After Biden’s primary win, where do progressive politics stand in Illinois?

Bernie Sanders’ role in pushing the candidate left, and the victories and close calls of down-ballot candidates Marie Newman, Aaron Ortiz, Ken Thomas and Nidia Carranza show a shift.

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In the days following Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, a tsunami of progressive outrage was released. Huge crowds protested anti-Muslim immigration restrictions at airports, a quarter million women marched in Grant Park, and chapters of Indivisible, the progressive advocacy group, sprang up across the country. 

As Trump’s second presidential election approaches, what’s happened to that energy? The results of Tuesday’s primary in Illinois offer some clues.

The Bernie Sanders campaign harnessed much of that popular energy — but apparently not enough to compete for the top office in the land. That has as much to do with the vagaries of American politics — voters playing pundit and voting on notions of “electability” against a candidate they agree with on key issues, for example. Polls show strong support for Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal in Illinois and other states where Joe Biden has swept to victory. 

The white blue-collar vote, in particular, shifted from Sanders in the 2016 primary to Biden this year, in Illinois as elsewhere. So it apparently wasn’t the pro-Wall Street, corporate free trade records and positions that Biden shared with Hillary Clinton — the issues that both Sanders and Trump used against Clinton. it was something else. Partly sexism — perhaps mostly sexism — and, perhaps, partly Joe’s genial touch versus Hillary’s stiffness.

If you turned the sound down for Sunday night’s presidential debate, Biden looked a lot more presidential, with his broad smile and ramrod-straight posture. I love Bernie Sanders — he’s the embodiment of movement politics, which is what I’ve always thought this country needs — but I am starting to get tired of the grimaces and the hand-waving.

If you turned the sound up and listened with no preconceptions on the issues, Biden pretty well held his own, parrying Sanders’ thrusts over his record and avoiding the word salads he’s fallen into in the past, and perhaps Sanders came off as a grump. But the fact is Sanders was entirely right, and Biden’s career record is remarkably bad — a major architect of the New Jim Crow, a defender of corporate interests against middle-class and student debtors, an enthusiastic proponent of bad wars and bad trade deals, a Democrat who has spent decades arguing for reductions in Social Security benefits.

It’s no great comfort that, preparing to face an incumbent president whom Sanders correctly calls “a pathological liar,” Biden’s response to these legitimate criticisms is to deny and to lie outright. He lies about Social Security, about the Iraq War, about his support for the infamous bankruptcy bill, just as he’s lied about his involvement in the civil rights movement and his supposed arrest in apartheid South Africa.

I’m hopeful Biden’s positive qualities can get him over the finish line in November — though he’s about to face a barrage of negative campaigning of nightmare proportions. He can campaign as a calming, steadying figure — a kind of 21st century Dwight D. Eisenhower — but if he governs like Eisenhower and makes the same mistake Barack Obama did and appoints a raft of Clinton-era neoliberals at a moment of economic crisis, he could set the stage for a smarter and slicker proponent of Trumpist politics, say Sen. Tom Cotton, in 2024.

To date, though, Biden’s campaign has consisted almost entirely of platitudes about “restoring decency, dignity, and honor to the White House.” So it’s good to see that in recent days he’s adopted the call by Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren for free public college and has endorsed Warren’s proposal to fix problems in the bankruptcy bill he so egregiously promoted fifteen years ago.

There’s plenty of room for improvement in Biden’s current program. He could end his benighted opposition to marijuana legalization. He could support a much broader effort to combat the climate crisis. This will be important for a candidate who performs as poorly among under-45 voters as he does well among older voters.

That’s one reason Sanders might consider remaining in the race — to push Biden in a progressive direction. Another is that a number of primaries remain, and elections with more than one candidate are always a good thing. And there are lots of people still wanting to cast their ballot for Bernie.

In any case, Sanders has accomplished remarkable things. He’s put Medicare for All, free higher education, a decent minimum wage and a Green New Deal squarely on the nation’s agenda. He’s shown that a grassroots campaign can raise funds from small donors and compete with billionaire-funded candidates. And he’s brought a new generation of activists into politics, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her congressional cohort to a number of Chicago aldermen, who will continue to challenge the Democratic establishment and expand the terms of debate.

Although it has yet to become a dominant force, that post-inaugural progressive energy made significant local gains in Tuesday’s primary. Most significant was Marie Newman’s apparent victory over U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, whose anti-abortion ideology led him to oppose Obamacare. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx showed that progressives can beat back billionaire-funded attacks, with voters endorsing her solid record on criminal justice reform.

Down-ballot, State Rep. Aaron Ortiz (1st District), who ousted longtime incumbent Dan Burke two years ago based on Burke family ties to Trump, withstood a challenger backed by Burke and his brother, Ald. Ed Burke — and was giving the alderman a run for his money in the race for 14th ward Democratic committee member. A number of relatively new progressive legislators coasted to victory.

Two appointed legislators have apparently won close victories. In the 13th District, the tight margin separating State Sen. Rob Peters from challenger Ken Thomas, a tenants rights attorney, was surprising, given strong progressive and union support for Peters — likely indicating voter discontent with the process by which Peters was installed by party committee members last year. Schoolteacher Nidia Carranza, also backed by progressive groups, came very close to toppling Evan-Dina Delgado, installed after Rep. Luis Arroyo resigned last year in a deal cut with Arroyo. The close call puts Delgado on notice that she must be responsive to her district — and it may set up a rematch two years down the road.

Of course the political system is rigged against insurgents, and that’s especially true at the highest electoral levels. But a new generation continues to rise, promising a sustained challenge to the powers that be.