Posted February 21, 2021
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were inaugurated President and Vice President of the United States on January 20. The inauguration took place at the Capitol, where two weeks earlier a mob incited by Donald Trump had overrun thin lines of police, broken in, and trashed the building. Some in the mob would have taken hostages and perhaps killed some of them, if they’d been able to.
25,000 National Guard troops, hundreds of Secret Service, FBI and Homeland Security agents, and hundreds of Washington, DC, Virginia and Maryland police blocked access to the Mall in front of the Capitol and to the building. The heavy security was designed to convey the message that the Empire is safe, law and order prevail, and the real power in the land is the military and police, not the riffraff who stormed the Capitol.
In his inaugural address Biden promised a return to normalcy after four years of chaos under Trump. He spoke of “unity,” but also of truth, reason, science, justice, civility, humanity, and, implicitly, sanity.
Trump boycotted the inauguration, but outgoing Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader (for a few hours more) Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy were there, as were former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The show of unity couldn’t hide the sharp divisions in the country. Divisions between Democrats and Republicans, divisions within the two parties, and divisions of class, race, nationality and gender underlying the party divisions.
Over the next year Covid-19 should be brought under control in the U.S., unless the virus mutates to become resistant to the vaccines before they can be administered. The economy should improve. But beyond that — gridlock, preparing the way for the return of this or the next Trump.
The only development that could cut across this otherwise likely outcome would be an upsurge of struggle by workers and the oppressed and a political realignment along class lines. The 2020 Black Lives Matter upsurge confronted police brutality and racial injustice despite the pandemic, the economic collapse, and the election. By doing so it won wide support, and showed the way forward.
Trump out, Biden in
With the February 13 Senate acquittal of Donald Trump on the charge of “incitement of insurrection” the 2020 election cycle is finally over. Joe Biden is president with an almost evenly split congress, a Republican majority on the Supreme Court, and Republican governors in 27 of 50 states.
Biden has issued executive orders and proclamations to organize the federal government’s response to the pandemic and the economic collapse and to reverse Trump’s most egregious executive actions on immigration, the environment, and gender rights.
Some of Biden’s directives can be implemented immediately, others require rewriting regulations, performing studies, holding hearings, fending off legal challenges, and overcoming the resistance of the bureaucracy. But Biden is on his way to restoring the Barack Obama status quo ante in executive actions.
That status quo, however, was far from adequate, even in the areas Obama addressed. With respect to immigration, for example, Obama wanted to do better than his predecessor but deported 3.2 million to George W. Bush’s 2 million. Trump, for all his savagery, deported at half Obama’s rate.
Obama didn’t touch the fundamentals of capitalism, inequality, institutional racism, mistreatment of immigrants, gender oppression, carbon emissions, or environmental degradation. Biden won’t either.
The military and foreign policy of the Obama administration was essentially the same as that of the Trump administration, despite Trump’s “America first” rhetoric. Biden, like Obama, will be more multilateral in his imperialism than Trump and more critical of Israel and Saudi Arabia, but otherwise much the same. Obama began the moves to thwart China, the centerpiece of Trump’s foreign policy, and Biden will continue them.
On the issues Biden is willing to take up, getting beyond the limited seesaw of executive action would require congressional action. So far Biden has proposed two major pieces of legislation, a Covid-19 rescue bill and a comprehensive immigration reform bill. He has promised bills to “Build back better” after the pandemic, including to repair infrastructure and to reduce carbon emissions.
Proposing legislation is one thing, getting it passed is another. The Democrats have very narrow congressional majorities. In the House, the Democrats have 222 seats to the Republicans’ 213. In the Senate, the Democrats and Republicans have 50 seats each, with Vice President Harris casting a tie-breaking vote.
Of the 222 House Democrats, 18 are in the Blue Dog Coalition and describe themselves as “advocates for fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense, and bipartisan consensus rather than conflict with Republicans.” Of the 50 Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana, and Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, espouse similar views.
The situation in the Senate is made worse by the filibuster rule, which lets a minority keep debate open and prevent a vote on a bill indefinitely, unless a supermajority of 60 Senators votes to invoke cloture and close debate. Judicial nominations are exempt from filibuster and require only a simple majority. So are budget reconciliation bills, affecting spending, revenue or the federal debt limit, but not policy.
The Senate Democrats could decide by majority vote to disallow filibusters on policy too, but the Blue Dogs oppose doing so. Even Biden opposes doing so. Their rationale is that the threat of a filibuster forces negotiation and compromise and hence a bipartisan consensus. From the Clinton administration on, that has meant gridlock.
Biden has the votes to pass the spending provisions of his rescue package, but not to make policy changes, such as the $15 per hour federal minimum wage included in the bill. Major legislation on immigration, healthcare, education, police and prisons, the environment, or even infrastructure is out of reach.
The Republican “civil war”
In January 2020 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) observed that “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” The same can be said of Republicans. The two-party system in the US squeezes into two parties political forces that would be found in three, four or more parties in other countries.
During the January 6 riot this reached an insane level when Trump incited a mob to storm the Capitol to force McConnell and other “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) to award him the presidency. The mob chanted “Hang Pence!” as the Vice President hid, protected by Capitol police.
After the attack, Pence and McConnell said privately that they were “done” with Trump. McConnell said that Trump had committed impeachable offenses and tested the waters for purging him from the Republican Party.
Trump countered by threatening to quit the Republican Party and form a new Patriot Party. He urged his supporters to go after Republicans who had refused to support his election claims.
The “civil war” in the Republican Party quickly subsided. On the night of the January 6 riot 121 House Republicans still voted not to accept the results of the presidential election in Arizona. On January 13, 197 House Republicans voted not to impeach Trump. On February 13, 43 Senate Republicans voted not to convict him.
Many Republican leaders loathe Trump, but they keep coming back to him because they need his supporters. For them, putting up with Trump is the lesser evil to losing.
The Democratic civil peace
The Democratic Party, in contrast, has been relatively peaceful. Democrats — center, right and left — united around the Biden-Harris slate to stop Trump. The left Democrats dropped their criticism of Biden and the party leadership for the duration of the campaign and have refrained from criticizing them publicly since then.
The most prominent left Democrat is Bernie Sanders. When the party leadership brought the hammer down on his candidacy in March 2020, he promptly endorsed Biden, as he’d promised he would. He and Biden set up six “Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces” to make policy recommendations on climate change, criminal justice reform, the economy, education, health care, and immigration. The results show the balance of forces in the party.
The climate change task force was co-chaired by former Secretary of State and 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) of New York, the most prominent left Democrat after Sanders. The task force recommended not the Green New Deal but reforms acceptable to Kerry, Biden and other moderate Democrats.
Kerry is now the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate in the Biden administration, while AOC was denied a seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees environmental matters.
The left Democrats haven’t given up, of course, but they have few arrows in their quiver. On February 4 AOC and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon in the House and Sanders, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts in the Senate introduced a bill for a nonbinding “Sense of Congress” resolution calling on Biden to declare a national climate emergency.
In February 2019 Trump declared a “National Emergency Concerning the Southern Border of the United States” to divert $7 billion from military construction and drug interdiction to building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer denounced the declaration as “a lawless act, a gross abuse of the power of the presidency.”
A presidential declaration of emergency backed by a Sense of Congress resolution would avoid that problem, but why would Sanders, AOC and the others choose this indirect route, rather than pass legislation? Trump’s maneuver freed up only a few billion dollars, far from the trillions needed to deal with the climate crisis.
The obvious explanation is that the sponsors know that Congress is too evenly divided to pass legislation on the scale needed. But what will they do if their Sense of Congress resolution fails? Or leads to executive action as puny as Trump’s border wall? Will they denounce Biden and their fellow Democrats? Not likely, since they too are caught in the lesser-evil trap.
The two-party system
The U.S. political system is profoundly undemocratic. It’s designed to ensure that the government does only what the wealthy want done. The Senate, the Electoral College, the system of checks and balances among the branches of government, federalism, local autonomy, first-past-the-post races, gerrymandering, obstacles to running for office, obstacles to voting. But above all money.
The U.S. has “the best democracy money can buy.” Running in contested federal and state elections is enormously expensive. The 2020 presidential election cost $6.6 billion. The two Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January cost nearly $1 billion. No candidate can raise that kind of money without being beholden to millionaires and billionaires. Being vetted by the media is essential too, and the media are owned by the wealthy.
The result at the federal level is the two-party alternation of Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats win, disappoint their base, lose Congress, then lose the presidency. Then the Republicans have their turn.
The leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties are content with this state of affairs. They’re mostly millionaires beholden to billionaires. Their life problems are solved, as far as money and power can solve them. They don’t want a mandate, since then the’d have to act. Blaming the other party lets them off the hook. The threat that the other party might win keeps their fringes in line.
The two-party system works brilliantly in the U.S. because voters are pretty evenly divided along party lines. In the 2020 popular vote the Democrats won the presidency by 4.5 percent, won the House by 3 percent, and lost the Senate by 2 percent. A third of voters stayed home.
From inside the Democratic Party bubble the question is why 74 million voted for Trump. From inside the Republican bubble the question is why 81 million voted for Biden. From outside both bubbles, the question is why 155 million voted for either Trump or Biden. Most voters are workers. Why were they voting against their class interests, voting for their exploiters and oppressors?
Some of the white workers who voted for Trump are so infected with racism, xenophobia and misogyny that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 description “basket of deplorables” fits them well. But most are confused, not stupid or evil.
Voters were trapped by the two-party system and went for what they saw as the lesser evil. Even around the pandemic this was the case. They felt that they had to choose between shutting down the economy to protect public health at the expense of jobs, or opening up the economy to provide jobs at the expense of public health. The social-democratic alternative, let alone anything more radical, wasn’t on offer.
Escaping the lesser-evil trap
Escaping the lesser-evil trap would require a political realignment along class lines. It would require breaking the political monopoly of the Democrats and Republicans and building a working-class party. This has been true at least since the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction and obliterated the Civil War difference between Republicans and Democrats.
The prospects for independent political action by the working class seem rather dim after the 2020 election. Among the 81 million who voted for Biden were most of the left, including half the revolutionary socialists. “Stop Trump, fight Biden,” they said. But how do you fight Biden, having presented his election as essential to save democracy?
Despite the alarum over Trump, 400,000 voted for Green Party candidates Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker, both working-class socialists. But this was less than a third of the vote for Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka in 2016. If the lesser-evil trap worked so well in 2020, despite the very deep crisis, is there any hope of escape?
To end this article on a positive note, the 2020 Black Lives Matter upsurge shows a possible way forward. Millions of people protested against police violence in cities with Democratic mayors and were assaulted by police on orders from those mayors. The protesters demanded shifting resources from police repression to social services — “defund the police” — and an end to mass incarceration and institutional racism. The Democratic Party at best gives lip service to these measures and will not reign in the police.
In a future generalized upsurge, where unions, unorganized workers, Black, Latinx and other people of color, immigrants, women, LGTBQIA+ people, antiwar activists, environmental activists and others were in the streets, on picket lines and occupying buildings, Democratic Party resistance to their demands could lead to a mass movement for an independent working-class party. And that party could attract workers now aligned with the Democrats and with the Republicans.
The workers’ party movement would soon reach a point where it had to confront the lesser-evil problem. Either it competes with the Democrats, risking a Republican victory, or it ceases to be. The 1996 Labor Party declined to compete with the Democrats and ceased to be. With a higher level of struggle a future workers’ party movement might break through that barrier. Some Republicans might win, as the party surged past the Democrats. But the price would be well worth it.
As political thinking awakes from its forty-year sleep, the twentieth-century debates again seem relevant, as reflected in discussions in DSA and elsewhere: Reform capitalism or abolish it? Parliamentary road or revolutionary road? Capitalist government or workers’ government? Good debates to begin having now, before workers have to choose.