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Analysis
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Politics

Biden Has Won! The Left Gets How Much Credit?

And what now for US progressives? A raucous conversation is just revving up.

David Beers 8 Nov 2020 | TheTyee.ca

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

As Pennsylvania’s vote count finally secured the White House for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Saturday morning, images of Americans dancing in city streets began to pop up on social media. But within the broad, blue coalition that delivered the victory, a crucial conversation is just gathering energy.

Given Donald Trump’s manifest flaws as a leader, why wasn’t the margin of victory far higher?

Should the Democrats’ failure to win big be blamed on a bland candidate who took for granted the party’s activist base?

Or, to the contrary, did the progressive agenda of that base turn off Middle America, dampening what should have been a landslide?

And a larger, related question. Where does this election leave a United States staggered by inequality, climate change and digital disinformation? Is Biden a hopeful pivot or the personification of America’s limits?

This piece won’t nail down answers, but it offers a collage of selected views that speak to such questions.

Four years ago, Trump’s vulgar populism drove a number of influential neo-conservatives to declare themselves Never Trumpers, their most public face the Lincoln Project led by former top Republican political campaign strategists. They vowed to peel conservatives away from Trump by using their understanding of such voters’ psychologies. Their blizzard of slick, hard-hitting ads provided catharsis for confirmed Trump haters, who rewarded the team with $67 million in donations. But now there’s a lot of debate about how far they really moved the needle.

The mantra from the Never Trumpers was don’t scare the heartland; for that reason they approved of Biden as the Democrats’ choice.

It’s the analysis Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger applied on Thursday as she spoke with fellow Democrats. Left-wing campaigners cost the party seats, she said, by talking of socialism and defunding the police. More of that, and “we will get [expletive] torn apart in 2022. That’s the reality.”

But also after the blue wave failed to materialize this week, re-elected Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, socialist backer of the Green New Deal, fired direct shots at the Lincoln Project for siphoning so much money for an approach she deemed not proven effective. The cash would have been far better spent on grassroots organizing, which is what really got the job done, she tweeted.

Sounding a similar note during the first murky post-election hours when it was still a Biden and Trump toss-up, Jeet Heer, the Canadian who is national affairs correspondent for The Nation magazine, retrieved tweets he issued back in May, claiming vindication.

His thread starts off: “It increasingly feels like Biden, if he’s the Democratic nominee, will be Hillary Clinton 2.0, but worse. A campaign based on personal revulsion against Trump, nostalgia for normal politics, & outreach to moderate Republicans.” And finishes up:

Writing in Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson, author of American Monstrosity: Donald Trump — How We Got Him and How To Stop Him, says the election results show the unprincipled incompetence of Democratic leadership.

“If Joe Biden couldn’t thrash Trump under these circumstances, God only knows how he could have won if COVID-19 hadn’t happened. Trump has been an abysmal president. His approach to climate change threatens the lives of countless human beings. The case against him should be open-and-shut. Yet the Democratic party lost to him once and has come close to doing it again. How?...

“The answer to what is going on is not actually mysterious. The left has been saying it over and over ad nauseam: the Democrats have failed to offer a compelling alternative. Joe Biden has been an uninspiring corrupt corporate candidate. He’s been, incredibly, less politically competent than Hillary Clinton. He opposes policies that are hugely popular with voters. He’s been unable to generate enthusiasm — we rightly criticized Trump for holding giant rallies in the middle of a pandemic, but we also know Trump is right that Biden couldn’t hold giant rallies even if he was willing to pay people to come.”

“Democrats have taken voters of colour for granted,” Robinson continued, citing his colleague Briahna Joy Gray, who “has spent the entire election cycle warning that Joe Biden was treating voters of colour like they were obligated to vote for him. The Biden campaign’s outreach to Latino voters was infamously abysmal, sometimes not even rising to the level of being patronizing. It was just lazy and insulting, such as Biden pulling out his iPhone and playing the song ‘Despacito’ for 15 seconds.”

And yet in Kamala Harris the U.S. does now have its first woman vice-president and first Black vice-president and first South Asian vice-president, despite her being branded by Republicans on the campaign trail the “most liberal” senator of all. Even as many progressives cheered the breakthrough, others saw daunting challenges ahead. As Jamilah King at Mother Jones put it:

“Harris has to help lead a polarized and pandemic-plagued country from behind.”

Writer and media studies professor David A. Love tells readers of Grio the level of Trump support confirms vast numbers of white Americans “cannot wean themselves off racism” — even to their own detriment. “After the suffering that the country has endured over the past four years, one would expect a Biden landslide under normal circumstances, not because Biden is a saviour, but because people are hurting under Trump, including white people, and this election is a sure way to stop the bleeding.”

Or as New York Times staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, who investigates and writes about racism, tweeted:

To Damon Young at The Root, the anti-racist left reaps the outcome of a bet made under duress. “Joe Biden is a deeply problematic white man who generates no enthusiasm with the electorate but was chosen as the Democratic nominee on a wager. Maybe, we collectively decided, if we choose one of their own, enough white people will decide to choose an average white man instead of the worst white man. Maybe enough white people will prioritize their actual lives over the retention of whiteness’s status…

“Still, although we know what white supremacy is, and what it does, what it definitely ain’t is inevitable. Or unbeatable. We will still fight it, we will still trick it, we will still ridicule it, we will still tell it to go fuck itself, we will still find truth in contrast to white America’s pathological myopia…”

582px version of Trump nope
‘Democratic disdain for Trump is natural; disdain for his voters is more problematic. The origins of Trump’s appeal stretch back decades,’ writes Politico founding editor John F. Harris. Illustration by Frank Ducote / Bloodstar Gallery.

At the New Republic, Alex Pareene offered a different thesis for why white working class Americans might have failed to see through Trump’s false populism. “It seems possible… that voters no longer believe that the Democratic party represents a coalition that includes the working class, and that even if the party puts forward Democratic candidates who support pro-worker policy, it simply will not suffice to reach or convince voters.”

Pareene scratches his head over the fact that polls showed “huge percentages of voters support government-sponsored health care, more state intervention in the economy, and more government support for clean energy.” But too many who might have benefited from such policies distrust the Democrats to act on their behalf.

“The Democratic party, unlike most of its left-of-centre brethren in the developed world, has never been a true labour party, but it seems plausible that many voters view it as a party representing a state that never helps them, even as they, personally, practically beg for a large and powerful state that would step in to improve their lives.

“The question Democrats now face,” muses Pareene, “is whether saying they will empower the state to improve people’s lives will actually work on anyone.”

“Insane” is the most apt word for this election, as Jordan Weissman detailed in Slate, so drawing clean conclusions won’t be easy. One thing is all but sure. Once the dancing in the streets stops for Democrats, Biden is far more likely to preside over a torture test than revived idealism across the land.

Trump himself, writes Anne Applebaum in the Atlantic, will continue to feed the beast. Before he was elected, she reminds, “A third of Americans had so little faith in American democracy, broadly defined, they were willing to think that Obama’s entire presidency was a fraud. That third of Americans went on to become Trump’s base. Over four years, they continued to applaud him, no matter what he did, not because they necessarily believed everything he said, but often because they didn’t believe anything at all.

“If everything is a scam, who cares if the president is a serial liar? If all American politicians are corrupt, then so what if the president is too? If everyone has always broken the rules, then why can’t he do that too? No wonder they didn’t object when Trump’s White House defied congressional subpoenas with impunity, or when he used the Department of Justice to pursue personal vendettas, or when he ignored ethics guidelines and rules about security clearances, or when he fired watchdogs and inspectors general. No wonder they cheered him on when he denigrated the CIA and the State Department as the ‘deep state,’ or laughed and smiled when he called journalists ‘enemies of the people.’”

Politico founding editor John F. Harris warns not to conflate Trump with the forces that swept him to power.

“Democratic disdain for Trump is natural; disdain for his voters is more problematic.... The origins of Trump’s appeal stretch back decades, in the long-term decline of trust in most American institutions, from government, to Big Business, to the media. In recent years, in part through purposeful political marketing in which politicians and media figures on both ends of the ideological spectrum reap lavish rewards of publicity and money for extreme politics, mistrust has been refined into pure contempt. It was this environment that made Trump possible, and in which he prospered.”

He expects that “the environment that produced Trump-style politics will continue even if Trump is not president” and Republicans in Congress “will in many circumstances perceive implacable opposition as being in their interest. In such a dynamic it is better to keep policy disputes as weapons and shields in the ongoing ideological and partisan war than it is to resolve them.”

For The Tyee’s Andrew Nikiforuk, the muddled election picture confirms the U.S. is “a failing republic.”

“I grew up in the United States and was educated in a Republican school in California’s Calabasas County. The contested election results do not surprise me. Much to the dismay of many progressives, the revolutionary president of the American republic (and Trump is a revolutionary caudillo of the first order) proved his popular appeal.

“The roots of America’s Age of Discord are long and deep, and even a Biden presidency will not heal them. The great Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun once noted that rising empires have strong asabiya or solidarity among their elites. But America’s social glue has eroded along with its industrial base. The nation partly lost this vital consensus to growing economic inequality expressed as tax breaks for the rich and stagnant wages for Middle America that began in the 1970s. But it also surrendered its asabiya to the false promises of globalization. Last but not least, it fatally wounded any hope of consensus by embracing unfettered digital technologies that recycle loops of finger-pointing and stonewalling as assuredly as self-righteous spouses intent on destroying a marriage.

“The historian Peter Turchin pinpoints another symptom of this great unravelling. He calls it 'elite overproduction' — a moment when a society breeds too many ambitious and aspiring elites and too few political positions. During such times these surplus elites make their own trouble. They exploit divisions and construct popular crusades against climate change or pandemics. They create mafia states, and they divide the rural form the urban; the white from the Black; the believer from the atheist.

“Ultimately, they mine the anger of the many to advance the legalized looting and political climbing of the few. ‘When a large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, have been denied access to elite positions,’ the ugliness really begins, says Turchin, and America sadly occupies this political hell.

“America’s Age of Discord will now unfold as unpredictably as California’s wildfire season. The novelist Cormac McCarthy knows the dreadful score: ‘Can’t stop what’s coming. Ain’t no waiting on you. That’s vanity.’”

Nikiforuk expresses a pessimism shared by some on the left, but certainly not all. If his fatal diagnosis can be proven premature, what role will the progressive wing of the blue coalition play in reviving America’s political health? Can it serve as catalyst for a needed, and hopeful, new agenda?

Or will activist ambitions for a greener, more just nation be framed and fought for in ways that merely fuel further backlash among red voters, leaving the Democrats vulnerable to the next con artist trading on fear and division?

Progressives in Canada and around the world will watch intently as this experiment unfolds. There’s a lot to learn. And pretty much everything, it seems, at stake.

With suggested readings from Katie Hyslop and Paul Willcocks.  [Tyee]

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