What Will the Outcome of the US Election Mean for the American Left?

by Micah Uetricht

19 October 2020

Over the past four years, the American left has been reborn. The rising anger at exploding inequality, indebtedness and general misery in the country found a political expression in Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns.

Those campaigns produced the rise of an American socialist movement for the first time in half a century through the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), along with likeminded groups like the Sunrise Movement, a principal force advocating for a Green New Deal, and the progressive electoral group Justice Democrats.

Before Sanders’s presidential campaign, he was the only self-identified socialist in congress — with few to be found in state and local offices. Now, DSA members like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib have been elected to the House of Representatives, while around 100 socialists have won office further down the ticket: six socialists on the Chicago city council, Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport in the New York state senate, Lee Carter in the Virginia state legislature, along with many others.

Meanwhile, DSA has worked in coalition with a wide range of organisations on numerous campaigns for labour unions, affordable housing, climate change, immigrant rights and every other major issue in American politics today.

But as heartening as that rebirth is, nobody should get carried away. The left has come a long way since 2016, but it’s a long way from almost nothing. As historian Matt Karp puts it: “The left, after Bernie, has finally grown just strong enough to know how weak it really is.”

No matter which candidate wins in next month’s presidential election, this reborn left won’t disappear. But the outcome will determine the terrain they will fight on.

Yesterday’s man, today.

At this point, the race’s most likely outcome is a Joe Biden victory. Any electoral prognosticator winces at articulating this, given that Hillary Clinton’s victory was also considered the most likely outcome in 2016 — and we all know how that turned out. However, with Americans having watched Trump in action for the last four years, capped off with Covid-19 denialism which resulted in his catching it just weeks before the election, all signs point to majorities not liking what they’ve seen.

While a Biden presidency would put the left on far more favourable terrain than under Trump, this isn’t because Biden has any left sympathies. On the contrary, he has been a key figure in nearly every step of the party’s rightward turn over the last half-century, from the Iraq war to the mass incarceration regime to even breaking with the party’s mainstream to flip-flop on abortion rights. In his book Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, Branko Marcetic even goes as far as to say: “[T]he brand of liberal politics that he and much of the Democratic Party had pursued for decades created the ideal set of circumstances for [Trump] to come to power.”

That said, organising under a Biden presidency would be more favourable to the left for two principal reasons: one, there is little expectation that he will deliver a robust left-wing agenda once in the White House and every expectation sustained popular mobilisations to demand he meet our urgent demands — fights that will only be led by the left — will be required. And two, Biden’s election would pump the brakes on the violent, anti-democratic right that has grown increasingly rabid and unmoored from reality, at Trump’s urging.

For millions of Americans, a Trump defeat would constitute a shot in the arm and ray of political hope in what has been an otherwise relentlessly bleak year. And unlike with Barack Obama’s election in 2008, there now exists a significant left in the US with no illusions about Biden’s “progressive” credentials. They take him at his word when he says that “nothing would fundamentally change” in America under his presidency; they rightly see Biden as a billionaire-backed enemy to transforming American politics and will treat him as such. 

Even liberal voters suspicious of or uninterested in the newly rising American socialism voted for Biden in the primary mostly for the simple reason that he wasn’t Trump. That’s why, instead of a long honeymoon phase of political deference to the liberal establishment, we can expect mass mobilisations demanding Biden immediately reverse Trump’s reactionary policies, bail out workers and public services, implement a Green New Deal and pass labour law reform to make it easier to build unions.

Of course, Biden will do everything possible to defend the status quo by lowering people’s political expectations. In the name of a return to “normalcy,” the Democratic establishment will likely push hard for “national unity” and consensus around the status quo before Trump.

That’s one reason why Biden is already going out of his way to emphasise how much he disagrees with Bernie Sanders, as well as constantly emphasising that he will not pursue Medicare for All or a Green New Deal. Early in his campaign, he bizarrely antagonised young people suffering under stagnant wages, crushing student debt, rising housing costs, and generally bleak prospects: “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. No, no, I have no empathy for it.”

Statements like these are why the DSA’s National Political Committee, its elected leadership body, reaffirmed the resolution passed at its 2019 national convention (to which I was an elected delegate) not to endorse any candidate other than Sanders and reiterated in May: “The Democratic Socialists of America will not be endorsing Biden.” 

Despite this, many individual leftists have decided to hold their nose and cast their ballot, or even campaign, for Biden because they understand that electing him will give the left a far better terrain to clarify and deepen the cleavage between the Democratic establishment and working people. When Democrats are in power, it is far easier to demonstrate the gap between their rhetoric and their actions. Instead of four more years dominated by an overriding progressive desire to boot Trump from office — an understandable desire, which turned out to be a major obstacle to Bernie’s chances in the 2020 primary — the left can make clear that removing the Republicans from office is far from enough to bring about the change working people need.

Secondly, for all his many faults, Biden represents a reprieve from the openly anti-democratic, violent strains of right-wing politics on which Trump has staked his entire presidency. Biden will likely govern as a cautious neoliberal, but at least he won’t be openly declaring his intentions to ignore electoral results, amplifying white supremacists from Twitter or a presidential debate stage or praising shooters who gun down anti-racist protesters on the streets. A national politics rooted more in reality than the demented contours of Trump’s deeply damaged brain will also prove far better terrain for the left to operate on. 

But there’s also a danger here. Given the enormous spike in far-right activity and conspiracising under, and encouraged by Trump, as well as a growing society-wide conversation about the role of social media in stoking violence and far-right extremism, we can assume that as president, Biden will pursue efforts to curtail this activity, especially online. With that said, considering his constant willingness to outflank the right in the face of conservative pushback on any issue, a Biden-led crackdown on far-right activity could also boomerang back on the left.

We’ve already seen this happen. Late this summer, Facebook shut down a wide range of far-right pages affiliated with conspiracy theories like QAnon and militia groups. But in a facile effort to appear unbiased, Facebook also shut down a number of anti-fascist pages, like the anarchist publishing project CrimethInc. Reddit has behaved similarly, shuttering pro-Trump pages linked to hate speech and harassment, but also banning some left-wing pages like the one associated with the popular leftist podcast Chapo Trap House. 

Biden’s entire career has been one in which he has allowed Republicans to spook him into adopting right-wing policies — even occasionally outflanking them by adopting more reactionary policies than the ones they themselves pushed, as he has done on issues of racism, “law-and-order” politics, cuts to social security, and more. Given this history, we might expect Biden to pursue a kind of hollow “both sides” approach to shutting down both fascists and anti-fascists, and the left should be prepared to resist it.

Still, despite the clear limitations, a Biden presidency beats the alternative for the new socialist movement. His victory is the outcome leftists should hope for. 

Drifting further away from reality.

One saving grace for the left under Trump’s presidential term has been the simple fact that the gap between his reactionary rhetoric and his ability to concentrate long enough to turn that rhetoric into policy is vast. 

Trump is the first American president with the attention span of a goldfish. He has done incredible damage in office: his gigantic tax cuts for the wealthy, his murderous coronavirus response, his abhorrent anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, his climate denialism — all of which would worsen under a second term. But he’s been largely unable or uninterested in pulling off anything ambitious like a 21st-century red scare or launching a new war.

What he has done though is pull the country further and further away from basic democratic norms and reality itself, moving the terrain of politics into the libidinal pleasures of an all-encompassing, neverending culture war — one in which right-wing violence against liberals and the left is praised and encouraged.

The list of Trump’s assaults on democracy is long. He has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election. He has sown doubt about voting by mail in order to justify stealing the election, saying last month, “We have to be very careful with the ballots. The ballots — you know, that’s a whole big scam.” He has even encouraged his supporters to intimidate voters at the polls, which some have then done, and tweeted encouragingly about California Republicans who are openly and brazenly stealing mail-in ballots.

Political violence has steadily been on the rise in the US under Trump. The examples are too numerous to list out: the killing of antiracist protester Heather Heyer by a right-wing extremist at an antiracist counter-protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; the recent alleged murder of two protesters by 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the police shooting of a Black man named Jacob Blake. And for every slaying in America, there are dozens of incidents of nonlethal political violence in the streets, nearly all of which have been carried out by the right.

Trump has egged this violence on. He has publicly and repeatedly defended the bizarre and violent QAnon conspiracy theorists. In the case of Rittenhouse, he actually publicly supported him. He has consistently refused to condemn white-supremacist violence despite numerous opportunities to do so, including his now-infamous command for white supremacist group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” at the recent presidential debate.

“These groups don’t need a big signal to get emboldened to commit violence,” said Katherine Belew, a historian of organised white-supremacist groups, shortly after the debate. “[T]his was a loud, loud statement.”

All of this is horrific in its own right. But it should be of particular worry to the left, as much of this violence — and threat of violence — has been directed their way. 

While Trump hasn’t launched a government crackdown on the left during his term, that doesn’t guarantee he won’t pursue one if he wins. Denouncements of “Marxists” and socialism were a constant refrain at the Republican National Convention in August. Trump’s campaign has gone all-in on redbaiting in the final months of the campaign, constantly (and absurdly) trying to tie Joe Biden to leftists like Bernie Sanders and AOC — even launching a “Fighters Against Socialism” bus tour this week.

This kind of anti-socialist rhetoric could turn into something much more sinister should Trump emerge the victor next month.

The left isn’t going anywhere.

The American left has grown considerably under Trump’s presidency in the last four years, even under hostile conditions. For the most part, they’ve brushed off the constant bloviating from Trump and his supporters, working diligently to elect socialist officials to public office and build organising power in workplaces and the streets.

But Trump and his supporters’ actions are dangerous, particularly if a second term leads to a doubling down on reactionary rhetoric and violence. Trump’s re-election would be a demoralising blow to anybody interested in progressive change. Biden, for all his many shortcomings, will at least provide a terrain in which people believe that popular mobilisations might have a chance at winning real change. In this presidential election, that’s the best that can be hoped for. 

Meanwhile, the principal task for the left will be the one that’s already underway: continuing to run down-ballot socialists, embedding socialists in the labour movement and becoming shop-floor union leaders, fighting for essential policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and building a movement that can win the kind of substantive leftist politics that neither party has on offer.  

Micah Uetricht is the deputy editor of Jacobin magazine and host of its podcast The Vast Majority. He is the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (2014) and coauthor of Bigger than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (2020).

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