As of the time of this writing, Joe Biden has a lead in enough states that, if present trends hold, he will narrowly win the presidency. This would be a huge relief, because Donald Trump is a monstrosity and four more years of his authoritarian leadership would be an utter disaster for workers, immigrants, and the climate. I would be hugely relieved if Joe Biden became president, not because I think his presidency will in any way be good but because it averts the worst possible catastrophe.
But even assuming Biden is sworn into office, Election Night 2020 was a rude awakening for Democrats, because many of them were hoping to see Donald Trump resoundingly repudiated by the electorate. This did not happen. Turnout massively increased in this election (a greater percentage of eligible voters turned out than in any election since 1900), but this was not because the public rose up in unison to defeat Donald Trump. In fact, millions who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 voted for him this time. Biden actually appears to have done far worse among certain constituencies than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Some heavily Hispanic parts of South Texas that broke overwhelmingly for Clinton split far more evenly between Biden and Trump. Trump managed to make inroads among voters of color that I am certain the Biden campaign never thought was possible.
The fact that this election is so close is a serious indictment of the Democratic Party leadership. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead from a pandemic that the Trump administration has handled with the grossest incompetence. My colleague Eli Massey sums things up accurately:
Even if Biden ends up squeaking out a victory, it’s a huge indictment of him, his campaign, and the politics that he represents that after [230,000] people died, the economy collapsed, and the last 4 years we’ve been led by a fascist game show host the election is this close.
If Joe Biden couldn’t thrash Trump under these circumstances, God only knows how he could have won if COVID-19 hadn’t happened. Trump has been an abysmal president. His approach to climate change threatens the lives of countless human beings. The case against him should be open-and-shut. Yet the Democratic Party lost to him once and has come close to doing it again. How?
I have already seen some Democrats on social media blaming the voters. Americans just must be more irredeemably stupid and racist than we thought. I do not think this attitude is correct or helpful. Why are the native Spanish speakers of Miami and South Texas less enthusiastic about Biden than they were about Hillary? Do we simply blame them for “not knowing their own self-interest”?
The answer to what is going on is not actually mysterious. The left has been saying it over and over ad nauseum: the Democrats have failed to offer a compelling alternative. Joe Biden has been an uninspiring corrupt corporate candidate. He’s been, incredibly, less politically competent than Hillary Clinton. He opposes policies that are hugely popular with voters. He’s been unable to generate enthusiasm—we rightly criticized Trump for holding giant rallies in the middle of a pandemic, but we also know Trump is right that Biden couldn’t hold giant rallies even if he was willing to pay people to come.
Democrats have taken voters of color for granted. We know this. My colleague Malaika Jabali, in “The Color of Economic Anxiety,” documented how Black voters in Wisconsin felt completely unseen and unheard by the Democratic Party. My colleague Briahna Joy Gray has spent the entire election cycle warning that Joe Biden was treating voters of color like they were obligated to vote for him. The Biden campaign’s outreach to Latino voters was infamously abysmal, sometimes not even rising to the level of being patronizing. It was just lazy and insulting, such as Biden pulling out his iPhone and playing the song “Despacito” for 15 seconds.
There were reports that his campaign didn’t even consider these voters “part of the path to victory” and there were warnings before the election that this was going to cause problems:
Biden’s primary campaign had a distant, if not “tense,” relationship with Latino voters as he not only neglected to reach out to them but never quite rectified “his connection to the Obama administration’s aggressive deportation policy,” Politico reports. Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee “in spite of, not because of” his Latino outreach, Politico writes, but more than 20 Latino political operatives say his luck may not hold in the general election.
Indeed, it did not hold, because it turns out you need more than luck. You also need hard work, and there was little sign throughout the campaign that Biden’s team was actually putting in the work necessary to resoundingly defeat Trump. The Biden campaign seemed to be coasting on a sense of self-assurance, convinced that Donald Trump couldn’t possibly be reelected. Some of us were horrified when we realized how little campaigning Biden was actually doing; there was a period where Trump’s campaign was knocking on a million doors a week and Biden’s was knocking on zero. The Biden campaign’s messaging was all over the place. He completely screwed up the first presidential debate, sounding weak and incoherent. As with Clinton, there was no clear set of things that Biden was telling voters he would actually do for them. I do not know if anyone could name Biden’s signature promises, beyond “not banning fracking,” “not passing the Green New Deal,” and “not wanting Medicare for All.” These points he hammered consistently.
Trump did not do well either in that first debate (both improved in the second debate) and it was notable how bad Trump’s own campaign was. His messaging was incoherent (was Joe Biden an Antifa-loving socialist or a corrupt Washington elite?) and he wasted giant piles of his campaign cash. He lost the powerful populist rhetoric that swept him into office in the first place, in favor of attacks on Biden’s ne’er-do-well son Hunter, a strange issue to choose for an electorate focused on the pandemic and the economy. Trump made serious missteps and often seemed desperate. Defeating him should have been a cakewalk.
It was truly shocking to see many Democrats learn absolutely nothing from 2016. I tend to be politically cynical, but to see none of the lessons learned was remarkable. The central points that I and others on the left have been emphasizing over and over since that election were:
- Donald Trump will not destroy himself. You cannot rely on his badness to be your main argument. Many people like Trump, as hard as this may be to believe.
- You have to be able to inspire people with a bold agenda and a clear message that gives them a reason to vote for you.
- Corporate Democrats are weak, corrupt, and not well-liked. We must have a populist Democratic Party that is willing to take on Wall Street and the insurance industry.
- The fact that you think Trump shouldn’t do well doesn’t mean he won’t do well. Polls can be deceptive. Do not count your chickens before they hatch. Complacency kills.
This last point should have been one of the absolutely central lessons from 2016, an election in which Trump outperformed his polls and shocked the nation. But, incredibly, the complacency of 2016 returned in 2020. I was rather shocked myself, because I thought we had all learned that polls can underestimate Trump’s support, since many Trump voters don’t like to admit they’re Trump voters (and some are QAnoners who probably think pollsters are part of the socialist globalist pedophile-cannibal ring). I spent months arguing with people who insisted that the polls had been “fixed” since 2016 and the same thing that happened once could not happen twice. I even heard this from leftists skeptical of Biden, and I suspect that there was a certain “wishful thinking” bias creeping in. Nobody on the left wanted to have to actually work to get Biden elected, because he was transparently awful, so there was an inclination not to question polls showing Biden with a comfortable lead.
The polls were not reliable, just as they were not reliable in 2016. Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report says they have “rarely led us more astray.” FiveThirtyEight’s final Florida average, for instance, put Biden ahead in the state by 2.5 points. As of right now, Trump is winning the state by 3.4 points. The site put Trump ahead in Texas by 1.1 according to the polls, but he’s winning right now by 6.1. In Ohio, Trump was ahead in the polls by 0.8, but he’s winning by 8 points. Though it appears Biden will win, polls actually led to predictions of a “Biden landslide,” and it’s obvious that this was not only a complete mirage, but hugely irresponsible to even discuss. When people falsely assumed Biden was this far ahead, they could wrongly assume that the Democrats had everything under control and all the average person needed to do was keep scrolling Twitter and checking to make sure everything was still in hand.
I have warned people before not to ever listen to polling pundit Nate Silver, and this election showed exactly why. He offered people the reassuring observation that for Trump to win would require a serious polling error of the kind unlikely to occur. Well, a serious polling error did occur, and though it may not have been quite enough to give Trump the win, it is obvious that these sorts of statements from people like Silver put the country at risk by downplaying the possibility of Trump seriously outperforming expectations. Silver, as I noted in my analysis, is always careful to hedge by saying that he’s only commenting on what is probable, but this actually shows why his work is extremely unhelpful. He predicts that anything could happen (even a big polling error), so that whatever happens, he can say “I predicted that.” Indeed, when I asked him if a Trump victory would mean his analysis was useless, he told me that it wouldn’t, because a Trump victory was one of the set of things he said could happen. This means that he has carefully made sure he never issues a “falsifiable” prediction. But it also means that taking his probabilities as meaningful commentaries on reality is very, very dangerous. The best approach to an election you want to win is to assume you’re likely to lose and do whatever it would take to reverse that outcome.
Let’s be very clear: the Democratic Party screwed this election up massively. Trump actually did better than he did in 2016 in areas with high COVID-19 deaths. Union members in Ohio appear to have gone for Trump, and most of the people who saw the economy as the top issue voted for Trump, even though this should theoretically be the issue on which the Democratic Party is strongest.
Now, Democrats are not going to take the Senate. The candidate that the leadership hand-picked to run against Mitch McConnell (instead of progressive Charles Booker) got crushed. The massive amount that was spent to defeat Lindsey Graham went nowhere, predictably. The Democrats squandered money on pitifully unpersuasive messages in races that they should have been able to win. They failed to flip Republican target seats in the House and even lost important seats. Even though a popular progressive policy, the $15 minimum wage, attracted overwhelming support in Florida, the Democratic candidate did not.
The fact that there were many voters in Florida who voted for both Donald Trump and a $15 minimum wage should be a puzzle for the Democratic leadership. Why do they support a candidate who opposes the very thing they seem to support? Fox News recently published results of polls of voters confirming that large numbers support government-run healthcare, restrictions on gun rights, the preservation of abortion rights, and a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. How, then, could Donald Trump, a person who is doing exactly the opposite on all of these issues, come so close to winning reelection?
There is nothing surprising here, however, to anyone who has read, say, Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal, or Whatever Happened To The Party of The People, or who was paying attention to Michael Moore’s warning in 2016 that Trump would win. (Current Affairs also expressed its concern.) Current Affairs contributing cartoonist Matt Lubchansky puts it well when they say “if I were the opposition party candidate or candidates I would simply espouse policies with broad-based support that improve people’s material conditions in clear and accessible language.” That’s exactly what hasn’t happened, and heads need to roll in the party over this. Pelosi, Schumer, Tom Perez: these people need ousting. They have failed.
It makes me terribly sad to think about how differently this could have gone. We had a candidate, Bernie Sanders, who was uniquely well-positioned to counter Trump’s messaging. But as my colleague Luke Savage puts it, “Democratic elites expended more energy, conviction, and zeal to defeat Bernie Sanders, his movement, and Medicare For All than they did to defeat Donald Trump.” Sanders had a formidable organizing apparatus, an agenda designed to address ordinary working people’s basic material concerns, and even a proven effective Latino outreach strategy. I, and other writers for this magazine, have spent the past four years warning that not only are candidates like Biden going to tank the Democratic Party’s long-term electoral prospects, but the left has a strategy that can plausibly restore Democratic political fortunes. As Joe Biden (potentially) flounders and staggers across the finish line and centrist Democrats lost house seats, a reported 26 out of 30 nationally-endorsed Democratic Socialists of America candidates won their races. DSA candidates tend to win in unexpected places because they put in the work and have a message designed to appeal to a broad base of voters. (“If we win, you won’t have to worry about money when you need to go to the doctor” is an argument that people can be enthusiastic about making on the doorstep, as compared with “If we win, the parasitic private insurance industry will be preserved but we will make several important tweaks to Obamacare.”)
There is an argument made that the left cannot win because being called a “socialist” hurts Democratic candidates, with Joe Biden having been wounded by this attack. But I think that misunderstands the problem. Being called a socialist does hurt, if you acknowledge that being a socialist is bad and are put on the defensive about it. But every Democrat is hit with this attack, even if they are obviously not a socialist (which Biden clearly isn’t). The best approach is not to try to meekly insist that the socialist charge is a lie, but to lean into it, to say “What of it?” and to explain why the socialist agenda is reasonable and moderate. If you think that can’t be done, just have a look at Bernie talking to Trump voters or speaking at a Fox News town hall. He doesn’t run away from the label, he explains what it means to him, and then the audience ends up going “hm, that actually sounds pretty reasonable.” At the debates this cycle, Biden and Harris’ worst moments were when they defensively insisted that they did not support the job-killing Green New Deal. They would have done much better if they’d replied: of course I support the Green New Deal, because it creates jobs, and if you don’t understand that, you’re an idiot. Instead of asking me to disown the Green New Deal, why don’t we ask why the Republicans are content to let the planet burn? Democratic defensiveness makes it seem as if they’re shifty, and looks like an acknowledgment that Republicans are right that socialism and the Green New Deal are bad. Disowning socialism makes you look weak. Embracing it makes you look cool and tough.
I do not want to dwell too much in the counterfactual fantasy of a Bernie-Trump race, but it does need to be emphasized that Joe Biden’s failure to effectively fight Trump—a man whose closing argument to the country was a video of him dancing to the YMCA—shows the urgent need for something fresh, new, and real. No more pretending that candidates we all know are bad are actually secretly competent and have a plan. No more pretending that “I’ll cancel a certain amount of student debt for people who run a business for three years in a disadvantaged community” is a serious plan to deal with the student debt crisis. No more lofty words covering up detestable deeds. People can see through that crap, and they’re tired of it. There is no mandate for centrist politics in this country. No flood of Republicans is going to defect from Trump to support Biden if Biden just pledges his love of fracking enough times.
Assuming Biden staggers over the finish line, we have got to spend the next several years building a very different Democratic Party, in order to avoid some horrible neo-fascist like Tom Cotton or Dan Crenshaw taking the presidency in 2024. Biden will likely do very little, and will be relatively unpopular from the moment he takes office. The Republican senate will obstruct him, and he will use them as an excuse to avoid doing even the limited number of things we might reasonably have hoped for from him. It may be a sort of non-presidency, and that is alarming in some ways and advantageous in others. It is alarming because we urgently need action to be taken on climate change, and Biden is likely going to sit uselessly twiddling his thumbs, growing steadily more unpopular and reminding the country why they don’t like the Democratic Party. It is advantageous because it gives us a few years to try to build an authentic left alternative and fill the leadership vacuum.
These are going to be critical years for the left. We must build institutional power. We have to pressure the Biden administration in every way we can. We need to unionize as many workplaces as possible. Everyone who cares about the future of the country should be a dues-paying DSA member. Strong independent media organizations that can combat right-wing lies and present left arguments compellingly to a mass audience need to be built and buttressed. (Organizations like Jacobin and this magazine are doing our best to fill this need and could really use your support in these coming years.) We will not have much time: the 2020 map shows us that the Biden presidency is doomed if the right regroups, because even if Trump is voted out, “Trumpism” is alive and well and has mass appeal.
The Democratic Party establishment fundamentally does not know what it is doing. This was proved definitively in 2016. This year, what we have learned is that is not only incompetent, it is also unteachable. It will not get better, not even in response to this calamity. If it’s up to the people currently in charge of the party it’d be Harris/Buttigieg in 2024. Nothing will change unless we change it, which it is now our responsibility to do. A Biden presidency is a relief, but only a small one. It is also a burden, because it means that we must now act fast to totally change the party, before it is too late. There can be no relaxing and “going back to brunch.” Our work is cut out for us.
My book American Monstrosity: Donald Trump—How We Got Him and How To Stop Him goes into much more depth on how to create a viable alternative progressive politics that can bury Trumpism once and for all. It is available now from OR Books.
Photo credits: Joe Biden by Gage Skidmore via Flickr, Chuck Schumer by American Federation of Government Employees, Nancy Pelosi via Wikimedia Commons.