Biden wins but US still on edge of precipice

Paul Garver says the left must keep up pressure for progressive agenda

At about 67%, the overall voter turnout in the US presidential election far exceeded the normally miserably low US standard. So far, Biden received more than 81 million votes and Trump 74 million, both record numbers.

Essentially a referendum against and for Trump’s reelection, votes against Trump did not always transfer to other Democratic candidates. Overall Democrats lost ten seats in the House of Representatives, mainly of more conservative Democrats, retaining a slim majority.

Black, Latino, Native American and young voters were highly mobilised by volunteer field organising efforts and grassroots organisations in key battleground states, providing crucial contributions to the Democratic victory in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin, all of which had supported Trump in 2016. This was despite systematic attempts at voter suppression in Republican-controlled states.

The national Democratic Party focused its efforts on massive TV advertising to persuade suburban swing voters who had voted for Trump in 2016 to vote for Biden and moderate Democratic Senate and House candidates. Biden’s message – that he would restore normalcy and decency to the White House and undo the harm wreaked by the Trump administration – contributed to victory in several battleground states, especially in suburbs of major cities. However, it did not much help other Democratic candidates, since it lacked a positive or inspiring message to economically distressed voters. 

Trump’s base of rural voters, evangelical Christians, traditional Catholics and white men with less formal education, remained substantially intact. The Republicans mobilised voters better through social media and direct canvassing than the Democrats and invested considerable effort in attracting Latino voters, making gains among Cuban-Americans in Florida and Mexican-American voters in the Rio Grande valley of Texas. Trump’s margin of victory in those large states was therefore more comfortable than expected in pre-election polls, and Cuban-American Republicans gained two Florida House seats.

Two members of the ‘Squad’ of left Congressional Democrats helped drive turnout in the key states of Minnesota and Michigan. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar overcame Trump’s personal Twitter hate vendetta against her as a Muslim born in Somalia, as well as $10 million in campaign funding for her Republican opponent, to easily win her own reelection in Minneapolis with a 38% margin. Omar’s campaign featured in-person canvassing that the Biden campaign lacked overall. In Detroit, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (also a Muslim and a DSA member) engaged tens of thousands of 2016 non-voters to achieve reelection and help Biden.

Just as ‘essential workers’ are the real heroes and heroines of the pandemic, postal workers, local and state election officials and volunteers helped save the tattered framework of American democracy. Whether Republicans or Democrats, they toiled for many days to ensure that every vote was counted as thoroughly and accurately as possible.  

Whilst the dancing in the streets after Biden’s victory was justified, every responsible organisation of the broad American left is preparing its members and supporters both to defend democratic rights and to mobilise for a broad progressive agenda, including racial justice, environmental justice, universal health care and a just and equitable recovery from the pandemic.

Failure to accomplish this would be disastrous for both the broad left and the Democratic Party. If Biden delivers only better and less venal appointed officials, and executive orders reversing Trump’s mayhem against immigrants and the environment, it will lose credibility with the party’s supporters. The midterm elections in 2022 might result in a revival of Trumpist Republican reaction in a virulent neo-Fascist form.

The victories of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the Georgia runoffs last week mean that the Senate is now tied. With Vice President Kamala Harris getting a casting vote, it will be more difficult for the Democrats to evade responsibility for progressive reform legislation.

The progressive organisations on the broad left that worked to defeat Trump by electing Biden went all out to elect Ossoff and Warnock. Neither have endorsed Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, two emblematic goals of the left. However, groups like the Sunrise Movement, Our Revolution and members of the House Progressive Caucus threw their support behind local progressive forces on the ground by registering and mobilising Black and Latino voters. Progressive Black-led organisations like Black Voters Matter, New Georgia Project and Fair Fight registered 800,000 new voters, mainly younger people and people of colour. Groups associated with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) and the Arizona LUCHA delivered record turnouts of Latino voters in November. Despite some concerns before the election that Republicans were registering more new voters, exit polls showed that first-time voters split 2:1 for Biden. Despite these efforts, left organisations are still stigmatised and scorned by conservative elements in the Democratic Party and its official leadership.

Within days of the November elections, conservative Democrats were blaming their losses in the House of Representatives on advocacy of ‘socialist’ issues like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and on advocacy for defunding the police and support for Black Lives Matter. Members of the Squad and the Justice Democrats blamed these losses on the Democrats’ lack of a compelling progressive economic message like a Green New Deal jobs programme, and on the failure of some Democratic candidates to make effective use of social media and direct contact with voters. That debate will continue within the Democratic Party for years to come. In the long run, even if it wins some elections, a weak centrist and vacillating Democratic Party (‘Republican Lite’) cannot compete ideologically with a virulently right-wing Republican Party that rejects reasonable compromises that would further a multiracial, working-class agenda favoured by the base supporters of the Democratic coalition. 

While we avoided the precipice of a victorious Trump reelection, we still remain too close to the rim of destruction for US democracy. Democratic socialists defend democracy in order to deepen and extend it further so that the broad working class has more decision-making power. It is sobering that a majority of white voters voted for an incompetent, egocentric demagogue who demonised immigrants and Blacks to try to maintain power. If Trump had not blundered so egregiously by denying the pandemic, he would likely have been reelected. 

The Democratic Party played it safe with Joe Biden by avoiding any commitment to pursue fundamental reforms beyond restoration of the Obama era. Yet the threats posed by climate catastrophe, economic inequality and racial injustice are growing, not diminishing, in scale and urgency, and demand decisive actions. Even if Biden’s articulation of his four priorities – economic recovery, combatting Covid-19, racial justice and climate change – suggests important openings for a progressive policy agenda, these will not happen without decisive pressure from the left.

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