Throughout the 2020 election cycle, the Trump campaign pushed the idea that Joe Biden is a “trojan horse for a radical left.” This was a laughable concept, yet Biden consistently felt the need during the final weeks of the campaign season to let the world know he was not a socialist. In fact, he emphatically stated that he won the Democratic party nomination by beating the socialist! While socialists and leftists more broadly would not even place Biden on the center-left of the political spectrum, it’s unsettling to see how willing Democrats like Biden are to disavow the left (even democratic socialists, a label distinct from socialist, like Bernie Sanders) and not even try to win their votes. This disdain from the Democratic Party towards the left is perfectly depicted by a 60 Minutes interview with Kamala Harris right before the election. In this interview, Harris visibly became uncomfortable at even being considered “the most liberal senator” (emphasis ours), and nervously laughed when the words “socialist” and “progressive” came up. Even being considered liberal is seemingly too extreme for Harris.
Rather than run on progressive policies, if you’ve watched the course of events in the 2020 election cycle, or the 2020 Democratic National Convention, then you might have noticed how the Democratic Party desperately tried to appeal to Republicans and “moderates” for their votes. Republicans spoke at the DNC Convention, campaigned with Biden, were (tentatively) appointed to both his cabinet and transition team, and were a central focus of Biden’s messaging and nomination strategy. While these right-leaning voters are respected by politicians, the more marginalized and disparaged groups (progressives, leftists, non-voters, BIPOC, the working class, and more) are typically blamed when Democrats lose and sidelined when Democrats win. No matter how many times these voters show up and deliver victories for the Democrats, the party will always remain contemptuous of them because of the left’s potential to organize against an oppressive power structure. We argue in this article that it is far past time that those who consider themselves politically “left” abandon any remaining trust and hope in the Democratic Party, and instead place trust and hope in people power.
With every election cycle, the Democratic Party’s strategy has increasingly shifted towards appealing to Republicans and affluent suburbanites rather than to the left and the working class. Democrats’ attempt to attract the right has meant promoting “incrementalism” over radical change (i.e. expanding the Affordable Care Act over passing Medicare-For-All). This strategy did not provide the Democrats with an overwhelming victory down ballot this year, despite the massive failure of the Trump administration to show even basic leadership and responsibility during the COVID-19 crisis. The main message of the Biden 2020 campaign was simply “I’m not Trump,” instead of offering concrete policies to help people through the pandemic. This message signals that the Biden administration merely changes the personality of the occupant of the White House, but not the system that has left millions of Americans unemployed, unhoused, unfed and uninsured.
Biden did win this election, but his aim to bring in Republican voters failed while dismissing policies essential to saving lives and livelihoods. The Democratic Party has narrowed their proposed policies so much so that their platform has been constructed to cater to the right-wing, all to shield themselves from the accusation of being a socialist party. However, there are serious flaws in this strategy, as this election and past ones have shown.
First, the Republican party already has a monopoly on right-wing politics in America. Therefore, there is no reason for a Trump supporter to vote for Biden when the Democratic Party has the same neoliberal economic policies that hurt the working class, but lacks the open white identity politics of the right. The Democrats perceive themselves as having socially liberal beliefs and a more “presidential” demeanor than Trump, and rely on this liberal aesthetic for support—hence Biden’s promise to restore the soul of America. What Democrats don’t seem to understand is that Americans do not really care about “civility” when their material needs are not being met. 73% of voters said that policies were more important than character when deciding who to vote for. With economic loss under both parties, moderation does not turn Trump’s base—82% of voters whose first issue was the economy voted for Trump. Trump uses frustration about Democratic abandonment combined with populist rhetoric, and promises to return to the 1950s to attract voters. Consequently, Trump won 11 million more votes this year, and 93% of Republican votes, up from 88% in 2016.
One reason Republican voters are united behind Trump is because he is unapologetically himself. He does not compromise or dilute the beliefs his supporters want. The RNC allowed popular policies to win, and even though they are harmful, it was an effective strategy. The Republicans won in 2016 because they embraced the extreme. Meanwhile, Democratic voters were told to settle for the moderate nominee, Biden, because his “centrist” policies supposedly make him more “electable.” However, every centrist presidential candidate in recent memory has ultimately lost: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Al Gore and John Kerry. Biden only eked out his victory due to progressive BIPOC organizing, and Trump’s poor handling of the pandemic (and additionally his blatant brutality against Black Lives Matter protesters). On the other hand, Obama and Trump won because they told America that they were different; they made promises that were not moderate in rhetoric in times of great inequality and suffering, even though they may not have followed through in practice in either case.
It is a better campaign strategy to embrace popular radicalism. A party wins by promoting the demands of its own party rather than appealing to the imagined desires of the other party. Putting converative, “respectable” career politicians such as John Kasich in the cabinet or as speakers for the Democratic National Convention fundamentally does not appeal to the anti-establishment Republicans that vote for Trump. Nevertheless, the Democratic party chose to appeal to the 5% of Republicans that planned to vote for Biden instead of the 88% of Democrats that support Medicare-For-All, and other similar progressive policies (for context, Clinton won 8% in 2016; Obama won 6% of the Republican vote in 2012, and 8% in 2008; Kerry won 6% in 2004; and Gore won 8% in 2000). Not only do the vast majority of Democratic voters support Medicare-For-All, but a majority of American voters support the policy. Additionally, 63% of Americans support a wealth tax, 52% favor a federal jobs guarantee, 58% of registered voters agree with free public college and student debt relief, and 82% support a green jobs program. Mass support for progressive policies was also on full display when it came to local ballot measures in the 2020 election too. In Florida, voters chose to raise the minimum wage to $15 per-hour, and Oregon voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs. Appealing to Trump supporters with popular economic policies that benefit the working class brings new voters without compromising core beliefs.
If campaigning on more populist economic policies is a winning strategy, then why do the Democrats not try it? Historically, one of the key functions of the Democratic Party—AKA “history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party”—is to placate the American people and absorb progressive energy. The popular appeal that politicians like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have towards voters shows that there is massive dissatisfaction with the status quo, and this dissatisfaction scares the ruling elites. Trump, himself, was allowed by Republican Party elites to appeal to that dissatisfaction and attract disaffected voters because Trump is a member of the ruling elite himself, and would continue policies of tax cuts for the rich and supporting the American war-machine, despite his populist rhetoric. The only reason elites may be opposed to Trump is simply for reasons of personality and optics, not policy. On the other hand, when a populist candidate came along in 2016 on the left, elites would not allow for his rise.
Despite the popularity of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party has argued that someone like Sanders could never win a general election, and thus a moderate candidate must be the Democratic nominee for President. This strategic thinking has been used to threaten left-of-center voters to put up with the Democratic Party’s terrible policies in order to defeat egregious, right-wing politicians like Trump. According to the Democratic establishment, Bernie Sanders is too radical for Trump supporters. However, in a leaked tape from 2018, Trump admitted that he was worried about the popularity of Sanders’ policies, specifically when it came to trade. Furthermore, during the campaign season, Trump used the same rhetoric and strategy against both Sanders and Biden—it seemingly did not matter whether the candidate was actually socialist or not. If the Democratic nominee is considered by the Republican party to be a socialist no matter what, it would be better for the candidate to actually be one, because many left-wing policies are overwhelmingly popular and beneficial to voters.
As a consequence of suppressing the actual populist candidate with each election cycle, American politics shifts further and further to the right with every passing year. Given the choice between an anti-establishment right-wing candidate and an establishment center-right candidate in a Democrat’s clothing, Republican voters overwhelmingly chose the Republican candidate time after time. This voting behavior should be enough evidence to the Democrats that they must stop lurching to the right in an attempt to win votes, yet they continue to ignore this lesson. As a result, Americans get to choose (the word “choose” here can be taken with a grain of salt—considering the undemocratic electoral college) between two right-wing candidates for president, with the Democrats appealing to a type of voter that is a tiny minority of Americans, if not just an imaginary centrist group made up of those strongly opposed to any structural change. If these kinds of voters are imagined, then who are Democrats truly appealing to?
This “strategy” of nothing fundamentally changing only appeals to the wants and needs of the ruling elite, not the vast majority of the people. In fact, any policy that could possibly help people is immediately shot down and called socialist to protect the ruling elite’s interests. Currently, there is no strong socialist movement or party in America, yet Americans’ support for left policies (specific ones such as Medicare-For-All and the Green New Deal, or even general support for the BLM movement and DACA recipients) is just enough to make elites fear the rise of socialism and radicalism. Therefore, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican wins elections, the U.S. government will continue to ensure unfettered capitalism remains in place by implementing right-wing neoliberal policies. This should be worrying to anyone who wants change. What does this continuation of the status quo mean for the future?
If the Democrats are shifting to the right, the Republicans will do the same, and America may be in for a Trump 2.0 (someone with Trump’s far-right ideology, but who can more effectively translate that ideology into actual policy) by 2024. Even Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are warning of this possibility if the Democrats fail to bring about any meaningful change. However, one need not worry solely about the horrible things a potential Trump 2.0 Presidency might do when considering Biden’s alarming record of bending to the will of Republicans and big money interests (i.e. Biden’s racist “tough on crime” policies, enthusiastic support for the Iraq war, and love of austerity). Too many centrist Democrats have created a false equivalence between Anti-Trump Republicans and Democrats, and applaud this kind of bipartisanship that Biden represents. But bipartisanship is not a good principle when Democrats compromise on human rights. Republican politicians like John Kasich, Ben Sasse, John McCain, and George Bush do not deserve praise for being “nice” when they have actively fought against abortion access, green legislation, LGBTQ+ rights, racial justice, and peace in the Middle East. This framing normalizes oppressive politics because those enacting them are elevated simply for being “respectable.” However, these respectability politics are precisely what led directly to a Trump presidency in the first place, because the status quo bipartisanship on big issues meant Democrats almost always “compromised” with Republicans. By further validating the right-wing agenda, the Democratic Party is making another Trump-like presidency inevitable.
Furthermore, by incorporating (or attempting to incorporate) the mythical bloc of never-Trump and Lincoln Project type of Republicans, Republican policy is further legitimized, pushing both parties further to the right. This Democratic alignment with Republican corporate interests hasn’t helped boost Democratic popularity among Republican voters. In fact, the Lincoln Project brand of Republican is what Republicans voted against when Donald Trump won his primary in 2016 and in 2020—data shows that Lincoln Project ads often convinced Republicans to vote for Trump. The two Lincoln Project ads measured in a study by Open Labs were the 55nd and 53rd most effective of the 69 advertisements tested, even boosting Trump support among participants. Even with the $69 million in liberal donations the Lincoln Project wasted, Trump actually increased his vote share of Republican voters from 2016. This $69 million could have turned the tide for Democrats had it funded local, state, and national races and progressive ballot initiatives, or helped materially support the millions of Americans in financial crises. Yet, despite the warnings of the left—from organizations such as the Gravel Institute—and data analyzed after the election, Democrats continue to praise and promote Never Trumpers and the Lincoln Project, while blaming progressives for Biden’s and the Democrats’ performance. The voter base did not want “respectable” Republicans like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, or Carly Fiorina in 2016, and they clearly did not want them in 2020 either. Nevertheless, including these types of elite Republicans in his governance strategy is precisely Biden’s goal with his calls for bipartisanship and “unity.”
Some may argue that if the Senate is controlled by Republicans (as of this writing, it is still undetermined), then the Biden administration will be faced with gridlock, and will have no choice but to engage in bipartisanship. However, bipartisanship doesn’t mean compromising on one’s values. Perhaps it appears bipartisan to compromise with Republican politicians but is this truly a compromise for a “divided” America, or just a compromise between the two factions of the ruling class? As we have discussed above, there is actual unity amongst the American people when it comes to economic—and even social—policies, like Medicare-For-All, the Green New Deal, College debt relief, and support for BLM and DACA. However, this is not the unity Biden speaks of. Rather, the theatrical performance of partisan politics makes it seem as if politicians on opposite sides of the aisle are fighting for their constituents’ wants and needs, while still agreeing on most issues behind closed doors. Barack Obama has admitted that there is not a large divide between Democrats and Republicans, and that he even considers himself a “moderate Republican” by 1980s’ standards. In other words, the real compromise Biden needs to make is with the people, not the politicians, by implementing progressive policies.
First, in the realm of American foreign policy, it is well known the executive branch has a lot of power: far too much power. One piece of legislation responsible for this extraordinary power is the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Justified by the 9/11 attacks, the AUMF grants the President of the United States the ability to use force around the world and keep the country in a state of endless war with much of the globe. However, the AUMF is not solely to blame. In post-World War II America, Congress has practically given up its power to declare war, and handed it over to the executive branch. Evidently, foreign policy is one particular area where Biden could significantly improve lives by pulling troops out of numerous foreign countries.
For example, the Afghanistan War is the longest running war in American history, and has achieved absolutely nothing but suffering and endless occupation. If the President were to withdraw troops from Afghanistan (something Trump has repeatedly tried to do), this would actually be a popular move amongst the American people, including veterans. Another major foreign policy change Biden could make is immediately ending U.S. support and arms sales for the Saudi-U.A.E. war against Yemen, a war that Biden helped create. Yemen is the location of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and is considered by many to be the site of a genocide, one in which the U.S. is complicit. Ending U.S. support for this crime against humanity is one of the few foreign policy commitments Biden realistically could follow through on due to pressure from progressives.
In terms of domestic policy, there are many areas where the executive branch is not completely powerless, even without Democratic control of the Senate. In fact, The American Prospect has recently launched The Day One Agenda, which has found 277 policies the Biden administration could implement without overreaching its executive powers. Such policies range from student debt cancellation, marijuana legalization, or a more progressive tax policy, just to name a few.
Furthermore, if there was ever a time to fight for universal health care (and we’ve established that this is a popular policy), it is now, in the midst of a global pandemic. Even if the Senate is likely going to be controlled by Republicans during the first two years of the Biden Administration, why must Democrats start negotiations with the supposed compromise position of the public option rather than fight for what is right? Fundamentally, however, the Democrats do not fight harder for healthcare because they do not believe that healthcare is a human right. Instead, establishment Democrats like Biden have had to manipulate the rhetoric of human rights and declare that “every American has a right to the peace of mind knowing they have access to affordable, quality health care” (emphasis ours; so a right is something we have to pay for?). Even if Medicare for All were able to pass the House and Senate, Biden has even said that he would veto this legislation, revealing the issue isn’t about pragmatic bipartisanship, but rather one of ideology and protecting the special interests of the ruling class.
Democrats often use the excuse that the country is too divided to implement progressive policies. However, the real divide in America is not between Democratic and Republican voters, but the American people and the ruling elite. Nevertheless, the politicians and media have effectively manufactured an environment where the American people view each other with suspicion along partisan lines. Noted by Gregory Mantsios, the ruling elite has traditionally used American media to “create a universal middle class” in the U.S. by blurring the lines between the upper, middle and working classes and focusing anger towards the (often racialized) poor. In addition, the ruling class divides people between partisan lines so individual anger is directed at one political party instead of the entire ruling class.
This is not to dismiss the real divisions between the American people, but to point out how propaganda from elites is often constructed to keep people even further separated, and hide our common interests. Furthermore, the argument made here is not meant to be class reductionist, and ignore the various intersecting oppressions felt beyond classism during (and prior to) the Trump era (i.e. racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc.), but rather an observation as to how there are common interests among the majority of American people. For example, revolutionaries in the Black Panther Party, like Huey P. Newton, recognized how “class and racial cleavages” have historically “kept full democracy at bay” in the U.S. by keeping the people divided. This is why there is a necessity for a “Rainbow Coalition,” or a multiracial coalition, to defeat white supremacist capitalism.
As Howard Zinn explains in A People’s History of the United States, “Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes.” This failure can result in the middle class being “open to solutions from any direction, right or left.” Zinn draws parallels between middle-class dissatisfaction and the 1920s-30s, when millions of white Americans joined the Klu Klux Klan, while millions of others joined massive left-wing mobilizations across the country—leading to the New Deal’s implementation as a means “to keep [the lower classes] from turning a rebellion into a real revolution.” Clearly, a radical break from business-as-usual is now. While some may argue that Americans are generally too conservative to join the left, this belief often ignores the history of the state’s violent efforts to suppress the left because of its power prior to the Cold War era.
As we predict a Biden presidency to be nothing short of a disappointment, one might ask what this means going forward. On the left, there has long been a debate as to whether or not social democratic policies legitimize the capitalist state to stave off revolution. What’s important to keep in mind when thinking about big, important, policies like Medicare-For-All, the Green New Deal, or defunding/abolishing the police, is that these reforms are part of a larger goal—or, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the Social Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.” In other words, the left must continuously build upon a popular movement and fight for people’s material needs in order for a world free from capitalist oppression to be possible.
Demanding change from the state is just part of the equation. As leftists, our general principles consist of thinking beyond the modern capitalist state and towards a society that values communalism, relationships, and the freedom that comes with dismantling hierarchical systems. Therefore, building a popular movement means making it clear that there are alternatives to the two party duopoly and the capitalist state. Federal electoral politics in their current form are clearly not the answer for the problems of the American people, nor the rest of the world. Both parties are cheerleaders for capitalism, and are completely captured by corporate interests. Thus, our political leaders do not deserve adulation nor cooperation, as it is clear they will not do what is right without pressure, as evidenced by Biden’s corporate transition team and imperialist cabinet picks.
Instead of putting our hope in the politicians, there are alternatives through solidarity and raising consciousness. Such alternatives include participating in mass strikes, supporting third parties and electoral reform, engaging the political system at the local level, supporting mutual aid groups, and finally, protesting the state. It matters neither which party controls the House and Senate, nor whoever occupies the White House: the system will remain the same if the people do not rise up together.