The election had barely been called for Joe Biden when Democratic Party centrists began blaming the party’s Left for the underwhelming results of last week’s election, no matter every bit of proof to the contrary.
Joining the chorus was one of Biden’s Republican supporters, John Kasich, who lectured the Democrats that if they had more clearly “rejected the hard left,” they would have better appealed to the Americans, who “essentially live in the middle.” Again, the numbers point to the opposite: a growing polarization and a hollowing out of the center.
More important, the middle ground that does exist provides a terrain that should be more favorable to left ideas. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) rightly pointed out, “every single candidate that co-sponsored Medicare for All in a swing district kept their seat.” And every swing-district Democrat that accepted AOC’s help with their election operation won, while nearly everyone one that refused lost.
In many states and counties that voted red, referenda passed overwhelmingly to increase the minimum wage, fund public education, decriminalize drugs, and implement rent control. In Mississippi, voters elected to replace their Confederate-era state flag. On economic issues, this pattern is even clearer. As the Huffington Post reported, according to polls, “one out of every five Republicans has economic views that align better with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party.” This includes support for increasing the minimum wage, taxing the rich, and providing robust COVID-19 relief benefits.
While votes are still being tallied in a few states, the likely scenario is that Biden won the election with 306 electoral votes to Donald Trump’s 232, with a small but significant popular vote lead of 50.5 percent to 47.4 percent (some 4 million votes). It’s a fairly comfortable margin, after the drama of Election Night and the following few days. But these margins are nowhere near those we saw in 1992, the last time a Republican incumbent presiding over a recession was ousted. Bill Clinton won that election with 370 electoral votes to George H. W. Bush’s 168, and with 43 percent to 37 percent of the popular vote (Ross Perot took the remaining 19 percent). Barack Obama, too, though he didn’t run against an incumbent, benefited from the Republican Party having presided over a recession. In 2008, Obama won 365 electoral votes to John McCain’s 173, with 53 percent of the popular vote to McCain’s 46 percent.
As Eric Levitz recently commented:
Biden’s narrow margins in the Electoral College – in 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 and advertising his indifference about containing — can’t help but make Democrats nervous about their odds of retaining power in 2024.
Even more devastating to the Democratic Party leadership were the down-ballot disappointments. Despite grand predictions, and despite being awash in hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions, Democrats lost seats in the House, may have failed to flip the Senate, and didn’t flip state legislatures. The result will be a congressional dead end for progressive policies, in what will likely be a Biden-McConnell coalition government.
At minimum, the Democrats’ flimsy showing during a period of unprecedented crisis points to a party out of step with its constituents, a party unable to pose an alternative to Trump’s unique style of demagoguery and corporate giveaways. Worse still, the results reveal the failure of the Democratic Party to be an effective “opposition party” for the past four years, wasting their time with dead-end attempts at impeachment theatrics instead of focusing on improving the material conditions of people’s lives.
A Party, and a Candidate, Out of Step
Though data is still coming in, and we should take exit poll information with a grain of salt, it seems clear that there were three issues most important to voters this year: the economy, the pandemic, and racial inequality. Not surprisingly, Biden fared best — by wide margins — with voters that identified the pandemic or racial inequality (82 percent and 91 percent respectively). More surprising, Trump fared best, by equally high margins (82 percent), among those that identified the economy as their top concern.
In one sense, Trump did as well as (or as poorly as) would be expected given his approval ratings. His approval ratings were low (consistently so across his presidency), but they had not bottomed out. With 46 percent approval, he had a slim but not impossible shot at reelection. At the same time that Trump’s approval ratings were low but steady, Congress saw its ratings bottom out to 18 percent over the summer.
It’s true that many voters gave Trump perhaps undue credit for the dubious strength of the pre-coronavirus economy. For the last ten years, most Americans had a negative view of the economy. This only began to turn around midyear in 2016.
But the more shocking fact is that, as of this fall, with tens of millions unemployed, hungry, and facing possible eviction, Trump’s handling of the economy was still viewed favorably.
In large part, this was due to a false counterposition, as economist Michael Roberts put it: “lockdowns to save lives; or no lockdowns and save jobs.” This was a false narrative in the sense that it didn’t have to be this way, if we had been given the economic and social supports necessary to weather the lockdowns. But it was, unfortunately, true in the sense of how it has actually played out. Asking people to stay home and out of work indefinitely, without being given the resources to do so, is not a workable plan.
Trump posed his arguments to reopen states as a way for people to get on with their lives — a message that unsurprisingly resonated with many. While the stimulus checks sent out in the spring were paltry, they also bore his name. As Democrats played a game of chicken with renewed stimulus negotiations this fall — ultimately confirming to millions of people desperate for relief that both parties are just as cynical and out of touch — Trump got away with insisting that he alone was in favor of robust aid to individuals.
In the spring, the White House and both parties in Congress rushed to pass aggressive stimulus packages in the spring. By summer and fall, with benefits lapsed, negotiations to renew them completely failed. Mass unemployment continues, and 8 million people have fallen into poverty since May. Had the Democrats been the party of economic relief, they could have undermined the “jobs versus health” narrative and exposed Trump and the Republicans for selling short millions of unemployed workers.
To their credit, congressional Democrats posed some aggressive demands for a further stimulus package this summer and fall. But despite wringing some concessions from the White House during negotiations, they ultimately neither conceded nor organized the kind of pressure necessary to win their full proposal. As I argued last month,
It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Democrats could agree to a deal, while arguing openly and forcefully that it is insufficient. They could make the case publicly that the economic desperation experienced by millions, alongside GOP intransigence has forced them to agree to an incomplete solution, but that they will push for renewed and greater spending if they win the upcoming elections.
Instead, they took a gamble and assumed that failed negotiations would further hobble the Republicans at the polls and doom Trump’s reelection prospects, even if it meant risking no deal at all. This left millions in the lurch, exposed their own cynicism, and ultimately allowed Trump to feign more interest in providing economic relief than the Democrats.
Given the significance of the health and racism crises simultaneously wracking society, the Democrats also missed an opportunity to tie the issues together. Rather than Trump’s bigoted answers to people’s bitterness and suffering, the Democrats could have posed a politics of solidarity that tied racial inequality in economy, health, and police violence to inequality across American life, while fighting for the material resources to address them. But the politics of solidarity, of class struggle, and of “fighting for someone you don’t know” exited the national discussion when Bernie Sanders withdrew from the Democratic primaries. Biden, instead, ran a hollow and vague campaign, which most of all promised that he would not, in fact, be Donald Trump.
Rather than an aggressive economic policy — for a $15 minimum wage, monthly stipends of $2,000 for the duration of the pandemic, and a national health system to ensure that everyone has health care during a pandemic, no matter their job status — Biden chose vacuous platitudes. He technically supported the popular policy of a $15 minimum wage, but he never campaigned on it. At the presidential debate in October, “Biden responded to a question by saying he supported a $15 minimum wage but quickly pivoted to the importance of bailing out small businesses.”
A Left Alternative
Donald Trump’s presidency has been a disaster for working people, a public health catastrophe, a terror for immigrants and people of color, and a boon for the far right. If the next four years bring a further erosion of living standards and the stalling of any progressive measures to counter it, this will only fuel a return of Trumpism in 2024, with or without Donald Trump.
As long as the Democratic Party does not speak to people’s material interests, it opens up space for the Right to claim that it does. Exit polls showing 40 percent of union members having voted for Trump is certainly an alarming sign of the Democrats’ disconnect from their base.
An alternative exists in a small but growing left flank of the Democratic Party. That flank is growing not only in numbers, as democratic socialists like Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman join Congress next year, but also in confidence.
In an interview with the New York Times last week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized the direction of the party leadership in no uncertain terms. “I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy. And that their base is not the enemy,” she explained. “That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy. This isn’t even just about winning an argument. It’s that if they keep going after the wrong thing, I mean, they’re just setting up their own obsolescence.”
Despite an economic and political landscape that in many ways is bleak, the space for the Left to organize has grown. We are living through an age of unrest, in which more protest has occurred in the last few years than ever before. But we are still at the beginning stages of building a mass base to meet the growing unrest through the organizations, political ideas, and institutions of the Left. This election cycle showed that Joe Biden and the Democrats certainly aren’t going to do it on their own.