Joe Biden Owes His Victory to the Left, No Matter What the Democratic Party Says

Organizers, not consultants, delivered key states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia. Democrats ignore this reality at their peril.

Rebecca Chowdhury

Bettylourde Guerrier speaks with Alberto Moejom and Erlinda Guerra as she canvasses a neighborhood encouraging people to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on October 06, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida. UNITE HERE coordinated the canvassing effort. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the after­math of the 2020 elec­tions, Demo­c­ra­t­ic offi­cials have sparred over who’s respon­si­ble for the party’s unex­pect­ed loss­es in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Mod­er­ates (or cor­po­rate Democ­rats” as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) has dubbed them) claim that calls to defund the police, end frack­ing and ensure Medicare for All spooked mod­er­ate vot­ers and helped tip oth­er­wise com­pet­i­tive con­gres­sion­al races. Mean­while pro­gres­sives point to their more con­ser­v­a­tive coun­ter­parts’ refusal to embrace pop­u­lar poli­cies that increase vot­er turnout and sub­stan­tive­ly address insti­tu­tion­al racism or invest in strate­gies like dig­i­tal adver­tis­ing and orga­niz­ing.

Over the past week, In These Times spoke to nine orga­ni­za­tions from Ari­zona to Geor­gia to Penn­syl­va­nia, each of which played a major role in turn­ing key coun­ties and states blue. Togeth­er, these groups showed how Black and brown com­mu­ni­ties increas­ing­ly ignored by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in favor of white sub­ur­ban­ites can defeat Trump­ism by swing­ing entire states. Although the pres­i­dent man­aged to increase his vote share with peo­ple of col­or, these orga­ni­za­tions’ achieve­ments rein­force the impor­tance of mobi­liz­ing low-income vot­ers with cam­paigns that address their mate­r­i­al conditions.

The peo­ple who came out [to vote] were incred­i­ble,” says Dina Pare­des, a Cal­i­for­nia hotel work­er who was laid off dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and joined can­vass­ing efforts in Ari­zona through her union, Unite Here. They had nev­er ever vot­ed before in this country.”

Pare­des is from El Sal­vador and has lived in the U.S. for 25 years. As a Tem­po­rary Pro­tect­ed Sta­tus (TPS) hold­er, she received a work per­mit under a human­i­tar­i­an pro­gram set to expire in 2021 after the Trump admin­is­tra­tion suc­ceed­ed in elim­i­nat­ing pro­tec­tions from depor­ta­tion for around 400,000 ben­e­fi­cia­ries. I have TPS, so I get but­ter­flies in my stom­ach when I talk about this,” she con­tin­ues in Span­ish. What we achieved is his­toric. I’m going to recount it to my chil­dren, grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren. [But] our fight isn’t over. This is only the beginning.”

For decades, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has invest­ed in pre-elec­tion can­vass­ing that allows vol­un­teers to speak direct­ly to swing-state vot­ers about their can­di­date of choice. Due to the pan­dem­ic, how­ev­er, the Joe Biden cam­paign did not approve this kind of door-to-door out­reach until Octo­ber, focus­ing instead on tele­vi­sion adver­tise­ments, text mes­sages, emails and vir­tu­al events. There to pick up the slack were groups like Unite Here, which began its can­vass­ing in the sum­mer and com­plet­ed its work with­out a sin­gle one of its 1700 vol­un­teers con­tract­ing COVID-19

You don’t beat Trump­ism with ads, you beat it with orga­niz­ing,” says Jacob Swen­son-Lengyel, direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Penn­syl­va­nia Stands Up, a coali­tion devot­ed to build­ing peo­ple pow­er across the state. Swen­son-Lengyel explained that vol­un­teers engaged com­mu­ni­ties in lengthy con­ver­sa­tions about how they were car­ing for one anoth­er dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and what it would mean to have a gov­ern­ment that did the same. In all, the orga­ni­za­tion spoke to over 400,000 eli­gi­ble voters.

By estab­lish­ing rela­tion­ships with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers that will last well beyond the 2020 elec­tion, orga­ni­za­tions like SONG Pow­er, a grass­roots effort focused on the South, offer a pow­er­ful mod­el for base-build­ing. We need to be ori­ent­ed toward slow and respect­ful work,” says orga­niz­ing lead Jade Brooks. How do we com­bine that approach with an elec­toral cycle that’s all about [imme­di­ate] impact? [Part of] the answer is to invest in build­ing com­mu­ni­ty-based and root­ed orga­ni­za­tions that are going to stick around…long after the elec­tions and will invest in the lead­er­ship of Black and brown lead­ers who have been doing the work [rather than] consultants.”

This is pre­cise­ly the work SONG Pow­er car­ried out with Black, Indige­nous, and peo­ple of col­or com­mu­ni­ties in South Car­oli­na and Geor­gia. Many of these peo­ple had nev­er vot­ed before, but out­reach includ­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of food, coats and lit­er­a­ture helped bring them into the elec­toral process.

For Native Amer­i­can vot­ers, a key issue this Novem­ber was era­sure — a phe­nom­e­non cap­tured by a recent CNN demo­graph­ics poll that clas­si­fied them as some­thing else.” Fol­low­ing Don­ald Trump’s upset vic­to­ry in 2016, groups like Four Direc­tions and the Native Orga­niz­ers Alliance (among oth­ers) care­ful­ly stud­ied how this pop­u­la­tion could deter­mine the out­come of key swing states, lead­ing to the first Native Amer­i­can Pres­i­den­tial Forum. The forum, held in August of last year, allowed Demo­c­ra­t­ic hope­fuls to con­verse direct­ly with trib­al lead­ers and activists. It also served to com­bat Native peo­ples’ dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the U.S. polit­i­cal sys­tem while gen­er­at­ing the inter­est and invest­ment nec­es­sary to train them how to over­come the huge bar­ri­ers to voting on reservations.

OJ Semans Sr., Co-founder of Four Direc­tions, trained and hired Native peo­ple across the coun­try to con­duct vot­er out­reach in their com­mu­ni­ties. He esti­mates that vol­un­teers reg­is­tered 2,500 new vot­ers in the Nava­jo Nation, which helped boost turnout and played a major role in deliv­er­ing key coun­ties to Joe Biden in Ari­zona. This is one of the only elec­tions where I’ve seen trib­al orga­ni­za­tions unit­ed in help­ing Natives get to the polls,” he said. Semans is now in Geor­gia to train local tribe mem­bers ahead of the state’s runoff elections. 

While Black turnout in Geor­gia was up over 2016, it nonethe­less rep­re­sent­ed a low­er share of the elec­torate, and data indi­cates that Biden made some of his biggest gains with mod­er­ates in the Atlanta sub­urbs. For Brooks, this under­scores the dan­ger of draft­ing cen­trist can­di­dates who will not address the needs of mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. The future of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, she con­tends, depends on its abil­i­ty to attract vot­ers with a bold, pro­gres­sive agen­da that will pro­duce the kind of sys­temic change that has long been the goal of orga­ni­za­tions like SONG Pow­er, Mijente and the GLAHR Action Net­work. This col­lab­o­ra­tion has been built over years of con­nec­tion and orga­niz­ing togeth­er,” says Brooks. We have the kind of trust that’s only forged in struggle.” 

Whether or not they can deliv­er Democ­rats con­trol of the Sen­ate via December’s runoff elec­tions remains to be seen, but these orga­ni­za­tions have already suc­ceed­ed in oust­ing two local sher­iffs whose deputies worked in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) to deport undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants for infrac­tions as minor as speed­ing. Recount­ing a recent call cel­e­brat­ing these vic­to­ries, Brooks says SONG Pow­er mem­bers were cry­ing” tears of joy about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of even­tu­al­ly end­ing mon­ey bail and melt­ing ICE.” Mean­while in North Car­oli­na, where many undoc­u­ment­ed com­mu­ni­ties fall under the juris­dic­tion of the same ICE office, groups like Siem­bra are knock­ing on doors to ensure res­i­dents know their rights in the event of retal­ia­to­ry raids.

In Ari­zona, the past 10 years of orga­niz­ing against dra­con­ian anti-immi­grant poli­cies pro­vid­ed the infra­struc­ture to turn out Black, Lat­inx and Native Amer­i­can vot­ers at a scale that proved deci­sive. Alexa-Rio Osa­ki, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the pro­gres­sive advo­ca­cy group Our Voice Our Vote, Ari­zona, has seen first­hand how these vio­lent poli­cies gal­va­nized a new gen­er­a­tion of orga­niz­ers. Account­abil­i­ty [means more than] going on Twit­ter and yelling,” she observes. Through the pow­er of orga­niz­ing, we have to show that there are con­se­quences for being on the [wrong] side of history.”

These Black and brown-led move­ments are now set­ting their sights on states where right-wing pow­er remains entrenched. Ear­li­er this year, SONG Pow­er launched a Crack Gra­ham” cam­paign to unseat South Car­oli­na Sen­a­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham that fea­tured Hoe Downs” empha­siz­ing the joy in col­lec­tive action. While the cam­paign was ulti­mate­ly unsuc­cess­ful, orga­niz­ers believe they were able to seed the ground for a New South” by build­ing rela­tion­ships with rur­al Black, Lat­inx and queer communities.

As Trump’s pres­i­den­cy draws to an end, the incom­ing Biden admin­is­tra­tion will be forced to con­tend with a pro­gres­sive move­ment gain­ing strength and momen­tum across the coun­try. One Penn­syl­va­nia is redi­rect­ing its resources toward pre­vent­ing an evic­tion cri­sis, com­bat­ing wage theft and ensur­ing work­ers receive their paid sick days, while mem­bers of Penn­syl­va­nia Stands Up in Lehigh Coun­ty are strate­giz­ing on how to defund local police depart­ments and cul­ti­vate pro­gres­sive can­di­dates for future elections.

While autop­sies of the 2020 elec­tion have only just begun, the impact of orga­ni­za­tions like Mijente is unde­ni­able. So too is their impor­tance mov­ing for­ward, espe­cial­ly as Trump’s gains with peo­ple of col­or have shat­tered the illu­sion that demo­graph­ics are des­tiny. All of these ideas of return­ing to what was con­sid­ered reg­u­lar under Oba­ma was won through orga­niz­ing,” cau­tions the organization’s senior cam­paign orga­niz­er, Jac­in­ta Gon­za­lez. It was won because com­mu­ni­ties fought depor­ta­tion cas­es, fought for local and state poli­cies and took to the streets and spoke to their elect­ed officials.”

Only time will tell whether Democ­rats heed her warn­ing. But if they don’t, there’s an entire move­ment ready to hold the party’s lead­er­ship to account. 

Rebec­ca Chowd­hury is a free­lance inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist based in New York City. A native New York­er, her work focus­ing on under­re­port­ed com­mu­ni­ties has appeared in The Appeal, The Indypen­dent and Human Rights Watch.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue