As Trump and the Republican Party take a deep dive into the sinkhole of virulent racism, indifference to human life, voter suppression, and authoritarianism, as the spectre of democracy’s death and dictatorial rule hangs over the outcome of the elections, the Democratic Party and its candidates are tacking in another direction. But to cross the finish line victorious on Election Day will take a vigorous and timely response to the main lines of the racist and rabid attack of Trump and the entire right wing apparatus, while offering at the same time a vision and proposals that address the quintuplets of our time: the coronavirus, racial reckoning, economic insecurity and crisis, cross border migration, and climate disruption. No easy dance, but Democrats and a larger democratic coalition seem prepared to meet these challenges.
This isn’t to say that every demand of a progressive nature finds support across the full length of the Democratic Party and its candidates. They don’t. But many of the demands do, and even the most advanced aren’t peremptorily dismissed, especially now as multiple crises disrupt the lives of millions in a way no one could have imagined. Most Democrats, for example, haven’t embraced the slogan, “Defund the police,” but many agree with much of the substance behind it. Likewise for “Medicare for all,” and a “Green New Deal.”
The party platform is the most progressive in history, prompting Bernie Sanders to say that if Joe Biden makes it his star to steer by, he would be the most progressive president since FDR.
Said differently, the contemporary Democratic Party isn’t the party of Bill Clinton. Nor is it in the tight grip of neoliberalism and triangulation. And it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as the other political arm of the capitalist class, barely distinguishable from its Republican counterpart. Many on the left subscribed to this point of view and, as a consequence, sat on the sidelines as the extreme right steadily ascended to power by means of the ballot, beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan. (Even as late as the 2016 presidential campaign where the choice was stark and the stakes exceedingly high, too many radicals were onlookers, doing nothing to get the vote out for the “neoliberal” Hillary Clinton.)
Reducing the Democratic Party to a neoliberal wing on the one hand and an insurgent wing on the other may titillate some, but it doesn’t correspond to today’s reality. The party is more diverse and complicated than this binary representation. It contains multiple tendencies that are fluid, permeable, and intermingle depending on the issues and circumstances of the moment. Only by collapsing moderates, liberals, and even some progressives into the neoliberal camp or by declaiming that anyone who embraces anything less the demands of the “insurgent wing” of the Democratic Party is a neoliberal can a case be made that neoliberalism retains anywhere near the same influence that it did two decades ago. Not only is this a faulty conflation, but, if embraced by too many, will lead to a politics that doesn’t match the moment, too static when it should be fluid, too narrow when it should be expansive, too retro when it should be forward looking. And with the most important election in the country’s history in its final lap, who needs that?
In short, as even a brief look at its program, public figures, emerging leaders and composition shows, the current Democratic Party is different from its earlier iterations. In fact, if the center of political gravity in the Democratic Party (as well as the larger democratic coalition) was leaning in a liberal/progressive direction 6 months ago, the lean has only become more pronounced as an unforeseen and deadly pandemic, an imploding economy, the racist police violence seen on video around the world with the deliberate killing of George Floyd, and the fascistic shadings of the Trump administration and his base have enveloped the country and exacted a heavy price in lost lives and the well being of tens of millions.
Wall Street is still in the game, but “the street” doesn’t carry the same influence and weight in the Democratic Party as it did decades ago, when financialization and unfettered globalization were the talk of the town. In his endorsement of Joe Biden, the former president, Barack Obama, made this point:
“To meet the moment, the Democratic Party will have to be bold. I could not be prouder of the incredible progress that we made together during my presidency. But if I were running today, I wouldn’t run the same race or have the same platform as I did in 2008. The world is different. There’s too much unfinished business for us to just look backwards. We have to look to the future.”
He went on to argue that ideas of Bernie Sanders and his supporters’ enthusiasm would be critical in November. Students, he said, need student debt relief that does “more than just tinker around the edges,” and all Americans need health care access that goes beyond the Affordable Care Act, climate policies bolder than the Paris Agreement, and policies to address “the vast inequalities created by the new economy” — inequalities that he acknowledged had been evident long before now. The old playbook, in other words, doesn’t measure up to the moment. Biden and Kamala Harris – not to mention significant sections of the Democratic Party officeholders and rank and file – get it too.
Of course, the immediate challenge for Biden, Harris and down-ticket Democrats is to win in November. Anything less would sound the death knell for democracy and social progress and the dawn of dictatorial rule. It is in this sobering context that democratic and social activists and organizations should situate themselves. Any other posture, such as support for a third party candidacy or not voting at all, doesn’t make any political-strategic sense, none whatsoever. If it was a bad idea in the past, it’s a much worse idea now.
For most of my political life I held out the hope of the eventual formation of an independent people’s party that would compete with the two parties of capitalism. A half century later such a party hasn’t appeared and it isn’t on the horizon, at least on my horizon. Moreover, it can’t be willed into existence. AOC some months back said that if she lived in a different country she wouldn’t be in the same party as Joe Biden. But she is. And there is little reason to think that will change anytime soon. And that’s good. A fractured party wouldn’t stand a chance on Election Day against Trump and GOP extremism.
What’s behind the new profile, new dynamics, and new politics of the Democratic Party (and the democratic coalition) is a profound shift in thinking and feeling across significant sections of the American people.
Its material roots lie in the rise of neoliberalism, financialization, and globalization and the accompanying spike in income inequality, growing social and geographic divides, cross border migration, a surge in monopoly power and political predation, and lopsided and unsustainable growth. It is also a product of the prosecution of unwinnable wars of conquest in distant lands, the Great Recession of 2008, and the racist backlash that followed the election of President Obama.
The new dynamics are closely connected as well to the persistence of police and vigilante violence against people of color, a narrowing of job opportunities and precariousness of life for young people, and accelerating climate disruption.
And, not least, it springs from the new conjuncture that we are living through that lays bare the deep class and racial inequalities (including mortality and morbidity rates) embedded in the political economy of U.S. society and the insufficiencies of the public sector and public goods.
Out of this material substratum comes not only a surge of struggles stretching back a decade, the rise of new political actors, such as Black Lives Matter, the greatly expanded footprint of women in politics, the revival of mass climate politics, and the two presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, but also a Democratic Party loosened from its past moorings and trending in a progressive direction.
That Biden won the nomination may seem on its face to go against the grain of these changing dynamics. But on closer inspection it isn’t so inexplicable. First of all, the progressive/insurgent wing of the party, while growing, isn’t the singular voice nor is it yet hegemonic. Second, Biden had the support of President Obama and no other voice in the Democratic Party has remotely the same influence as he does. Finally, Joe Biden was the first choice of African American voters, which, once the primaries moved from Iowa and New Hampshire, gave him a leg up over the other contenders for the nomination. If South Carolina changed the dynamics of the presidential primary in Biden’s favor, the vote in Michigan and across the Midwest a week or so later sealed the deal.
Biden wasn’t my first choice. Elizabeth Warren was, but she, like Bernie, didn’t enjoy the support of the party’s most powerful and loyal constituencies. And it was these constituencies that crowned Joe Biden the party’s nominee. They believed Biden was best suited to beat Trump and, if elected, to enact a robust reform agenda. Voters don’t want a “political revolution,” but they don’t want to stand still either. And in their calculus Joe Biden is best equipped to negotiate this tension.
I know many young people and social activists aren’t excited by Biden. I understand their sentiments, even if I don’t agree with them. I didn’t like Hubert Humphrey, the party’s presidential nominee in 1968, and I, along with many other young radicals at the time, didn’t vote for him. But what we got was Nixon and the intensification of the bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia, the prolongation of an unjust and cruel war, and criminal behavior in the White House.
In November, I would argue, not voting for Biden, Harris, and other Democrats down-ticket would be even more shortsighted and infinitely more disastrous than our decision not to vote for Humphrey in 1968.
I would add that Biden has shown that he isn’t the Biden of 25 years ago, or even 12 years ago when he partnered with our first African American president. Like most of us, he’s changed and evolved. And in a good way. And a wise movement will allow space for people to change.
Since he won the nomination, he has reached out to the entire party, worked closely with Bernie, and, as mentioned earlier, signed on to the most progressive platform in the party’s history. Whether he is capable of a new dance like Lincoln, or Roosevelt, or Lyndon Johnson were when they and the country faced profound challenges, whether he has the wherewithal to evolve into a transformative president, can’t be answered at this juncture. But there are, nevertheless, grounds to think he can.
If elected, Biden would walk into the White House at a moment unprecedented in our history. He would find himself governing in a conjunctural crisis whose templates are a deadly pandemic, a crisis-ridden national and global economy, a racial reckoning, and a worldwide climate emergency that cry out for solution. Standing still isn’t an option. Nor is a return to the pre-Trump normal, whatever that was. And I believe he, Kamala Harris, and most Democrats realize this.
Moreover, like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson, he would feel the pulls, pressures, and desires of an electorate as well as a coalition that carried him over the finish line on Election Day. No doubt, both voters and activists would expect an agenda that includes immediate relief, a science-driven plan to attack the coronavirus, the enactment of progressive reforms in line with the crises gripping the country, a reckoning with policing and systemic racism, and, not least, the democratization of voting laws and the political system.
Such an agenda would not only resonate with tens of millions feeling the crushing weight of the present times, but it might well register with some of Trump’s base too. It’s progressive policies and legislation not discourse that will begin to fracture that retrograde coalition.
Speaking of Trump, while he would be out of the White House and no longer able to employ the executive power of the office, his authoritarian movement and likely Trump himself would be squarely a part of the political landscape and up to no good. To believe otherwise would be naive. The defeated South didn’t roll over at the end of the Civil War. Nor did the anti-New-Dealers in the 1930s. And by the late 60s, a right wing backlash came quick on the heels of the civil rights revolution. In our time, the election of the first African American president triggered fierce opposition.
Thus, the democratic and progressive coalition that powered the victory would have to remained engaged and mobilized not only to bend the needle in a progressive and social democratic direction, but also to keep the right at bay. While differences and struggle over the scope and pace of reform would inevitably surface, the accent across the Democratic Party and democratic coalition should still remain on unity and united action. Any idea that the various currents in the Democratic Party and the democratic coalition should turn into warring factions on the day after the elections with each one vying for dominance over the other would amount to a self inflicted wound, while providing space for a revival of a defeated Republican Party and white nationalist authoritarianism.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The immediate challenge is, first of all, to further assemble a grand coalition of voters, stretching from Colin Powell and the Lincoln Project to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Angela Davis. We don’t need small-circle thinking at this dangerous political juncture.
Second, a special approach to the young and people of color as well as the battleground states is imperative. And no segment of voters should be taken for granted. The tent has to be as big as the answers to today’s multiple crises have to be bold.
Third, contest Trump’s core campaign message of racism and law and order.
Fourth, mobilize, protect, and prevent the suppression of the vote.
Fifth, guarantee a full count of the vote. And urge people to vote in person, if they can. But also, insist that the high volume of mail-in ballots be counted before any final results are announced.
Sixth, resist and block any attempt by Trump to claim victory before the vote is fully counted. According to most experts, it could appear on election night that Trump is the winner, even though he is actually the loser when all the votes are counted.
Finally, be ready to march. In view of Trump’s recent behavior, it isn’t out of the question that he may lose the election, but refuse (with a lot of help from his friends) to concede defeat. In this event, an aroused people peacefully marching for democracy and demanding the honoring of the election’s results is absolutely imperative. And even if he does concede the election, Trump will still hold presidential power and the Republicans a Senate majority until Inauguration Day in late January. This interregnum has the potential to be volatile, destabilizing, and dangerous. Here too millions should be prepared for any eventuality and ready to act accordingly to defend democracy, the rule of law, and the election results.