Power Comes From Class War, Not Biden

The Left needs workers more than it needs the Democratic Party.

Hamilton Nolan

A "Count Every Vote" rally in Philadelphia on Saturday, November 6, when votes were still being tallied. Photo by Hamilton Nolan

It may have been the biggest mis­la­beled cel­e­bra­tion in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. By mid­day Sat­ur­day, Novem­ber 7, when the elec­tion was final­ly called, hordes of ecsta­t­ic peo­ple poured into the streets across the coun­try, honk­ing and cheer­ing and weep­ing with joy. This was wide­ly referred to as a cel­e­bra­tion of Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden. But it real­ly wasn’t about Biden at all. 

I was in Philadel­phia when the news came, and a major Count Every Vote ral­ly host­ed by unions and com­mu­ni­ty groups instant­ly turned into a Thank God That’s Over ral­ly. There was a for­est of wav­ing signs pro­mot­ing unions, and the Green New Deal, and democ­ra­cy itself. Biden-Har­ris signs were rel­a­tive­ly hard to find. Because even Joe Biden’s own vic­to­ry par­ty was not about Joe Biden. 

It was, first, about the end of the Trump night­mare. And sec­ond, about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of some­thing good hap­pen­ing again, one day. Biden him­self had lit­tle to do with it. No one has ever been excit­ed enough about Joe Biden to par­ty in the streets.

In fact, Biden’s entire cam­paign rest­ed on the idea of him not so much as a vision­ary leader but as a ves­sel into which an incred­i­bly broad spec­trum of Amer­i­cans could pour their hopes. After a fren­zied ear­ly pri­ma­ry surge by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the entire Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty seemed to coa­lesce around Biden overnight, based on the the­o­ry that the most mediocre can­di­date would be the safest bet against Trump. That bet paid off — with the help of the party’s left wing, whose activists did as much as any­one to elect Biden. When the eupho­ria of Trump’s down­fall wears off, the Left must wake up to one thing that will not have changed: The pres­i­dent-elect, like the sit­ting pres­i­dent, won by explic­it­ly run­ning against progressives. 

For Trump, crazy car­i­ca­tures of social­ists and immi­grants served as his boo­gie man. For Biden, it was the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Their styles are dif­fer­ent, but both men won by cast­ing them­selves as walls to stop the tide of wild-eyed left­ists rush­ing in to take away your fos­sil fuels and your pri­vate health­care. Trump’s pitch came with racism. Biden’s came with over­ween­ing empa­thy. But both came with implic­it assur­ance that the left­ies would remain locked out­side the White House gates. 

This real­i­ty is what the Left must face. Though infi­nite­ly bet­ter than the alter­na­tive of creep­ing fas­cism, the 2020 elec­tion — a close Biden vic­to­ry, like­ly with­out Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of Con­gress — is a poi­so­nous polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion for pro­gres­sive activists. They now find them­selves with­out Trump’s rad­i­cal­iz­ing influ­ence on the pub­lic and frozen out by a Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment that will cite the need to mod­er­ate their posi­tions to get any­thing passed. 

When the Left shows up to be repaid for their work of get­ting Biden elect­ed, they will run into John Kasich and the dis­af­fect­ed Repub­li­cans who are there for the same rea­son. It is not hard to imag­ine that these groups will more or less can­cel each oth­er out, leav­ing the cen­trists to feast on their favorite food, the sta­tus quo. 

For the mil­lionth time, the Left will see its polit­i­cal util­i­ty to the Democ­rats evap­o­rate after Elec­tion Day. Hope springs eter­nal, but the raw log­ic of our two-par­ty sys­tem dev­as­tates us anew, again and again. The way out of this trap is to build a pow­er cen­ter that is not locked into the elec­toral sys­tem, where it is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for the Left to con­sis­tent­ly win.

Where can such pow­er be built? The rich build it on Wall Street and in the cor­po­rate world. For the Left, it is the labor move­ment, the sole insti­tu­tion that enables work­ing peo­ple to build and exer­cise real eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal pow­er not behold­en to the veto of big com­pa­nies or politicians. 

The arc of the moral uni­verse may bend toward jus­tice, but it is very, very long. Longer than a life­time. Pro­gres­sives — the class of peo­ple who are best able to diag­nose society’s prob­lems, but the least able to change them — will con­tin­ue to be dis­ap­point­ed until they turn the bulk of their atten­tion away from the inher­ent­ly hos­tile elec­toral sys­tem and toward build­ing unions, the only things able to make social­ism real with­out ask­ing for permission. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the estab­lish­ment of the union world has become just as mani­a­cal­ly focused on elec­toral pol­i­tics as the estab­lish­ment of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It is not easy to orga­nize an enor­mous revi­tal­iza­tion of union pow­er when so many unions are them­selves more inter­est­ed in con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns than union campaigns.

But 2020 has brought us the most vital ingre­di­ent of all: an ener­gized and rad­i­cal­ized nation of work­ers in dire need, who are about to be dis­ap­point­ed by how the sys­tem deliv­ers on its big promises.

This elec­tion wasn’t about Joe Biden. It was about get­ting back to a base­line of nor­mal­cy. That nor­mal­cy means class war. If we focus on giv­ing the work­ing class an ade­quate weapon, we won’t be in for quite so much dis­ap­point­ment by 2024.

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue