Imperfect relief

Print edition : December 04, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden, in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 10. Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP

Noam Chomsky: “Trump has shown political genius in tapping the poisonous currents that run below the surface of American society.” Photo: Heuler Andrey/AFP

Mail-in and absentee ballots being taken for processing at West Chester University, Pennsylvania, on November 4. Millions of Americans were motivated to stand for hours in lines across the U.S. and to apply for mail-in ballots weeks before election day to make sure that they could vote Trump out. Photo: Matt Slocum/AP

The Democratic Party’s Left has seen its numbers in the U.S. Congress increase. The centre of this Left is now the Squad, initially comprising the Congress members (from left) Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York). Biden’s surrogates have already attacked them, blaming the Left for the losses the Democrats suffered in their quest to take control of the Senate. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

President Donald Trump at a Veterans Day observance function at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on November 11. Photo: CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS

Donald Trump’s defeat comes as a relief to Americans frustrated by his divisive and racist policies and actions and mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Biden team’s track record does not provide much hope of a progressive change in policy direction. By Vijay Prashad

Noam Chomsky has been alive for 23 presidential elections in the United States. In 1932, when he was three years old, Franklin D. Roosevelt won the first of four elections, the last President elected before the two-term limit was imposed on the office. Chomsky came of political age when Dwight Eisenhower (Republican) was President, although his first foray into politics took place as an anti-war activist who took a firm position against the Democratic Party’s John F. Kennedy’s escalation of the U.S. war against Vietnam. It was clear to Chomsky that the both the Democratic and Republican parties were committed to defending the rights of the U.S. elites at any cost, with perhaps marginal differences between the two in tone and policy.

Despite the unanimity of the two parties on so many issues, Chomsky was alarmed over the course of President Donald Trump’s administration to see a “wrecking ball” weaken the capacity of the U.S. government to tend to the population. The utter disaster of Trump’s management of the coronavirus pandemic is illustrative of this collapse. That despite all this Trump was able to get 70 million votes is a “defeat for the country”, a sign of the depth of the rot in the system. How did Trump get so much support despite the fact that he handled the pandemic so badly? “Trump has shown political genius in tapping the poisonous currents that run below the surface of American society,” Chomsky said. These are the currents of racism and misogyny, but the summoning of them has not been Trump’s only weapon. Trump, Chomsky said, “has skilfully tapped reservoirs of anger and resentment that are not only understandable but justified”. These reservoirs have been created by a “bipartisan neoliberal assault” that has hollowed out the U.S. economy and seen the upward transfer of social wealth. Trump and the Republicans have prevented any clear class politics from emerging through their cynical use of anti-immigrant and anti-minority political explanation for what Trump in his inaugural address in 2017 called “the American carnage”.

Trump won the second largest number of votes in a U.S. presidential election. The largest number was won by Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate who is now the president-elect. Although Trump refused to accept the result, he had warned that the Democrats would steal the election and, from the first indication that he was losing, began to claim, without evidence, that fraud was widespread. On the surface, it looks impossible for Trump to challenge the verdict of the various States, whose votes seem to indicate a clear Biden victory, but nothing can be put past Trump, who will try to hold on to the White House with his fingernails embedded in the door jamb.

Deep exhale

“The election results led to a deep exhale and much welcome relief,” said Deepa Iyer, author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (2015). “For four years,” she told me, “we have been living under a government that divided us with walls, raids and bans.” Even if the new administration of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be “concerned with the rights of vulnerable communities”, Deepa Iyer said, “the ethos Trump cultivated remains”. Biden has said that as soon as he is inaugurated, he will undo Trump’s Muslim ban, he will reject Trump’s refusal to allow children brought into the U.S. without papers (the “Dreamers”) to remain in the country, and he will not pursue other divisive political matters.

“We can’t become complacent,” Deepa Iyer noted, “or assume that everything will automatically be okay.” It will be essential to keep the movements intact and keep pressure on the Democratic-led administration.

“The base of the Democratic Party is significantly different from the base of the Republican Party,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. The Democratic Party’s base is, of course, complex. There is its mass base, which comprises the “vulnerable communities” that Deepa Iyer talked about, but also racial and sexual minorities, trade unions and other people’s organisations, but it also has a base amongst the elite, notably liberal sections of Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the weapons industry. The mass base of the party, however, will be try to “bring pressure”, Weisbrot said, “mostly through the U.S. Congress, to put an end to some of the crimes”, such as the crime of the out-of-control pandemic, the crimes of U.S. intervention overseas (notably through the illegal sanctions regime) and the crimes of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which take their orders from the U.S. Treasury Department. At least some pressure can be exerted, Weisbrot said, but there should be few illusions. Deepa Iyer’s words are worth repeating: we cannot become complacent; no Democratic administration has automatically operated to provide the kind of relief that is necessary to vulnerable populations inside and outside the U.S.

Phillip Agnew, who founded Dream Defenders in Florida in 2012 after the murder of Trayvon Martin and was a national surrogate for the presidential run of Bernie Sanders, told this writer: “No matter how much our media touts Biden’s ‘decisive’ victory, it is nevertheless unimpressive and frankly appalling that this was not a landslide for the Democratic Party. Facing an overtly racist, divisive administration that maliciously mishandled a global pandemic and torpedoed this country’s sorry excuse for an economy should’ve been a cake walk.” Biden was an anaemic campaigner who went from one gaffe to the next and whose programme did not inspire hope for the future.

But Biden was not Trump, which is what motivated the millions to stand for hours in lines across the U.S. and to apply for mail-in ballots weeks before election day to make sure that they could vote Trump out. At the same time, tens of millions of Trump supporters, angry at the carnage globalisation has produced, went to the polls to re-elect their standard bearer. It was certainly not a landslide, but it was as clear a verdict as possible.

Agnew’s point is that Biden’s victory was imperfect because his campaign did not fully embrace the Democratic base but operated under the illusion that there were “Biden Republicans” who would leave Trump’s side and vote Democratic; this simply did not happen. “At every turn,” Agnew said, “Biden relished distancing himself from the most diverse, young, exciting parts of the Democratic base. His narrow victory is a harbinger of things to come if the neoliberal wing of the party remains in power against an ascendant fascist Right that now, falsely, claims that it is the party of ‘working people’ and ‘inclusion’.”

Our work continues

People such as Jodie Evans of CodePink and Claudia de la Cruz of The People’s Forum agree with Agnew that Biden’s victory should not provide any illusions. “Biden was the lesser of two evils,” said Jodie Evans, “and we can’t lose sight [of the fact] that the lesser of two evils is still evil.” Neither Biden nor Kamala Harris has a record that allows anyone to be entirely confident that their policies will be progressive. For instance, Jodie Evans remembers that Biden helped George W. Bush lead the U.S. to war against Iraq; it is a chilling matter that Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney, said that he was now consulting with the Biden-Harris administration.

Biden and Kamala Harris, said Claudia de la Cruz, “have historically sided with the most conservative, warmongering, capitalist sector of the Democrats”. There will be “little gained for the poor and the working class without struggle”, she said. The divided government—the Senate is in the hands of the Republicans—has already afforded Biden the excuse to drag his administration rightwards, with promises to have a third of his Cabinet be Republicans, and to use the language of “bipartisanship” to abjure the Democratic base and the Democratic Party’s Left.

The Democratic Party’s Left has seen its numbers in the U.S. Congress increase. The centre of this Left is now the Squad, which initially comprised the Congress members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and now also has Jamaal Bowman (New York), Cori Bush (Missouri) and Marie Newman (Illinois). Biden’s surrogates have already attacked them, blaming the Left for the losses the Democrats suffered in their quest to take control of the Senate. “I call bull on that,” said newly elected Congresswoman Cori Bush, “because the thing is, we were elected to represent our people, to represent what is needed in our communities.” This Squad will not be quiet; they have “ignited the hearts and minds of millions who not only want peace, justice and a healthy planet”, Jodie Evans told this writer, “but they do the work to achieve it”.

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