2007 - 2020

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.

A further complication to assessing the victory is the reality of voter suppression. The dark irony of Trump’s claims that the election was ‘stolen’ is exposed by looking at Georgia, for just one example.
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Voter Suppression
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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:

“What raises the political hacks’ hackles is not the weird political conspiracy they’ve fantasized, but rather that the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia issued our report, “Georgia Voter Roll Purge Errors,” identifying 198,351 voters wrongly removed – overwhelmingly voters of color, low income and young voters. What angers (and worries them) is that the ACLU, Black Voters Matter and yes, Stacey Abrams’ non-partisan organization Fair Fight, simply made our investigative findings public and returned thousands of victim voters to the rolls. They are panicked. They lost the state for Trump, and now they could lose control of the US Senate in the upcoming January 5 run-offs between Sen. Perdue and Ossoff and between Rev. Raphael Warnock and Sen. Kelly Loeffler.”

 

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.”

New Deal?

Critics have rightly pointed to Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor and Biden’s confused stance on fracking.

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.

What Now?

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.

 

 

Comments (12)

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  1. Alisdair McNicol says:

    A letter in today’s (10 Nov.) Guardian suggests that Biden actually owes his win to the Libertarian Party candidate taking crucial battleground state votes from Trump. If so, this has a delicious irony attaching to it, given that Ralph Nader’s stance as Green Party candidate in the 2000 election effectively cost Al Gore the White House. (Nader’s over 97k votes in Florida would have easily tipped that state away from George W Bush.) As one of CNN’s commentators put it; this election, if nothing else, proves that the election gods do have a sense of humour. (Albeit he was referring to the situation in Georgia in particular.)

  2. Daniel Raphael says:

    Several people of the array to whom I routinely tweet your articles, Michael, have thanked me for them and said “keep sending them.” They have also affirmed their understanding of why Bella is my first choice of all sites on today’s net. Your analysis is right on, spot on, hits the nail on the head, a bullseye. Please continue.

  3. Axel P Kulit says:

    Basically you are saying we have won a battle but not the war and not even enough for a cease fire.

    Just imagine if Biden had been a strong candidate. Or did Biden win because the opposing forces were sure he would lose

    1. There is the argument that Biden won because he didn’t feed Trump’s Godzilla-like Rage Anger. We’ll never know if Bernie Sanders or if Elizabeth Warren would have beaten him.

      If Biden’s campaign was poor, Trump’s was arguably worse.

  4. Hamish Kirk says:

    “Voter Supression” A scary euphemism and a sure sign that the Civil FRights campaigns of 50 years ago have not triumphed.

    1. Daniel Raphael says:

      The struggle never flowered in societal transformation; like Reconstruction before it, its impetus was diverted, drained, & effectively spent via multiple electoral and bureaucratic tributaries. Institutional racism changed its form, but its substance never receded. As we have said all along the decades since, and will say so long as we abide this mortal coil, “The struggle continues.”

  5. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    I think that many on ‘the left’ (i.e. the self-proclaimed ‘progressives’, who are good for ‘rent-a-quote’ punditry in the media) only operate the first part of the Gramscian dictum of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” They are, in many ways exemplars of Private Fraser of Dad’s Army shouting, “We’re doomed!”. They make their reputations and careers by voicing criticism and if the cause for making that criticism is removed, then they see their ‘fame’ and raison d’etre being removed, and so they risk being ignored. Being a Cassandra has been good for them. Hence, any move in the direction of alleviating the thing which has been aggrieving them has to be condemned: “IT’S NOT ENOUGH”, “What is proposed, is WORSE THAN USELESS”; “This will cause more harm than good”; “If you believe this you’ll believe anything”, etc.

    Fortunately, most of those whose views are in varying degrees left-wing or green, can recognise when a gain has been made, but, we also recognise that there are more gains that need to be made. Nevertheless, let us recognise success when we get it and celebrate it. It is good for our morale.

    During the 1960s the radical (mainly white, middle class) ‘liberals’ loathed President Lyndon B Johnson, largely because of the war in Vietnam (which was a legacy of the military industrial complex against which Eisenhower warned, and of the Kennedy presidency.) However, Johnson’s Great Society programme produced greater good for millions of poor Americans, particularly black people, particularly people without health care, particularly people with poor education, than every previous president other than Johnson’s mentor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Johnson was continuing the ‘New Deal’. In very many ways, Johnson was an unpleasant man – foul-mouthed, boorish, bullying, etc – but, he was steeped in US politics and new how it worked and could make deals to get things done. In his short period as president he passed more legislation than any previous president. He has a substantial legacy and one which Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan (especially), GH Bush, GW Bush and Trump have devoted huge amounts of time and effort trying to repeal.

    Because of Vietnam and because of personal attributes and because of a history of ‘deal-making’ in the self-righteous liberal mindset EVERYTHING Johnson achieved is to be condemned by association.

    Shakespeare had a smart, often quoted dramatist’s line “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interr’d with their bones.” But the reverse, “The good that men do lives after them, …..” But the pessimist refuses to recognise that. Winston Churchill was one of the most evil of UK politicians, but he recognised the threat Hitler posed and gave leadership at a crucial time, and that has, rightly, lived after him. The British Nationalist media try to ensure that his evil is interr’d with his bones. His deputy, Clement Attlee, had a far more lasting and good legacy, yet the British Nationalist media (and Attlee was an unashamed British patriot) skate over his legacy.

    Joe Biden knows how American politics works. He is a deal maker in the tradition of Johnson, Edward Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, etc. American politics works by ‘nickel-and-dime’ deals. It often sticks in the craw and veers of course, but, that is how it works.

    1. Arboreal Agenda says:

      I very much agree with this analysis.

      It reminds me of a passage in Slavoj Zizek’s ‘The Courage of Hopelessness’ where he quotes Orwell:

      ‘”We all rail against class distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed”. Orwell’s point is that radicals invoke the need for revolutionary change as a kind of superstitious token that should achieve the opposite i.e. prevent the change from really occurring, like today’s academic Leftist who criticises capitalist cultural imperialism but in reality horrified that his field of study might really become redundant. The stance here is like the smoker convinced that he can stop smoking if he chooses to do so: the possibility of change is evoked to guarantee it will not be acted upon’.

      I don’t think you need the ‘academic’ bit above either: many Leftists would be at a loss if what they demanded actually happened. In that sense we have far more chance of things actually changing for the better with a figure like Biden than all those railing against him for not being radical enough. In fact I would argue the left’s chances are ruined by such people (and again and again) for the reasons Orwell and Zizek give. Not surprisingly Zizek got loads of flack from the left for raising this obvious problem

      1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        Yes, I often think that too.

        The Left is an imagined community or form of life that coalesces around a particular language game or ‘jargon’. It meets in largely closed congregations, where each congregation rehearses the litanies and celebrate the rites that provide it with its cohesion and expresses its distinctive identity. The members of each congregation derive the meaning and purpose of their lives from their participation in its identity.

        Within this Lacanian-Marxian paradigm, Žižek is correct; as such, the Left is parasitical on the status quo, just as charity is parasitical on the suffering of its objects. The Left can become cosy and comfortable in its own past and resist any change that would threaten its own survival as a form of life; that is, any real or ‘radical’ change.

        Where Žižek is perhaps incorrect is in his conclusion that, as an established institution of the modern world, the Left cannot at the same time be complicit in its own sublation in the abolition of capitalism, that it must necessarily be complicit instead in maintaining the status quo against the tide of history.

        I say ‘perhaps’ because it’s not at all clear that this is the conclusion Žižek would draw from his analysis. I suspect he’s rather poking fun at the conservatism of what we might call ‘heritage socialism’, the sheer backwards-looking traditionalism of the Left’s various communions, in an attempt to goad it out of its counter-revolutionary inertial mind-set.

        1. Arboreal Agenda says:

          Yes I agree with your summation. I wonder if some of the recent attacks on the SNP and their apparent lack of progress are based on this same notion: their continual talk of the possibility of independence is ‘evoked to guarantee it will not be acted upon’. Maybe that is taking it too far but the idea they would be possibly destroying their party by bringing it about, is not without foundation and I do not think them altruistic enough not to worry about that.

          Looking at Zizek’s the book again and its title, he seems to be suggesting that what is really needed is complete hopelessness. He talks about the end of Schubert’s ‘Winterreisse’ song cycle where the protagonist loses all hope yet this actually is a sign of forthcoming redemption and an outward turning to another human being, from the previous endless inward brooding. Plus:

          ‘Two years before his death when it was clear there would be no all-European revolution, and knowing that the idea of building socialism in one country was nonsense, Lenin reached this point when he wrote “what if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity the fundamental requisites of civilisation in a different way from that of the Western European countries?”‘

          1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            No, I think the in-fighting within the independence movement is due to genuine differences over strategy; the left wants to achieve it through (or transform it into?) a traditional revolution, while the right wants to achieve it legally through constitutional reform. I’ve no doubt each side wants its project to succeed.

            The articles Žižek collected into The Courage of Hopelessness was written in response to the widespread perception that 2016 was a concatenation of seemingly disastrous events and the growing sense of hopelessness that, he detected, this perception had spawned in Europe and America. He diagnoses this sense of hopelessness as a psychological expression of the final collapse of capitalism, out of which world-revolutionary crisis humanity will (as Marx predicted) remake itself along the lines that Marx eulogised… but only if we summon up a willingness to fight on, even while we recognise that the emancipatory project is unlikely to prevail. As he contends in his introductory article ‘V for Vendetta, Pat 2’: ‘true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is probably the headlight of another train approaching as from the opposite direction.’

            This sublation of prophetic hopelessness into messianic promise is pure Hegel.

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