The revelry in the streets when Donald Trump was finally declared the loser won’t dispel Democratic gloom at the 2020 election results. Even in victory, Democrats once more failed to assemble a governing coalition. Joe Biden, with over 75 million votes and counting, racked up the highest total vote of any presidential candidate in history, but Donald Trump captured the second-greatest total, over 71 million, despite running on a record of 230,000 dead from the pandemic, a collapsed economy, and unparalleled mendacity and incompetence. Democratic grand hopes for taking the Senate were reduced to the outcome of two Georgia runoff elections in early January. Rather than expanding their majority, House Democrats lost seats. And, most damaging, Democrats gained no ground in state legislative bodies, leaving Republicans in charge of designing five times as many congressional districts as Democrats after the new Census. With the exception of Biden’s razor-thin victory, Donald Trump’s Republican Party consolidated its minority power.
Recriminations began even as Trump continued to deny defeat. First-term Representative Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA analyst, blamed the left for losses in contested suburban House districts, because of talk about “socialism” and “defunding the police.” James Clyburn, the third-ranking member of the House, even cautioned against running on the increasingly popular proposal of “Medicare for all” or “socialized medicine.” Conor Lamb, who survived a tough race in a district northwest of Pittsburgh, bemoaned the attacks on fracking, arguing that the left needed message discipline.
Say what? Democrats chose Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, to lead the ticket. Biden essentially ran a sequel to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 race plus the pandemic. Once more the focus was on Trump’s character and incompetence, in contrast to Biden’s empathy and experience. Trump’s lethal bungling of the pandemic was proof positive. While Biden embraced what Sanders called the most progressive platform of any candidate in memory, it got little attention. He explicitly and repeatedly disavowed support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, embraced fracking, and mocked Trump’s zany charges of socialism, reminding voters that he was no Bernie. It is poisonously disingenuous to blame the left for reversals in an election campaign that explicitly rejected its message and strategy. If Democratic candidates in more contested districts actually found themselves losing votes to hyperbolic charges of socialism, they have only themselves to blame.
In fact, as The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel noted in The Washington Post, many planks of the left’s platform are more popular than the Democratic candidates. Florida voters passed the $15 minimum wage overwhelmingly even as they voted for Donald Trump. Medicare for All enjoys the support of a majority of Americans, if not Democratic office holders. Despite Trump’s vitriolic, race-baiting assaults on “mobs” burning down cities, most voters remained supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. A Monmouth University poll this summer showed that even most Republicans translated “defunding the police” into a call for reform, not for elimination.
More importantly, the cumulative crises the country faces can’t be addressed without bold, structural reforms. The economic calamity Biden inherits requires not only emergency relief but also a massive public jobs program. Addressing the climate catastrophe that is already upon us requires rapid transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency. The pandemic exposed the imperative of restructuring our health care system—and the steep price hikes that insurance companies are about to impose will add to the urgency. Rebuilding the middle class won’t occur without empowering workers, guaranteeing basic economic rights, and transforming our trade and investment policies. Criminal justice reform and voting reforms are but the first steps in redressing racial injustice.
Politically, the 2020 election results also reinforce the imperative of the left’s agenda. In a sense, each campaign succeeded in its aims. Biden made the pandemic his centerpiece. Exit polls—with all the caveats attached to their reliability—reported that the 17 percent of voters that said the pandemic was their prime issue voted more than four to one for Biden. Trump campaigned on “jobs, not mobs,” comparing the failure of corrupt Washington elites to his claims of building the best economy of all time and beginning the greatest recovery ever. He won—virtually by default—a staggering 83 percent of the voters (35 percent of all voters) who identified the economy as their prime issue. Trump demonstrated the power of his racism-laden economic populist message to turn out white working-class voters, and came damn close to winning again while shattering Democratic hopes down-ballot.
Now, Biden will inherit the ruins. The jobs recovery that began when the economy began opening up will stall as the pandemic spikes again. Temporary layoffs will become permanent as more and more businesses close their doors. Entire industries like the airlines face restructuring. Even if a vaccine works, families will continue to struggle with job loss, foreclosures, and dislocations. And of course, even “recovery” to the old economy, were that possible, would not begin to redress the decline suffered by working people.
The lines are already being drawn. Happy talk about a new era of bipartisan cooperation is belied by the brazen refusal of McConnell and virtually all Republican senators even to acknowledge Biden’s victory. Before the election, with over 20 million workers still drawing unemployment, 20 Republican senators opposed any new rescue package. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has scorned any help to fiscally strapped cities and states hemorrhaging jobs and cutting services. If Republicans retain the Senate majority, McConnell—with Trump urging him on—will likely block every major Biden initiative, eager to blame the resulting human misery and likely economic recession on the new administration.
Against that obstruction, Biden and House Democrats must make it clear to Americans who is standing in the way. That will require proposing and passing bold, compelling reforms, rallying support behind them, and calling out McConnell and Senate Republicans for torpedoing them. Again, the left’s agenda—a $15.00 minimum wage, a major green infrastructure rebuilding plan, universal pre-k and day care, bold health care reforms and more—should lead the way. And an aggressive use of executive orders—even in the face of Republican raving about tyranny—must begin from day one.
Joe Biden, acknowledging the depth of the challenges the country faces, has compared his situation to that of Franklin Roosevelt as he faced the Depression. Yet Biden’s instincts, his history, and his stated intentions are to seek compromise and common ground. He will no doubt form a cabinet and have regular recourse to advisers drawn largely from the Obama years—experienced, competent, and cautious. The big money that poured into his campaign coffers will make its interests clear. For the administration to have any chance of addressing what the country needs while consolidating a growing majority coalition capable of governing, the progressive insurgents in Congress and the movements on the street will need to force the change.