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.
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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.