Biden’s “Progressive” Cabinet: An Attack on the Working Class

by Christopher Chace

The Biden administration’s cabinet nominations offer a first glimpse at what the new administration is planning beyond the vague promises of press briefings, Tweets, and stump speeches. Some liberals insisted that Biden could be “pushed left” towards a progressive agenda. But looking at the history and role of the Democratic Party, we can see that the Democratic Party is—and always was—a party of big business. As the new appointees are unveiled, it’s become more and more clear that the new administration will not be kind to the working class. 

Biden Welcomes the Establishment into his Cabinet

Biden has welcomed a number of experienced Democratic Party politicians into his Cabinet. Case in point: John Kerry, the new “international climate czar.” Lauded by Democrats as an “experienced statesman,” this experience includes a long career of defending the fossil fuel industry, supporting fracking, and putting forward policies of zealous militarism. During his tenure as Secretary of State, John Kerry presided over a massive rise in fracking under the thinly-veiled imperialist veneer of “global energy dominance,” resulting in a major expansion of the oil and gas industry in the U.S. 

In conjunction with this effort, he oversaw the termination of a 40-year ban on U.S. crude oil exports, pushed for expanded drilling in the Caribbean, and oversaw the exportation of American fracking techniques across the world. And as Senator, he unconditionally threw trillions of dollars at the world’s #1 polluter, the U.S. military; completely antithetical to his supposed environmental commitments. In fact, just this past month alone, Kerry deliberately emphasized his warm relationship with big oil and energy companies, explaining to NPR that he maintains close contact with them because “they understand there is money to be made.” 

Capitalist politicians like Kerry and Biden are undoubtedly aware of climate scientists’ claims from 2018 that we were 12 years away from the “point of no return” regarding carbon emissions, and that 71% of these emissions are created by just 100 companies. There’s no path to avoiding climate catastrophe as long as these companies they’re so chummy with are operating under the profit motive of private ownership. But capitalist politicians care more about money than people’s lives.  Climate catastrophe will uproot the lives of the working class by the billions, but Kerry and Biden aren’t sponsored by the working class. They answer only to the ruling capitalist class that bankrolls their careers, and which stands to profit immensely off exploiting this ecological demise.

Compounding this harsh reality is the nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, who previously occupied this position under Obama before becoming a lobbyist for the dairy industry during the Trump years. Commonly referred to as “Mr. Monsanto,” Vilsack played a pivotal role in the passage of the Monsanto Protection Act in 2013, which essentially barred legal challenges to the planting and sale of controversial genetically modified seeds (GMOs), which have been responsible for displacing many small farmers. Vilsack’s USDA also consistently prioritized meatpacker profits over worker and food safety, refusing to take action in addressing widespread reports of worker mistreatment (in spite of it being well within his authority to do so), and implementing a new poultry inspection system that, among other deregulations, allowed plants to run at much faster and unsafe speeds, and transferred many inspection duties from the USDA to the private sector. In the midst of a pandemic crisis that has ruthlessly exposed the backward inefficiency and inhumanity of America’s food system—in which 1 in 4 Americans are experiencing food insecurity while food workers die from COVID-19 by the thousands—a USDA once again led by Tom Vilsack will undoubtedly reap devastation upon the U.S. working-class. But Big Agriculture stands to make billions, and for Biden’s incoming Cabinet, profits are the bottom line. 

Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, is a tried-and-true supporter of American imperialism, like Biden himself. Blinken has worked in foreign affairs under Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Biden. Like Biden, he supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the invasion of Libya in 2011, and the invasion of Yemen by Saudi Arabia in 2015. Blinken already reports the Biden administration will continue to recognize right-wing coup leader Juan Guaido as the leader of Venezuela. He also promised that Biden will “more effectively target sanctions” against Venezuela to oust the elected President, Nicholas Maduro. 

Identity Politics: How Tokenism Is Being Weaponized Against Working Class Solidarity

For those who’ve followed Joe Biden’s 47-year career as a servant of capitalism, it’s hardly surprising that he would nominate officials hostile to working-class interests, from austerity hawks like Bruce Reed and Neera Tanden to prison state apologists like Kamala Harris and Merrick Garland. Such is the norm for U.S. presidential regimes. Rather than discussing the policy records of Biden’s nominees, however, the capitalist media have sought to characterize the incoming Cabinet as “historically progressive”—mainly on the basis of nominees’ identities. This is technically true: there are more people of color and women appointees than any other Cabinet in U.S. history, and this is by design. Knowing full well that its actual policies will only further marginalize oppressed communities, but also in need of their political support, the new administration is clearly making every effort to spotlight individuals whose personal identities mirror those they will be marginalizing, but whose actual agendas and execution of their respective offices will be directly antagonistic. 

Biden’s team wasted no time in congratulating itself, for instance, on the appointment of Alejandro Mayorkas to be the first Latino to head the Department of Homeland Security. What their self-congratulation conveniently omitted, however, was that it was under Mayorkas’ authority as Deputy Director of Homeland Security under Obama that ICE received thousands of complaints of sexual abuse from women and children in detention facilities. In addition, a whistleblower revealed that women were forced into hysterectomies at illegal detention facilities on the border since at least 2018, but possibly beginning under Mayorkas’s authority. This man will now run the entire Department, an appalling hypocrisy considering how loudly Democrats criticized Trump for very similar immigration policies. Then there’s Lloyd Austin, a general that helped spearhead the invasion of Iraq, whom Biden has tapped to be the first black Defense Secretary. This too has been lauded by liberal elites as “historic.” But how exactly is appointing a man who sits on the executive board of Raytheon (a massive military contracting company) as the head of the Defense Department (whose singular function is subordinating neo-colonial countries under threat of invasion and mass murder), an achievement in the struggle for racial justice? Or for that matter, how does the senior advisor appointment of Cedric Richmond, the top Democratic recipient of oil money in Congress, or Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, co-founder of a firm that represents Big Pharma and private equity, represent progress against the ruthless oppression of millions of women and people of color? What exactly is being celebrated here?

The tokenism does not even stop there. From the first African-American EPA pick Michael Regan, whose record includes fighting for the Atlantic Coast pipeline and approval of a liquid natural gas plant in the middle of Lumbee territory (despite widespread opposition to both), to the first openly-gay Transportation Secretary appointee Pete Buttigieg (undoubtedly nominated to repay the political debt of his endorsement of Biden prior to the Super Tuesday primaries), the unfolding strategy is clear. The new administration is trying to hide their neoliberalism by putting forward a “diverse” cabinet; this works to divide the working class. What matters more are these people’s identities as capitalists, corporate politicians, and lobbyists because that is where their loyalty lies. We should strive not to cheerlead diversity amongst our oppressors, but to build solidarity against oppression itself. 

How We Fight Back: Building Independent Working-Class Power 

The real question, therefore, isn’t whether or not the incoming administration will be a friend of the working class, but rather, how do we fight back against it? The “inside-outside” strategy of working within the Democratic Party to “push them leftward” has been tried for nearly a century at this point and has clearly failed yet again, and is a major reason why the working class finds itself without political representation in the first place. The most well-known advocates of this strategy, Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and DSA, have themselves acknowledged their disappointment with Biden’s Cabinet picks. But what exactly did they expect? Having refused to leave the Democrats to help organize mass working-class movements or a workers party independent of the capitalist parties, how could they have possibly expected to hold any sway over Biden’s Cabinet selection? Having subordinated themselves to the same Democratic Party that’s persistently thwarted their agenda at the behest of its corporate masters, they should not be surprised that their “inside-out” strategy to reform the Democratic Party is failing yet again. Whatever their reasoning, it’s no wonder that this self-described “progressive wing of the party” now stands as powerless as ever to push the new administration leftward; as these Cabinet nominations (and decades of US political history) have emphatically illustrated. 

In other words, the Democratic Party has manipulated and abused the working class. Trying to stick by the Democratic Party and change it from within, or excusing its behavior on the grounds of lesser-evilism and promising “this time things will be different” will not break us free of the corporate political duopoly. Political independence for the working class is the only way forward. The entire experience of tying working-class politics to the Democratic Party has exposed lesser-evilism to be a tool of manipulation wielded by our exploiters, and a colossal failure in advancing our interests. That is why the Independent Socialist Group calls on working-class people of all backgrounds to join us in building a mass membership working-class party that stands unwaveringly independent of the Democrats, or any other capitalist political party that seeks to co-opt our interests. We have no doubt that the capitalists who run America’s two major parties will do everything they can to stop the creation of a workers’ party, nor do we hold any illusions that the road to class independence will be easy. But if it’s not done, then politicians like Biden are what we will keep getting, and worse. We cannot afford to sit by passively and allow them to wreak destruction on our planet, our communities, and our quality of life. Working-class political independence is the only way forward, and the time to fight for it is now! 

Image Credit: Georgia National Guard via Flickr // Public Domain