Even if Biden wins, the world will pay the price for the Democrats' failures
How could the electoral circumstances for the US Democrats have been more favourable? A quarter of a million Americans have died in a pandemic bungled by the incumbent president, and at least 6 million have consequently been driven into poverty. The coronavirus crisis is the devastating climax of a presidency defined by hundreds of scandals, many of which alone, in normal circumstances, could have destroyed the political career of whoever occupied the White House.
Despite having the active support of almost the entire US press, Joe Biden’s victory looks to be far narrower than predicted. During the Democratic primaries, Biden’s cheerleaders argued that his socialist challenger Bernie Sanders would repel Florida’s voters, and yet Donald Trump has triumphed in the sunshine state. They argued that his“unelectable” rival would risk the Senate and down-ballot races, yet the Republicans may retain control ofthe Senate, and Democrats are haemorrhaging seats in the House of Representatives.
Without coronavirus, Trump would have undoubtedly secured another term and potentially dismantled an already flawed US democracy for a generation or more. This should have been a landslide, and now the world will pay the cost for the self-inflicted wounds of the Democratic establishment. Trump may be defeated; Trumpism lives on.
While attention should now focus on resisting attempts by Trump and his allies to steal the election, the Democratic establishment must also understand why this entirely avoidable farce came to pass. As their phones lit up four years ago with notifications that he had become the 45th president of the American republic, Trump was, to self-styled Democratic “moderates”, a sudden hurricane that materialised under clear blue skies: an aberration; a glitch; a perverse accident to be undone so normality and civility could be restored.
Many Democrats comforted themselves with the notion they had nothing to answer for: they had simply been cheated, Russia was to blame, and Hillary Clinton – whose hubristic campaign had initially wanted Trump as its preferred Republican nominee – had been tragically wronged. Rather than offering an inspiring alternative, Biden would bask in the reflected glory of Barack Obama, present himself as the “grownup” in the room, and focus on flipping erstwhile Trump voters on the grounds of competence alone. Striking, then, that not only did Trump win more votes than 2016, but 93% of Republicans opted for him this time around, up three points from that fateful election.
Ample criticisms can be made of Biden’s candidacy, which limited its political horizons in deference to the Democrats’ corporate client base, when even Fox News exit polls showed that most Americans favoured a government-run healthcare plan. Democrats have taken Latino and black Americans for granted, an oversight that Trump ably exploited, winning (albeit from low numbers) increased support among both groups.But the roots of this failure go back decades. The Democratic establishment has long refused to embrace even the basic tenets of social democracy – not least taxing the better-off to fund programmes such as a comprehensive welfare state and universal healthcare.
The political consequences of this failure have been devastating. In the 1960s, the Democratic president Lyndon B Johnson launched a series of “great society” programmes to tackle poverty. Yet while the tax burden of the average American family nearly doubled between the mid-1950s and 1980, taxes on corporate America have been successively slashed. Here was a resentment to be tapped into: that hard-working Americans, rather than the boss class, were subsidising the “undeserving” poor.
This fury became racialised as the struggle of black Americans – which was met with harsh white backlash – forced the federal government to introduce basic civil rights. When Ronald Reagan furiously denounced “welfare queens”, many blue-collar workers heard a dog whistle targeting often single black mothers, who their hard-earned tax dollars were supposedly subsidising. When Bill Clinton’s administration backed trade agreements that devastated industrial jobs in the rust belt, here was another grievance waiting to be mined. And it was, by the most unlikely figurehead, the former host of the Apprentice. Trumpism has exploited racism, and fury at economic grievances, successfully welding both forces together.
In the aftermath of the financial crash, Obama’s presidential campaign appeared to offer a break with the failures of successive Republican and Democratic administrations. But while he rescued the banks and let financial executives off the hook for their role in the 2008 crash, wages for millions of Americans stagnated or declined. While the slice of national income belonging to middle Americans fell from 62% to 43% between 1970 and 2018, the number of billionaires has surged: from 66 in 1990 with a combined wealth of $240bn, to 614 today, with a total fortune of nearly $3tn. America is now a society in which one in every 11 black adult is either in prison, or on parole or probation – racial injustices that Black Lives Matter has urgently underlined.
The Democratic establishment has proved itself politically bankrupt and unable to meet these challenges. The party lost against Trump in 2016, and has at best scraped a stillborn administration this time around. We will all pick up the tab for this failure. Although Biden committed to signing the world’s biggest polluter back up to the Paris climate accords, a failure to win the Senate will block a Green New Deal that is desperately needed to tackle the existential threat of the climate emergency. The world cannot afford another four years of inaction. With Biden’s likely presidency held hostage by a potentially hostile Senate and supreme court, the Republicans will be able to further gerrymander an already fatally compromised democratic system and, come mid-terms, tap into people’s disillusionment with an inevitably do-nothing government.
That does not mean there is no hope. The so-called Squad of progressive Congressional Democrats – whose most famous member is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – has doubled in number, including the election of former nurse Cori Bush in Missouri and the first queer black Congressman, Mondaire Jones, in New York. The old Democratic establishment has failed to inflict the final reckoning on Trumpism that is deserved. It falls to this new generation of progressive leaders – predominantly working-class people of colour – to finish the job, not just for the United States, but for all of us.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist