While Trump plots, Democrat Joe Biden looks set to take over in the White House. How did the Democrats win the poll and how influential will the socialist left be? Paul Garver on the takeaways from the US elections
At about 70%, the overall voter turnout was higher than the normally miserably low US standard. Black, Latino, Native American and young voters of all races were mobilised at record levels by volunteer field organising efforts and the energy of grassroots organisations in the key battleground states, providing the margins of victory for the Democratic candidates in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin, all of which had supported Trump in 2016. In Georgia, progressive Black-led organisations like Black Voters Matter and the New Georgia Project had registered 800,000 new voters, mainly younger voters 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.
Two members of the ‘Squad’ of left Congressional Democrats were instrumental in driving Democratic voter 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, and the $10 million campaign funding for her Republican opponent, to easily win her own re-election in Minneapolis with an incredible 88% voter turnout that helped provide Biden’s margin of victory in Minnesota. Omar’s campaign featured person door-to-door canvassing that the Biden campaign did not do. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (also a Muslim and a DSA member) focused in Detroit/Wayne County on engaging some 200,000 voters who had not voted in 2016 to ensure her own re-election and help deliver Michigan to Biden.
The national Democratic Party focused its efforts on massive TV advertising, trying 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 messaging was that he would restore normalcy and decency to the White House and undo the harm wreaked by the Trump administration. This message made more sense for his own candidacy than Hillary Clinton’s failed “I’m not Trump” campaign did in 2016. However, it did not much help down-ballot Democratic candidates, since it failed to deliver a positive or inspiring message to economically distressed former Democratic or independent voters. Democrats lost a few net House seats, mainly of more conservative Democrats, and failed to win a majority in the Senate.
Trump’s base support of rural voters, evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics, along with white men in general with less formal education, remained substantially intact. He campaigned vigorously, ignoring coronavirus precautions, and the Republican Party did a better job of turning out its voters through social media and direct canvassing than the Democratic Party did. By the time all the votes are counted, the Republican vote count will exceed that of 2016. However, Trump still lost the popular vote by a large margin and the electoral vote more narrowly, due to the unusually large turnout of Black, Latino, young and big city voters.
The widespread use of mail-in ballots and early voting due to the pandemic encouraged overall voting turnout, probably helping Democrats, but confused the counting of the votes themselves. More Republicans voted on election day itself, suggesting that Trump would win key states like Pennsylvania, before the mail-in ballots were counted. The main television media did a fairly credible job of patiently waiting for all the votes to be counted, but Trump and the Republicans are still using right-wing and social media to spread disinformation and discredit the vote count where the final tallies narrowly favour the Democrats.
Just as “essential workers” are the real heroes and heroines of the pandemic, postal workers, local and state election officials and volunteers may be the saviours of 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. Tens of thousands of Americans rallied throughout the country the day after Election Day to demand that every vote be counted, and a broad coalition of organisations remain on alert to mobilise millions more if Trump and his Republican enablers continue to try to thwart the will of the electorate.
The dancing in the streets after Biden’s victory became evident was justified. However, every responsible organisation of the broad American Left is preparing its members and supporters not only to defend democratic rights, but to mobilise for a broad progressive agenda, including racial justice, environmental justice, universal healthcare and a just and equitable recovery from the pandemic. We do not intend to repeat the demobilisation of the progressive movements that occurred after Obama won the presidency in 2008. If the Biden presidency is unable to deliver more than some better or less venal appointed officials, and executive orders reversing some of Trump’s mayhem against immigrants and the environment, it will lose credibility with its own base supporters. The midterm elections in 2022 might then result in a revival of Trumpist Republican reaction in an even more virulent neo-Fascist form.
If one immediate priority has to be remaining vigilant against a ‘soft coup’ aimed at keeping Trump in the White House, the second has to be a last-ditch attempt to block a Republican majority in the Senate. With two Senate seats at stake in the January 2021 run-off elections in Georgia, a Democratic double victory would knot the Senate at 50 Republicans/50 Democrats, with Vice-President Kamala Harris breaking the ties. That result would not only ease the stranglehold on the legislative process currently exerted by Mitch McConnell’s Republican majority – it would make it more difficult for the Democratic Party led by Biden to claim a lack of responsibility for advancing progressive reform legislation.
Within days after the election, 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 Black Lives Matter. Members of the Squad, and their supporters like the Justice Democrats, blamed the 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, Republican-lite Democratic Party cannot compete ideologically with a virulently right-wing Republican Party that rejects any reasonable compromises to further a multiracial, working class agenda that is favoured by the base supporters of the Democratic coalition.
A final consideration: whereas we did not fall over the precipice that a victorious re-election of Trump would have represented, 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 to note that a majority of white voters still 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 re-elected.
The Democratic Party played it safe with Joe Biden by running away from any ambitious reform programme other than restoration of the Obama era. Biden eschewed any commitment to pursue fundamental reforms. Yet the threats posed by climate catastrophe, growing economic inequality and racial injustice are growing not diminishing in scale and urgency, and call for decisive actions.
At best, with the 2020 election we barely escaped from the beaches of Dunkirk. We remain too distant from D-Day.