US Politics

The 2020 presidential election: A revolutionary socialist perspective

Chris Reed takes a critical look at Biden’s presidential campaign, arguing that socialists have our work cut out for us — whoever wins in November.

2020 in context

At the time of writing, more than 210,000 people in the US have died from coronavirus. Many states, including some of the hardest hit, continue to move forward with reopening despite the rising case numbers. The economic freefall brought on by the pandemic continues to throw millions of people out of work, and the federal government has signaled that any new relief packages will likely be smaller than what was offered in the CARES act, which itself was insufficient (for workers, that is. The ruling class did quite well for themselves). 

The criminal mishandling of the pandemic has resulted in significant shifts in the economy that have further disadvantaged the working class in ways that will likely take years to recover from. The rising case numbers, and the inability of states and the federal government to do anything but hand over billions to corporations and Wall Street at the expense of the health and safety of working people, reflect the failure of the capitalist system and its neoliberal managers to do anything near what is required to reduce and prevent the widespread misery being inflicted upon millions. On top of the pandemic, the brutalities of systemic racism have moved thousands to take to the streets in cities across the country to protest the murders of unarmed black people by police. With the recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI, the cops have once again proven that police reform won’t work.

Like so much that has happened in 2020, the presidential election has taken on a surreal quality that will be challenging to explain to future generations. For many on the left, the potential of Bernie Sanders to capture the nomination over the determined resistance of the establishment offered some hope that electoral politics through the Democratic Party could be a useful vehicle for social change. The ensuing disappointment after Bernie’s defeat has again raised longstanding questions about how socialists should relate to the Democrats, and more broadly, the left’s role in electoral politics. 

Debates around these questions will become more intense as crises deepen, but the disinterest of the ruling class and its functionaries in government to meet these challenges only heighten the need to advance class struggle. The dialectic of electoral politics, on one hand, elevates the need for the critical analysis from the left as a way out of the cul de sac of liberalism, and on the other, heightens the calls from liberals (and even some leftists) for a more “pragmatic” approach which narrows the range of political possibilities to a binary between evil and lesser evil.

New election, same debates

This is really nothing new, of course. Hal Draper’s analysis of the lesser evil debate leading up to the 1968 election has remained disturbingly relevant for every contest since that time, but the parallels between that year and 2020 are especially striking. Like Trump, Nixon ran on a “Law and Order” message that weaponized long-standing racial tensions. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was not a particularly inspiring figure, especially due to his continued support for the Vietnam War, but he had the backing of the Democratic establishment and won the nomination despite not participating in any of the primaries. Like Biden, Humphrey’s campaign was seen as largely a continuation of the preceding administration. 

Still, there are important differences that should not be overlooked. Nixon’s victory in 1968 marked the beginning of the end for the New Deal era, but neoliberalism had not yet established itself as the dominant ideology of the ruling class. New Deal dynamics still pushed both parties towards “bureaucratic statification,” which Draper described as “increasing state intervention into the control of the economy from above,” in their responses to the crises of the moment. This led Nixon to establish the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, actions that would be unthinkable for a Republican president today. 

The dynamics under neoliberalism have thoroughly shifted the playing field to the point where the signature domestic policy achievement under Obama was a healthcare reform law that benefitted the largest private health insurance companies, while initial promises of immigration reform ended in more deportations than all previous administrations. Since the Reagan administration, the default position for both parties is finding market solutions, even in cases where markets and the narrow focus on profits are themselves the source of much of the problems, as has been the case with the Obamacare exchanges.

It is in this context that Biden’s candidacy and future presidency must be understood. Even people that seem to understand that Trump’s rise is not an aberration, but is in fact an entirely predictable outcome born of material conditions that have devolved over years, seem incapable of offering a serious alternative. They have given their support to a man who is the embodiment of the hollow, faux-woke centrism that has made life more precarious for millions of working people for decades. Biden was a senator from 1973 to 2009, and throughout this period he would play a key role in the neoliberal transformation of the Democratic party. On mass incarceration, climate change, immigration, US imperialism, welfare “reform”, civil rights, abortion rights, and on and on, Biden stood on the wrong side for years. The sum total of this effort has been a contribution to the maintenance and gradual deterioration of an already unjustifiable status quo that few other national politicians can match. 

It is then absurd to think that a Biden victory would do anything more to restore the facade of the “soul of America” that Trump has tarnished over the last few years, whatever that means. The deep contradictions at the heart of the Biden approach to politics have been largely responsible for bringing the country and world to its current state, and he has shown no indication that he would be willing to take the necessary steps to move beyond those contradictions to address the current challenges, as this would require nothing less than a complete repudiation of his entire political legacy.

The Democratic National Convention showed that the party is doubling down on status quo neoliberalism, and is yet again more interested in reaching out to the right than working with progressives. A noted war criminal was given significantly more speaking time than rising democratic socialist congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was given 60 seconds (which she made the most of). None of this was surprising, as the selection of Harris as VP confirmed that the party would continue to take its cues from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and suburban moderates. 

The recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the opening of a Supreme Court seat, and of course the ongoing disaster of the Trump administration’s own Covid-19 infection, have taken the Twilight Zone levels of weirdness in 2020 to new heights. Yet despite these explosive news stories, the underlying dynamics of the election, and more importantly, of the rest of society, have not significantly shifted, as millions continue to struggle to adjust to a weak economy with little hope that anyone in government will do anything to address the crises. 

Role for the left

And so again the left is in the depressingly familiar situation of wondering what its part is in the coming election. All of the reasons mentioned above of why Biden is such a terrible candidate and is so unsuited for the moment do little to answer some big questions: “Do we sit this one out? If Trump has a chance of winning, don’t we have an obligation to do anything in our power to stop him?” 

There are no easy answers here. As bad as he might be, Biden is not the same as Trump, and there would be real differences between his administration and four more years of the current one, which has taken racism and xenophobia to disturbing levels and is threatening to expand the brutal repression tactics used against protestors in Portland to other large cities across the country. Trump’s presidency has been truly disastrous on every level.

Most worrying has been his open support for the Proud Boys during the first presidential debate, which follows his endorsement of the fascist thugs that killed Heather Heyer at the anti-fascist counter-protest in Charlottesville in 2017. More recently Trump supporters have driven their cars into Black lives matter protests. Trump is helping to consolidate an organized fascist presence unlike anything in recent history. Even if Biden wins, the threat posed by the fascists will be ongoing and the left will need to take this threat head on in united fronts across the country.

If Biden wins, there will be many changes, and some will be viewed as significant, such as reversing Trump’s cruel family separation policies. But if his campaign has been any indication of what to expect, the most significant changes under a Biden administration would be more or less a return to the “normal” way of doing politics before Trump, and even the boldest solutions put forward would be little more than band-aids on gaping wounds.

Beyond electoral politics

This does not mean that the election doesn’t matter, or that leftists should refrain from offering any commentary. Abysmally low levels of political engagement mean that national elections can be a good opportunity for socialists to engage with a broader audience. Even in defeat, Bernie Sanders proved that social democratic ideas can’t just be written off as fringe. Elections are also an important measure of class consciousness in the country. Foul machinations of the establishment notwithstanding, socialists cannot afford to be in denial about the fact that Biden won millions of votes, even as large majorities express support for Medicare for All. And despite the fears and complaints of the establishment, the majority of Sanders’ supporters will vote blue in November, as they did in 2016. The establishment successfully convinced many who supported Sanders’ policies that Biden was the more “realistic” candidate, and the left was not politically powerful enough to effectively reach them with a compelling alternative. 

This speaks to the urgency of the moment as the crises deepen and threaten more and more people. The need for revolutionary messages and tactics to reach the masses of the working class with a desperately needed expansion of political possibilities is the only way out of the barbarism of the world in 2020. Failing to address the fundamental contradictions that led to Trump’s rise will pave the way for an even more dangerous right-wing figure to take power in the future, and this makes it difficult to overstate the importance of the tasks ahead for socialists.

There are lessons to be learned from the Black lives matter uprisings, which have seen inspiring examples of working-class solidarity and organization that connect the struggles of anti-racism to issues of workplace exploitation. In a matter of weeks, the idea of defunding the police went from being written off as too radical to being a central demand for activists across the country. This was not the result of the usual ebb and flow of the election cycle. Instead, it was a sudden explosion of political activity beyond the electoral framework that refused to be bound by its narrow limits. It is in these kinds of movements that the left should direct its focus, as this is where the real potential of building working-class power lies. 

The choice in November is ultimately less significant for the left than the political activity of the movements in the streets fighting for racial justice and against state repression and the movements in workplaces fighting for workers’ health and safety during the pandemic. The questions of the 2020 election, in the end, raise bigger questions about what politics can be and what it is actually for. For socialist organizations, that means building working class power independent of the major parties, and working in united fronts against racism, fascism, abortion bans, and more — regardless of which party or person is in office. 

Hal Draper understood in 1967 that “in setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.” The Democratic Party is accepted as the only alternative to Trump, but socialists must work harder than ever to help greater numbers of working people understand that the party and Biden do not have their interests at heart. For socialists then, the work ahead is both relatively simple and immense. Whatever the outcome in November, long-term success will be measured by how much the left can advance the class struggle and build up the movements in the streets and workplaces that will provide the only way forward to a better world.

Chris Reed