November 15, 2020

US Elections: A Relief and Challenges Ahead

R Arun Kumar

ELECTIONS to the United States of America had concluded and almost all the results are out (counting is still taking place and a re-counting ordered in Georgia). The elections results are conclusively called in favour of Joe Biden, the Democratic Party presidential candidate, who served as former vice-president during the Obama presidency. After nearly thirty years, an incumbent president was defeated in the US, but Donald Trump is refusing to concede. Despite the fact that Biden’s victory is officially not yet announced, the people of US celebrated the defeat of Trump by coming out in large numbers on to the streets and organising improptu street parties, underscoring how vexed they were with the Trump administration.

An estimated 160 million people voted in this election, a level not seen since the election in 1900. On the basis of popular vote (still counting), the defeat of Donald Trump is quite decisive – Biden got 77,237,227 votes (50.80 per cent), while Trump secured 72,245,803 votes (47.51 per cent). Even when electoral college votes are compared, Biden (290) defeated Trump (217) by quite a margin.

Democrats expected that these elections held amidst the raging Covid-19 pandemic and Trump’s failures, would be a cakewalk for them. Opinion polls conducted by various agencies projected an easy win, a ‘blue wave’ for the Democratic Party, which would enable them to win even strong Republican states like Texas and Florida. Actual results proved all these predictions wrong. The Republicans could retain much of their support base and put a strong fight in many states. It is with great difficulty that Biden could win states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan.

Preliminary analysis of the results show that Trump was able to retain his base and to an extent increase his support. Significantly, The New York Times reported that “A larger percentage of every racial minority voted for Trump this year than in 2016. Among Blacks and Hispanics, this percentage grew among both men and women”. It further stated that in the past many elections, Republicans won only 3-4 per cent of vote from Black women, including in 2016, when Trump had won the election. But this year, nearly 8 per cent of Black women voted for Trump. 13 per cent Black men voted for Trump in 2016 and in 2020, 18 per cent voted. Surprisingly, “The percentage of LGBT people voting for Trump doubled from 2016, moving from 14 per cent to 28 per cent”. And another significant feature that flabbergasted many is a study which found out: “support for President Trump increased in 2020 in many of the US counties that lost lives at the highest rate to COVID-19….Of the 100 counties with the highest COVID-19 death rates per capita, 68 had a higher proportion of votes cast for Trump this cycle than they did in 2016”.

One of the important factors that contributed to Trump’s good showing, in spite of so many debilitating factors, is the economy. Trump has a very bad record on the working class front. He is an avowed anti-working class president who had appointed ‘hard-core union busters to the National Labour Relations Board’; ‘unemployment rate is more than double what it was a year ago’, ‘one million Americans a week are applying for jobless aid’ and Trump has the worst job-creation record of any president going back to Second World War.

In these elections, around 20 per cent people identified economy as their important concern. For dealing with economy, half of the people saw Trump as a more effective, while another 43 per cent favoured Biden. 81 per cent who listed economy as their top priority voted for Trump. There are two primary reasons for this – one, on the eve of campaigning and elections, the US economy started to show small signs of growth and started adding jobs, reducing the number of unemployed, however little those numbers might be. This had an illusionary impact on the people and made them optimistic. Moreover, the $1,200 cheque handouts given by the US administration a few months ago and the ‘$600-a-week temporary boost to unemployment-insurance benefits’, part of the US stimulus package, acted as a buffer to incomes of the average American.

The second reason is the failure of the Democrats to run the election on an alternate economic agenda. In fact, the Democrats’ economic messaging to the people was very weak and vague. Biden was an out and out candidate of the US corporates, who brought him out to ward off the threat of Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic Party presidential primary. Biden during his meeting with corporate donors assured them that ‘nothing would fundamentally change’ under his leadership. Biden repeatedly distanced himself from the progressive policies of Sanders and underlined the differences, particularly on the economic front. Though projected as an electoral tactic, this was more in line with Biden’s class character and matches his record in public office, both as a long time serving senator and former vice president.

It is true that Biden/Harris campaign website contained certain promises to address the concerns of the working class and the poorer sections in the society like making community colleges free, creating a public health insurance option for people to choose and allowing workers to unionise and strengthen their bargaining power. All these positive declarations found a place due to the societal acceptance of such ideas championed by the democratic socialists. But the truth is, Biden was never serious about this agenda, nor did he even try to show that he was serious. He pleasingly accepted donations from private medical insurance companies and did not listen to the appeals to refuse such donations. He publicly stated that as a president he would veto the proposal to provide Medicaid for All. This, in spite of the fact that 71 per cent of the Americans support a public health insurance option. Biden was all for the Affordable Care Act, even though 52 per cent of the people said they are opposed to the act in the present condition as it is benefiting private insurance firms more than the people it was intended for. Even on environmental questions and oil industry, he did not take a clear stand.

In the name of treading a centrist path, Biden failed to seize on the momentum created by the progressives. He tried to woo the progressives without wanting to cut his ties with the corporates. In the name of being at the centre, he had roped in many former Republicans to aid his campaign. Election results show that this failed to yield any substantial gains to Biden. In Ohio, where the former Republican governor Kasich campaigned for Biden and was even given a prime spot to speak in the Democratic Party Convention, the state went with Trump. Similarly, Trump’s support among the Republicans in this election increased by two percentage points, compared to that of the previous election. The pro-capitalist class interests of the Republicans and the Democrats made this alliance possible. People who are fed up with the Democrats who pursue the same economic policies as the Republicans were not convinced and refused to vote for Biden on the merits of his economic agenda.

Majority of the people voted for Biden in order to defeat Trump. They were fed up with his racist, misogynist, Islamophobic, divisive agenda. Though Trump was perceived to be better at economic management, people were still reeling under the effects of the economic crisis (in spite of all the stimulus packages).

The corporate media is trying to credit Biden’s ability to win votes across the party divide, or his centrist positions to the victory. Electoral data shows that Democrats in swing districts lost vote share as they moved further to the right. The fact that Democrats made a turnaround in Georgia and pushed the two senate races in that state to the run-off is due to the progressive positions they had adopted in their campaign, particularly on the issue of health care. While the corporate media and high ranking Democratic Party leaders are trying to blame the progressives for the failure to win a landslide victory, the contrary is true.

Countering these lies being pedaled, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said: “Every single swing seat member that co-sponsored Medicare for All won their re-election, and so the conversation is a little bit deeper than saying anything progressive is toxic”. She tersely reminded the Democratic Party leadership that their original base (working class and their unions) are not the enemy and the “Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy”. Indeed it is the grassroots activism by these forces that mobilised large number of voters in crucial cities like Philadelphia, Georgia and Detroit, which helped Biden win the states where these cities are.

Even in states Trump had won, many progressive initiatives that were placed for voters’ consideration as in a referendum, secured a positive vote. For example, in Florida, which Trump had won with overwhelming majority, the people voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Similarly taxes on the rich to fund public schools (in Indiana, Arizona, Wisconsin), rent controls (Colorado), again part of the progressive agenda, won voters approval. Out of the 29 candidates and 11 ballot initiatives that the Democratic Socialists of America had campaigned for, 20 candidates and eight ballot proposals emerged victorious. Many progressive candidates were elected to state legislative houses, city councils and as district attorneys. These victories made Los Angeles Times exclaim, if this “progressive political shakeup,” is “just the beginning?”

Lenin, writing on the US elections in 1912, stated that the struggle between the two parties is over the question how best to ‘expedite and facilitate’ capitalist development. This is particularly true during these times of intense economic crisis confronting the capitalist system. They are trying to ‘save capitalism by means of bourgeois reforms’. Neither of the two parties can address the real concerns of the people – employment, economy, health care, inequities, racial discrimination, etc. Instead, Biden wants to ensure a ‘return to normalcy’. But as Washington Post had noted: “a return to ‘normalcy’ is simply a circuitous route back to Trumpism”.

Reading these election results, many commentators have pointed out that though Trump was defeated, Trumpism is alive. Feeding on the economic distress, Trump fired up many ultra-rightist, white supremacist groups like QAnon, Proud Boys and other right-wing militia movements. The lack of a radical political alternative based on robust pro-poor, progressive, economic policies, is ensuring that the ground remains fertile for the growth of such right-wing groups.

Trump’s defeat is certainly a moment to be cherished and celebrated. But it is not a time to rest. Paraphrasing Biden’s biblical quote, it is a time to intensify grassroots activism, propagate the ideas of socialism that are gaining traction by organising the working class and its party to lead the struggles for a radical alternative.