The political situation in the United States is one of intense polarisation, with traditional bourgeois politics shifting right amid sharp social upheaval from below. It is best illustrated by the juxtaposition of two political events: the recent presidential election and the earlier rebellion against anti-Black racism.
The backdrop to both events is the health crisis caused by the global pandemic. The US remains a hotspot for COVID-19, with 340,000 reported deaths—almost 20 percent of the global total, according to World Health Organization data. This morbid reality also underpins a serious economic crisis that is still unfolding.
This summer, we saw what some have estimated to be the largest social movement in US history, when the country erupted in roughly two months of sustained protest, riots and rebellion. In a few weeks beginning at the end of May, up to 26 million people participated. Despair at government ineptitude during the pandemic, which hit Black communities especially hard, combined with the daily experience of racism and police terror. The movement began in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in response to the murder of George Floyd. Mass protests rapidly spread nationwide.
This, the largest social explosion in at least 40 years, has had a profound effect on political consciousness, provoking widespread discussions about the need to defund bloated police budgets and debates about abolishing the police entirely. Police vehicles and stations in many cities were attacked and set on fire. Remarkably, half of Americans were in favour of these militant tactics in opinion polls. The uprising also became a focal point for a vast array of grievances against the system itself.
Through a combination of state repression, lack of organisation and savvy co-option by liberal forces, the scope of the uprising diminished after six weeks. But the rage against the police, and the confidence gained from and the legitimacy bestowed upon mass action, still resulted in minor rebellions which flared up locally over the following months. There were street battles against federal agents in Portland, Oregon; stand-offs between right-wing and Black militias in the streets of Kentucky after the murder of Breonna Taylor; weeks of riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the shooting of Jacob Black; days of riots in Chicago after the shooting of Latrell Allen; and an eruption in Philadelphia just weeks before the presidential election in response to the police murder of Walter Wallace Jr.
Juxtaposed to this social upheaval was the miserable affair of the presidential election. Despite the largest voter turnout in 120 years, a record death toll from COVID-19 and the still simmering rage from the anti-racist protests, Democratic candidate Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by only a microscopic margin. The results—again despite all that has transpired, not just this year after but after four years of the violent realities of the Trump presidency—were almost a mirror image of the 2016 presidential election, in which Trump was elected, despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots, only because of the bizarre Electoral College.
This is the contradictory moment that the US left needs to grapple with: that just a few short months after an intense nationwide rebellion against racism, more than 74 million people voted for a white supremacist. Trump received the largest vote of any losing candidate in US history. Yet just before the election, burning down a police station was more popular in opinion polls than either of the two candidates. These results on one hand point to the bankruptcy and lack of legitimacy of the political system. On the other hand, they point to an absence of any alternative on the level of traditional politics.
So, we have a president-elect, Joe Biden, who has signalled, with a cabinet stuffed full of corporate interests, the of neoliberalism. He has also indicated his intent to reposition the US “at the head of the table” in the global order—which means that we are entering a period of intensified imperial conflict. This will be stark in the case of China, Biden having positioned himself to the right of Trump during the election.
A Biden presidency will be just one part of a bipartisan attack on working-class living standards and will only temporarily paper over the crises and contradictions out of which recent social and political struggles emerged. However, there are political and organisational challenges. The US left faces a series of tremendous obstacles and sharp debates about how to overcome them.
The most salient organisational form of the process of radicalisation, which began after the 2008 economic crisis, is the growth of Democratic Socialists of America. The group has about 85,000 members, making it probably the largest socialist organisation, on paper, since the Socialist Party of America in the early twentieth century. The existence and size of the DSA is a positive step for the socialist movement because it gives an organisational form to a new socialist sentiment and posits a political alternative.
At the same time, the DSA is both incredibly bureaucratic and incredibly loose. Most national coordination and structures for initiative are tied up in top-down processes that make it incapable of intervening during moments of crisis (it being caught flat-footed by this summer’s rebellion is an illustration of this). At the same time, it is ideologically heterogeneous—a “broad tent” organisation.
Because of this looseness and the group’s size, it would be a political error to simply write off the DSA as a reformist organisation that can be worked around or leaped over in the process of building a revolutionary current or the nucleus of a new party or organisation.
While being ideologically heterogenous, a number of currents—formalised as political caucuses—are highly influential nationally. The dominant one has a highly electoralist perspective, and believes that winning elections on the Democratic Party ticket is the way to accumulate elected socialists either to transform the Democratic Party or to create the conditions for some sort of break from it at an undefined point in the future.
This electoralist focus produced an overestimation and overinvestment in Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, which some argued was “close to seizing power”. The state—in their approximation—could have been seized by electoral means and used to pass socialist reforms. This dramatically underplayed the class nature and undemocratic functioning of the Democratic Party and set the scene for a drift to supporting Biden.
While certain leading figures in the DSA backed Biden, it is important to note that almost the entire US left took this unfortunate position. This perspective continues to be expressed by an overly optimistic assumption that unions and social movements will be able to win gains such as a Green New Deal easily under Biden. This runs counter to everything that Biden has done—he represents a reassertion of the general drift of US party politics to the right, which was what produced the Trump election in the first place. This perspective also results in publications such as Jacobin offering advice to Biden rather than attacking sharply the illusions that he is anything but out class enemy.
This perspective was a contributor to the DSA’s near absence as an organised force in the summer Black Lives Matter rebellion. It also fuels and is connected to a position that downplay the strategic importance of highlighting struggles against oppression and suggests that only class-wide demands should be fought for. This completely misses the connection of class and race in the US. It is a political weakness and a debate of critical importance, because the movement against anti-Black racism addresses one of the principle divisions within the US working class, and has throughout our history been one of the catalysts for explosive broader liberatory struggles. Lastly, the movement against the police very quickly brings to light the undemocratic nature of the capitalist state.
The path of electoralism and a reformist approach to the capitalist state—if followed by this large, new generation of socialists—is one of disaster for the project of building a serious left that can build a combative and independent organisation capable of leading the class struggle beyond—and within—the electoral realm. How these debates play out will determine the future of our ability to build a socialist movement that can respond to, intervene in, and influence the explosive struggles that will undoubtedly continue.