Understanding Biden’s Victory
How should we respond to Joe Biden’s victory? In the most immediate sense there’s just a human response of unbridled joy and relief at the nightmare of Trump’s reign being over, and the reality that a racist bigot who is still attempting a coup d’etat of sorts is going to be ejected. But how good a campaign was it by the Democrats and what politics does he have beyond not being Donald Trump? We attempt to weigh the meaning and value of the US elections and where it will (and won’t take us).
First there’s the confused debate about how good a campaign Biden ran and what sort of victory this really was. The argument goes that despite everything Trump almost won and the ‘Blue Wave’ or predicted landslide failed to materialise. If you look at the margins in key states such as Pennsylvania (forty-five thousand), Wisconsin (twenty thousand), Arizona (seventeen thousand) and Georgia (ten thousand) – they are very small. A hundred thousand votes the other way and Trump would have won. Commentators like Nathan Robinson have pointed out that: “Trump did not run a good campaign. He botched the first debate. He squandered his campaign cash. His messaging against Joe Biden was unfocused and often incoherent, simultaneously trying to paint him as a radical Antifa-sympathizing socialist and a corrupt corporate establishment figure.”
But Robinson states: “Biden didn’t offer a clear and compelling alternative. He was a weak candidate from the start, so much so that even some of his allies were worried what would happen if he won the primary. Biden, like Hillary Clinton before him, represented the corporate wing of the Democratic party; he loudly defended the private health insurance industry and the fracking industry from attacks by the left. He ran away from proposals favored by the Democratic base like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. He didn’t show much interest in courting core constituencies like Latino voters (reportedly, the Biden campaign did not consider them part of its “path to victory”, which helps explain the losses in Texas and Florida). Biden didn’t even put much energy into the campaign; at crucial moments when Trump’s team were knocking on a million doors a week, Biden’s was reportedly knocking on zero. His ground game in important swing states like Michigan was “invisible”.
Yet Biden won the largest vote ever in American history.
Greg Palast has made voter suppression and vote rigging his specialist topic the last few years with a series of scoops and revelatory investigations. He’s been digging around Georgia for the past twenty years. He uncovered that 340,134 voters were illegally removed from the voter roll in Georgia. He writes:
The left’s critique of Biden’s victory needs to take into account the industrial scale of Republican voter suppression in their assessment of the political moment. Secondly, while I would have backed a Bernie Sanders candidacy, that’s not where we are, and it’s a speculative process to back-project that a democratic socialist candidate would have won.
Rising Power and Vision Work
On the one hand the left stands accused of an almost pathological pessimism and a debilitating inferiority complex. Andy Beckett has written: “The enemies of conservatism also need to shed their inferiority complex. After Trump was elected, many liberals and leftists argued that he would be impossible to beat in 2020, as an incumbent with supposedly so much dark charisma. When Trump took an early lead this week, the same pessimistic mindset spread an expectation that Biden would be defeated, despite the well-known fact that many Democratic votes would be counted last. And once Biden went ahead, the pessimists started predicting that any presidency of his would be doomed before it began, and that Trump could even win next time. Some of this pessimism may turn out to be justified. But it also suits the right’s political narrative: that they are the US and the west’s natural rulers, and that any periods of government by anyone else are temporary aberrations.”
Many point out that across the world (and this is seen in Scotland) “…versions of the American battle, between left-leaning parties backed by rising social groups such as the young on the one side and entrenched rightwing governments backed by older voters on the other, are under way in other countries.”
This demographic shift is a real phenomena it’s true. But I’m not sure we have that long to wait about for it to transfer power. We need to get a move on.
As Naomi Klein points out:
“Biden was a risky candidate for the same reasons Hillary Clinton was a risky candidate. He was risky because of his swampy record because he had so little to offer so many people in such deep crisis. It seems he has secured an electoral victory by the skin of his teeth but it was a high risk gamble from the start. And not only is the left not to blame. We are largely responsible for the success that has taken place, not the Lincoln Project, which has, as David Sirota said, set fire to $67m in this election by trying to reach suburban Republican voters. We are the levees holding back the tsunami of fascism. The wave is still gaining force, that’s why this is such a difficult moment to celebrate. We need to shore up those levees, and we also need to drain energy away from their storm.”
Recognising this, that Trump may have been defeated but he is the representative, not the thing in itself is paramount. We need to learn and learn quick. For much of my early life we thought that The Task was removing Thatcher from office. She embodied all that we hated and her removal was seen as a generational task. When she’d gone we realised she was just the symbol and the lightning-rod for a class war and an ideology that lived beyond her. Similarly with Obama people were hoodwinked by the historic value of a Black Man in the White House, and his obvious charm and charisma. Of course he was crippled by taking office at a time when the country was bankrupt by the financial collapse, but his record was poor.
If Obama gave False Hope Biden may give False Unity.
But these are lessons learnt, and political movements (in Scotland the US) are not the same as they were, in may ways there are stronger and deeper.
Naomi Klein points out that: “We need to, I think, recognize first of all that, though we may be dealing with the same kind of corporate Democrats as we were in 2008, we are not the same. We have changed. Our movements have grown. They grew during the Obama years, and they grew during the Trump years, they have grown in size but they’ve also grown in vision. In the vision of defund the police, moving the resources from the infrastructure of incarceration, of policing, of militarism to the infrastructure of care. Vision work has happened. The vision work behind the Green New Deal has happened. And of course the movement supporting Medicare for All.”
Klein talks of “rising power” in progressive and radical movements in the US: “Obama and Biden did not have to contend with Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and now Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. So I think where we go from here is, we need more coordination in all of this rising power.”
But Biden was just elected on the most ambitious climate platform ever presented by a presidential candidate, in which he promised a $2 trillion clean energy revolution. He will govern with Harris as VP, who has a track record of suing oil companies as former attorney general of California.
Biden has stated he will re-join the Paris Climate accord on day one of his presidency.
As Chloé Farand and Isabelle Gerretsen point out (‘Joe Biden wins the White House, in pivotal moment for global climate action’):
“As the world’s second highest emitter, the US is critical to meeting the Paris goal of limiting global heating “well below 2C”. Biden promised to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2035 and put the US on track to cut emissions to net zero by 2050. According to Climate Action Tracker, if the US achieves this goal, it will shave 0.1C off global warming by 2100. The US would follow major Asian emitters China, Japan and South Korea in aiming for net zero, bringing 62% of global CO2 emissions and nearly three quarters of GDP under a carbon neutrality goal.”
“Taken together, the US and China going to net zero emissions would reduce our estimate of end-of-century warming to 2.3-2.4C,” said Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute, a Climate Action Tracker partner organisation.
However as Farand and Gerretsen recognise Biden and Harris’s ability to deliver emissions cuts “will be hampered by a disappointing performance for the Democrats in the Senate race. Control of the upper house is expected to come down to two run-offs in Georgia in January.”
If the limits and possibilities of Biden’s climate moves seem oddly precise, the deeper question of Klein’s “levees holding back the tsunami of fascism” are also apparent, as is the link between fascism, colonialism, and omnicide.
We now have a curious moment.
Cornel West has claimed that: “With the neo-fascist gangster in the White House we need to be part of an anti-fascist coalition”. To which he is challenged. by Jacobin Radio: “What do we do with that coalition being led by a democratic establishment that has proved itself utterly incapable of decisively defeating this ever radical right wing Republican Party.”
According to West: “There is still a difference between a neo-fascist catastrophe and a neo-liberal disaster” – and that is what we may be celebrating.
But, he argues we still need to have mass mobilisation and a serious social movement.
He further argues that “we can conclude that the Democratic Party is simply unable to serve as an institutional vehicle for truth and justice”.
In a key passage West says: “We’ve got to be able to have a politics of solidarity. What I mean by that is that with all the talk of identity: racial identity; gender identity; sexual orientation identity, they are crucial, they are indispensable, but in the end they must be connected to a moral integrity and deep political solidarity that homes in on a financialised form of predatory capitalism that is killing the planet, poor people, working people, here and abroad … ”
That analysis has resonance for us here in Scotland, as does the idea that we should only put faith in a centrist political party.
The lessons are for the need for a political movement to have three fronts: to push the political process to the left within the party with the most agency for change; to develop “mass mobilisation and a serious social movement”; and for that movement to be characterised by a “politics of solidarity” beyond identity. Further, that this movement must be explicitly anti-fascist and it must acknowledge and ‘step in to’ its own “rising power”, transcending our own inferiority complex. Trump has been defeated but the forces he emerged from are still at play. The inadequacies of the Biden-Harris ticket are open for all to see, but this is not a moment for despair but to push on where the new opportunities present themselves.