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.

Barbara Ransby

Thousands of New Yorkers flood the streets November 7, four days after Election Day, as news outlets project a Joe Biden presidential victory. Similar events erupted in cities nationwide organized by various community groups, including the New York City Protect the Results Coalition. Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

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 régime 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. 

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.
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