The misguided optimism of Sunrise Movement

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sunrise Movement is a prime example of the misguided optimism about Joe Biden that progressive groups displayed in the lead-up to the election. Progressive groups told us that Biden would be receptive to our key demands. They told us that he could be pushed left. They scoffed when we presented historical evidence calling this into question. Now, there is absolutely no question that they have been proven wrong.

Biden made promises to Sunrise with his climate platform, and we are now seeing him abandon those promises quite rapidly. Accepting a Democratic candidate’s policy promises at face value is the same exact mistake progressive groups made with their support of Obama in 2008. Progressive groups bought into the hype Obama was peddling about reining in Wall Street, ending the Iraq War, doing something about climate change, and providing affordable healthcare for everyone. As we know, he did not deliver on any of these. If this mistake is made again, progressive groups will continue to have their key demands ignored.

The dust is still settling from the election in November. And wouldn’t you know it, Biden is doing exactly what many people, like myself, warned he would do. His actions are a continuation of those he has proudly taken throughout his nearly 50-year career in politics: pushing for cuts to our social safety net, defending American imperialism, and locking up Black and Brown people at record numbers. Any suggestion that Joe Biden has changed or will change is even inconsistent with Biden’s own admission that he is “not sorry for anything he’s ever done”.

Much work has been done analyzing Biden’s Cabinet picks and how they will push destructive neoliberalism and US imperialism. To name just a few, The GrayzoneDan CohenThe Daily Poster, and Caitlin Johnstone have great analysis on this front. I encourage you to check out their work, if you haven’t already.

One of the main rallying cries of people who successfully shepherded those on the left into voting for Biden was that we will have a unique opportunity to push Biden left. This, they said, rested on the idea that Biden would be receptive to the left’s demands once in office and with the right pressure, might actually acquiesce to progressive groups’ key demands. Already, this excessively optimistic thinking has been proven misguided. A key example of this thought process is demonstrated by the Sunrise Movement.

Before I dive in, let me say that I believe that most of the Sunrise activists truly are well-intentioned and their activism is rooted in the sincere desire to try to save the planet. I just happen to think that they were duped and that they need to acknowledge and learn from it. The lesson to be learned here is that in the future, progressive groups like Sunrise need to have no illusions about the intentions of Democratic candidates. Candidates will always be subservient to their corporate and Wall Street donors, first and foremost. Thus, they should not accept anything candidates promise at face value that goes against these donors’ interests, like Sunrise did with Biden’s climate platform.

In an interview with Rising after the election, Lauren Maunus, Legislative & Advocacy Manager with Sunrise, stated that toward the end of his campaign Biden largely embraced a style of climate policy that ensures we aren’t “addressing climate change in an incremental, technocratic way”. It is hard to overstate how naive this is. Anyone who follows politics at even a surface level knows that what candidates say on the campaign trail and in their platforms is not very indicative of what they will do in office. Don’t believe me? Take a look at what happened with Barack Obama.

Maunus goes on to say that Biden was “elected on this popular mandate, and we (Sunrise) will hold him accountable to that”. This mandate, of course, never existed. Data from the election shows that Biden’s election was due in large part to support he gained from suburban white voters, many of whom voted Trump in 2016. I hate to break it to Sunrise, but these simply aren’t the type of folks pounding the pavement and agitating for a Green New Deal.

Biden’s appointments around climate, energy, and the environment demonstrate precisely the opposite point Maunus is making, that we should expect piecemeal, technocratic reforms that will not save us. Take for example, his appointment of Brian Deese as his top economic advisor in the White House.

Deese recently spent his time as head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, which holds massive stakes in the energy companies that fuel the global climate crisis. Some liberals have touted this as a step in the right direction. They say Biden is bringing on a guy who improved BlackRock’s environmental practices. But that is an assertion that is incredibly hard to square with the fact that, according to Vasudha Desikan, political director of Action Center on Race and the Economy, BlackRock still invests heavily in companies that fuel “environmental devastation while profiteering from Black and Indigenous communities”.

BlackRock and the companies it props up are not interested in the radical change we need to tackle this crisis. They are much more interested in making us believe that they are doing something substantive, while doing the absolute bare minimum turning a profit destroying the planet. The major energy companies that BlackRock supports financially have a long history of greenwashing campaigns designed to make the people believe they are making progress.

Let’s turn to Biden’s appointment of U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) to lead the White House Office of Public Engagement. This position is highly important to Sunrise Movement and other climate-focused progressive groups, as Richmond will “serve as a liaison with the business community and climate change activists.” So, in line with the big game Biden talked about climate issues, Richmond has a history of being an ally to environmental activists, right?

Wrong. As reported by Jacobin, while his home state of Louisiana has been devastated by the climate crisis “Richmond joined with Republicans to vote to increase fossil fuel exports and promote pipeline development”. Furthermore, as Sludge reported, Richmond is “not just a big oil and gas booster, he’s also a top Democratic recipient of the industry’s money”, and “he received $340,750 from the industry over the course of his House career”. This doesn’t exactly sound like the type of guy who is going to be receptive to Sunrise’s demands.

To their credit, Sunrise came out and condemned this appointment with no shortage of outrage. But what did they expect? Were they that naive to think Biden would do anything otherwise? Or were they overestimating their power in this situation?

It gets worse. According to the New York Times and The Guardian, it appears that Biden is strongly considering tapping Ernest Moniz for either energy secretary or a new international climate envoy post. Moniz was Obama’s energy secretary and since then has joined the board of directors at one of the worst polluters in America, Southern Company. In addition, Moniz is on record denouncing the viability of the Green New Deal and staunchly advocating for fracking. He has also served as an adviser to BP and General Electric. God help us all if he gets appointed to any position in a Biden administration. In a just world, he would be banished from being even remotely close to international climate work.

So we have seen that, like Obama, Biden likely will deliver on very little (if anything) of what he promised in his campaign platform. Instead, he will usher in a wave of “environmental progress” that when stripped of its shiny veneer will simply be more environmental destruction.

Finally, I want address the nauseatingly romantic idea propagated by Sunrise that Biden has an FDR-like moment and that he might seize upon it if pushed appropriately by progressive groups. You can see this idea introduced by one of the Sunrise activists at the tail end of the video here.

First off, this should have been laughed away immediately because the labor conditions prior to the New Deal era were so drastically different than the ones we have today. We had far stronger unions then, and boy were they a fiery, no-holds-barred group of people. These unions were comprised of people like Eugene Debs, who would be disgusted with so-called progressive leaders that we have today. The strength of today’s labor unions has been severely degraded, in large part due to the neoliberal policies that Joe Biden has been pushing since the 1980s.

But even if we accept the notion that this is an FDR-type moment for Biden, we know now that he will not capitalize on it. All we have to do is compare Biden’s appointments thus far to the people that FDR surrounded himself with to usher in the New Deal. As Thomas Frank details in Listen Liberal, FDR’s closest confidant, Harry Hopkins, was a little known social worker from Iowa. Jesse Jones, FDR’s appointment to run his bailout program, was “a businessman from Texas with no qualms about putting the nation’s most prominent financial institutions into receivership”. FDR’s leader of his Antitrust Division, Thurman Arnold, “wrote a scoffing and derisive book called The Folklore of Capitalism”. I don’t even need to do a compare-contrast to show how starkly different these folks are from Biden’s appointees.

Progressive groups that successfully shepherded voters into betraying their principles and voting for Biden need to reckon with the consequences of their actions. Many of us knew before just how remarkably naive their belief was that they could push Biden left or that he would be receptive at all to their key demands. Now we have tangible evidence that clearly shows their naiveté.

We saw how quickly Obama abandoned his platform after being elected, and we are now seeing Biden abandon his at a similar rate. Progressive groups like Sunrise need to be able to cut through the noise and operate with the understanding that Democrats will make as many rosy promises as necessary to garner their support. They must understand that Democratic Presidential candidates will always do the bidding of their corporate and Wall Street donors. Obama’s lofty promises earned him the support of progressive groups and their voters, and then he abandoned them immediately. Biden made similar, albeit less rosy promises, and he too is abandoning them. Why wouldn’t the next Democratic candidate do the exact same thing, knowing that it’s worked with the past two Democratic Presidents?

I don’t have all of the answers to this problem by any stretch of the imagination. However, I think a good start for progressive groups would be withholding their support entirely if all they get in return are tepid promises about their key demands. Perhaps their support should be contingent upon deliverance on their key demands in advance.

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