Large-scale layoffs at a top left-wing organization are underscoring progressives’ challenges in the Biden era, with major figures becoming despondent about what the future of their movement could look like.
Justice Democrats, the upstart-turned-powerhouse group that helped insurgents win seats in Congress, recently made significant operational changes and cuts to its workforce, prompting a debate among leftists about the tactical hurdles to carrying out their vision.
The reshuffle came amid signs the movement is not as energized as it was even several years ago, as Democrats across the spectrum seek to coalesce around President Biden ahead of a possible rematch against former President Trump.
“The people who ran as Justice Democrats all promised to fight the establishment on our behalf. In fact, it was their No. 1 promise. And they chose not to do that,” said Cenk Uygur, host of “The Young Turks,” who has been outspoken about the left flank’s shortcomings.
“That’s devastating,” Uygur said. “It took all the wind out of our movement.”
After Trump took control of the White House in 2016, Democratic groups tailored their efforts to rectify the assault against marginalized Americans under his administration. The desire for a partywide response to that outrage inspired a new wave of activism, with plenty of money coming in.
Justice Democrats had a different focus. Unlike the groups that were exclusively focused on defeating Republicans and the right-wing agenda, niche left-wing shops turned their sights inward. Organizers were both inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) bid and infuriated he lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton, and they sought to change the composition of the Democratic Party.
Justice Democrats’s highest-profile success story came by way of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who they backed and helped usher into office in 2018. Since then, they have notched an impressive roster of victories, ultimately increasing the “Squad” membership in the following midterm elections by bringing in newer talent like Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.).
While the group saw positive returns in recruitment and victories, it hit hurdles in other areas. As a matter of principle, it relied on the same small-dollar donation model that has come under fire from progressives, who have criticized the way the two-year term structure for the House of Representatives has forced them to fundraise from ordinary people.
“I don’t know who needs to hear this, but two-year terms are incredibly wasteful and counterproductive … but it benefits the wealthy and powerful, so it’ll probably never change,” tweeted Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.), who defeated a moderate Democrat in the primary for a Pittsburgh-area seat in 2022.
Progressives feeling dispirited is not new. They have grown more disheartened over institutional barriers in Washington, and finding sustainable small-dollar pools has also become a source of tension among those seeking to maintain the once-flourishing movement.
“It seems to be grassroots fundraising for the industry as a whole: Our numbers are down across the board,” said Hassan Martini, executive director of the group No Dem Left Behind. “True donor enthusiasm has not been what we have experienced in the past, especially prior to an election year.”
“We are fortunate as a true grassroots organization with hundreds of thousands of supporters over the years with an average donation of under $20,” Martini said. “Running a political organization is a lot like running a business in that budgeting and organizing finances is critical in slower months.”
Part of that is tied to who’s sitting in office, multiple progressive sources agree. Biden does not engender the same level of rage as Trump, whose erratic actions and inflammatory rhetoric have sparked volunteering and financial contributions from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Some progressives also believe Biden has done more to address Americans’ problems than they anticipated. The Inflation Reduction Act was considered a step in the right direction, while the economy is stable and unemployment is low.
“I think a lot of lefty groups expected Biden to steer clear of social issues for 2024, so they were ready to sort of prod him,” said Max Burns, a progressive strategist. “But now with Biden going big … it kind of ate their lunch.”
Several outfits that share similar missions pivoted to policy work after Biden won the presidency. While some say it’s important to keep a broad portfolio, they also point out the Dem-on-Dem campaign work — the adversarial side of the spectrum — is where they excelled.
“I think Justice Dems though is actually smart to refocus because they’d been working more on legislative stuff and less on election organizing, which is where they did well,” Burns said.
“Progressive groups have done a lot right, but they’re still bound by the same laws of politics as anyone else,” he added. “And when you’re laying off a ton of staff, it’s hard to sell confidence to your donors and activists.”
This presidential cycle, liberal organizations are at a crossroads. There has been voter apathy toward Biden as the de facto nominee, but no one from the left with major clout has challenged him. And activists and campaign hands are now in the familiar place of fighting against the possible GOP nominee — in this case, likely Trump — instead of their preferred crusade against fellow Democrats.
Those who have been critical of the left’s growing pains say it’s more important to pressure sitting progressives in Congress to take hard votes and to keep their focus on Biden and moderates, rather than just the Republican opposition, even if it’s Trump.
“Our movement is shrinking and losing all hope because the people we sent to D.C. chose their personal comfort over their voters,” Uygur said.
Still, others suggest focusing on Republicans is a good thing. If Democrats can keep the White House and reclaim the House, they’ll have more room to restart their primary work. They will also continue to normalize the practice of challenging incumbents.
“While progressives may be frustrated with specific members of the party, it’s hard to deny that their voices are not being heard by the decision-makers in Congress and the White House,” said Michael Starr-Hopkins, a Democratic strategist, who argues they have grown in influence during the Biden administration, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
“As more young progressives navigate running for office and the transition to seats of power, we’ll continue to see less of a need for the type of outside groups that have historically been disruptors,” he said.