisis, and the recent defeat of a Republican president.

The George W. Bush era once created a powerful constellation of grassroots organizations and progressive infrastructure around a variety of causes that spanned the fight for universal health care to opposing the administration’s foreign and domestic-security policies. United around their desire to see the Republicans defeated in 2008, a motley coalition of dissenters, bloggers, and activists helped give liberal politics the populist energy that would be so adeptly harnessed by Obama’s first campaign for president. Amid the euphoria of his landslide victory, much of that energy would fold into garden-variety Democratic partisanship afraid to issue even tepid criticism of its own side. As a result, despite all the initial talk of change, people power, and movement building, the guiding ethos of Obama-era liberalism would quickly become one of deference and disengagement.

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The causes of that malaise were many, but several are germane today.

In 2008, Obama secured a mandate that was at once extraordinarily sweeping and astonishingly vague—not least because his gift for political storytelling made him difficult for people to place on the political spectrum. When combined with the fatigue that inevitably accompanies any sustained period of Republican rule and a victory of historic proportions, Obama’s kaleidoscopic rhetoric—a dizzying medley of Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and FDR—gave politics-weary liberals the implicit permission to abandon their activist posture and let the administration operate on its own inertia. During Bush’s second term, a less-than-negligible swath of Democrats and would-be progressives had come to see themselves as dissidents waging an uphill struggle against special interests and defective institutions; during Obama’s first, many would abandon oppositional politics entirely, pivoting instead to the post-partisan platitudes that inspired 2010’s quasi-ironic Rally to Restore Sanity.

If progressives in the years leading up to 2008 banged the drum around slogans of change and renewal, the major theme after Obama’s inauguration was that the war had been won and the adults were now in charge. This also happened to be the message coming straight from the top, as plans to strengthen the powerful grassroots organizing infrastructure that had propelled Obama’s campaign were scrapped and it instead became a glorified listserv for the DNC.

Signs that the administration was setting a more conservative course than grassroots enthusiasts had expected came quickly, but criticism was often muted to nonexistent during its critical first two years. The public option for health-care coverage, already a climbdown from the single-payer model supported by rank-and-file Democrats, was dropped with minimal outcry even though it had a chance to pass the Senate. When the administration walked back its flagship labor legislation, union leaders offered not resistance but praise. As a recession gutted livelihoods and produced a wave of home foreclosures, Obama rejected a New Deal–scale transformation of the economy. Yet no progressive insurgency materialized to demand a more aggressive approach. (On the contrary, thanks to the Tea Party, populist anger would become the terrain of the right.) The retreats of 2009 and 2010 were a disaster for the activists and progressives whose enthusiasm had helped bring Obama to power; they also proved highly damaging to the Democrats, who held fewer elected offices nationwide than at any period since the 1920s by the end of his second term.

Joe Biden might have none of his former running mate’s oratory or personal charisma, but his victory comes on the heels of a similarly intense period of political engagement and extra-parliamentary organizing and advocacy. On issues ranging from immigrant rights to economic inequality to racial and environmental justice, the Trump era has seen a genuine upsurge in support for important progressive causes. Once again, this activist energy is set to collide with a Democratic administration whose mandate is hazily defined: Americans have just voted in record numbers for Trump’s replacement, but the Biden project, beyond the realization of that singular goal, remains deliberately murky at the level of detail.  

Twelve years ago, a landslide Democratic victory became the catalyst for complacency and silence in the face of legislative retreat. Today, as a liberal administration enters office on comparatively weak political ground, and amid political exhaustion, activists and left-wing lawmakers will feel yet more pressure to temper their agitation and stick to partisan deference. In fact, evidence of that pressure is already abundant: While ballots were still being counted, party grandees and Blue Dogs blamed both activists and progressive rhetoric for the party’s dismal down-ballot results.

But if progressives have reason to worry that the popular energies marshaled during the Trump years will lose coherence and vanish into the miasma of official Washington, they have even better reason to hope that the left has learned from past mistakes. In recent years, organizations like Justice Democrats have made insurgent primary challenges against conservative incumbents a semi-regular occurrence. As a direct result of those efforts, the left now counts more nationally recognizable figures among its congressional ranks than at any other point in recent history; 2018 newcomers like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are set to be joined by the likes of Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and Mondaire Jones.

Equipped with an ambitious legislative agenda and battle-hardened by Bernie Sanders’s two insurgent presidential campaigns, activists and their political surrogates are much better placed today than in 2008 to offer an alternative to the usual liberal incrementalism. Rather than wait for the administration to act, progressive lawmakers are continuing their push for Medicare for All—“universal health care” no longer being a vague catch-all but a clearly defined goal. Where it was once considered bold for liberal politicians to rhetorically embrace the science of climate change, the most important environmental litmus test is now the ambitious Green New Deal. Further initiatives around criminal-justice reform, the taxation of extreme wealth, and the cancellation of student debt give added substance and coherence to a progressive movement that simply did not exist—independent of the ever-circumspect Democratic mainstream—the last time a liberal president entered the White House.

In the short term, pursuing and strengthening this alternative will require sustained public pressure on the incoming administration, particularly with regard to Cabinet appointments. In the longer term, it will require standing firm on marquee progressive priorities while consistently meeting Biden’s conservative instincts with a countervailing force. Even if it lacks a Senate majority, the administration will have plenty of potential latitude to make change via executive order. From postal banking to Wall Street regulation, from drug prices to student-debt relief, the Biden administration could realize quite literally hundreds of progressive measures without ever descending into the labyrinth of Congress. Most are unlikely to see the light of day unless a progressively minded opposition is willing to fight for them.

In 2008, amid an economic crisis and a national hunger for change, progressives allowed a Democratic victory to drown their ambitions and inspire a culture of deference and passivity. As Donald Trump leaves office, in the aftermath of street protests and as a pandemic ravages America, it’s a history the activist left cannot afford to repeat.