The Build Back Better plan must be only the first step toward real radical change

The Build Back Better plan must be only the first step toward real radical change
(Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Joe Biden meets virtually with governors, mayors, county officials and tribal leaders to discuss infrastructure, Wednesday, August 11, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House.


The once ambitious "Build Back Better" legislation is being whittled down daily by right-wing democrats and their unwavering corporate loyalties. Progressives like Sanders have dug in refusing to let the bill be completely gutted - standing firm, for instance, on preserving Medicaid expansion. Progressive leader Nina Turner declared that "If Manchin and Sinema can push their will on the entire U.S. Senate and president, then the progressives—almost 100-strong—should damn sure be able to push their will too. They should not move. They got to hold. There's too much at stake."

At stake, for both sides, is much more than just another legislative negotiation. It finds the nation and the world at a historical crossroads for preserving the planet and advancing the causes of justice, equality, and democracy. The question is the degree to which progressives can compromise without compromising human progress.

Progressive Compromises

From almost the beginning, there were concerns of whether the Bill would ever be a reality. It seemed to most of the Washington establishment and media commentators like a radical left-wing "wish list" that would not even be up for serious political debate. The fact that much of its social democratic "human infrastructure" provisions including almost half a trillion dollars in clean energy investments, expanding universal pre-K programs, and affordable housing now feel close to inevitable is a testament to the growing grassroots and legislative power of progressives.

Still, there remains an almost constant mantra of whether progressives would fall into a "purity" politics and - borrowing from one of Obama's favorite phrases – forget that "perfect is the enemy of the good". Yet it is often forgotten that the 3.5 trillion version of the bill was the compromise. Quoting Sanders, "That $3.5 trillion is already the result of a major, major compromise, and at the very least this bill should contain $3.5 trillion".

There are also deeper compromises at play. Namely, the investment in time, resources, and energy in getting elected and trying to progressively change the Democratic Party and US democracy generally. These efforts came at the cost of building an independent mass left-Wing movement that could both foster more revolutionary transformation and new forms of radical democracy at the workplace and in communities. If nothing else, these events have reinforced how important these struggles are for enacting even basic top-down reform.

Compromised Corporate Centrists

The compromise of Centrist holdouts, of course, us of a very different sort. It is not about the pace and strategy for averting the climate apocalypse or reducing global inequality. Instead, they must balance their need to appear concerned about basic human welfare with their larger commitment to defending corporate interests.

It is easy and right to critique Manchin and Sinema. However, they are the political symptoms of our malignant capitalist disease. Tellingly, it has been reported that they are covering for many "moderate" Democrats who also feel the same but are too ashamed (and politically scared) to publicly admit it.

The implicit bargain between Democrats and corporations is as simple as it is troubling. We will continue to promote profitable wars abroad and destructive free-market capitalism at home in exchange for being allowed minor reforms and the money needed to keep getting elected. Ultimately, it was and is a profoundly morally compromised politics that has put the very future of human survival and wellbeing in severe peril.

Refusing to Compromise on Human Progress

While it looks like they have reached an agreement on a $1.75 trillion bill, the conflict between progressives and Wall Street Democrats has only just begun. For the Left, this is only the first of many steps to delivering radical progress and justice. For those in the extreme Center, they are hoping against all hope that this is the last progressive step against corporations they will ever be made to take.

It is tempting to believe that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice". The recent past paints a much more dispiriting picture. It is one not of slow progress but resistance and co-optation. Progress does not stop at legal proclamations though it can end there.

The lessons to be learned are many and are still emerging. The refusal of the progressive caucus to simply cave is heartening and is a minor victory in and of itself. Nevertheless, the real work is creating such powerful alliances and such a shift in public ideology that the march toward real progress will continue regardless of who is in power.

The Right won in just this fashion - eliminating unions and protest movements while convincing the public that wealth from the 1% would trickle down to everyone. At their peak, both Democrats and Republicans were embracing their values and policies. If we are to "Build Back Better" let alone realize real revolutionary changes to our economic and political system, then it is time to dismantle corporate power at its roots. In the meantime, those negotiating on our behalf may make temporary concessions in the short term but refuse to compromise on human progress.

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