With Joe Biden choosing Kamala Harris as the first Black American female running mate, Paul Garver looks at the prospects for the Democrats and democratic socialists in the November elections
The coronavirus pandemic, followed by the Black Lives Matter protests, have been reshaping the political terrain. The ongoing pandemic is damaging Trump. His bumbling ineptitude and narcissistic callousness are on full display every day. The societal consequences of the economic crisis triggered by attempts to control the pandemic are devastating with no end in sight. Trump’s chief argument for re-election had been the relatively strong economy, and Trump is now promoting over-hasty measures to revive the economy by relaxing safety precautions. The pandemic is therefore raging out of control in those rural and small town areas controlled by Republican politicians too much in thrall to Trump’s wilful ignorance and denial of science.
The widespread and persistent Black Lives demonstrations throughout the country, led by young people of all races, are showing the power of the streets to shift popular attitudes on race and force politicians at all levels to promise reforms in policing. Progressive insurgents have been defeating middle-of-the-road Democratic incumbents in recent Congressional primaries. In a New York district, African-American educator Jamaal Bowman decisively defeated Eliot Engel, a darling of the Democratic establishment, who was endorsed by Hillary Clinton and heavily funded by pro-Israel and both Democratic and Republican political action committees. Another African-American progressive insurgent, Mondaire Jones, won a primary election for an open seat in a predominantly white New York suburban district, while Black Lives Matter insurgent Cori Bush defeated an entrenched Democratic incumbent in Missouri.
“Squad” and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, easily won their re-election primaries. It is now likely that the current Squad of four in the House of Representatives will be expanded to at least ten members after the 2020 elections. Despite the panicked negative responses from the institutional Democratic Party, the balance of power is clearly shifting towards the Left in the US House, which is likely to have an expanded Democratic majority.
The fundamental tenet of Sanders’ campaign was that millions of new, marginalized and younger voters would be drawn into the electoral process, which did not happen. However, it now appears that the massive and sustained Back Lives Matter protests are being accompanied by a strong Left electoral surge, at least in major metropolitan areas. It remains unclear whether Biden can harness that surge.
Sanders may have withdrawn prematurely from the Presidential race. The pandemic is dramatically demonstrating the defects of employer-based insurance by threatening tens of millions of newly unemployed with the loss of their health coverage. The costs of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal jobs programme pale in comparison with the huge sums of money now being poured into financial and fossil fuel corporations as temporary bailouts. By withdrawing from the Presidential race, Sanders failed to accumulate enough committed Democratic delegates to ensure that the positions of his supporters would have direct influence on the Democratic Party 2020 platform.
Sanders’ quid pro quo was to enter into negotiations with Joe Biden to create “unity” task forces to shape the Democratic Party’s platform. The six task forces were: Climate Crisis/Environmental Justice, Criminal Justice, Education, Economy, Health Care and Immigration. The Sanders and Biden campaigns each appointed a co-chair plus four additional members (Biden) and two (Sanders) for each task force. The recommendations of those unity task forces were made public in early July. In general, they would provide a comprehensive domestic framework for a decent social democratic party, although compromised short of more ambitious progressive goals like Medicare for All, Green New Deal or free higher education.
However, the Democratic Party policy committee is already watering down these task force recommendations. In any event, few people actually read long form party platforms. What the electorate will be made aware of is how the candidate and the campaign present their proposals. Left to his own advisors and devices, Joe Biden is likely to follow the Hillary Clinton model by lying low and stressing the defects of Trump rather than propose any sweeping or comprehensive alternatives.
Most leaders of progressive movements and unions, following Sanders, are endorsing Biden – less from enthusiasm but as the only available alternative to Trump’s re-election. However, we cannot know yet whether sufficient numbers of their members and followers can be motivated to overcome the twin hurdles of the pandemic and voter suppression to actually register and vote in November.
Most of the voting is likely to be through absentee mail-in ballots because of the pandemic. Physical polling places, particularly in African-American neighborhoods, have been closed down, forcing long lines at those still open. We do not know the full impact of a shift to mail-in voting. Trump is opposed to its widespread use even though he and most of his advisers vote absentee themselves. But in general, poorer people still face more difficulties in voting by mail as well as in person.
Defeating Trump electorally is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for preserving democracy and advancing democratic socialist ideas. It is even possible that Trump will not willingly vacate the White House following a narrow defeat. He has dozens of ways to discredit and contest the vote, by claiming fraud and by playing upon the slow process of counting challenged and absentee ballots. Trump also has a Supreme Court majority that could award him a dubious electoral victory in a close election as it did for George Bush in 2000.
Even if Joe Biden wins the Presidential race, Republicans will continue to block any serious progressive legislation if they continue to control the US Senate. A Democratic majority in the Senate is needed to block Trump if he is re-elected and to pass any vitally needed legislation if he is not.
There are only marginal indications that Trump’s core support bases are crumbling. He is still supported by a plurality of white male voters, by most Evangelical voters and by virtually all Republicans. The Trump administration is doubling down on those repressive and regressive measures designed to fire up that base – anti-immigrant and refugee, militarisation of police forces, restricting reproductive freedom, encouragement of religious-based bigotry, destruction of environmental protections, etc.
Trump’s re-election remains possible. The arcane rules of the US electoral system permit an electoral victory by a popular minority, like Trump won in 2016. Republican legislatures and politicians at the state level are enacting targeted measures to discourage and deny voter participation, particularly by persons of colour and younger persons.
The defeat of Sanders in the primaries, countered in part by a growing number of state and local electoral victories by the Left, suggests that, while the democratic socialist movement is increasingly relevant to US politics, it is relatively strong only among younger people (of all races), those with some higher education, and concentrated in larger cities and university towns. To become a major force in national politics the democratic socialist left has to become convincing and credible to other, broader constituencies as well.
This poses a major challenge to the democratic socialist movement in the USA, and in particular to the DSA, its largest and fastest growing organization. As a ‘big tent’ organization that every month takes in hundreds of young people from all socialist backgrounds and none, DSA can do little more than provide a political education framework for local DSA groupings that vary widely from place to place.
I became politically active in the late 1960s and early 1970s through the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. We never managed to align our immediate demands with a long-term strategy for achieving political power. Part of our problem was that we felt isolated and alienated from most existing authorities, including the Communist and Socialist parties. We are working to avoid this tragic failure to connect between Left generations happening today. The wonderfully sustained and widespread multi-racial Black Lives Matter demonstrations build on the achievements of the civil rights movement, and give us hope we can build a sustainable Left electoral and organised political movement capable of contesting for power.