There should be relief, I suppose, with the defeat of Donald Trump and the Republican flunkies he has running the executive branch. A bitter lesson of twentieth century history, after all, is the popularity of fascism at the ballot box, and the deadly consequences when state power is at its disposal.
The election of Joe Biden, at paper thin margins in battleground states, is cold comfort. After 230,000 COVID deaths, a “Muslim ban”, the expansion of quasi-concentration camps of undocumented citizens, and the active encouragement of armed white supremacists (to name but a few hallmarks of the Trump administration), some seventy million people still voted for Trump.
Contrary to what many liberal commentators are expressing, the nightmare is not “over” with Trump’s defeat. Nor does the election “repudiate” Trump, as Hilary Clinton tweeted. A Biden presidency—and the feeble centrism of the Democratic establishment he leads— will almost certainly leave intact America’s deep economic inequities, that unholy mix of contemporary neoliberalism and centuries-long racial capitalism.
Already, the President-Elect is signalling he will repeat the doomed approach he championed with President Obama and reach out across the aisle to reward mythical “moderate Republicans” for their supposed role in winning the election. Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez recently put it like this: “If the [Democractic] party believes after 94 percent of Detroit went to Biden, after Black organizers just doubled and tripled turnout down in Georgia, after so many people organized Philadelphia, the signal from the Democratic Party is the John Kasichs won us this election? I mean, I can’t even describe how dangerous that is.”
If the dangerous obsession with bi-partisanship is here to stay, so too is the status quo. It seems the only thing definitively over with Election 2020 is the legitimacy of the farcical mythology around American democracy.
What will it take to dispense with reference to the United States as one of the world’s great democracies? It’s a mythology regurgitated ad nauseum in Canadian media. From its founding amidst the horrors of chattel slavery, American democracy has always been an exclusionary system designed to protect the white elite and their property over the well-being of ordinary citizens, particularly those who are Black, racialized, and Native American. Trump’s current allegations of electoral fraud may be brazen. But the attack on mail-in ballots he telegraphed for months (now focused on attacking voters in cities with large Black constituencies) merely continues a long tradition of voter suppression unbroken since the Jim Crow era.
The facile reverence for the “checks and balances” in the US system of government is also impervious to reality. The courts, including the Supreme Court, are increasingly stacked; judicial independence increasingly weakened. Then there’s the corrosive impact of big money on American elections and how that money influences which representatives are able to run and get elected. That rot stretches beyond how Presidential and Congressional races are won and lost into direct democracy like ballot referenda. In California, for example, Uber and Lyft just spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a successful campaign to pass Proposition 22, which will strip gig economy workers of the protection of labour laws.
If 2020 can deliver one gift, let it be the death of the shibboleth of the United States as the “leader of the free world.” A moniker so absurd outside of the “West” where people are all too familiar with the violence and anti-democractic projection of American power.
The most galling of myths, however, is the “land of opportunity” chestnut. The notion that America’s success and dynamism is tied to rugged individualism and unbridled free enterprise. In reality, staggering levels of economic inequality mean opportunity is hard to come by for those not born into wealth. And that opportunity is still mediated by ruthlessly discriminatory systems whether it be in education, employment, social services, banking, policing, the criminal justice system, health care or beyond.
Joe Biden doesn’t so much “inherit” this racist and unequal America as he is an architect of its modern form, first as a Senator and later as the Vice-President. There is little evidence to suggest he will take lessons from the left populism exemplified by Bernie Sanders, a political programme that appealed to many Trump supporters by naming the corporate greed responsible for their economic situation.
Meanwhile, COVID is ravaging a population where tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance, disproportionately impacting Black and other racialized communities. And still the Biden-Harris ticket made clear they would not pursue Medicare For All.
What hope there is for transformational change lies not with President-Elect Biden, but with the social movements and other progressive currents organizing to dismantle the status quo and wield state power differently.
Jonathan Sas is a recovering political staffer and communications strategist. His writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, Maissoneuve, The Tyee and Policy Options.