Could Democrats win the battle against Trump but lose the war against Trumpism?
The race to become the Democratic Party's presidential nominee did not end Tuesday night. But it did shift decisively in Joe Biden's favor. The overwhelming takeaway seems to be that Democratic voters are not so much wowed by Biden himself as they are fixated on defeating President Trump at all costs — and view Biden as the most likely bet to do so.
Perversely, this singular determination to boot Trump from office will almost certainly make the long-term success of Trumpism more likely. Nominating Biden may well mean that Democrats win the battle for 2020 while losing the war against the reactionary authoritarianism their opponent embodies.
Biden, the former vice president for the Obama administration and the moderate establishment's putative favorite, seemed virtually dead in the water a few weeks ago. But he came back in the "Super Tuesday" primaries to win an impressive — if not quite a commanding — lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders, the left-wing economic populist and self-identified democratic socialist from Vermont. It is now definitely a two-man contest between them. And the calculus among a lot of Democratic elites and rank-and-file voters seems to be that, whatever the agendas and values the two men stand for, Biden is the more "electable."
But let's set that aside. Even if Biden wins, the problems with this calculus go much deeper.
As much as any candidate in the race, Biden embodies a desire to simply return to the pre-Trump status quo. He insists he will be able to reach bipartisan accommodations with Republican policymakers. Biden's platform, from taxation to health care to jobs and more, is arguably the most moderate of any major contender in the Democratic primary. And as Cooper reminds us, Biden's record is riddled with efforts to make pro-oligarchy compromises with the right, including bankruptcy "reform," mass incarceration, efforts to cut entitlement programs, habitual deficit hawkery, and the invasion of Iraq.
If you view Trump as something akin to a meteor strike — a random and unpredictable event unrelated to anything that came before — then this makes sense. But it's also plainly fantastical. The pre-Trump status quo gave us Trump. To go back to it after a Democratic victory in November would simply invite victory for a President Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, or Dan Crenshaw come 2024 — just as nationalist, reactionary, racist, and authoritarian as Trump, but probably far more competent as well.
The last few decades have brought a dramatic decay in the quality and number of jobs available to Americans — a reality momentarily obscured by the low unemployment rate, but that could easily come roaring back if the coronavirus or some other event sparks a recession. Americans face rampant financial insecurity all up and down the income ladder, along with multiple affordability crises for basic needs like health care, education, housing, and child care. Wages for the broad middle of the country have been stagnant for decades, inequality has soared, and a whole host of towns and communities outside of major cities have been gutted thanks to deindustrialization, trade, and disinvestment.
Human history makes it pretty clear that when this sort of desperation and socioeconomic decay sets in, societies either renew themselves with deep dramatic change (think of America's own New Deal) or a collapse into the kind of fascism for which Trump is an obvious portent.
The Republicans, determined to maintain a plutocracy-friendly policy regime when it comes to taxes, regulation, and public investment (not to mention voting rights and access to democracy) have had no choice but to pitch reactionary white chauvinism to white voters in a bid to stay viable. Trump's triumph in their 2016 primary simply transformed the subtext into text. Democrats, hobbled by the interests of the donor class that Hillary Clinton and now Biden represent, have limped along by promising to be somewhat less poisonous compared to the alternative.
But in many ways, Trump is actually analogous to climate change: America's slide into ethnonationalist authoritarianism is a collapse of our social and political "ecosystem," driven by our economy's long decay into plutocracy, as surely as global warming is a collapse of our actual ecosystems, driven by too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Like climate change, the whole "ecosystem collapse" is far enough along that it can no longer be ignored. Like climate change, the collapse is coming, whether we like it or not, and no matter how understandable and sympathetic our reasons for not acting may be. It will respond to nothing other than the fundamental material realities forcing it along.
The platforms of Elizabeth Warren and especially Sanders — taxes to smash America's concentrations of wealth, a national job guarantee, Medicare-for-all, an end to the student debt crisis, a Green New Deal, a resuscitated labor movement — demonstrate an ambition and urgency that at least come close to matching the severity of the challenge. Should Democrats best Trump, they will have two years (four, if they're lucky) to pass such changes.
If, however, Democrats don't meaningfully address these problems — dying jobs and dying communities and dying hope for the future — it will only further empower and embolden Republican arguments pitting working Americans against each other, that government isn't the answer, and that immigrants and minorities are to blame, while leaving voters wondering what the point of the Democratic Party is. That's one way we end up with an even more extreme version of Trump next time around.
All that said, if Biden is to be the Democrats' nominee, all is not lost. Biden's platform may be one of the most small-c conservative agendas of the 2020 primary field, but that field has also shifted dramatically in just the last four years — putting even Biden well to the left of Hillary Clinton in 2016. The former vice president's Green New Deal proposal, probably too small and inadequate, is still a whopping $1.7 trillion. His tax plan, modest compared to Sanders and Warren, still has oomph, particularly a big hike in the corporate profits tax, and in capital gains taxes for the wealthy. Biden is proposing big criminal justice reform, a national $15 minimum wage, free community college for all, and a robust public option to be added atop Obamacare.
Biden's record, of course, should leave anyone suspicious that he will run to the right once in office. Yet we also rely on records to judge candidates, not because they are dispositive, but because we have nothing else to go on. If Biden's previous positions were the result of opportunism rather than high principle, that is actually a good thing: It suggests grassroots pressure, plus agitation from Sanders and Warren and their allies in Congress, could possibly push Biden further left once he's in office.
Now, there is a whole litany of reasons one could give, plenty that are entirely understandable and sympathetic, for why Democrats are coalescing behind Biden over Sanders, and why such an agenda could not pass regardless of who's in the White House. I am not impugning the motives of the people acting on those assumptions. I'm simply saying that, right or wrong, none of it matters.
At the end of the day, either we do what is necessary to avert disaster, or we don't. And then we suffer the consequences.
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