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How the Left Beat Trump in Michigan

According to centrists, the “blue wave” didn’t materialize because of the Left. That’s nonsense — and in at least one crucial swing state, Joe Biden rode to victory because of the organizing of progressives and leftists.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) at the US Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Zach Gibson / Getty Images)

On the animated TV show Rick and Morty, mad scientist Rick Sanchez has a device that he hooks up to his family’s TV set to allow them to watch cable channels from alternate dimensions. If this sort of device really existed, it would be fascinating to see how news channels covered the election in timelines where Bernie Sanders was the Democratic nominee. I’d like to think that in most such timelines, Bernie would have won decisively on Tuesday night.

Instead of any of those, though, let’s imagine one where the election had been such a nail-biter that the networks hadn’t been able to call the presidential race for Bernie until Saturday — and that even during an economic recession and a brutally mismanaged recession on their watch, the Republicans had actually managed to pick up seats in Congress. How would centrists on that dimension’s cable news networks have talked about the result?

We don’t need to strain very hard to imagine how that would have sounded, because we’ve been hearing it anyway. The nominee wasn’t Bernie Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren but Joe Biden, a candidate so implacably opposed to the Sanders agenda that even during the initial panic of the coronavirus crisis, he infamously suggested to an interviewer that if he were elected president and Medicare for All somehow made it onto his desk, he would veto it. As late as September, he was crowing, “I beat the socialist.”

Even so, centrist Democrats and their Never Trump Republican allies are dead set on blaming the socialist left for Biden’s performance and the Democratic Party’s down-ballot failures. On a call last Thursday with a number of members of Congress, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) ranted, “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. . . . We lost good members because of that.” Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX) made similar points, while others decried “radical left” slogans like “defund the police.” Biden surrogate John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio and notorious union buster, has bluntly said that “the far left almost cost [Democrats] the election.”

It’s true that Republican attack ads sometimes tried to red-bait Democrats and fearmonger about police defunding. Then again, some of the same attack ads made a lot of hay about “the Russia hoax,” and Russiagate was typically a fixation of centrists rather than the Left. The real question is whether, when we drill down to the state level, it’s plausible that the Democrats would have had greater success if not for “Berniecrats” and the rising socialist left.

Other writers can comment on what happened in other states. But I’m absolutely certain that in my home state of Michigan, exactly the opposite is true. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the state by 10,704 votes. In 2020, Joe Biden won it by almost 150,000 votes. That didn’t happen because the trade policies Clinton and Biden both spent decades supporting suddenly became popular with laid-off factory workers in Detroit or because the way the Democrats touted former governor Rick Snyder’s endorsement of Joe Biden played well with the people whose water Snyder poisoned in Flint.

I don’t doubt that a number of factors played into Donald Trump’s loss here. Polling has consistently shown that a large majority of Michigan voters supported governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, so Trump probably lost some votes when right-wing protesters brought guns and Confederate flags to the State Capitol building to protest the lockdown and the president responded by tweeting, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” Trump’s conspicuous failure to meaningfully follow through on his 2016 promises to re-industrialize the Rust Belt was doubtless also a factor. Biden’s working-class patina, however ill-deserved, probably was, too. But demoralized Trump supporters staying home wouldn’t have saved Biden in the state if unenthusiastic Democrats had done the same.

After some initially worrying signs that Biden would repeat Hillary Clinton’s colossal mistake of failing to take the state seriously, Biden himself and former president Barack Obama eventually made appearances in the state. That alone probably made a difference. But it’s also true that the efforts of important Michigan “Berniecrats” like Abdul El-Sayed and Rashida Tlaib helped defeat Trump in the Wolverine State.

The picture painted by centrists and Never Trumpers portrays overly left-wing down-ballot candidates nearly dragging down Joe Biden. As far as I can tell, that’s exactly the opposite of what happened here.

Tlaib and El-Sayed to the Rescue

By all accounts, the participant in last Thursday’s call who pushed back most vocally against the centrists’ narrative was Detroit congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. It’s easy to see why.

Tlaib’s Republican opponent in 2020 was David Dudenhoefer — a right-wing maniac who pulled stunts like auctioning off an AR-15 “as a symbol of support for 2nd Amendment rights and a campaign fundraising tool.” That played about as well as you’d think it would with most voters in the district that elected Tlaib (and that had previously been represented by John Conyers). Dudenhoefer got less than 19 percent of the vote.

This result wasn’t a surprise to Tlaib, who was quoted in a pre-election piece describing Dudenhoefer’s fundraising haul as “racist money burning.” (In a typically Tlaib-ish flourish, she followed this up with, “Keep spending it, baby!”) She knew that she didn’t have to campaign at all to keep her seat, but she did it anyway, spending hours on miserably cold late-fall days knocking on doors.

To put this in perspective, as late as mid-September, Time magazine was calling Biden’s operation in Michigan “invisible” and reporting that the campaign was refusing to tell reporters where any physical field offices in the state were located. When Time reporter Charlotte Alter asked Biden staffers what kind of effort they had on the ground, one responded, “What do you mean by ‘on the ground’?”

Tlaib is exactly the kind of candidate that the Abigail Spanbergers and John Kasichs of the world are probably thinking of when they tut-tut about socialism, police defunding, and “the far left.” She’s a Palestinian-American who supports a secular democratic one-state solution and Palestinian refugees’ right of return — and so, of course, she’s been smeared as an “antisemite.” A DSA member and an open socialist, she’s vocally supported calls to defund the police.

Yet, far from dragging votes away from Biden, Tlaib was working tirelessly — by at least some indications, a lot more tirelessly than the official Biden campaign — to drum up support in her district. “I don’t even talk about me,” she told the Metro Times. She only used her identity as the district’s congresswoman to start conversations. When voters weren’t home, she left them handwritten notes and voter guides for down-ballot candidates.

According to Abdul El-Sayed, the former progressive gubernatorial candidate, those down-ballot candidates were crucial in turning out the vote for Biden. He mentioned three when I interviewed him: state legislature candidates Julia Pulver and Abraham Aiyash and Michigan State University Board of Trustees member Brian Mosallam. Former Bernie Sanders surrogate Aiyash won his election. Pulver and Mosallam lost theirs, but all three pulled Arab Americans, young people, and other typically progressive voters to the polls.

El-Sayed himself is a figure who deserves a far more prominent national profile than he has on the Left. When he ran in the Democratic primary against now-governor Whitmer in 2018, he came close to becoming the first Muslim governor in the United States. I saw El-Sayed speak at a rally that year where his warm-up speaker was Bernie Sanders. Whitmer raked in campaign funds from Blue Cross Blue Shield. They had good reason to back her — El-Sayed was campaigning on an incredibly well-thought-out plan for a program he was going to call “MichCare,” which he conceived as a state-level version of Medicare for All.

Since losing that race, El-Sayed has transformed his campaign organization into a PAC called Southpaw Michigan that works to elect other Berniecrats in the state. As a state-level PAC, Southpaw wasn’t legally allowed to make an official endorsement, but when I interviewed El-Sayed, he described how Southpaw used a “reverse coattails” approach, supporting candidates for lower offices who excited voters that may not have been enthusiastic about Biden himself but voted for the entire Democratic ticket once at the ballot box.

Southpaw made 483,517 phone calls and sent more than 1.5 million text messages. Considering how much enthusiasm there was for El-Sayed among young progressives in 2018, I have a hard time believing that this didn’t play any role in driving youth turnout — which increased by 120 percent from 2016.

Choosing Your Opponent

An organization called #VoteTrumpOut made similarly heroic efforts. Founded by former Bernie staffers, the group focused on a few key swing states, one of which was Michigan. I interviewed #VoteTrumpOut’s Michigan point man Cordell Cox, who said their message was simple: leftists in swing states needed to “choose their enemy.” Trump’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), for instance, has overturned a whole series of Obama-era precedents that make it harder to organize unions and harder for unions to function once they’re up and running. Biden is no friend of the working class, to put it mildly, but he represents a very different strategy for managing the system on behalf of capital, and it’s safe to say his NLRB appointees would resemble Obama’s more than Trump’s. (Full disclosure: I was one of #VoteTrumpOut’s Michigan endorsers.)

#VoteTrumpOut worked aggressively to get its message out to swing-state voters. Focusing on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona, Cox said the organization made well over 300,000 phone calls and sent 1.4 million texts. According to RootsAction’s electoral campaigns director, their ads reached 1.09 million people an average of 14.3 times each, and 98,147 shared at least one of them. This was a massive effort by an organization with extremely modest resources.

That Bidenites would be the opposite of grateful for this assist is dismally predictable. But pretending that Biden won Michigan despite the Left is nonsense. To a significant extent, he won because of it.