With Biden in Power, Beware the Neoliberal Backlash
Grassroots organizers and Black voters led Biden to victory. Our concerns and demands must be taken seriously.
American voters have given the former slumlord President Donald Trump an eviction notice to vacate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He will not leave without a fight, but he will eventually leave. For many of us, the past four years have been a hellish eternity. So, we should allow ourselves a little celebratory relief.
But after the party, we have to prepare for a neoliberal backlash. The corporate Democrats are already talking “reconciliation” and “normalization” at the expense of the Left and the Black Lives Matter movement. Rather than thanking grassroots groups and Black women voters for showing up in large numbers, the centrists within the party (backed by liberal media pundits) are blaming the Left for shortfalls in down-ballot races.
In a contentious three-hour phone call among House Democrats on November 5, former CIA officer Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Va.) and South Carolina’s kingmaker Rep. James Clyburn blamed “defund the police” and “socialism” for the lackluster showing in House races across the country. A lesson for the Left: No matter how much you help them and compromise, you cannot please centrist liberals unless you shut up and disappear.
We will not shut up or disappear, and progressive organizers have no apologies to make in this electoral season. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) indicated as much on the call when she said, “Don’t blame myself and others who are fighting for issues that matter to our communities.”
The fact is that a massive get-out-the-vote effort, fueled by progressives and BIPOC organizers, created the largest voter turnout in history, despite a weak Democratic nominee and a worsening pandemic. Groups such as The Frontline, Protect the Vote, United We Dream and the Fight Back Table waged pragmatic, strategic and relentless campaigns to successfully oust Trump. Biden must know he owes his victory to the Left and Black voters, and as such, we will not be silenced or relegated to the margins.
Despite the Left’s instrumental role in Biden’s victory, centrists and liberal media are calling for Biden to reach out, instead, to the Right.
In his victory speech November 7, Biden foregrounded the importance of unity and reaching across the aisle — but that “aisle” is now an alligator-filled moat, and Biden is more likely to throw left forces and marginalized communities to the alligators than give us a seat at the table. It would not be surprising if Biden starts building a profile as “tough on the radical Left” with a conciliatory tone toward the anti-Trump, so-called mainstream of the GOP.
CNN hosts Van Jones and Republican Rick Santorum said as much on a post-election roundtable. “I think Joe Biden wants us to reset,” and “sit down at the same table,” Jones said. Biden-supporting Republican poster boy John Kasich went further, saying the “far Left … almost cost [Biden] this election” and calling for Biden to reject the Left and embrace the center (i.e. the Right). Historian Mark Updegrove, speaking on ABC, made the outrageous assertion that Biden should model himself after President Abraham Lincoln, who extended his hand to former Confederates after the Civil War. Lincoln “set so many presidential standards,” Updegrove said. “He reached out to the vanquished South, to the former Confederates … with malice toward none, with charity for all … and brought them back into the fold.” (Translation: Lincoln’s first impulse was to make amends with those who kidnapped, enslaved and terrorized Black people throughout the South from 1619 to 1865 and fought a bloody war trying to preserve their privilege to do so. What would the 21st-century version of that leadership look like?)
But this stance should be no surprise, given this country’s historical precedents. In the heated and contested presidential election of 1876, (former Confederate) Democrats agreed to support abolitionist Republican Rutherford B. Hayes over their nominee, Samuel Tilden — on the condition that the last vestiges of Reconstruction be abandoned. U.S. troops, protecting a fragile Black freedom, would soon be pulled out of the South. Essentially, Black people were not thrown under a bus so much as in front of a fast-moving train. That scenario is what a liberal-conservative compromise looked like in the 19th century. Let’s make sure we are not the sacrificial lambs in the 21st.
Juan Williams insisted rightly on Fox News that the Democrats have elected a moderate, not a progressive. And it’s true: Biden opposed bussing for school desegregation, rejects Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, defends the environmentally destructive practice of fracking and boasts of his relationship with Republican conservative segregationist colleagues in the Senate. These markers reveal the person Biden is. Biden is also a person who humiliated Anita Hill when she stepped forward with sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas, who supported the racist 1994 crime bill, who helped usher in the disastrous war in Iraq, and who told Black people we “ain’t” Black if we don’t support him. And he was still the better candidate.
But Biden was not elected to make friends with the spineless Republicans who took our country to the brink of fascism, and embracing oligarchs and white nationalists is not “unity.” Remember the vileness of Trump’s hardcore supporters — those who plotted to kidnap a governor, who killed Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha and Charlotte, who support Steve Bannon calling for infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci to be beheaded. There is no kumbaya moment with people like that.
Biden was elected to undo as much damage from the Trump regime as possible and pave a new way. Obama squandered too much of his time in office trying to get racist Republicans to love him, which they never did. Biden has to be pressured to use the power of the office immediately.
What we need is an aggressive racial and economic justice agenda that rights longstanding wrongs, dethrones the billionaires, spreads the wealth, creates a sturdier national infrastructure and reverses our dangerous climate policies. Biden’s cabinet appointments should be bold, not the usual insider cronyism. We have to push for tough and committed movement representatives, not politicians inclined to suck up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) to advance their careers.
Closed-door negotiations will not press Biden to do the right thing, but unrelenting organizing could: marches, vigils, direct action and labor strikes. Police reform and accountability is on the front burner of municipalities across the country because a mass movement put it there, forcing politicians to respond. Trump’s four-year reign has led to enormous pain and suffering, with more than 238,000 U.S. deaths from a virus that could have been better contained, immigrant children locked in cages (who may never see their families again because of inhumane border policies) and an evisceration of key government departments and programs designed to protect and serve the public good, such as the National Institutes of Health and Low Income Energy Assistance Program. Trump and his accomplices need to be put on trial for their reckless and harmful actions, rather than embraced.
So, what do our movement organizations need to do? First, we must continue the work to defeat Trumpism. The seeds of animus and racism Trump has sown are still growing, and he is now likely to take his vile and venom on the road, albeit without the weight of state power.
Second, we must aggressively push Biden to enact as progressive an agenda as possible, with clear-eyed understanding that his inclination will instead be to placate the Republicans who jumped off the sinking GOP ship to support him.
And third, we must build a strong, ideologically grounded mass left movement — and possibly left party — that includes electoral work but extends beyond that, such as standing in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives and working closely with organizers and activists to build working-class coalitions. With a Biden administration in Washington and a few strong left voices in Congress (and Republicans potentially losing control of the Senate), progressives need to embrace an inside-outside strategy — which looks like movement people doing some of their work inside government and the electoral arena (not as a career but in service to the cause). I am talking about a more coordinated, overall left strategy — not a dogmatic party line — to advance our movement goals through party politics as well as movement building.
We should celebrate Trump’s defeat. We should also acknowledge the limits and pitfalls of Biden’s victory. As Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral reminds us: “Tell no lies. … Claim no easy [even if hard-fought] victories.” Our work continues.
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Barbara Ransby is a professor of history at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. She is a longtime activist and a founder of the group Ella’s Daughters. Most recently she works with the growing Movement for Black Lives and The Rising Majority