Biden and the American Left
Joe Biden may not lead in moving toward a future that is more social and more democratic, but he cannot stop the Left’s momentum towards it.
- The plutocrat-friendly “centrism” that has dominated US politics and both political parties for the last 40 years is not holding.
- Ideologically, the Democrats’ left wing is stronger today than at any time since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s.
- Progressive Democrats -- led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren -- have now been beaten back twice by their party’s establishment.
- Joe Biden didn’t argue that the left’s ideas were wrong -- he argued that a majority of Americans were not ready for them.
- The left too often uses the word “Fascism.” But in the fourth year of Trump’s regime the cumulative evidence of that threat is clear.
- Half-hearted engagement by the Democratic Party’s left wing in the upcoming presidential election risks catastrophe.
The plutocrat-friendly “centrism” that has dominated American politics and both political parties for the last 40 years is not holding. This policy has led to deep social and economic inequalities for which it has no credible solutions on offer.
For the left wing of the U.S. Democratic Party, this has been good news and bad news.
Ideologically, the Democrats’ left wing is stronger today than at any time since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s.
The demands for government health insurance for all, free college tuition, a Green New Deal and guaranteed jobs are now mainstream political ideas. A majority of whites support the Black Lives Matter movement.
And on the opposite end of the political equation, Republican Conservatives — who have spent their political lives denouncing “Big Government” — have been forced to admit that trillions of dollars in federal spending are needed to save their “free” market.
However, politically, the American left’s grasp has fallen short of its intellectual reach. It has not able been able to fill the political void.
Instead, that void was filled by Donald Trump and the radical American Right. Fighting in tandem, these forces managed to upend the entire Republican elite and took over that party.
In contrast, as of 2020, progressive Democrats — led by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — have now been beaten back twice by their party’s establishment.
How Joe Biden positions himself
In winning the Democrats’ nomination to run against Donald Trump, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden did not argue that the left’s ideas were wrong. Instead, Biden argued that a majority of Americans were just not ready for them.
Biden won because he was supported by the Democrats’ most loyal and progressive constituency — African Americans.
In contrast, Sanders/Warren activists are bitterly disappointed. “Maybe I’ll hold my nose and vote for Biden,” more than one said to me. “But I won’t help his campaign.”
14% of Sanders voters say they will not vote for Biden. Another 8% are unsure. Come election time, those could be significant numbers.
The left’s frustration is understandable. The 77-year-old Biden has a weak claim on their loyalties, having been on the wrong side of battles over inequality, military adventurism and regulating corporate greed.
But a half-hearted engagement by the Democratic Party’s left wing in the upcoming presidential election risks catastrophe.
Trump is a genuine fascist threat
“Fascism” is a word that often comes too glibly from our left-wing lips. But in the fourth year of Donald Trump’s regime, the cumulative evidence of that threat is clear.
It is not just a matter of Trump’s racism, reckless megalomania and stunning disregard for democracy. He has steadily loosened the leash on the violent underside of American politics and is ready to let it go completely.
As evidence, consider for example:
• Trump’s encouragement of radical, gun-carrying right-wing groups which have blossomed in broad public daylight.
• People who have angered Trump — including public health officials trying to contain COVID 19 — have been harassed and threatened with death.
• Armed police with no identification, a characteristic of virtually all repressive governments, were used in many cities against Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
Biden needs the Democrats’ Left
The implicit assumption of leftists who would sit out the election to maintain their political purity is that Biden doesn’t need their support because national polls are showing him leading Trump. As they showed Hillary Clinton ahead in 2016.
It is important to keep a sense of proportion here. Despite Trump’s extreme mishandling of the pandemic and the severity of the recession which this triggered, and despite his unpopular rants against Black Lives Matter demonstrations and his increasingly deranged tweets, his core support remained at about 40% as of late June.
And, at least at that point in time, Donald Trump was still within striking distance in the crucial ”battleground” states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina.
Trump’s appeal on jobs
On the issue of managing the economy, Trump still runs slightly ahead of Biden.
Of course, the U.S. job growth in the pre-pandemic era — for which Trump claims credit — actually began under Barack Obama.
Trump is also embarrassingly ignorant of basic economics. But his talent for self-promotion maintains the illusion that he is a shrewd businessman — despite six bankruptcies. Still, Democrats should not count on Trump’s incompetence.
Just consider this scenario: By November, the U.S. unemployment rate will still have not recovered, but let’s assume the direction of the previous few months is positive.
If that were to happen, millions of financially battered voters — desperate for hope — will want to believe Trump’s claim that he is the one bringing jobs “roaring back.”
Moreover, the threat of Trump stealing the election is now quite credible.
In addition to stepped-up efforts by Republican state officials to make voting more difficult in Democratic areas, COVID 19 restrictions have already created confusion and system breakdowns in the casting and counting of votes.
Their budgets brutally decimated, swamped local officials trying to contain the coronavirus, open their schools and deal with police brutality are under a lot of pressure. They have little time or money to prepare the new systems needed to accommodate voting by mail and/or online.
Troublesome election scenarios
It will take days to count the expected large number of mail ballots. If the election is close enough, the Trump campaign, the hyper-politicized U.S. Department of Justice and the right wing cable TV networks will immediately mount legal challenges, legitimate or not, to state-level voting results.
As in 2000, the final decision would go to the Supreme Court, which has a Republican majority.
And even though the U.S. military and federal police will not support a straightforward Trump putsch, if the Supreme Court rules for him, they will be obligated to enforce his claim on the White House.
Thus, Joe Biden needs to win by a big enough margin to undercut the credibility of any attempt by Trump to swindle his way back to the White House.
He needs the Left’s army of activists to get out the votes, and to provide the poll watchers and lawyers to make sure they are counted.
Why the left needs Biden
A Biden presidency will not settle the intra-party struggle for the future. But it will provide an arena for the left inside the Democratic Party to contest for power. Biden has already opened up the opportunity.
The previous Democratic president Barack Obama — because he was the first African American president — could take the left for granted. Biden can’t.
So, while normally a presidential candidate becomes more centrist after he wins the nomination, Biden’s campaign promises have rapidly become more progressive.
Biden’s leftward shift?
In March, before the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, Biden promised a “return to normalcy.” But by May he was calling for “institutional revolution.”
In the past, Biden echoed the conservative establishment’s angst against government deficit spending. He even supported a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. He now tells us “Milton Friedman isn’t running the show anymore.”
And he has involved prominent Sanders supporters into his campaign and policy planning. They include the young insurgent congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the head of the Service Employees Union, Mary Kay Henry and his former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver.
Moving beyond Wall Street and Pentagon dominance?
As Obama did, a President Joe Biden may walk back his campaign progressivism. Once the crisis is over, Wall Street will pressure him to cut the deficit by reducing social spending.
And, true to form, we can expect the Democratic Party’s contingent of foreign policy hawks who defected from Trump to expect a reward. They will demand more military spending — presumably to restore America’s “credibility” in the world.
Wall Street and the Pentagon remain formidable adversaries. But they no longer command the wide support they once enjoyed. They are increasingly seen by the public as part of the problem — not the solution — to the country’s deep multiple crises.
For example, the pandemic did not strike a healthy U.S. economy. Decades of policies driven by short-term corporate interests have produced declining competitiveness, widening inequality, a crumbling human and physical infrastructure and the growing burden of climate change.
The U.S. political game after Trump
The left will not control the political game after Trump, but it now holds much better cards. The last six months of crisis has reminded the American public of the importance of competent, accountable civilian government prepared to guide, and plan for, the nation’s future.
Joe Biden may not lead in moving toward a future that is more social and more democratic, but neither he nor the Democratic Party’s ancien regime can stop the left’s momentum towards it. On the other hand, Trump, if re-elected, will crush it.
The choice for those on the left of American politics is clear:
Option 1 is to spend the next four years expanding its power within the Democratic Party against a steadily weakening Clinton/Obama faction.
Option 2 is to spend it gasping for political breath against the chokehold of a triumphant, armed-to-the-teeth wave of Trump Republican neo-fascism.