United States: Socialist strategy and the Biden debate
By Max Elbaum
September 17, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Organizing Upgrade — The COVID-19 pandemic and the uprising to defend Black lives have cast a spotlight on a level of deep-rooted inequality, ruling class degeneration, and public-health-be-damned behavior that makes the U.S. unique even among capitalist countries. My next column will examine the sources of these pathologies in a nation founded on racial slavery and genocide that has now entered the stage of its imperial decline.
But first I want to join a debate that was riveting parts of the left before COVID-19 hit and George Floyd was murdered. Partly because important lessons from the early forms it took are in danger of being lost; and partly because the discussion is still raging, and the stakes are high:
Should anti-capitalists urge a vote for Joe Biden to defeat Donald Trump in November 2020 or not?
Central polarization shaping the moment
Engaging this question head-on can do more than clarify the next five months’ action priorities, important as those are. It can illuminate issues of political strategy that go deeper than the tired “same debate every four years” ritual. And focusing on strategic questions is the best antidote to the tendencies toward call-out personal attacks, sectarian point-scoring, and general hectoring that sap morale and alienate potential allies.
Cutting to the strategic heart of the Biden debate means looking at these questions:
What does living in the era of neoliberal capitalism tell us – and not tell us – about the alignment of social forces in the U.S today? What is the central polarization – the main axis of struggle – around which the biggest current battles revolve?
How does white supremacy interweave with capitalist exploitation to shape that polarization?
What is the relationship of battles for democratic rights to the fight for working class power?
How does a left that is just beginning to climb out of the margins go from weak to strong, especially given the unique U.S. winner-take-all, two-party system?
The central polarization in the country today is between a Trumpist bloc driving toward authoritarian rule vs. a majority opposition that, for all the vacillations and differences within it, is defending the democratic space that movements for justice, peace and radical change require to advance. Race and racism lie at the heart of this polarization.In addressing these questions, this longer-than-usual column will present arguments for the following proposition:
This has been the case ever since Trump was elected. But the administration’s response to the pandemic and the uprising has made it even clearer. The 2020 election will determine which force will hold governing power: a reactionary bloc anchored in white supremacy or an administration that can be influenced by a progressive current powered by the fight for racial justice.
A crucial way to maximize chances of the latter prevailing, as well as to build the strength and influence of the left itself, is for us to become an independent yet resolute force engaging this electoral battle. Our goal should be turning out the largest possible working class and people of color vote for Biden with the message that removing white nationalism from political power is an indispensable step in the long- term battle for transformative change.
Differences obscured during Bernie's campaign
Differences over the strategic questions posed above are longstanding on the left. But they exploded with tremendous intensity immediately after Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign.
This was mainly because key strategic differences were obscured and largely unacknowledged while Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns were in full swing.
Bernie’s was the larger and more sustained effort. Most Bernie supporters backed his candidacy because they were enthusiastic about the programs he advocated and his “not me, us” approach.
But for socialists who backed Bernie, there was an additional factor. Bernie’s effort was seen as providing a vehicle for building a durable working-class movement against capitalism. What was not faced squarely was that on the level of socialist strategy, Bernie was sending two different – in fact, contradictory – signals.
One suggested his was a campaign against the billionaire class as a whole, and that the establishments of both parties were equally beholden to the 1%. While Bernie contended for the Democratic Party nomination, he was an “independent” and self-identified democratic socialist, so this could be interpreted as a strictly tactical and temporary choice. This signal implied that the main axis of U.S. struggle was workers vs. capital, and it led some to view Bernie’s campaign constituted a direct steppingstone to building a non-Democratic Party force that would unify workers and wage class struggle against the entire neoliberal ruling class.
But a different signal was sent by Bernie consistently calling Trump “the most dangerous President in modern American history” and stating from day one that he would support whomever won the Democratic nomination. Bernie and Bernie-connected groups like Our Revolution worked to build their independent clout, but also fought to maximize progressive strength within the structures of the Democratic Party. This approach signaled that the campaign regarded the main polarization in the country as the ultra-reactionary bloc behind Trump vs. a broad front in defense of democratic rights, within which the Bernie movement would set a working-class pole. The 2020 Democratic Party was the electoral vehicle for that anti-Trumpist front, and Bernie would maintain a unity-and-struggle relationship with all other political trends within it.
When Bernie’s campaign was growing, socialists largely ignored this important difference. Occasional conflicts did take place, for example the debate over how to relate to those radicals who believed Elizabeth Warren was more attuned to issues of racial and gender justice than Bernie, and/or that she had the best chance of uniting the anti-Trump front under a progressive banner. Bernie-backing socialists whose priority was defeating Trumpism advocated close cooperation with Warren supporters. But the other wing of socialist Bernie proponents were critical if not outright hostile. This produced a sharp debate that receded only because Warren’s campaign stalled and Bernie’s surged in February.
Then, right on the heels of Bernie’s Nevada-fueled surge, the South Carolina, Super Tuesday, and Michigan primary results knocked him out of the running. A few weeks later Bernie suspended his campaign, endorsed Biden, and announced he and the former Vice-President would set up a number of task forces to institutionalize a working relationship that would extend through the general election campaign into a Biden administration.
These steps – and then the task forces coming into being – were unmistakable signs that Bernie’s strategy was to fight for the influence of working-class-oriented programs within a cross-class anti-Trump front.
With the end of Bernie’s campaign and no more ambiguity about his stance, the suppressed strategic differences on the left rocketed to the fore.
While facing many challenges, radical supporters of Sanders, Warren or neither whose strategy was to fight for left influence within an anti-Trump front had a clear path forward. Engage urgent COVID-19 battles and start gearing up for the general. Craft the specifics of an anti-Trump message. Scale up infrastructure so that further efforts build independent organizational clout rather than getting subsumed in the official Biden campaign. Support progressive and socialist down-ballot candidates. Plunge into the host of grassroots labor, tenant, criminal justice, immigrant rights and voting rights battles that are key to expanding progressive influence inside and outside the Democratic Party. And after the uprising focused on anti-Black racism took off, go all-in behind it and the pivotal role being played by the Movement for Black Lives.
The 'Never Biden' camp
For those who favor the Bernie movement transitioning into a purely working-class force fighting equally against both the GOP and Democratic Party establishments, the transition post-Bernie is tougher.
The course with the most logical and political consistency is to take immediate steps toward creation of a third party. But Bernie, most of the apparatus of his campaign, the Squad, and most Warren supporters – not to mention almost the entire labor movement and big majorities in communities of color – are signaling they will back Biden. It is hardly appealing to shift almost overnight from a surging movement of millions to a project weaker by several orders of magnitude.
Nevertheless, for most who believe that the central axis of struggle must remain worker-vs. capitalist and the left’s main task is to always promote a break with Democratic and Republican establishments, backing Biden, even without a formal endorsement, is a bridge too far. So the dominant voices in this camp are left with a mainly what not to do approach to the 2020 presidential contest: socialist organizations should not get behind Biden or call for collective action to defeat Trump. Instead they recommend supporting socialist candidates in down ballot races and working in non-electoral struggles that build workers’ power.
This “Never Biden” position (in the form of ‘Bernie or Bust’) was adopted by DSA at its 2019 Convention. As a result, the largest organization on the socialist left is without a positive national strategy for engaging in the 2020 contest. Rather than taking a course parallel to Bernie’s, as a national organization DSA has positioned itself on the margins of the central political fight of the year.
Given the big tent character of DSA and the wide range of views within it, what specific chapters and individual members will do varies widely. Those of us outside DSA need to respect the organization’s choice and recognize that most of what its members will do over the next five months will contribute positively to social change. But it is simply stating a fact that no revolutionary organization has ever grown into a powerful, much less dominant, force in any country without implementing a strategy that engages the main battle in nationwide politics, whether that fight is primarily electoral, mainly armed conflict, or anything in between.
Workers vs neo-liberal capitalists
These differences within U.S. radicalism do not stem from any difference in the depth of anyone’s commitment to social transformation. Rather they reflect opposing assessments of what constitutes the central axis of political polarization in the U.S, today and therefore the most appropriate socialist strategy.
There is consensus on the left that we are currently living under capitalism in its neoliberal form. For the “Never Biden” tendency, that translates into seeing the workers vs. neoliberal capitalist conflict as the central axis around which socialists need to draw not just ideological but immediate electoral and non-electoral action lines. Any view other than this is seen as diluting socialist principle.
For decades, most who held this view argued that it mandated staying 100% out of the Democratic Party. In the wake of the 2016 Sanders campaign, and especially in 2019-2020, a large cohort abandoned this position (to cries of betrayal by their former co-thinkers}. Those who shifted decided that because of the constraints of the two-party system, it was acceptable to contend for a place on the Democratic ballot line, but only if insurgent candidates ran as socialists. Backing non-socialists in primaries or general elections, or engagement in any structure affiliated with the Democratic Party, was still forbidden.
There is a logic to this view. And it has particular appeal to people radicalized since the 2008 financial crisis. That event and the resulting economic downturn turned a large proportion of educated youth into a debt-ridden, downwardly mobile cohort.
White supremacy at the pivot
Appealing as it is, however, this perspective mis-assesses the lineup of forces in the country’s current polarization.
The left might wish for (and work toward making) the central dividing line in U.S. politics between a multi-racial, intergenerational and all-round inclusive working class vs. an alignment of big capital, chunks of the middle class and a small layer of ideologically corrupted or outright bought workers. But that is not the reality today and it very rarely has been in the past.
Today’s which-side-are-you-on dividing line is between a racist authoritarian bloc led by Donald Trump vs. a larger but much more heterogeneous array of forces that, from different angles, regard Trumpism as a dire threat to their rights and interests.
Both the Trump and anti-Trump camps are multi-class alliances. Both contain advocates of neoliberal economics. The conflict between them is nonetheless quite sharp. The dividing line is the system of white supremacy. This racist material relation is not an “add-on” that piles oppression on top of exploitation for certain groups of workers. Rather, it is integral to and interwoven with relations of exploitation in ways that have decisively shaped political conflict in the U.S. since its origins in 1619.
Trumpism rose to power in the wake of a 50-year backlash against the gains made by 1960s movements, the overthrow of legal Jim Crow and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act most of all. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and then Reagan’s dog-whistle racism laid the groundwork for the openly racist “birther” campaign that transformed Trump from a reality-TV host into a formidable presidential candidate. Since 2016 Trump has gained complete control of the Republican Party. Former top GOP strategist Avik Roy put it concisely: the GOP is a party whose center of gravity is white nationalism. Anti-feminism and homophobia are incorporated into this toxic brew, and all who are not on board have been purged or cowed into acquiescence.
In a mirror image of the way the Black-led Civil Rights struggle expanded democratic rights and yielded economic gains for all workers and oppressed constituencies, racism lay at the cutting edge of the neoliberal era’s assault on the working class as a whole. It lies at Trumpism’s core, and has driven us to this moment when racial polarization, urban-rural polarization, partisan political and even basic information-source divisions now thoroughly overlap.
The differential impact of COVID-19 across the color line and the uprising to defend Black lives have both intensified this central polarization and underscored the way racism stands at its pivot. The country is now more sharply polarized than it has been since the Civil War.
This is the reason why Trumpism, which attacks the living standards and political strength of the U.S. working class, has been able to glue large numbers of white workers to its key social base in the capitalist class and middle strata. It is why the vast majority of people of color and other democratic minded people of all classes are arrayed against Trump. All workers have suffered intensified hardships since the 2008 financial crisis, but there is a deep racial chasm in the working class’ political response.
Drive towards authoritarian rule
Going hand-in-hand with the Trumpism’s deployment of “strategic racism” is its drive toward authoritarian rule.
While Trump’s unhinged egomania contributes to this malady, authoritarianism’s main driver is the corporate core of Trumpism – the fossil fuel industry, military industrial complex, and a cohort of right-wing billionaires. These heavyweights calculate that they need to dispense with the previous norms of U.S. democracy to advance their agenda.
Their calculation is based mainly on two things:
The first is demographic change: the steadily rising proportion of people of color in the U.S. means expansion of the population that is most resistant to their increase-poverty-and-inequality program.
The second is the stagnation of the neoliberal model, which since 2008 has lost its capacity to even minimally share the fruits of economic growth and requires ever-harsher austerity for workers and the middle classes to keep going at all.
Faced with a rising proportion of people of color, a downwardly mobile young generation that is turning left, and increasing resistance to climate change denialism, top GOP leaders including Trump himself are on record stating they want to prevent a one person, one vote society.
The results include intensifying voter suppression, stacking the federal judiciary, purging all but Trump loyalists from all decision-making positions in the federal bureaucracy, and cultivating ties with openly fascist militias.
In response to COVID-19, heightened attacks on science and basic facts have been added to Trumpism’s racist (“China virus”) playbook. In response to the massive protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, Trumpists call for “dominating the battlespace” and the President tweets that Black Lives Matter is a “symbol of hate” and threatens mass murder (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts“).
These steps have gone past the rules-of-the-game that had been accepted by Republicans and Democrats since McCarthyism ended. Even the mild concessions to communities of color that the Democratic Party-wing of capital was willing to make are seen as a prelude “to pull down our whole culture: the American founding, western civilization and everything that sprang from it.” In the last few weeks Trump has gone all-in to defend-the-heritage-of-the-Confederacy mode, bringing to mind W.E.B. Du Bois’ observations about the parallels between the “white supremacism” of Jim Crow America and fascism.
Intra-ruling class conflict
Trump’s escalations have produced a leap in intensity of intra-ruling class conflict. Previous “norms” served the U.S. ruling class well, especially facilitating their capacity to project “soft power” globally. No surprise that many in the elite see dispensing with them as a huge mistake. Similarly, important wings of capital think climate change and COVID-19 are real, science is important, and conspiracy theories are destabilizing and dangerous.
Plus being the target of “lock ’em up’ threats while Trump takes personal control of the Justice Department raises the stakes.
So, for a mix of reasons that include personal survival and partisan advantage as well as a certain conception of their class interest, a wing of the ruling class is opposed to Trump assuming “total authority.” They call for a return to a “reality based” politics where facts and science matter, and press for an end to gerrymandering and for voting rights protection.
These are not “bourgeois” issues irrelevant to socialists. Preservation and expansion of democratic space is crucial if the working class and all those damaged by capitalism are to have the most favorable conditions to organize for power.
This crucial point is obscured, and the danger of Trumpism is badly under-estimated, by a framework that minimizes the differences between the Trump and corporate Democrat camps because both can be said to espouse versions of neoliberalism.
Pulled into the vortex
The intensity of the Trump/GOP vs. anti-Trump polarization pulls everything into its vortex. Issues from climate change to public health, where opinion once was spread across party lines, have become thoroughly partisan. Even amid a pandemic that thrusts the need for science-based government action center-stage, the GOP base is sticking with an administration that is spreading conspiracy theories, doubling down on privatization, repealing environmental regulations, and giving employers immunity to jeopardize the health of their employees,
Democratic opinion has shifted in the other direction. Polling shows a markedly leftward shift among Democratic voters on issues related to anti-Blackness and immigration, especially since the Black Lives Matter uprising. Support for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal has skyrocketed.
Even on issues where resistance to change is strongest, a shift is underway. On foreign policy (long the holy of holies for bipartisan cooperation) there is now a body of stalwart antiwar congresspeople with stable popular support. On perhaps the toughest issue of all – the Party’s lockstep support for Israel – there is progress, with Israel’s apologists expressing horror that the issue is “becoming politicized” as backing for Palestinian rights grows steadily in the Democratic base.
Responses to the pandemic have likewise bent to the gravitational force of the Trump-anti-Trump dynamic. Stances toward “reopening”; toward who is responsible for the staggering health and economic toll; toward mask-wearing or even whether the pandemic is a serious problem at all, fall along partisan lines.
The immense force of the country’s central polarization also explains why
Biden beat Bernie and Warren so decisively in the primaries. The left was outgunned in this fight. We did not yet have the base or infrastructure to prevail. But it was the “electability” factor that accounts for the scale of Biden’s win. Many on the left regarded “electability” as a red herring deployed by the corporate media to block the left. The anti-left “commentariat” did play it up, but it resonated deeply with many voters, including in constituencies that would benefit far more from Bernie’s program than Biden’s.
Why? Because these voters saw the central task in 2020 as getting Trump out of power. They wanted to see the broadest possible front arrayed against him in November. We may not agree that Biden, rather than Bernie or Warren, is the best candidate around which to build such a front. But voters’ who saw Biden as most likely to succeed cannot simply be dismissed by a left that aims for majority support.
Implications for left strategy
Grasping the centrality of the Trump anti-Trump polarization, and the fact that white supremacy is at its pivot, is the key to accurately assessing the moment and the left’s key tasks:
- We are in a “democratic moment” that can open the door to deep-going change. In immediate practical terms, the issue facing the U.S. in this election and all the battles swirling around it is how much democratic space we will have in 2021 and after. Preserving maximum democratic space is important in itself. In addition, the pandemic and uprising have all but closed off the possibility of returning to the “old normal” and there is a new level of mass support for far-reaching change which includes a surge of support for socialism. This combination has already forced Biden to shift his mantra from “return to normalcy” to promising “sweeping economic change” and means there is a huge opportunity for social movements to take advantage of wider democratic space to press for structural change and win important victories.
- Throwing ourselves into the anti-Trump coalition is the best route for both ousting Trump and building the strength of progressive movements and the socialist left. This course propels us to broad interaction with working class and people of color constituencies, enabling us to learn more about their thinking and to expand our ranks. It is a path to building closer alliances with the range of labor, racial justice, climate justice, gender justice, immigrant rights, LGBTQ, tenant rights, public health and other organizations that will be going all out to beat Trump in November. And it gives us a chance to significantly reduce the number of Bernie supporters who do not vote for Biden (an alarming 25% in 2016).
(There are leftists who acknowledge that the central axis of battle in the country is Trump-anti-Trump, or at least that everyone would be far better off if Trump is defeated, but argue that socialists should still abstain from the electoral battle against Trump. Rather, we should focus on other battles to build up left power. That kind of orientation might be practical in the short term for a small organization. But on the level of strategy it substitutes the voluntarist notion that the left can set the agenda and timetable for mass struggle for a materialist perspective that recognizes that underlying trends and political forces far more powerful than ourselves set the conditions that we must deal with. In doing so it fosters a stronghold, “if you build it, they will come” approach to politics that would consign the left to the margins as the struggles of millions pass us by.)
- Build the independent strength of left and socialist organizations in the course of the election campaign – Our Revolution, Working Families Party, state-based power-building organizations, organizations in the Left Inside-Outside project, sections of DSA that participate in the anti-Trump front. This task means more than persuading and turning out voters. It means being part of campaigns against voter suppression between now and the election, taking part in voter protection efforts on election day, and making specific preparations for mass action to defend the election results in case Trump loses but refuses to accept the result. It also means participating in a mix of down-ballot races and non-electoral actions essential to defending the health, rights and economic interests of workers and all who are vulnerable – an especially urgent task right now with infections soaring and the benefits that have been keeping millions afloat about to run out.
Each specific organization has limited resources and is positioned in different locations and sectors. Choices must be made about specific action priorities. Within a common strategy there will be different tactical approaches.
'Beat Trump' or 'Never Biden'
I will close with a contrast between the messages the “Beat Trump” and “Never Biden” strategies each send to one of the constituencies most important for the left to be rooted in if we are to become a powerful driver of transformative change.
The majority of African Americans in the U.S. live in the South (the 11 states of the former Confederacy plus Oklahoma, Kentucky, Maryland, West Virginia, and Delaware.) This is the sector of the U.S. population that has the strongest collective memory of both Jim Crow and the bitter and bloody struggle of the Civil Rights Movement to overthrow it. The shadow of that history, of lynching and racist violence by state authorities and non-state actors, hangs heavy over the region as a seemingly constant stream of murders from Trayvon Martin to Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor keeps reminding us. State governments in the South are among the most pro-military, anti-union, and anti-reproductive rights in the country.
There are notable differences in political outlook along generational and other lines in this sector: like other communities African Americans in the South are far from monolithic. But unity in defense of the gains made in the 1960s remains a powerful factor. Further, state-level campaigns like Stacy Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida in 2018, Charles Booker in Kentucky in 2020, as well as numerous local contests, have not only energized almost all sectors of the community, but positioned it as the anchor of a growing multi-racial alignment.
In the wake of Trump’s criminal and racist response to both the pandemic and uprising, it is possible that Georgia and Texas may become battleground states; prospects to beat Trump in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida have improved; and new possibilities for gains in down-ballot races have opened up in in every southern state. Southern activists, especially southern Black activists, have increased the volume on the longstanding call for both the Democratic Party and the progressive eco-system to wake up to the importance of the South and devote real resources to bolstering organizations rooted there. There is every indication that African Americans in the South will be in the forefront of the efforts to build a multi-racial electoral coalition to beat Trump in November and make sure that every vote is protected and counted.
Leaving aside for a moment how it will affect vote tallies on November 3, which of the following messages is likely to build the strength of the socialist movement in this crucial constituency?
*”We will throw our organization strength into the electoral battle to defeat Trump and prevent a return to Jim Crow, and push from there for this country to become a genuine multi-racial democracy under the leadership of the working class.”
*There is not enough difference between the contenders for the presidency to make it worth our while to take part in electoral fight to beat Trump. Instead, we will focus on building our own strength on our own timetable and engage in presidential politics when we decide there is a socialist candidate more deserving of our time and energy.”
Those who send the second message may build a force which defends radical ideas and contributes to important fights.
But the left forces whose strategy translates into sending the first message have much better prospects to grow their ranks and expand their influence, power and coalition relationships.
Beyond that, they will be dealing a blow to the ‘permanent opposition’ mentality that has so often stunted the vision of U.S. radicals – embracing instead the revolutionary idea that our goal is to be part of, and then ultimately lead, a coalition that governs and transforms the whole country.