by Erin Brightwell, Socialist Alternative US
2020 is not the election year that anyone expected. Presidential election politics are now utterly intertwined with the global pandemic that has killed nearly 165,000 people in the U.S. as of this writing and has completely altered life for most of the population. From the very beginning, Trump has not just failed to meet the challenges of leading the country through a pandemic, but has actively made things worse.
We needed a coordinated wartime response based on the best available science. Instead, we got dire shortages of supplies and equipment, hardly any coordination of state and federal resources, massive profiteering, and a campaign of misinformation coming from the White House itself. There is no doubt that Trump’s administration bears the primary responsibility for the catastrophic mishandling of COVID-19. However, the deplorably underfunded state of the public health system and the consolidation of the hospital industry that has left more and more rural and poor urban communities of color without adequate services is a bi-partisan project going back decades. With Trump’s reelection prospects looking very shaky, his authoritarian instincts are emerging even more with his attacks on mail-in ballots, talk of postponing the election, and threats to challenge the election results.
Joe Biden, architect of mass incarceration, consummate corporate-backed politician, and serial sexual harasser (at best) is sitting on a commanding lead in the national polls and in most of the swing states. This would have seemed unlikely back in February when Bernie Sanders led Biden by as much as 12% in national polling averages. However, Sanders effectively abandoned his program and his base in the wake of the liberal establishment’s ferocious maneuvering to convince especially older voters that only Biden could beat Trump. This was in spite of the fact that primary voters agreed far more with Sanders on the issues like Medicare for All. Despite all of his tremendous political and personal weaknesses, Biden is looking like an increasingly good bet to be the next White House occupant. Yet Trump should not be counted out – Democratic strategists are, for example, very nervous about having Biden, with his clearly declining mental faculties, face Trump on a debate stage.
Without rallies, candidates stumping and greeting crowds in person, or over-the-top conventions, this election season will be unlike any other. Normally, the limited campaigning opportunities would be a big disadvantage to the challenger, who lacks the platform of the incumbent. Instead, Trump’s refusal to take the coronavirus seriously is undermining his chances in November. The Biden campaign’s hide-in-the-basement strategy of limiting the candidate’s interviews and appearances has been successful thus far. Given Biden’s non-stop verbal gaffes and his apparent inability to keep his hands to himself, shelter-in-place could hardly have come at a better time for the Democratic establishment.
If Biden, and his VP pick Kamala Harris, do manage to win in November, this would not spell the end of Trumpism or right populism in the U.S. If a Biden administration refuses to take bold enough action to reverse the immiseration of large sections of the population, and no left political alternative is built, a space would be open for the growth of the far right on a far greater scale than anything seen in the U.S in a very long time.
This speaks to the urgency with which a political alternative needs to be built. One that can challenge the ascendency of a far right force more effectively than the lackadaisical, pro-corporate Democratic Party ever could.
Democratic Establishment: No Friends of Working People
While it would be unwise to count Trump out of the race – the state of American politics will likely contain many more twists and turns over the coming months – socialists, and progressives should consider what a Biden presidency would look like. The country is in complete crisis, with no real path to getting the coronavirus under control. Tens of millions are facing unemployment, eviction, and food insecurity. The working class has undergone a wave of radicalization as a result of the biggest wave of protests in U.S. history–the George Floyd uprising–and is, as a whole, more consciously anti-racist than at any other time in the history of the country.
Important victories have been won by democratic socialists who’ve been elected to city councils and state legislatures. There is real star power in left congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. There will be more important gains for the progressive wing of the Democrats in the House of Representatives this November, particularly in New York and in St. Louis with BLM activist Cori Bush recently winning her primary.
Despite these victories, the socialist left remains a marginal force in the halls of power, not due to a lack of potential support for its ideas, but because of a lack of coordination, a clear program, and a focus on building movements. While playing an important role in raising the socialist consciousness of broader society, the presence of these socialist electeds – with some exceptions – hasn’t translated into major, concrete policy victories. The biggest hamstring to the socialist left in office is their imprisonment within the Democratic Party, a party that is thoroughly undemocratic and wedded to the needs of big business.
In contrast to this stands Kshama Sawant, Seattle City Councilmember and member of Socialist Alternative. She was elected and re-elected twice as an independent socialist and on the heels of titanic victories she helped lead. These include Seattle becoming the first major city to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage and – most recently – a $240 million per year tax on Amazon and big corporations to fund permanently affordable housing.
Joe Biden has been obedient to the capitalist class for the entirety of his long career, and is poised to solve exactly none of the fundamental problems facing working class people. Alongside the vast majority of establishment Democrats in D.C., he continues to oppose essential measures to fight the pandemic like Medicare for All. Eighty-seven percent of Democratic voters support Medicare for All. Despite this, Joe Biden has remained steadfastly opposed to it. That in these circumstances Biden and the Democratic establishment can’t even pretend to support progressive measures, shows the total futility of trying to “transform” the Democratic Party into a vehicle for working people and the oppressed.
When asked about fatal police killings, Biden suggested that officers, rather than shooting to kill, instead “shoot ‘em in the leg.” He shamelessly takes money from banks and large corporations and is the single biggest recipient of campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. Biden may perform better than Trump in addressing the COVID-19 crisis, but Trump has set the lowest possible bar.
Biden and the Democratic establishment can’t possibly satisfy both their corporate masters and the aspirations of tens of millions of working class people for free and universal healthcare, safe and properly resourced education, economic stability and racial justice.
If it is to win a profound transformation in policing, the movement against racist police violence, will need to build mass organizations of struggle. The experience of the last few months shows that winning even small concessions from Democratic politicians requires a mass movement. Winning lasting reforms will take a sustained struggle centered on the social power of the multiracial working class. The Democratic Party in power has proven to protestors through innumerable tear gas canisters and city council votes against police defunding, that it does not support the aims of the movement. The latest example is in Seattle where Kshama Sawant’s proposal to defund the police by 50% was defeated by the Democrats on the City Council in a 7 to 1 vote.
Moreover, there is a long history of the Democratic Party co-opting social movements– promoting a few individuals to positions of power and promising incremental change while overseeing the demobilization of the movement. In order to avoid this,we will need a new party of and for working people and youth. Unlike the Democrats, this would be a party democratically controlled from the ground up, and whose candidates would be bound to the party’s program.
Need for an Alternative
It is completely understandable that millions of working class people will cast a vote for Biden as the lesser evil this November, but this does not point to a solution to the deeper problems we face.Working people and youth will move into struggle again and again against the political establishments of both corporate parties in the coming period. Socialists and working class activists should help prepare the ground for a new party by registering our opposition to the rotten Democratic establishment now by arguing for a protest vote for the strongest of the independent left candidates, the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins.
The Green Party has not based itself on movements or class struggle, including even the recent youth climate strikes, and does not point towards the mass party that working people need. However, in the absence of any larger force running a presidential campaign, socialists should support Howie Hawkins’ bid for president. Hawkins, a long time UPS worker, has a rounded-out pro-worker platform including Medicare For All, an “Eco-socialist Green New Deal,” and a robust emergency program for the pandemic.
The Dead End of Lesser Evilism
Support for Biden points toward the left remaining stuck in a “lesser evil” two-party logic that will continue to suffocate genuine progressive and working class struggles. The crisis we now face, and the incompetency of either wing of the political establishment to address it, shows the urgency with which we need to build a new political force.
What the Democrats have shown is that all they have to do to win the progressive vote is to verbally denounce the worst reactionary policies of the Republicans – they don’t even have to fight to change them. Despite the work of groups like the Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, and the Working Families Party, as a bloc, progressive voters have built no real power within the Democratic party. This hasn’t been for a lack of effort or determination, but because of the entirely undemocratic, unreformable nature of the Democratic Party. This is a tragic reflection of the political options working people are bullied into accepting and it’s long past time to abandon efforts to reform a party whose major donors are a who’s who of the billionaire class.
The last Democratic administration should not be forgotten. During the first two years of the Obama presidency, the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. They could have acted to bail out working families, invest trillions in a transition to green energy, and begun to address the structural inequalities of wealth and race. But when working people were suffering in what was then the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama moved quickly to bail out Wall Street, the banks, and the auto industry. Obama ran on “universal health care” which was widely interpreted to mean that, at the very least, everyone would receive highly affordable coverage. Instead, the public option was abandoned and the Affordable Care Act, while an improvement for some of the uninsured, amounted to a deal to give the health insurance industry millions of profitable new customers in exchange for curbing some of its worst abuses. Obama’s failure to improve conditions for working people also helped create the space for the emergence of the right populistTea Party.
Relying on corporate-backed politicians to fend off the right wing was a failure during the Obama administration and it was an even more dramatic failure in 2016. Bernie Sanders was the candidate who had the best shot of beating Trump, not Hillary Clinton who wouldn’t support widely popular demands like Medicare for All. In 2020, the pandemic has changed the nature of the presidential race, but it hasn’t changed the pro-capitalist nature of Joe Biden.
What if Biden Wins?
Should he win in November, Biden would enter office in the midst of a catastrophic economic depression. Trump has signaled that he is not planning to quietly step aside if he loses. He has ramped up an overtly authoritarian approach over recent months to distract from his disastrous approach to containing the pandemic. While he has not found immediate support even among the ruling class for proposals like delaying the November election, this narrative serves a useful purpose for him. Even if he loses in November, he is laying the ground to continue to further consolidate his populist right force on the basis that the election was stolen.
It is extremely positive that the largest socialist organization in the country, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), has chosen not to endorse Biden and is calling – at least formally – for the formation of a new party. We believe that the DSA would perform an enormous service to the left if it declared its intention to fully break with the Democrats and called for a vote for Hawkins – this includes DSA elected officials like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. More importantly, socialists, including those organized with the DSA, should be raising the necessity of independent politics within social movements, the labor movement and by running independent socialist campaigns.
Working people, especially people of color, have borne the brunt of the pandemic. They are bearing and will bear the brunt of the eviction wave and mass unemployment. For decades, Democrats have proven their allegiance to the corporate elite at working people’s expense over and over again and it’s abundantly clear that a president Biden will do the same.
Socialists should use Hawkins’ campaign as an opportunity to rally those who see the need for a new political force on the left in the U.S. and to then carry this fight forward with urgency under a Biden administration should he win. There is no time to lose in building a political force that will fight for working people’s needs.