What can the left expect from a Biden-Harris administration? Pretty much nothing

A tale of wolf and fox: Opposing Trump was crucial — but in the long run, opposing Biden is just as important

By Tony McKenna
November 28, 2020 5:00PM (UTC)
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Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Nov. 7 of this year, the United States let out a collective roar that rippled across the nation, resonating the crowds of blue-clad people swelling the streets and the squares, and causing buildings to tremble as those inside broke out the champagne and began to dance. The celebrations lasted long into the night. For those few precious moments, it felt as though a curse had been lifted, a nightmare abated. Trumpism had ground itself to a resounding and decisive halt and it seemed that political space on the left, and on the center ground, had finally begun to open again.

A scion of 21st-century reality TV, Trump was a vulgar presence; a combination of incompetence and inanity, hitched to the bombast and braggadocio of a circus ringmaster, and rounded off with all the ethical inclinations of a CEO of a napalm factory. Trump was a president of pantomime proportions: In the White House he single-handedly invigorated the satire industry, as the mirth to be made from his perpetual claims to greatness (his level of expertise in every scientific field would have made Joseph Stalin blush) was recycled into comedy skit after comedy skit on "Saturday Night Live" (a "very stable genius," anyone?)

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And yet, as Karl Marx noted so many years ago, the flipside to farce is so often tragedy. While Trump continued to strut, parade and self-promote there was a more sinister aspect to the spectacle of his absurdity. Gaudy, grandiose language of "greatness" and the innate superiority of the "nation" began to filter through the fourth wall of political PR, reaching deeper, darker and more undisclosed regions. The rallying cry "Make America Great Again" started to prick the ears of shady extremists, and forces on the far right began to stir from within the shadows.

In spring 2016, some months before Trump's election, Andrew Anglin — founder of the prominent neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer — had predicted, "Jews, Blacks, and lesbians will be leaving America if Trump gets elected — and he's happy about it. This alone is enough reason to put your entire heart and soul into supporting this man." A year later, on the campus of American University in Washington, which had just elected its first black female student president, nooses began to appear — courtesy, in fact, of the same Daily Stormer site, which had mobilized far right elements in a campaign of hate and harassment against her. 

A couple of months after that came the notorious spectacle of Charlottesville, when large numbers of bare-chested, belligerent white men lumbered through the streets chanting, "Jews will not replace us!" Alongside the assorted confederate flags and spidery black of swastikas, T-shirts and caps featuring Trump's MAGA slogan were increasingly on display. When the forces of the left mounted a counter demonstration, a white supremacist — unable to bottle a visceral sense of rage — drove his car into them, killing one demonstrator and injuring several others. In the aftermath of the atrocity, Trump remarked that there were "some very fine people on both sides" and expressed the view that "both sides" were culpable for the violence — a clear wink-wink, nod-nod to the murderer and the toxic, protean forces that had generated him.  

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That Trump's presidency had bolstered and emboldened such elements surely explains the mass eruption of joy and celebration which greeted the news of his departure. But those who would look toward the partnership of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and the commissioning of a new Democratic leadership, to inaugurate an epoch of reason and enlightenment and thereby banish the darkness should undoubtedly look again. For one thing, it bears remembering what brought Trump to power in the first place. Trumpism arrived at the White House, not with a bang, but with a whimper. 

Trump did not win in 2016 on the back of a broad right-wing social movement which was then translated into a vast hike in the number of Republican votes. Inasmuch as Trump "won" at all — in two presidential elections, he hasn't even come close to winning the popular vote — he did only marginally better than John McCain had done in losing what was generally viewed as a landslide election in 2008. Trump won 46.1% percent of the popular vote in 2016, while McCain had won 45.7% eight years earlier. 

The real difference was on the other side of the ledger: In 2008, Barack Obama had won 52.9% of the popular vote, while in 2016 Clinton only managed to procure 48.2%. In other words, the Democratic vote share had fallen by almost four million votes (even before we take into account the significant increase in population between 2008 and 2016). 

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Although many tried to lay the blame for this at the door of shady Russian hackers or dodgy tech companies such as Cambridge Analytica, their effect was marginal, perhaps imperceptible. The real reason for this electoral demise can be found in the eight years of Democratic administration that preceded it. Those were the years in which Obama's abstract and facile exhortations toward "hope" and "change" were extinguished in the fiery wastelands of the battle-scarred Middle East and beyond, as his administration prosecuted military attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, and the use of drone technology became endemic. 

On the domestic front, the situation was no less grim. Having facilitated perhaps the largest economic crisis in history through their rapacious and often illegal financial dealings, the great banking oligarchs remained untouched and unrepentant, shielded as they were by the same government whose campaign coffers those CEOs had so generously filled in the run-up to the 2008 election. (Goldman Sachs was Obama's top corporate donor that year, headlining a large number of other Wall Street contributors.) 

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Indeed behind closed doors, beyond the smooth façade of his presidential image, Obama spoke to the big banking heads with prosaic candor: "My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks." This pithy quote, leaked into the public sphere, casts a light on the inner sanctum, the way political strategy is negotiated behind the back of the population. More importantly, it reveals the attitude of the Obama administration itself to the powerful, and to the people; i.e., the admission that its function is to protect the former from the latter (themselves regarded with patrician contempt as little more than pitchfork-wielding yokels).

The Democrats lost in 2016 because they had failed to provide a genuine political alternative. Both major political parties had followed the neoliberal economic line that privileged and protected the interests of those at the top, and offered an increasingly narrow vision of "choice" to an increasingly weary and disillusioned electorate. Fewer and fewer people turned out to vote, and it was on this basis that Trumpism would step into the void. Voter turnout dramatically improved this year, to be sure. But the question now becomes: What type of choice does the Biden-Harris administration provide?' What type of political alternative can it offer?

One key selling point is the fact that Harris will be the first Black female vice president in U.S. history. That's not to be scoffed at, especially considering the potent injection of racism and national chauvinism the country has suffered at the hands of Trumpism. At the same time, it does Harris something a disservice, inasmuch as it does not speak to her actual politics. Once we examine these in detail, the record that emerges is a somewhat murky one. For instance, during her tenure as attorney general of California the state Supreme Court ruled that prison overcrowding represented "cruel and unusual punishment," yet Harris fought against the early release of prisoners, with her legal team arguing that such a measure would deplete the prison population and therefore deprive the state of a cheap source of labour. 

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This of course reflected the same political process of neoliberalism that underlay the fusion of private capital with the prison system and had led to the draconian prison reforms carried out under Bill Clinton in the '90s and continued by both the Bush and the Obama administrations. This led to a vast number of people, disproportionately Black or Latino, languishing in "correctional" facilities for little more than misdemeanors or minor infractions. The profit motive — driven by neoliberal administrations of both the Democrat and Republican stripe — has eaten into the correctional system like a corrosive acid, warping its raison d'être such that Time Magazine, in a 2016 exposé, discovered "that approximately 39% of the nationwide prison population (576,000 people) is behind bars with little public safety rationale."

And then there are the ubiquitous and tragic cases of those who are imprisoned and later discovered to have been falsely convicted — cases like that of Daniel Larsen, who spent more than a decade in prison before the Innocence Project was able to overturn his conviction. In the event, even after Larsen's innocence had been established, Harris' office tried to keep him incarcerated on the bureaucratic and rather spiteful grounds that his legal team had filed for release too late, after an official deadline had expired. (Larsen, thankfully, was released anyway.)

In any case, it seems likely that Harris will be an effective component in an administration likely to reprise many themes from the Obama era, including facilitating the march of private capital into various state sectors, fortifying the armed forces, protecting Wall Street and the financial elite, and cultivating U.S. military interests abroad in robust and murderous fashion. On the subject of Wall Street, it is worth noting that, in the run-up to the 2020 election, Biden boasted the backing of 131 billionaire donors to Trump's 99, with the banking elite clearly registering in a Biden administration a safe pair of hands to steer the course of financial capital. Indeed, Biden's selection as his White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, has a long-established career in venture capital.

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On the question of military spending and foreign policy, this year a majority of Senate Democrats, including Harris, voted against and defeated an amendment that would have diverted 10% from a bloated military budget of some $740 billion into jobs, health care and education. Although it is still early days, the president-elect's political team has already "underscored his deep commitment to the defence of Japan and U.S commitments under Article 5." That's a clear shot across the bow of China and an expression of a deepening Democratic commitment to a more aggressive stance toward the biggest economic rival to the U.S., one which some commentators have inferred (correctly, in my view) could lay the basis for a new Cold War.

In other words, the Biden administration shuffles onto the scene already a revenant; it can only offer a revivified formula of the same neoliberal strategy which has already exhausted itself in earlier decades. It is difficult to imagine that it will offer the electorate either something qualitatively new or something that's likely to genuinely uplift the economic interests of the vast majority. The cloud of euphoria — which was more about the exorcism of Trump than about the ascension of Biden — is likely to dissipate rather quickly under the grind of the neoliberal machine. While Trump himself will eventually depart from the White House, the electoral core he has carved out for himself will remain very much in place.

Importantly, Trump's most recent provocation — his efforts to call into question the validity of the democratic process, both before and after the election — on the surface the last-ditch cry of foul by a gaudy vulgarian, will in fact act as a potent rallying point for a political base all too ready to congeal around the notion that a liberal elite has robbed the "anti-establishment" candidate of his rightful win.

And the more the Democratic Party pursues its pro-Wall Street policies, the more it will reveal itself as the party of an elite minority — and the more such a conspiracy theory will gain traction in the minds of the bewildered, the small business owners flayed by the economic downturn, those in the traditional rural heartlands who find their prospects and their lands shrinking, those on the edge of destitution. Not to mention those whose sense of social inferiority, isolation and neglect is salved by the potency of the purest racial hatred and the longing for a nostalgic vision of a more traditional Americana in which white skin was the emblem of a pioneer spirit, conferring on its owner both innate privilege and automatic respect. 

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The slick brand of managerial capitalism which encompasses high finance and a new era of global imperialism, which Biden's administration is almost certainly set to offer, could well create the perfect conditions in which a new type of far-right demagoguery can metastasize; something which will unite the anguished fury of the lower-middle classes with the most rabid fringes of the far right, fusing them into a toxic and potentially lethal brew. 

For this reason, radicals must resist and protest the Biden administration from the outset. To provide it with support — to see in it the liberal antidote to Trumpism — is to make a critical error of the first order, one that will allow the most virulent elements of the Republican Party, in the words of Thomas Frank, to become "ever bolder in their preposterous claim to be a 'workers' party' representing the aspirations of ordinary people."

Malcolm X once wrote that the perception of the viciously right-wing character of the Republican Party works to cloak the establishment essence of the Democrats; in showing a voter "the wolf," he argued, the ruling class is able to drive that same voter "into the open jaws of the smiling fox." What Malcolm X would not live to see is the era we have inherited, the one in which fox begets wolf.  


Tony McKenna

Tony McKenna is a philosopher, political commentator, academic, journalist and novelist. His books include "Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective," "The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin," "Angels and Demons: A Radical Anthology of Political Lives" and, most recently, "Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art." His upcoming "The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution" will be published by Bloomsbury in 2021.

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