The state of the union

Photo: Lawrence Jackson/Biden For President

Gary Younge looks at what influence the left in the US will have now and sees a political resolution of the American Civil War still being played out

What won it for Biden and Harris?

The presidential election was always going to be fairly close. Looking at the past six or seven elections, Republicans have only won a majority once since 1992. So they are a declining force.

Electorally, there were two principal reasons why the Democrats won by nearly seven million votes and in the key swing states. Firstly, Trump’s failure to secure white suburban women, who were first of all upset at his inability to functionally engage with Covid, and secondly, given the political turmoil, mostly relating to Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the riot, felt less safe with his posturing than with an accommodation to Trump. Trump lost that gambit.

Second was the significant mobilisation of the Black vote in certain areas and who had previously been somewhat ambivalent or indifferent when Hillary Clinton stood. Certainly in Georgia, and some other places, we saw a significant uptick in registration of Black voters during BLM campaigns.

What is often true of a second term is that the election is a referendum on the sitting president. This was a case of people voting primarily against Trump rather than for Biden. We saw the same in 2004, when I was reporting. I didn’t meet many voting for John Kerry, they were voting against George Bush.

We also have to take into account the weird campaigning due to Covid. The usual grammar of politics didn’t come through. The conventions, the debates (Trump refused to turn up to one), the rallies that usually secure the mass news coverage, just did not happen.

So it was a particular kind of campaign. Biden was not a very good candidate. We could make the same point with Obama – his campaign would have looked very different if conducted under Covid rules. What would he have looked like without rallies?

What was the significance of the Squad and the younger democratic left in the success of the Biden/Harris ticket?

This was the first election I’d not been in the US for since 1996. My reading from here [in Hackney] is that certainly in many places they were able to mobilise the base. It starts with Bernie [Sanders]. Unlike with Hillary Clinton, there was not the tail off from Bernie supporters. They voted loyally for the Democrats. The Squad is an iteration of that. They understood the Democratic Party as a pathway for change. The result was significantly fortified by the left forces in the Democratic Party. We shouldn’t forget how close Bernie came. He was running away with it. It was only the solidification of all anti-Bernie forces and support from older African Americans, who are in some ways the most risk-averse electorally, that made Biden possible. He was coming fourth and fifth, hopelessly adrift. He emerged as the most viable unifying anti-Bernie candidate. What’s yet to be seen is the degree to which he’ll negotiate with those other forces. Looking at the Labour Party here, the desire of the leadership seems not to negotiate but to eradicate. We’ve yet to see how this will play out in the US.

Biden has a lot of credibility with the Black base. But the Black base and BLM activists are not the same. People are watching and waiting. He went into the contest with very little credibility among Black activists. This is a man who introduced the Crime Bill that led to massive incarceration of Black people; who left Anita Hill out to dry in the Clarence Thomas hearings. Kamala Harris’s signature moment during the primaries was when on platforms with Biden she was attacking him for opposing bussing. So he had some work to do.

All of this comes in the framework of “he’s not Trump”.

An awful lot in American electoral politics can be gained through symbolism: particularly in his appointments. Bill Clinton was a nightmare for Black America. We saw a huge increase in incarcerations; his welfare bill saw Black women pushed into poverty. Yet symbolically, he knew the words to the negro national anthem, he was a ‘southern boy’. And he remained one of the more popular presidents among African Americans, even though he did terrible things.

The BLM activists are likely to take a critically supportive stance. They will exact a significant price for support and will engage in trying to secure change.

There has already beenquite a significant push back. Democrats did not do well in the Congressional races. This tells us that it was Trump that lost rather than the Democrats that won it.

In the first call out of House of Representatives there was significant push back from Democrats in more moderate areas, attacking BLM for its ‘defund police’ slogans. They say this cost them dearly. So there is a battle going on within the Democrats. A fight is on over the degree of influence the left should have, and central to those left demands is anti-racism.

To what degree did the storming of the Capitol pose a real threat to American democracy?

American democracy was in peril long before the rabble turned up. They would have gone to K Street if they really wanted big change – that’s where the lobbyists are.

I spend lot of time thinking about this. It was an insurrection against a notionally democratic institution. It was timed to prevent the certification of the election result. But it was not a coup or even a coup attempt. It was not a realistic attempt to take over the organisation of the state. Once in Congress they had no idea what to do. They weren’t serious about taking over state power.

Think of Fidel Castro’s arrival at Sierra Maistra. A lot of coups or insurrections often start as ridiculous events that are then sharpened up. It’s telling that beyond that group of people there wasn’t a large rush of people to support them. But nor was there a large rush of people to oppose them.

It wasn’t a mass event. But this does not mean it wasn’t serious. The ambivalence of the police force was telling: they did not take it seriously or take it as a threat, unlike many other demos, especially Black Lives Matter protests.

There is one counterfactual scenario worth contemplating. If Bernie had won, what would that crowd have looked like? People would have been invoking socialism. We saw over here what happened with Corbyn. It’s not fanciful to think Bernie could have won the election then those sections of the media that decided to be outraged with Trump might have said ‘well, we are becoming a bit like Venezuela’. A very different scenario could have emerged.

American democracy has long been a myth. Look at the numbers excluded from voting, the gerrymandering, the money, all of that. Even the symbolic nature of it is in peril. Most Americans like to think of themselves as a democracy.

Trump may be down, but Trumpism is not. What is the nature of the threat and can it be repulsed?

Trumpism is really a caffeinated version of what we’ve seen for a long time. Trump cohered, amplified and embodied a trend in American mainstream right politics. It predated him and it will survive him.

These are still the death throes of the American Civil War. There was a military resolution but there was never a political resolution with equality and a challenge to white supremacy. We are increasingly approaching the moment when white people will be in a minority. If you look at where and how Trump lost, it’s very graphic. In Arizona, Nevada, and majority Black or Black minority major cities like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta and Milwaukee, Trump lost. So when the right say the election was stolen from us there is a sense in which that is so: white supremacists think these people shouldn’t be voting.

It was telling that the day before the Senate vote, Georgia elected its first Black representative and its first Jewish senator ever, and both Democrats. Kamala Harris, a mixed race daughter of Indian and Jamaican migrants, would now have the casting vote. This happened in the heart of the Confederacy, so you get a sense of why that insurrection took place. It’s not a new anxiety, but as time goes on the numbers of non-white voters keep growing. Most kids under the age of 16 are not white. So soon they’ll be early voters.

My sense is that things will get worse before they get better. That intense demographic march will continue. The question is also how it plays out in the Republican Party.

Trump was never even majoritarian. It was a very narrow eye of the needle that he was threading. With each year that becomes less and less possible. Increasingly, the places up for grabs are old Republican strongholds.

Someone has to lose. Actually white supremacy has to lose. That’s a long, painful, hard challenge to make. I don’t think the Democratic Party is up to that challenge. My hope is that Biden ends up like Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ was not considered hopeful in terms of radical progressive politics. He steps into Kennedy’s shoes and decides he is going to go for it. That’s when you have the most radical changes – they all happened in the five years of his presidency. So there is an opportunity.

It’s also an opportunity for the right. There is a lot to play for. The alt-right become bigger fish in a smaller pond with Trump and Bannon gone. The imprimatur, the authentication of the state, is now missing. They are fully outsiders once again.

So what of the succession?

Somebody like Trump could emerge, particularly if Biden fails, if there is no improvement in the lives of many people. Trump followed Obama for a reason. A significant number of white Americans were made anxious by this mixed race man of immigrant background whose father was a Muslim. He also failed to deliver. He stopped things getting worse, but ‘yes we can’ became ‘yes we tried’.

What are the prospects for Biden/Harris to turn the tide and stop a return of Trump or Trumpism?

A lot depends on the left, the Squad and the degree to which they can exercise political force. It’s going to be about the extent to which Biden and Harris are aware of a strong political flank to their left. That flank did not really exist under Obama or Clinton. Or if it did exist it did not make itself felt. So it’s about the degree to which they can hold the leadership’s feet to the fire, the extent to which they can make inroads into the source of discontent. This is primarily about the economic problems that made Trumpism possible.

Gary Younge was in conversation with Mike Davis and Phil Vellender.

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