A Pyrrhic Victory for the Democrats

If Democrats cannot be brought to fight for a better world, their election victories will be hollow.

Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump last November, but the highly anticipated “Blue Wave” never came. For some, Biden’s march to Washington beckons a return to normalcy, but it is clear that our national nightmare is far from over. The seemingly endless election campaign had a two-month extension, with dual Senate run-offs in Georgia that the Democrats swept. Biden’s victory is certainly important, and the wins in Georgia will give his administration more room to implement its legislative program. But the task ahead is far greater than defeating Trump. Throughout Biden’s campaign – never more blatantly than when he promised his donors “nothing would fundamentally change” – calls for a return to normalcy have threatened to drown out the cries of millions who are drowning in debt, wallowing in hunger, and, now more than ever, dying in desperation. While Biden and the Democrats have stuck by the status quo, Medicare for All enjoys widespread popularity, and the demand for a $15 minimum wage won more votes than either Trump or Biden in Florida. Another round of drug legalization swept through four states. A large constituency wants to transform this country into a healthier, more humane society. The Democratic Party establishment is the problem.

Biden squeaked out a tight victory over a president whose pandemic response has led to, as of this writing, roughly 400,000 deaths in the United States, while the living have filed millions of unemployment claims and face eviction at an unprecedented scale. Biden and Trump alike have cast COVID-19 casualties as losses to a viral enemy combatant, rather than a consequence of cruel decisions made by the Republican Party, which improved its position in the House despite losing majority control of the Senate.

Biden ran as an avatar of competence and normalcy in the face of Trump. That is what Democrats, by all appearances, wanted. According to exit polls, higher portions of Biden supporters voted against Trump rather than for Biden, and supported Biden for his personal qualities over his positions on the issues, while the inverse was true for Trump. The limitations of such a campaign are evident in Maine, where Biden beat Trump 419,481 votes to 340,667, while Susan Collins won her senate seat with 384,032 votes to Sara Gideon’s 324,607 – distaste for Trump hardly translated down ballot. What’s more, there is evidence that core Democratic constituencies may be drifting further away from the party. In Milwaukee, for example, Black voter turnout was even worse than 2016, itself a significant drop from the Obama campaigns. Like Hillary Clinton, Biden failed to earn these votes. Worse than Hillary, he lost ground in every demographic except for white men. The vast majority of Black voters and a solid majority of Latinos still support the Democrats. But it’s possible that the Democratic base may become whiter and more affluent, because of erosion among people of color and working-class whites.

Demography is Not Destiny

Despite his loss, Trump attracted a larger, more diverse voter base after four years of aggressive white nationalism, and delivered on much of the Republicans’ policy agenda. Of course, the success of Trump-style politics is bolstered by the undemocratic aspects of our political system, which means Republicans can adopt ever more extreme positions without paying much of a price. Trump has simply upped the ante from the Tea Party birthers to bloodthirsty QAnon crusaders, some of whom won congressional seats in Florida, North Carolina, and Colorado. You’d expect, then, for the Republican base to grow even whiter – so why did Trump win the largest minority vote share for the GOP since 2004?

While BIPOC organizers pulled off incredible feats on behalf of the Democrats, Republicans increased their vote shares among Black, Latinx, and Asian voters to 12%, 32%, and 31% percent, respectively. The one racial demographic Republicans lost ground in was white voters, with their weakest results since 2008. Conversely, Biden made gains only among white voters. In places like Houston’s Harris County, gains among peripheral white voters for Biden were matched by losses in the multiracial core of the city. The exact same dynamic was on display in Georgia, arguably the Democratic Party’s biggest success this election. As large groups of Latinx, Asian-American, and immigrant voters came to the polls in record numbers in the US’s largest cities, from San Jose to Philadelphia, Trump gained the lion’s share of these new votes.

Some of Biden’s shortcomings are obvious. It’s a familiar pattern, where voters taken for granted either fade away or switch sides. For over a decade, Democrats have assured themselves that ethnographic shifts will usher in a period of near-permanent rule. Democrats have a monopoly on minority voters, the thinking goes, so when the US becomes a majority-minority nation they will automatically gain an unassailable majority. Plenty of reality checks interfered with such fantasies, but the idea that BIPOC voters are a monolithic group united by loyalty to the Democrats has rarely faltered. If anything, there’s a consensus that popular racial justice policies need to be delayed or watered down to appeal to the vaunted white suburban voter. No one could embody this more than Joe Biden, one of the main architects of mass incarceration and a long-standing immigration hawk.

Now, it appears the wheels are falling off the Democrats’ demographic gambit. On one level, loyalty whose only reward is partisan affiliation can only last so long – at some point, you have to deliver. On another level, having seen the Democrats fail to act on any promises, why not try the Republicans? Republicans themselves have identified a need to appeal to more Black and Latinx voters, even if they primarily stoke white resentment, and are striking while the Democrats sleep. Although Trump ramped up the persecution of undocumented immigrants, he maintained conservative Latinx support and gained among Texas border communities who are employed in border policing and construction. Likewise, Trump has made a show of pardoning prisoners and passing reforms against the carceral state, earning praise from the likes of CNN contributor Van Jones, who declared the conservative movement the leader on criminal justice reform in an appearance at CPAC in 2019.

Strategic conflicts within the Democratic Party are most apparent among Latinx voters, who, for the first time, represented a larger share of the electorate than Black voters. With extensive “Latinos For Trump” ad campaigns, Trump outspent Biden three-to-one on Latinx outreach up to August. Trump dominated Spanish-language airwaves as Biden’s staff revolted over his ineffective Latinx strategy. In November of 2019, his most senior Latina official, national coalitions director Vanessa Cárdenas, quit the campaign over a lack of input and frustration with Biden’s immigration rhetoric. In July, ninety-four field organizers in Florida signed a letter to statewide leadership claiming the campaign was “suppressing the Hispanic vote” in Florida by removing Spanish-speaking organizers from Latinx districts. Biden’s campaign was able to catch up with Trump on Spanish ad spending; however, according to former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer Chuck Rocha, only one percent of the $500+ million donated to Biden super PACs went toward Latinx PACs.

Trump’s big gains among Latinx voters in Texas and Florida kept him within striking distance, and these developments should deeply frighten Democrats. In Starr County, Texas, which is ninety-six percent Latinx, Trump cut Biden’s margin of victory down to five points from Clinton’s sixty-point edge in 2016. Other nearby border counties, such as Zapata County, swung all the way to Trump. Had Trump not shed so much white support nationally, this swing could have carried him to victory.

That Trump, of all presidents, won such a robust minority vote share shows that there is an appetite for a new kind of conservative racial politics. The Republicans could very well diversify nationalist politics, casting right-wing voters of color and employees of the border apparatus against foreign and domestic enemies. This conservatism need not win a majority of people of color into their camp, it simply needs to reduce the Democrats’ margins in their historic areas of strength. The likelihood of this scenario shouldn’t be overstated, but what makes it so frightening is how ill-equipped liberal politics is of grasping it, let alone combating it. As the Marxist theorist Stuart Hall wrote, “politics does not reflect majorities, it constructs them.” The Republicans are keenly aware of this, and use every move to build their own and deconstruct that of their opponents.

Biden and the Democrats won a pyrrhic victory. For all the hopes that Biden will defy every aspect of his career to become a uniquely progressive president, he will likely be caught in the Washington morass he’s thrived in for decades, cutting deals with Republicans and telling everyone else to get in line. Whether you’re celebrating Biden’s win as a liberal achievement or a successful referendum on Trump, the question of what comes next is worrisome.

Turbulence Ahead

To head off the worst-case scenarios, Democrats need to adopt a new set of programs and campaign strategies to foster a new generational majority. Unions are greatly weakened, but they played a key role in putting Biden over the top in key states like Arizona and Nevada – above all, the laid off UNITE HERE members who went door to door when few others did. Should Democrats, after decades of stringing along the labor movement, finally pass substantive labor form that could catalyze a broadening and deepening of union power, they can secure independent organizing capacities across the country. Further, should they invest more in grassroots efforts like those that took Georgia for Biden, they can sustain the turnout needed to overcome the systemic institutional biases that work to the Republicans’ advantage. By doing so, they can both fortify their existing voter base and expand it by appealing to the plurality of Americans who currently abstain from politics altogether.

Instead of suburban swing voters, this would entail a sustained appeal to the five million voters in Florida who voted to restore felon voting rights in 2018, and the over six million who voted to enact a $15 minimum wage this election, more votes than went to either candidate in the state. Moreover, marijuana legalization received more support than Biden did in South Dakota and Montana – states he lost – as well as in Arizona and New Jersey, where he won. Democratic leadership has declined to take up the mantle on these issues, citing fears of alienating so-called moderates. But if failed candidates like Steve Bullock or Dan Ahlers championed marijuana legalization or a higher minimum wage, it’s very likely they would have, at the very least, narrowed their margins of defeat. In many states, Democrats do more to stall these popular mandates than to pass them.

Despite the fact that socialist politicians handily defeated their primary challengers and Republican opponents, while also pushing Biden over the line in Michigan and Minnesota, the right-wing of the party wasted no time at all denouncing the Left and blaming their policies for the party’s down ballot ass-kicking. The facts do not sustain their case. All of the 112 co-sponsors of Medicare for All up for re-election won their races; only one of the 98 co-sponsors of the Green New Deal lost their seat. Running on popular legislation is not the poison pill the likes of Jim Clyburn or Connor Lamb would have you think it is. Should Democrats double down on chasing suburban moderates with late night TV ads and empty rhetoric, the people most responsible for taking Biden to the White House will be left out to dry once again.

Biden’s cabinet picks, his first act as president, do not leave much room for optimism. While some have praised the appointments of Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior and Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services, the overall makeup of the administration is exceedingly corporate, hawkish, and pro-Wall Street Valuing experience and loyalty, Biden has drawn on longtime servants to the neoliberal state of war and austerity. For the State Department, he’s replaced Mike Pompeo with Antony Blinken, a veteran of the Obama administration, whose experience as an advocate for the Iraq War and architect of the 2011 invasion of Libya will surely bring decorum back to the administration of violence.  Lower on the totem pole, Biden has appointed the likes of Bruce Reed, a fierce opponent of Social Security, and Brian Deese, who graduated from the Obama administration to a position at Blackrock. Will this group, who made hope and change feel hollow, now lead a fight for progressive change from above?

There is more at stake here than rhetorical point scoring. Obama’s stewardship after the 2008 crisis merely brought the crises facing us down to a simmer, but now they are boiling over. The Democrats, steadfast in their commitment to the institutions and powers responsible for our state of collapse, have been unable to articulate any vision bolder than teaching the unemployed to code, while the Republicans have eagerly embraced our decline in pursuit of total deregulation, upward redistribution of wealth, and brutal imperial dominance. A politics of miserable stasis on one hand, the ruthless pursuit of an even worse tomorrow on the other. If the likes of Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer, in deadlock with Mitch McConnell, cannot speak to a better future, who will?

There is a growing group of tribunes in the House of Representatives, should Democratic leadership finally choose to listen. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is their natural leader, having thrown the first stone against the neoliberal Goliath, but none have articulated a democratic socialist better than Cori Bush did in her Election Day victory speech. She began by identifying with everyone who’s been shut out of power: “lost out in the cold: protesting in the streets, sleeping in our cars and tents, working three part-time jobs just to pay the bills” For her, her election victory was bigger than herself:

Tonight, we the people are victorious. We, we the people are going to Congress. Because we the people have committed to a vision of America that works for all of us. An America that treats every person with respect. That recognizes healthcare as a human right. That believes every person deserves food to eat, a home to live in, and a dignified life. Our America will be led not by the small-mindedness of a powerful few, but the imagination of a mass movement that includes all of us. That is the America we are fighting for.

It is this new politics of economic and social justice, with a promise of dignity for everyone who joins, that can defeat the Right in the US. This vision is not only morally righteous, but necessary to truly win. There are leaders, an organizational infrastructure, and a potential base capable of enacting a social-democratic program that can transform the US. What remains to be seen is whether the Democratic Party is a suitable organizational home for such an effort. The events of January 6, when pro-Trump protesters stormed the Capitol in a failed bid to overturn the election results, raised the prospect of protracted conflict inside the GOP. Despite this, however, congressional Republicans will be united in their goal of undermining the Biden administration, while the Democrats look set for their own internecine conflict between the left and right wings of the party. The Left’s task is forging the capacity necessary to advance our agenda inside and outside of the party, pushing against neoliberal policy while defending ourselves against accusations of sabotage. If the Democrats cannot be brought to fight for a better world, they will definitively prove themselves to be an ineffective vestige of a broken system. There is no future under this approach. It’s up to the Left to win one, before the Right ends the game.