To hear establishment Democrats tell it, you’d think the party’s poor performance this past election day came after a cycle of pledging to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.
“We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” said Democratic congresswoman Abigail Spanberger on a call with fellow members of the House of Representatives last week. The party’s failure to distance itself from the left, she warned, would see it “fucking torn apart”.
Spanberger’s vitriol towards socialism is perhaps to be expected: after all, she is literally a former CIA agent, an organisation which has “fucking torn apart” nascent socialist movements around the world for the better part of a century. That said, other Democrats like South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn have also gotten in on the left-bashing act in a bid to explain the party’s less than stellar election results. “We’re not going to win” pursuing policies like Medicare for All, he argued on the call.
Despite Joe Biden defeating Donald Trump in the presidential race, Democratic hopes of winning big down ballot have been dashed. The party’s prospects for taking control of the Senate are still up in the air — even if it does manage to eke out a victory, the margin will be much narrower than previously projected — and its control of the House of Representatives has been eroded rather than strengthened.
While it’s unsurprising that establishment Democrats would want to blame someone for these failings, targeting the left is profoundly misguided — not least because the party establishment did not even campaign on progressive policies this cycle.
Of course, you wouldn’t know it from how Republicans consistently conflated centrism with leftism in their attacks against Democratic candidates — as is custom in every election. Throughout the race, Biden was repeatedly branded a “socialist” by Trump, while attacks against Democrats as “Marxists” and “antifa” were key to the Republican pitch to the Republican pitch in the campaign’s last months. Democrats like Spanberger have been happy to echo these anti-socialist attacks.
Despite these attacks, the reality is that most Democrats didn’t run on anything resembling socialism; instead, they made a hollow anti-Trumpism central to their appeal, courting centrist voters without offering any kind of substantive alternative to the right.
Donald Trump’s uniquely awful reactionary politics, blatantly corrupt and anti-worker policies, and murderous coronavirus response, should have made for an easy opponent in this election. But instead of advancing a positive agenda that laid out how he would address the country’s myriad crises, Biden opted to base his entire campaign on the fact that he wasn’t Trump.
While this strategy didn’t lose him the election, voters do appear to have punished Biden and the rest of the party for it. For example, while the former vice president rightfully denounced Trump’s awful Covid-19 response, he did not attempt to offer any substantive solutions — like monthly checks for all workers to accompany lockdowns throughout the country (perhaps because he was worried such payments would smack of the ‘S-word’?). This fear of continued lockdowns, despite no new material support, and thus further economic misery, looks to have bumped up Trump’s numbers in several states.
Such a strategy stands in stark contrast with the campaigning of leftist candidates up and down the ballot — many of whom won.
Last Tuesday saw the election of new members of ‘the squad’ in the House — Jamaal Bowman in New York and Cori Bush in and around St. Louis — along with the election of several dozen down-ballot socialists throughout the country. Of the 29 candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in races ranging from Congress to local city councils, 20 were victorious.
And while progressives certainly didn’t win every race or ballot initiative they put forward, a significant number of candidates and initiatives won by running on exactly the kinds of policies that centrists like Spanberger insist the party should run away from.
“Progressive policies do not hurt candidates,” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) told the New York Times in a post-election interview. “Every single candidate that co-sponsored Medicare for All in a swing district kept their seat.” The congresswoman went on to stress that supporting “the Green New Deal was not a sinker”, highlighting that co-sponsor Mike Levin won reelection.
It’s also worth noting that AOC and other progressive candidates won their seats having consistently argued for more robust economic aid for average Americans — like monthly cash payments and mortgage and rent forgiveness — the opposite of Biden’s approach.
Leftist organising also looks to have aided Biden’s victory, given that it increased turnout in several key districts like that of Ilhan Omar’s in Minnesota and especially Rashida Tlaib’s in Michigan. “You get what you organise for,” Omar said. Indeed, their efforts, combined with others like that of UNITE HERE, the hospitality workers union with a multiracial and strongly immigrant membership that claimed the “largest overall door-to-door canvassing operations in Nevada, Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania”, may have actually delivered the election for the Democrats.
Biden, by contrast, not only didn’t run as a socialist, he repeatedly emphasised that he had defeated one, Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic primary. “I am not a socialist,” he bragged in September. “I beat the socialist. That’s how I got elected. That’s how I got the nomination. Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career — my whole career.”
Indeed, a cursory look back at the 77-year-old’s decades-long political career shows that, far from being a leftist, he has governed much more like a Republican. From his support of violent military intervention, like the war in Iraq, to his crucial role in the expansion of the carceral system, to his steadfast support of corporate power, Biden has consistently opposed any policy that is even vaguely progressive. As Branko Marcetic argues in Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, the 46th president was a central player in the Democratic party’s rightward turn, which paved the way for the ascension of Donald Trump and the far right.
During his campaign, Biden took every opportunity he could to denounce the kind of leftist policies, like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, that socialists like Sanders, AOC and the many down-ballot DSA candidates ran on. Going a step further than many centrist Democrats, who acknowledge that a public health care system would be preferable but politically unfeasible, Biden said back in March that he would actually veto a Medicare for All bill if it came across his desk.
And while he still managed to win the election by taking this stance — although, as Naomi Klein points out, a great many people voted not for Biden, but against Trump — many Democrats who followed Biden’s lead in rejecting progressive policies weren’t so lucky. At least eight Democratic House members who ran against Medicare for All were defeated.
What this election has revealed is that — despite what politicians on both sides of the political spectrum would have them believe — socialist policies are not inherently unpopular with the American people. The idea, pedalled by establishment Democrats, that the left is killing the party has been exposed for the lie that it is. Left policies aren’t merely good but ultimately fanciful ideas; when they’re pitched well, they are well-received and successful.
Redbaiting from Republicans of all stripes comes with the territory of being anything to the left of Ronald Reagan in America. Democrats like Biden and Spanberger probably won’t stop echoing these attacks against leftists within their party, given their own anti-socialist predilections. The rest of the country, however, should understand that the kinds of policies pushed by a coalition of socialists and progressives aren’t the problem with American politics, but the solution.
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).