Marie Edwards breaks down the 2020 election results, arguing that although we are elated to see Trump go, the incoming Biden-Harris administration offers no solutions to the multiple crises we face. Instead, Marie writes, the need for a fighting, independent left has never been more urgent.
People spontaneously took to the streets in joyous celebrations on the morning of November 7 as the election was finally called for Biden. It was as if the whole country had been holding its breath as the election returns were coming in, showing a race with razor-thin margins. The morning after election day, a feeling of dread was palpable as Trump seemed to be pulling ahead, winning Florida and comfortably holding on to states he had previously won. We all exhaled a collective sigh of relief now that those nightmarish four years are finally behind us.
And yet, the sense of dread is still there because the question remains: How was it possible that such a racist, xenophobic, openly white nationalist with neofascictic proclivities, a misogynist and quite likely a rapist, a lying, conniving, thieving, vengeful, narcissistic sociopath with a mean streak, could get so close to winning another term? There was also his disastrous handling of Covid-19 which at this point has claimed more than a quarter million lives and some 12 million cases; an economy in free-fall but where the rich and the ultrarich have increased their wealth by almost another trillion dollars, while the bread lines are rivaling those of the Great Depression. This was a president who sought to undo every little bit of vaguely progressive legislation, be it about workers’ rights, the environment, education, financial rules, while relentlessly seeking to enrich himself and his cronies. Trump reversed every regulation that he thought hampered the smooth running of business: almost a hundred environmental rules and regulations alone were reversed, from clean water and clean air, to drilling in Alaska. The 2017 tax cuts, the only major piece of legislation his administration passed, transferred $10 trillion, most of which into the pockets of the super wealthy. However, starting in 2021, as Trump is leaving office, taxes will go up for those making between $10 and $30,000.
The fact is that Biden should have easily won by a landslide: instead he just squeaked by. And yet this was a contest against a Republican incumbent with historically high disapproval, high unemployment, a declining stock market on the eve of the election, and a pandemic that he spent the final weeks of the campaign conspicuously spreading all the while pretending it was nothing more than the flu.
Wall Street and most major corporations switched sides as the Trump presidency was starting to become a liability for them. But what really lifted Biden to victory was the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of activists around the country who were behind a massive get-out-the-vote campaign. The strong revulsion against the sitting president was a major factor in an election that had the highest turnout in over a century, at 67% of the eligible electorate. This high turnout was probably facilitated by extending early voting as well as making mail-in ballots easily available in most states.
By the same token, Trump voters were equally energized and they came out for him in great numbers. Although Biden won the popular vote by more than 6 million, with close to 80 million voters, Trump increased his tally by more than 11 million, making it clear that the message he had successfully used for the past 4 years was still finding an echo in a great number of people. Biden’s victory was far from a landslide, leaving it open for Trump to question the legitimacy of the elections, especially attacking cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia with a majority black voters. As a result at least half of Republicans firmly believe the election was rigged. More than inflaming his base, Trump is now entrenched as the new head of Republicanism, positioning himself for the 2024 election. In so doing, he is able to pull behind him the majority of Republican lawmakers and talking heads, thereby silencing any opposition from the moderate rightwing (if there are moderate Republicans to be found.)
The scariest part of Trump’s legacy however, is his encouragement of the fascist right on the streets. From labeling the Charlottesville 2017 Unite the Right rally as “fine people”, to defending the Kenosha shooter and calling on the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” the far right is now proudly parading itself as a pole of attraction. Though still small enough in numbers to be defeated by united action, they are growing and have infiltrated the local and state police as well as the Homeland Security and Border Patrol agencies. What once lived in the shadows has brazenly come out into the open.
So who voted for Trump?
Covid-19 was certainly a major factor in the elections. Those who thought it was a major issue voted for Biden by a large margin. Inversely, and quite perversely, counties that saw the most cases of the virus overwhelmingly voted for Trump. While many pundits define Trump’s base as white working class, it should be more accurately described as the petty bourgeoisie and lower middle class, those most precariously balanced in this falling economy. Indeed, the major concern for those voters was the economy.
Biden’s commitment to neo-liberalism meant he could not convincingly talk in class terms, or promise union jobs. That left Trump, with his “America First” and “Open the economy” message, the only one seeming to champion jobs, even though falsely. Certainly, not all Trump voters are rabid racists. But it is concerning how much playing to his base did bring out significant numbers of (predominantly white and rural) working class voters.
The Financial Times’ own dissection of the vote may be cause for cautious optimism. According to exit polls, Trump lost ground with white voters, and he also lost support among low income voters but gained with those making over $100,000 a year.
Biden the only alternative?
The fact that Trump saw his vote grow by such millions is a real indictment of Biden and the Democrats. Biden had no message to inspire working people, no solutions offered to the millions hurting from this multifaceted crisis, from the unheard levels of unemployment and poverty with no end in sight, no government relief and no stimulus package, no taxing the rich.
As far as the long view, Biden emphatically denied he would entertain the ideas of a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, police reform, or a fracking ban. He promised his administration would be a smooth continuation of the same neoliberal policies that have immiserated a great majority of the population, here and around the world. Biden is beholden to the big corporations and monied interests. Wall Street spent $74 million backing him, and the stock market soared after the result of the election became clear. Fossil fuel industries and healthcare insurance companies are all happy to back him. These are the same old and tired policies designed to keep capitalism firmly at the helm. Clearly, as he promised at a big donor fundraiser, nothing would fundamentally change if he were elected. He vowed to get back to working with Republicans, because as he explained, Trump was an aberration of history, though we may judge Trump as being a continuation of much of American history.
Biden has a record that speaks for itself thanks to his long years in politics. He started his political life by opposing busing, placing him on the segregationists’ side in Delaware. Kamala Harris, now the Vice-President elect made sure to remind him of it in the primaries. He’s outwardly pro-choice but he has consistently voted against federal funding for poor womens’ abortion. His stance on immigration echoes Obama’s, who was known as the “deporter in chief.” His support for anti-worker trade deals, for NATO and for Israel are all part of his strong, long-term commitment to strengthening US imperialism around the world.
To underscore the lack of enthusiasm for Biden, a full 56% voted for him simply because they could no longer stomach Trump as President. This was evident in the down ballot votes which returned a great many Republican senators and representatives to Congress. The result will be a congressional dead end for progressive policies, in what will likely be a Biden-McConnell coalition government—a scary prospect.
In all respects, Biden stood as the anti-Bernie candidate. Sanders kept hammering the same message of taxing the rich to end the profound inequalities in the American system. This had deep resonance among the millions of his enthusiastic followers. Unfortunately, Sanders quickly pivoted to fully and uncritically support Biden as soon as Biden won the primaries. Everyone had to fall in line behind the centrist-right politics of a Biden-Harris ticket.
Already the attacks against the left have started, blaming it for the Democrats’ poor showing. However, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rightly pointed out in her interview with the New York TImes, the progressive agenda was popular with voters. Every candidate who had sponsored Medicare for All kept their seat, even in swing states, while many who opposed it lost. And in red states, such as in Florida, measures such as $15 an hour passed; marijuana was legalized in many states including South Dakota and Montana. Higher taxes on the wealthy were passed in Arizona to pay for education, a result of the teachers’ strikes of 2018.
Finally, the Trump years gave us a spirit of resistance from day one. We saw millions marching for women on the day after the inauguration. Young people led anti-gun rallies following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and of course, the most phenomenal Movement for Black Lives. In the course of thousands of marches throughout the summer, this movement accomplished in a short time what activists had been trying to do for many years: placing the question of defunding the police firmly on the table, demanding that money be spent on the community instead of this brutally racist policing; bringing down the statues of glorified slave owners and state confederate flags; and renaming buildings associated with slavery, forcing distinguished institutions such as Yale and Harvard to reckon with their past.
Even more impressive was how the support for Black Lives Matter cut across racial groups, so much so that in places white people were making up the majority of protesters, which numbered over 25 million over those endless weeks of summer. BLM was able to radically alter the beliefs and sympathies of the majority. At its height, 77% of people agreed that police discriminated against minorities and African Americans in particular.
On the ideological plane, many people are starting to question the myths that make up American history. All the stories told over the centuries about the heroic fighters of the American Revolution against tyranny, of achieving the greatest democracy in the world in this promised land, the greatest Constitution ever written that promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a Supreme Court that sits above the political fray—all of that is beginning to fray at the edges. We’re finally seeing the ugly truth of late-day capitalism in all its viciousness. And for many Americans, this is a real moment of reckoning.
A new political terrain?
Politically, the terrain in the United States has considerably shifted. No doubt, we should be alarmed at the growth of the extreme right. We organize ourselves every time they try to show up in public and offer as large and militant a fight-back as we can.
It is also true that the left is growing, though perhaps still weak and fragmented. Looking back almost a decade to Occupy Wall Street, we see the revival of the notion of resistance for the younger generations. The genius slogan: “We are the 99%” went a long way in posing the issues in class terms.
Young people are embracing the idea of socialism, and little wonder. With a bleak future ahead, they are facing multiple crises on an unprecedented scale: unemployment rivaling the highest peak of the 2008 crisis, an environment that is wreaking havoc on the planet and endangering the very future of all life, a pandemic that has paralyzed the whole world with the anxiety of possibly more pandemics on their way. More than half of Gen-Z and millennials would prefer to live in a socialist society over a capitalist one, according to a 2019 Harris poll and many others.
Bernie Sanders’ two campaigns got young people involved in politics, albeit still of an electoral bend. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad in Congress scored some good points, though unfortunately have not accomplished much in that milieu.
The Democratic Socialists of America’s phenomenal growth, reaching some 80,000 members, is one part of a broader leftward movement. However, they have not moved much from their electoral focus. While they held true to the 2019 convention vote to not endorse any other Democrat for president if Bernie lost, and a few individual chapters even endorsed Howie Hawkins’ independent left-wing campaign through the Green Party, several national-level DSA leaders still tried to rally support for Biden individually. There are important strategic debates currently taking place within the DSA and on the wider left about the role of socialists in elections, and whether the Democratic Party can be taken over from within—something that Marx21 argues is both strategically limited and ultimately impossible.
The left and the elections
As socialists, we understand that political struggle takes place outside the electoral arena. It is only when protesters take on the system in a fundamental way that we see change being enacted. Examples abound. Under Richard Nixon’s presidency—one of the most right-wing administrations up to that point—a mass movement demanding abortion rights led to the passage of Roe v Wade. Pressure from the nascent environmental movement also led to Nixon setting up the Environmental Protection Agency. Looking back to the 1930s, it was not some gracious and charitable tendency in Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, but militant strikes, anti-eviction organizing and unemployed workers’ movements that forced “the best friend the profit system ever had” to introduce a sweeping New Deal.
Because so much of the left sees no other avenues to reform the system besides electoralism, Sanders, AOC and their supporters have no choice but to vote for Biden as the lesser evil.
We know that crises will lead to struggle. We have seen mass movements erupt but then seeming to go nowhere, or worse, buried in the Democratic Party. Demonstrations this summer often wrapped up with speeches for people to get out and vote. Vote for whom? The question is never properly answered because the two-party system just flips back and forth between the two faces of capitalism.
Unfortunately, the US working class has no political party of its own to help pose these struggles in class terms. This makes it easier to look to the capitalist party of the Democrats as a lesser evil. On the other hand, a reformist party, be it Labor or social democratic, often acts as a brake on mass struggle. Not having a reformist party makes US politics more explosive and unpredictable. While we would be better off if we had one in the United States, we are certainly not advocating that the left concentrate on building such a reformist party, which historically arises out of working class upsurges.
We don’t have the time to wait for such developments. We need to get involved in the struggles that will take place around us. We’re already arguing with people who are asking us to give Biden a chance. But at this time it is crucial that Black Lives Matter and other movements that have transformed ideas and brought people into the streets continue. Within these movements we also need to build a revolutionary organization that is actively involved in the movements and can bring socialist politics and strategy to large numbers of people fighting for change. Marx21 is engaged in building such an organization and we invite like minded socialists and activists to join us.
We don’t know what the future struggles will be, but we know they will happen. We have such a confluence of crises at the moment that we’re sitting on a powder keg.
We know that neoliberalism offers no solution. In fact we argue that we can trace a line from the eight years of dashed hopes under Obama to the vileness and ugliness that is Trump. Unfortunately, Biden promises more of the same. If we have four more years of failure to address the profound inequities in our society, we might see Trump again in 2024, or worse, someone much more competent than him. And that’s a very scary prospect.
The small but dangerous far-right groups that grew under Trump can keep growing under Biden unless they are opposed in the street. Even if they have lost some of their direct ties to the government, the threat of fascism has not gone away. One of our tasks under Biden is to build broad ongoing coalitions with the majority of people opposed to fascism to keep this from happening.
At the same time, socialists need to build an independent organization that fights for an alternative to what is on offer from either Trump or Biden. In this, we are in a better position fighting against a Democratic administration than we were against a Republican—as long as we keep fighting.