December 2020Campaigns

Action and Reaction: The Newtonian Election

A little after 11pm on election night I began to feel sick to my stomach. Most of the critical swing states seemed to lean toward Donald Trump or hang in the balance, including that Pennsylvania-Ohio-Michigan-Wisconsin purple corridor, while Florida was falling into Trump’s column. Joe Biden had done well in early voting, but that “red wave” promised by Trump seemed to be overtaking it. Biden should have an advantage in the later-counted mail vote, but would it be enough? Even on election night it was clear that Biden would win in the popular vote but possibly lose the Electoral College in a nauseating replay of 2016.

Over the following few days it became increasingly clear that the final blue wave from the historic level of mail voting would clinch the election for Biden, driving not only Michigan, Wisconsin and, finally, Pennsylvania into his camp but also Arizona, Nevada and previously deep-red Georgia.

The final tally showed Biden winning, if not by a landslide, at least convincingly in both the popular vote (51.1% t to 47.2%) as well as the electoral vote (306 to 232). It was enough to convince most people, even many Republicans, that Biden had actually won, notwithstanding Trump’s unfounded claims of fraud. It was not, however, the hoped-for rout that would have shut up every Republican except Trump himself and his most fanatical inner circle. Most Republicans tended to cite the legal process, Trump’s right to seek review in the courts and the like—despite the vote totals staring them in the face—while a few prominent Republicans followed Trump’s lead and went on the attack to try and overturn the results (see sidebar).

While Biden’s victory was good news, the rest of the national election was not so much. The hoped-for Democratic takeover of the Senate hasn’t happened—yet; that would require two underdog Democrats to win their January runoffs in Georgia, which would result in a 50-50 tie in the Senate, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris as tiebreaker to establish Democratic control in that chamber. In the House, Republicans trimmed the Democrats’ majority by picking up seven seats at latest count.

It was a mixed-messages kind of election. Trump was defeated but not fully repudiated. His presence on the ticket didn’t repel voters from favoring down-ballot Republicans. In a record-turnout election, both sides mobilized their voters. Here’s a statistic to ponder: the presidential candidate who won the most popular votes in US history was Joe Biden, in 2020. The winner of the second-highest number of popular votes ever? Donald Trump, also in 2020.

So what happened? Pundits are still chewing over the results and I don’t pretend to know anything they don’t. This one is likely to be dissected until the first candidates for 2024 declare themselves.

But a few points are worth making. First, slightly over half of the voters turned out in record numbers to put a halt to Trump’s misrule, but almost as many turned out to keep him. As much as Biden and establishment Democrats wanted to make health care and other kitchen-table issues the center of the campaign, the central issue to voters on both sides was Trump, Trump, Trump.

Reasonable people might have thought Trump’s alternately disinterested and downright obstructive response to the COVID-19 pandemic might have scared away voters in droves. It appeared, though, that even a quarter-million deaths didn’t dent his base. Many Trump voters feared joblessness more than illness. In the final equation, Trump voters stood behind his COVID-19 policies like the rest of his toxic agenda.

Most important, it wasn’t the increased presence of leftists and socialists in down-ballot races that deprived Biden of a landslide, trimmed the Democrat’s House majority and (possibly) denied them control of the Senate, contrary to the assertions of such centrist Democrats as Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. First of all, Biden, if anything, was as non-socialist a candidate as the Democrats could have mustered, and he took pains to repudiate socialism in his debates with Trump. But where socialists were on the ballot they tended to do well. According to the newsletter of DSA’s National Political Committee, DSA

…ended up with a 73% win rate with our endorsed candidates and ballot measures. We now have 155 elected officials representing our vision in 32 states! There will be a $15 minimum wage in Florida, free pre-K in Portland, no evictions without representation in Boulder, and a $15 minimum wage, tenant protections, ban on facial surveillance, and a local Green New Deal initiative in Southern Maine! There will be 4 DSA members in Congress and multiple state legislators in Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maryland, Minnesota, Hawaii, Montana, and Michigan.

No doubt cries of socialism motivated some voters to support the GOP, but real socialism drew voters to real socialists in record numbers. If anything, it was Biden’s cautious centrism that was a drag on his appeal.

In many ways, the expanded presence of socialists and socialism in the election worked both ways. As in Isaac Newton’s third law of motion, which states that an action leads to an equal but opposite reaction, the prominence of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other socialists on the Democratic side had a profound influence on both ends of the electorate. Energized leftists and progressives rushed to the polls (or the mailbox or drop box) to support Biden as well as Democrats down the ballot. In reaction—in both senses of the word—Republicans whipped their voters into to a froth about Biden aiming to turn the United States into Venezuela. The result was a Democratic party pushed to the left, even if its standard bearer wasn’t. At the same time the Republican party became even more firmly the party of Trump.

The fact that more than 70 million people voted for a continuation of Trump’s reign of racism, xenophobia and self-dealing, his embrace of dictators, his undermining of allies for his short-term political gain (as with Ukraine) and his dereliction of leadership during a pandemic that has killed a quarter million Americans (and counting) is truly appalling. It can be at least partly explained as a continuing reaction to the election of Barack Obama 12 years ago, an event that brought out racist elements in the body politic that had been festering largely out of sight for many years. That an African American could win the presidency was a shock to millions of racists, and in reaction rose the Tea Party and the birther movement, the latter of which was championed by Trump himself. Trump then abetted the rise of the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Boys, QAnon and the rest of the conspiratorial and sometimes violent, racist right.

However, the coming out of the neofascist alt-right can be seen as less a sign of the rise of racist politics than a herald of its ultimate decline. The far right in the United States, especially the most racist and anti-immigrant elements, sees the coming of a majority-minority population and they don’t like it. These demographic trends favor liberal-to-progressive politics. In reaction, the far right and white supremacists lash out to preserve their privileges, while Republican officeholders struggle to hold back the blue tide by demagoguery, voter suppression and gerrymandering. If most Republicans had their way, voting across the United States would be as constricted as in the Jim Crow South. The more the electorate expands, the more Democrats benefit. It was the aggressive voter registration in Georgia spearheaded by Stacey Abrams that helped turn the state blue in 2020. For now, Republicans hold onto a share of power by stoking white racial resentment, but this force grows weaker with time.

It goes without saying that Biden is far from the Democratic nominee that DSA members would have chosen. He is too much in thrall to the Wall Street establishment, foreign-policy hawks and the free traders who gave us NAFTA and would foist on us the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Over his nearly half-century political career he has wound up on the wrong side of too many issues: giving Anita Hill the back of the hand during the Clarence Thomas hearings and championing the racist Clinton crime bill being only two of the most egregious. Yet the general election was a binary choice, and four more years of Trump would have been almost too hideous to contemplate. A re-elected Trump would have felt free of any democratic restraint; he would have violated norms and laws as he saw fit and dared Congress, which already failed to remove him via impeachment, to do anything about it. His environmental policies would have made climate devastation inevitable; his immigration policies would have immiserated countless families seeking a better life; his embrace of armed racist militias would have made Charlottesville a mere rehearsal.

Biden is deeply flawed, but he can be moved. A strong Left can force him in a more progressive direction, although it will be a tug of war as his corporate backers pull him to the right. He will make bold proposals only to the extent he is forced to. “Go out and make me do it,” Franklin Roosevelt said to activists pressing for his support. Or as Michael Harrington used to say, socialists work for Democrats during the campaign, and the day after the election they become the opposition. Especially if the Republicans hold onto the Senate, it will be virtually impossible to implement the most ambitious elements of the Left agenda, such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal—neither of which Biden supported at any rate. But we can put more progressive policies on the table and then work to expand the Democratic, and especially the left-Democratic, presence in Congress during the 2022 midterms.

I write all of the above assuming that Trump’s unprecedented efforts to overturn the clear results of the election do not succeed. But assuming Biden does take office on January 20 and Trump is dragged out of the Oval Office, in handcuffs if necessary, it will be time for the Left to make its demands for change on all fronts: health care, the post-COVID economy, the environment, policing, immigration and more. When mainstream Democrats urge now is not the time, we must respond that there is no better time. For there to be a conservative reaction there first must be socialist action, and that’s our forte.

See more in categoryReturn to Issue