Four days passed between the close of polls and the announcement that Biden had won Pennsylvania and would become president. In that time, US liberals experienced a range of emotions so broad, deep and varied that CNN’s live coverage may be remembered as the greatest season finale of all time.
First came the shock and grief. The hoped-for Biden landslide wasn’t coming. Trump’s political base had consolidated and expanded. Around 70 million people all around the country had tried to return him to office for another four years.
For several days, Democrats grappled with a shocking reality. Despite a pro-Biden mainstream media consensus broken only by the Trump cultists around Fox News, despite Trump’s personal and political vileness, and despite the pandemic that made his extreme stupidity obvious even to those who approved of his bigotry, Trump had nearly defeated them again. The Trumpist Republicans had probably retained their Senate majority and increased their representation in the House of Representatives.
Whose fault was it? Would Sanders have won more handily than Biden, as his acolytes like Guardian columnist Nathan J. Robinson continue to argue? Or were Sanders and his liberal congressional allies to blame for the increase in Republican votes that almost kept pace with Biden’s record-breaking numbers?
Most shattering was the disappointment of those who hoped that Trump would be crushed in a kind of referendum on Black Lives Matter and the rights of immigrants. The high number of Trump votes—“the most EVER for a sitting President!” as he accurately tweeted during his post-loss meltdown—seemed to prove that the heroic street protests hadn’t softened the hearts or opened the minds of the huge Republican electoral base. Seventy million voted for a president who had spent much of the last year posturing about how he would crush mob rule in Black-majority cities, back the police to the hilt and perhaps resegregate the suburbs.
But after a bracing immersion in fear, anxiety and recrimination, Democrats could enjoy two full days of triumph. Biden pulled ahead in the Pennsylvania count. Liberals had whipped up fear of a fascist coup to excite themselves and morally blackmail the anti-Biden left. But even to their most deluded believers, Trump’s tweets, court cases and press conferences were unmistakably the pathetic spin of a loser. Trump’s refusal to concede, and the slowness with which the media approached the final announcement, just gave Democrats more time to enjoy their happy ending.
So here we are, after a year of extraordinary social crisis in the US and a presidential campaign costing billions of dollars: despite all that powerful emotion, it doesn’t really matter.
No, it doesn’t matter that Joe Biden is president instead of Trump. Yes, people argued that, despite Biden's flaws, the oppressed needed a Democrat in power to carry out progressive legislation. And we’ve heard that argument before. During the 2008 primaries, Hillary Clinton argued that the earlier victories of the civil rights movement had depended on having a Democratic president—Lyndon Johnson. “That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it and actually got it accomplished”, Clinton claimed.
That position—that we needed Biden in the White House to carry out our program, while Trump might make a “serious authoritarian turn” unless the left spent their time “phonebanking, textbanking, doorknocking” for a Biden victory—was taken up around the US liberal left, who dangled the prospects of a Bernie Sanders cabinet appointment or “the most progressive agenda in our nation’s history” before the eyes of any leftist sceptics.
It’s a lie. America’s leading capitalists, and the strategists of US imperialism, didn’t unite behind Biden because they think he’s likely to come under pressure to implement a sweeping, transformative vision of equality. They backed him because they rightly think he’s more likely to make the US political system look a little more legitimate, and defend the interests of the ruling class more effectively.
That gamble is all the more likely to pay off if the US left and social movements are bamboozled into thinking Biden’s position in the White House will be decisive in determining whether anything good can happen for the next four years—or the four years after that.
In fact, a cursory glance at Biden’s policies shows that he is remarkably resistant to pressure from social movements. The revival of anti-racist struggle that swept the US in 2020 is one of the most profound and significant mass movements in capitalism's history. Yet Biden’s policy platform showed a steadfast refusal to take up its demands.
His “Biden Plan for Black America” consists mostly of handouts to businesses in the form of tax cuts and subsidies; it opens with an enormous list of pro-entrepreneur policies and mentions businesses 61 times, but mentions police only seven times—and that’s mostly to promise an extra $300 million in police funding. Unless we all missed a wave of protests throughout the US demanding more funding for cops and tax cuts for businesses, there’s scant evidence that Biden is any more inclined than Trump to adopt the demands of social movements.
That should surprise nobody. Black Lives Matter itself was not a movement against Trump; in many places it was a movement confronting the Democratic Party apparatus—the cops appointed and run by Democratic mayors and governors. That Democratic apparatus, a central pillar of the US ruling class and state, is what Biden represents. It’s already in power in the cities and states, and it hasn’t improved the lives of the oppressed.
Biden’s conservatism on climate and economic inequality is similarly remarkable, when you consider how much the political discourse has changed around those questions since Obama’s time. Biden’s candidacy really stood out for how firmly it signalled that it would not take up the growing demand for climate and economic justice. No doubt that’s helped the wealthy suburbanites and the capitalist elite to feel secure in placing their trust in Biden.
But that’s not a cause for despair. Democrats tell the fairy tale of Lyndon B. Johnson because the moral is that movements can’t win without a president who’s a good listener. But the civil rights movement didn’t win its victories by electing Johnson. It won concessions from the US establishment because the political institutions of the south, and the cities of the north, were being thrown into chaos by an unending movement that radicalised with every passing year.
The proof came in the following decade. The occupation and war in Vietnam, into which the US poured huge resources, was ended not under the liberal Johnson–he massively escalated the war–but under the reactionary hawk Richard Nixon, who had hoped to crush Vietnamese resistance and domestic opposition with an even more aggressive approach. It didn’t work. Nixon could not defeat social movements that opposed him to the bitter end: the domestic anti-war movement, the US soldiers who increasingly refused to fight and, most importantly of all, the Vietnamese people, who never surrendered in the face of years of imperialist terror. So the war effort collapsed.
That’s why it doesn’t matter, after all, that Republicans will keep their courts and maybe their Senate. Biden might use that as an excuse to appoint a right-wing cabinet and implement right-wing policy, but he was going to do that anyway.
What the Democrats’ weak showing in Congress will certainly mean is that leftists will be under pressure to fall in behind Biden and his gang of corporate Democrats again in two years, and two years after that—until we have Bidenites in both houses of Congress, in every governor’s mansion and up and down all the courts of the land.
But even if Biden had a Supreme Court full of Beto O’Rourkes, a cabinet of Elizabeth Warrens and a congress dominated by Pete Buttigiegs, it would mean only that the US government looked a little more like the government of Minneapolis, whose police murdered George Floyd in May of this year.
Would a “populist” Democrat have won? Maybe, but then they would only have been the liberal face of the same machine. And there’s no guarantee that a Sanders-style candidate would have done any better. Yes, for years, neoliberals argued that social-democratic policies could never appeal on a mass scale, and the last few years showed that that’s not true—but there’s no proof they are a universal election-winning formula either.
Sanders’ supporters are keen to believe that a more liberal policy platform would have won a bigger majority for Biden, but there seems to be a pretty huge electoral audience in the US for frenzied attacks on socialism and communism. And if the best selling point for your politics is that it could help Biden become the president, you’re just talking about how to prettify capitalism’s rulers, not how to fight against its injustices. “Leftists” shouldn’t pitch themselves as electoral strategists for the Democratic wing of US capitalism. We need to fight for changes that advance the interests of workers and the oppressed, regardless of whether they are electorally expedient.
Does the governmental stalemate matter? Not really. We already knew that there is a huge audience for Trump, cultivated over decades of right-wing political consensus and despair in a declining empire. Maybe they’ll win a majority in the elections to come, maybe not. Either way, the fact remains that in 2020, we saw evidence of something much more important: the explosive power of mass movements to inspire new visions of a just society, and force demands that were previously marginal, like defunding America’s militarised police, right into the centre of political consciousness. That’s true no matter how many people voted for Trump.
Those movements spread even into small towns, but they were most concentrated in the big cities, where the powerful, multiracial working class can march in their millions and strike against their Democratic and Republican bosses. That means they can decide the course of the future, regardless of who’s in power.
But it will take a defiance and radicalism that will inconvenience Biden and his Democratic Party; it might even excite some right-wing Republican voters enough for some GOP electoral gains. But movements can win against whoever’s in power, as long as they recognise their enemies for who they are.
If activists keep believing Biden and his Democrats are necessary allies, even if reluctant ones, or allow themselves to be blackmailed with the prospect of liberal court and cabinet appointments and the need to compromise to defeat the Republicans at all costs, then they’re guaranteed defeat.
The decades of the 1960s and 1970s showed us that mass, radical movements can defeat the institutional power of the US ruling class. The decades since then have showed us that when those movements fall into passivity, or come to think they can win only if they ensure that Democrats are in power, things go backwards and get worse.
Democrats were hoping for a big national repudiation of Trump. It didn’t materialise. Trumpism is here to stay—and so is the neoliberal imperialism that Biden represents. They’ll share power, nationally and locally, just as they have been doing for years.
Biden’s election isn’t a victory for progressive movements, and Trump’s strong showing isn’t a cause for despair. We already knew that capitalism cultivated hatred, stupidity and ignorance. We already knew that it presented Biden-style imperialists and servants of big business as enlightened thinkers we’re lucky to have as our rulers. That’s why, if the left start by trying to figure out how to construct an electoral majority in a society dominated by the ideas of capitalism, they’ve lost before they’ve even begun to fight. We don’t need to win an election to change the world: our power is in the workplaces, where the labour of the oppressed produce the profits and the wealth that the system depends on, and in the streets of the cities where we’re gathered in our millions.