The Democrats’ November Debacle

David Finkel

Posted November 5, 2021

Republican financier Glen Youngkin defeats Democrat Terry McAuliffe for Virginia governor in a state Biden won by 10 percent in 2020 (Photo from Youngkin campaign website)

It’s usual, of course, for the U.S. political party in power to take losses in off-year and midterm elections, blamed for whatever goes wrong and getting little credit for anything positive. That normal ebb and flow of the two capitalist parties is only exacerbated when that party is in office, but not really in power.

That’s the position the national Democratic Party finds itself in now, facing the paralytic effects of its own inability to deliver on its campaign promises, popular frustration with the pandemic and growing fear of inflation, and a highly aggressive and more-or-less coordinated rightwing drive toward “state capture” by all means fair, foul and fouler. Here we’ll only touch on the key themes.

What happened in the much-watched Virginia governor election is symptomatic: In every county, the Trump-lite Republican Glenn Youngkin came out well ahead of the Trump vote in the 2020 election, including among Black, Latinx and those proverbial “white suburban women” who were all repelled by Trump in 2020. And this is before extreme voter suppression and intimidation laws sweeping Republican-controlled state legislatures take full effect.

Conventional wisdom now is that the Democrats are in some deep crap heading toward the 2022 midterm elections, when their thin Congressional majorities are on the line — and this time that conventional wisdom is probably on target. A lot can happen in the year before the midterms, but the developments of recent months indicate a Democratic presidency and Congress slowly sinking in the mud.

The infrastructure bill and the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” legislation became impaled on the twin horns of the Republican filibuster and the obstruction of the Senator from Big Oil and Coal, Joe Manchin. Even if something gets passed in the end, which I’m guessing it probably will be, much of the political boost the Democrats would get from enacting “the President’s agenda” is already lost.

The collateral damage from this gridlock included sending president Biden off to COP26 with (apologies to “The Godfather”) nothing but an oil derrick in his hand. The results of the COP in substance, aside from rhetoric, will require a separate subsequent discussion, but might be summed up as “Success is not an option” — or in Greta Thunberg’s succinct phrase, blah-blah-blah. The pretense of “American leadership” in the global climate emergency is fairly shredded, for whatever difference that makes.

On the domestic front, the ostensibly huge “$3.5 trillion” Build Back Better program, before it was sliced in half to appease Manchin, actually amounted to a ten-year commitment of $350 billion annually — a decent sum but, after all, less than half the Pentagon budget. In its present shrunken form, it amounts to a modest enhancement of a social safety net that’s been shredded by four decades of “bipartisan” neoliberal governance.

Speaking of bipartisanship, the separate bridges-and-roads bill , held in abeyance by the Progressive Caucus in the desperate effort to save Build Back Better, will be what most bipartisan legislation turns out to be, namely a big corporate giveaway. That’s business as usual, but the irony is that both bills, including BBB, correspond to what most of the U.S. capitalist class actually knows is necessary.

From capital’s standpoint, Biden’s statement that fixing the country’s appallingly degraded physical and social infrastructure is required “for our competition with China” is quite right. There is nothing remotely anti-capitalist in BBB. Yet it’s been the progressive wing (a poor label, but we seem to be stuck with it) of the Democratic Party that’s pushed a kind of quasi-social-democratic resurrection of the New Deal that saved capitalism in an earlier era, while the Republican traditional party of big business simply says No to everything — and gains politically from the Democrats’ floundering.

A second irony is the thanks that progressive wing gets for its efforts to inject new life into the Democratic Party. We only have to look at the Buffalo, New York mayoral election, where India Walton, the 39-year-old activist, nurse and declared democratic socialist who won the June Democratic primary, was left in the lurch by the party’s establishment as the defeated incumbent mayor Byron Brown launched a write-in campaign that drew support from Republican voters and real estate interests.

The chairman of the state Democratic Party, as well as the new governor Kathy Hochul, pointedly refused to endorse Walton. “Socialism was defeated in Buffalo,” crowed Brown as he celebrated his nearly 3-2 election victory. How this triumph of the establishment will affect grassroots Democratic activist enthusiasm for getting out the vote in the next electoral round isn’t terribly hard to guess.

While the Democratic leadership revels in curbing the energy on its left, the ominous offensive from the right continues. Gaining strength on multiple fronts from the destruction of the Voting Rights Act by gerrymandered state legislatures and the Trump-established White Supremacy Court of the United States (WSCOTUS) majority, as well as the pending overturn of abortion rights, the reactionary assault is further fuelled by a wave of irrationalism around the pandemic — vaccine refusal in particular — and other issues (some of which are covered in the new Against the Current editorial The Rising Price of Insanity).

A huge dimension of this assault, of course, is unabashed white racism. The menace of “teaching Critical Race Theory” is under attack from reactionaries (like Youngkin in Virginia) who haven’t the faintest idea what it is but know they can make money, figuratively and literally, from banning it. At the same time, efforts at fundamental restructuring of policing following the murder of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor and so many others are largely sidelined or channeled into minimalist reforms.

As we’ve discussed before, taken to its furthest limits the rightwing strangulation of voting rights and state-level electoral manipulations could produce a full-scale crisis of government legitimacy and the U.S. constitutional system. Short of that, however, the step-by-step evisceration of democratic rights, including women’s reproductive freedom, is dangerous enough. And without radical action that the Democratic Party and particularly its leadership is unwilling to take, the 2020 election may fade into history as a temporary interruption, not a reversal, of Trumpism in U.S. politics.

Where this prospect leaves the social movements and the left must be a topic for urgent discussion. The “Striketober” wave of labor actions shows, for anyone who doubted, that class struggle continues. Along with the ongoing mobilizations around the obscene Texas and Mississippi anti-abortion laws, that’s where we need to start.