Lessons From the 2020 Election

Lessons From the 2020 Election

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Andrew Ross analyses the USA's unsettling "return to normality"

Thanks to the grotesque parochialism of the American electoral system, the world was held hostage, once again, by a few thousand swing American voters. Despite the de facto stalemate of the outcome, we were urged to believe that, this time around, the fate of democracy hung in the balance. Maybe it did, but the “return to normality” in the U.S. is hardly a comforting prospect.

Donald Trump has already stolen more than four years of our mental and social bandwidth, and he is far from done. At some point, our complicity with that act of plunder has to end, but it will take a while to kick the Trump-watching habit. In the unlikely event that he sidelines himself or is consumed by lawsuits and debts, the proto-fascist mentality adopted by his angry white “base” will remain a force to be reckoned with. Trumpism seems to be assured of outliving its ringleader. Its politics of ressentiment, while firmly nationalist and isolationist in form, has a proven international dimension. Anti-immigrant sentiment resonates around the world, but especially in countries where nostalgia for white power is capable of shaping, if not dominating, public policy.     

For the time being, let us acknowledge that Trump’s reluctant collaborators in Congress are not unhappy to see him leave the White House. He forced himself upon the Republican Party and made over large parts of it in his own image. He was never a team player, was often a troublesome thorn in their side, and he directly threatened the legitimacy of the normative infrastructure through which they amassed their power. But he delivered everything they wanted---a substantial program of upward economic distribution, hundreds of reliably right-wing judges, economic warfare as foreign policy, and sweeping deregulation of fossil-driven industry, to name only four on a long conservative wish list. Plus, he almost certainly will help them retain the power of the Senate, ensuring the kind of legislative gridlock that Wall Street craves.  

Crucially, the election saw the Republican Party strengthen their grip on power in statehouses all across the country. This considerable feat guarantees a lock on future elections because it gives Republicans control over the process of gerrymandering voting districts on the basis of the 2020 Census data. Virtually every American city is now blue, but most of the governors and state legislatures that hold the purse strings are deep red, and their loyal rural constituencies have been fortified by the arrival of affluent Republican ex-urbanites in the latest wave of white flight.

If exit poll data is credible, Republicans also performed well among minority groups, undercutting the given wisdom that the “browning of America” will seal the fate of the party. Most striking, perhaps, was their remarkable showing in South Texas border counties among Mexican-American populations whom Trump relentlessly demonized (though that may have been due to high Latinx employment rates in the border patrol and detention apparatus). The party also retained its overall appeal to working class voters, including a significant portion of trade union members. It is very difficult to imagine Republicans reasserting themselves as genuine representatives of working class people, but their manipulation of anti-elitist sentiment has been going on for long enough now to have put down some roots in fertile soil. Aspiring party leaders have begun to speculate on the prospect of realizing this goal; as Mario Rubio, Florida senator and presidential contender in 2016, put it after the election, "The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial working class coalition.”

By contrast, the Democrats siphoned off the votes of upwardly mobile middle class fractions in suburban areas, and consolidated the party’s strength among educated and elite populations. Indeed, the party has been moving inexorably in this direction, abandoning any aspiration to directly address the hardship of populations left behind by deindustrialization, outsourcing, and public disinvestment. As a measure of this upwardly mobile creep, consider that Joe Biden’s definition of the middle class (to be protected from any tax increase) is a household learning less than $400,000. According to the most recent census data, median annual household income in the United States is $68,703, and so “Middle Class Joe’s” inclination to stretch this amorphous category of U.S. class consciousness is indicative of his party’s priorities these days.

Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. Until the Democrat establishment conspired to neutralize Bernie Sanders in the middle of the primary campaigns, American socialists had a high-profile, electoral standard bearer for the first time since Eugene Debs ran for president in the 1920 election. During his truly phenomenal run, Sanders showed he had much stronger working class support, especially among Latinx voters in the West, than Biden or Trump were able to pull. Before Barack Obama and the party’s other powerbrokers decided to block his path to the nomination, it looked as if we would have a genuinely left-wing contender on the 2020 ballot. Sanders’ strong advocacy for economic redistribution would have been a winning message to send in the depths of the coronavirus recession. It would have spoken to the concrete circumstances of people facing down conditions of hardship not seen since the 1930s. Without Sanders as the figurehead, the Democrats’ national presidential campaign could not project beyond the false tradeoff presented to most voters as a choice between economic survival and COVID-conscious public policy.

Unlike Jesse Jackson’s last presidential bid in 1988, after which his Rainbow Coalition crumbled, the organizing network behind Sanders only looks to be gaining strength. The progressive Congressional group known as The Squad all made electoral advances, adding to their numbers of elected representatives. So far, efforts to marginalize their voices have been less successful than the campaign to purge Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters from the U.K’s Labor Party. Though the the resurgent Democratic Socialists of America have standard-bearers, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the cockpit of national politics, they are bent on systematically building power in local and state elections, from the ground up. The centrist backlash against their policy goals—to establish housing, healthcare, and education as basic rights—has run up against their proven ability to win seats, and also against the polling evidence that such policies are very popular.    

 Sanders appeared to stumble among conservative Black Southern voters for much the same reasons as he did in the 2016 race against Hilary Clinton (see my analysis for commonware). Yet the top-down subversion of his campaign, which demoralized a generation of youth, occurred just two months before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The resulting insurgency recaptured their energy and reshaped the landscape of U.S. racial politics. Evidence that Black and Brown people were dying from the pandemic in larger numbers than whites reinforced the moral urgency of the protests. What began as an eruption of rage at police brutality mushroomed into a sweeping condemnation of racial injustice in every corner of society. The momentum of the protests was destined to carry enormous weight in the 2020 election. In response, older, and more conservative, African Americans anticipated a backlash—because White America always delivers one—and aligned themselves once again with the safe harbor of Biden’s Democratic center. But the militancy of BIPOC youth and their allies flowed into urban organizing that made all the difference in electoral turnout in Northern states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, and in the Southern swing state of Georgia where the New Great Migration has steadily seen African Americans returning to Atlanta and other cities in the state.

Called to the urgent task of turning back the wave of white supremacy, and the underlying specter of fascism, young people animated by the Black Lives Matter protests saw their participation in this election as non-optional. But no one expects the movement’s Abolitionist demands to be taken seriously by the Biden administration. In his successful 2008 campaign, Obama relied on an extensive network of grassroots organizers to deliver the White House, only to cut them out, infamously, during his years in office. Biden was not dependent in the same way, and he has distanced himself in advance from the endorsement of any possible interpretation of the slogan, “defund the police.”

Yet the demand to shrink police power, rein in immigration agents, and dismantle the carceral system will continue to resonate within civil society. All kinds of institutions—educational, cultural and commercial--will continue to look for ways of making reparations for racial injustice. The much-heralded call to “Decolonize” will have a longer life than the injunction to “Occupy” did during the Great Recession, if only because the work of decolonization is never finished.

Can this decolonial movement coalesce with economic justice initiatives (in housing, debt, and health) already being generated by the hardship of the coronavirus recession? Will a class-conscious rainbow coalition emerge or will it founder, once more, on the synthetic dichotomy between class politics and identity politics?  

As we enter the second or third wave of COVID-19, the plague of joblessness is returning to the households of America. A cruel season of evictions and home foreclosures is in the forecast, and mass indebtedness will bond yet another generation to the creditor class. In a country with such a weak safety net, material conditions like these are guaranteed to worsen. At the same time, the sight of heavily armed white militias patrolling streets in broad daylight, with the active support of urban police forces, is becoming more normative. Circumstances like these demand creative, radical responses. The spectacle of a standoff presented by the 2020 election is a reminder of the hard road ahead.

Trump may have fallen, but incipient fascists are still in power in countries as disparate as India, Brazil, Israel, Poland, Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines, and the hard right is advancing, not retreating. It is tempting to recall Gramsci’s words in the 1930s: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” He was surveying the rise of fascism and mass outbreaks of discontent during a severe economic depression. Despite the superficial parallels, the interregnum we are living through today is one in which the death of neoliberalism has been declared, on several occasions since the 2008 financial crash, and yet a stable successor has not yet come into being. For Gramsci, the hope for a new world, in Italy and beyond, assumed a communist form. From our standpoint, we must strive, as he did, for a political vision that is just as coherently internationalist, and therefore impervious to the provincial road blocks placed in its path by U.S. electoral politics.

Andrew Ross is a social activist and NYU professor. He is the author of more than twenty books, including the recent Under Conditions Not of Our Choosing (Juxta Press)