As the US Presidential election approaches, arguments are polarising between two regressive options. Michael Doyle calls on the left to look beyond the false dichotomy to an empire in crisis.
The appalling first presidential show-down between Donald Trump and Joe Biden has reanimated a recurring debate on the broad left in the UK and the US, on whether socialists should back the ‘lesser of two evils’ in the US elections. Every US presidential cycle presents two candidates who are both backed by corporate America and propose policies that have adverse impacts on most Americans. 40% of Americans would be unable to come up with $400 to deal with an unexpected bill. Since the beginning of the neoliberal period of capitalism, poverty and income inequality have increased substantially and has disproportionately hit minority communities. NAFTA has wrought social havoc in large parts of the US, creating industrial deserts with high levels of opium addiction now common. So ‘evil’ there is.
Some prominent media commentators on the left in the UK and the US have repeatedly identified these negative and destructive impacts of neoliberalism, and many more besides. However, despite these empirically robust and cogently argued pieces of analysis, come election time in November, they will argue that left-wingers should vote for Joe Biden. This is a curious and dangerous paradox that has prevented the left from challenging the neoliberal consensus. In this article, I will explore why the left has been trapped in an intellectual prison since the inception of neoliberalism and a brief exegesis on Biden’s record and why the strategy of ‘pushing him left’ is futile.
The starting point in understanding why the broad left is trapped in this paradox of backing a presidential candidate with a proven track record of causing harm to the people the left care most about is the reproduction of the relations of capitalist production. Two types of state apparatus ensure that neoliberal capitalism is repeatedly reproduced: repressive and ideological. The repressive state apparatus constitutes an organized whole whose different parts are centralized beneath a commanding unity, that of the politics of class struggle applied by the political representatives of the ruling classes in possession of state power; the ideological state apparatuses are multiple, distinct and ‘relatively autonomous’ from the repressive state apparatus.
The US has ruthlessly enforced repression, breaking strikes with force, to police violence towards black Americans amongst just many examples of state repression. A series of defeats on the American working-class in past decades contributing to a psychology of defeat which has limited the political horizons of much of the American left. The same process has occurred in the UK and has had a similar impact on much of the UK left.
There are many ideological state apparatuses responsible for consistently reproducing these relations: mass media, schools and the church (which in the US is state-sponsored and ideologically powerful) among them. The mass media relentlessly promote the idea that there is no alternative to the current political and socio-economic system; the school system sets most Americans on a trajectory of economic insecurity and poverty; religious justifications are given for poverty by Congressmen, evoking the famous biblical line ‘he who does not work, neither shall he eat’. Repression, ideology and the psychology of defeat create the illusion of a properly functioning bourgeois liberal democracy which negates the possibility of building a new party or other political alternatives. Therefore, locked into this system of reproduction, leading elements of the left have settled for working within a system that does allow the building of an alternative to neoliberalism to be developed. Thus, when the quadrennial presidential electoral cycle occurs, elements of the British and American left advocate a vote for the lesser of ‘two evils’. One of the ironies of this advocacy is the disappointment those elements of the left feel with their choice. For example, when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many on the left believed that he would deliver some of the ‘hope’ and ‘change’ he promised; only to be disappointed that he did not fulfil even one of the key promises which would have marked a decisive break with Bush’s presidency: the closing of the Guantanamo Bay torture camp being the most obvious example.
In this presidential cycle, Biden is the lesser evil compared to Trump. However, the differences between them are minuscule. Take the issue of police violence, which has been a pertinent issue this summer. Whilst Trump is unapologetic about police officers shooting to kill; Biden’s difference with Trump is on what part of the anatomy the officer should aim for, with Biden saying that officers should aim for the leg rather than the heart. This is consistent with Biden’s record of being a millimetre to the left of the prevailing Republican position. On the economy, welfare, crime, immigration and foreign policy, Biden has not only been consistent in taking conservative positions and has even lambasted Republican presidents for not going far enough. When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, Biden claimed that he had been ahead of the curve on budget issues, saying that the election of Reagan was “consistent with the budgetary thrust that a guy like me… has been going for the past few years.” In more recent times, as Obama’s vice-president, Biden continued to put fiscal conservatism and permanent tax giveaways to the rich above the needs of the millions of unemployed Americans who were made to pay the price for the financial crisis of 2008 – a crisis that they did not cause. In 2014, Biden cut a deal with the Republican leadership to cut the nutrition program for low-income parents, erosion of campaign finance restrictions and a provision that weakened Obama’s 2010 financial reform act that was written by Citigroup lobbyists.
When Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to their first House of Representatives majority in forty years and achieved a Senate majority, he promised a radical overhaul of welfare. The infamous Welfare Reform Bill that President Clinton signed in August 1996 – with Biden as one of its main champions – meant that by 2016, the number of households living on less than $2 a day had doubled. Biden chastised successive Republican presidents for not being tough enough and was one of Clinton’s biggest supporters when he signed the 1994 Crime bill which has led to a disproportionate increase in black and brown Americans being incarcerated. Biden’s record on race is one of repeatedly siding with the forces of conservatism, most notably his defence of the legal segregation of different races in schools, a position he shared with his close friend and ally, the late Strom Thurmond. Likewise Biden’s record on immigration in 2006, Biden spoke like a proto-Trump when boasting that he had voted to build a seven hundred mile fence, but that this would not be enough since it was the dynamic in Mexico that was making people drive across the border from ‘corrupt Mexico’ with drugs. Worse still, as vice-president, Biden helped erect the repressive state architecture towards immigrants that Trump would use to such brutal effect.
Biden’s foreign policy record – both as a senator and as vice-president – has not deviated from the conventional US foreign policy consensus. He is regarded as a ‘foreign policy specialist’ in Washington, a specialist who backed every disastrous (meaning excessive loss of innocent lives and mass displacement of people) US military adventure since he began his career in Washington. Biden was the leading Democrat pushing for war in Iraq in 2002-2003, a key architect of Clinton’s ‘Plan Colombia’ which fuelled Colombian state violence leading to 1.8 million people being displaced and 300,000 innocent deaths, and was the leading advocate for ‘surgical drone strikes’ that would kill hundreds of these countries’ civilians over the course of eight years—farmers, funerals, a wedding party, and even a sixteen-year-old American citizen who happened to be the son of an accused terrorist. The examples listed above are just a small sample of Biden’s record which is completely antithetical to the values of the socialist and social-democratic left. However, these actions are manifestations of the consensus in Washington on foreign policy. This is a consensus that Trump has barely deviated from. Trump has continued and increased the drone program with the only minor difference being that Trump has been less accountable than Obama who was less accountable than Bush. Furthermore, one of Trump’s first acts was to formalise the 1995 US decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem – a decision that Biden enthusiastically supported.
A common refrain is that Trump is a fascist and that his second term will usher in fascism. There is no denying that Trump is a racist – although he is not the ‘first’ racist president which was the ludicrous claim made by Biden. However, Trump is not a fascist. A key characteristic of fascism is the violent revolutionary overthrow of the existing system of governance and abolition of the constitution, typically as a response to the rise of a revolutionary threat to the social order from the working class. Trump has neither advocated nor attempted to commit such an act. Trump has certainly incited violence – but that alone does not make him a fascist. And though we should recognise the violent and reactionary character of elements supporting Trump (and with which he has directly communicated after the Charleston fascist murder and during the debate, to note just two instances), assertions that Trump will abolish democracy and liquidate his opposition are unserious.
‘Vote shaming’ has increasingly become a part of the rhetorical repertoire employed by the elements of the left that choose to back the lesser of two evils. The most prevalent charge is that people who do not vote for the lesser of two evils are ‘privileged’. These privileged voters are presumed to be wealthy enough or racially privileged enough to withstand the worst effects of a Trump second term. However, one of the most comprehensive surveys of non-voters published by the Pew Research Centre in August 2018 shows that almost half of the non-voters in the 2016 US presidential election were non-white and fifty-six per cent of non-voters are amongst the poorest voters in the country.
Whilst there are undoubtedly voter suppression efforts that suppress voter turnout, another Pew survey in 2017 showed that the primary factor non-voters refrain from engaging with the electoral process was a dislike of politics or believe voting will not make a difference. This detachment is a by-product of neoliberalism, the repressive state imposes policies that make the poorest voters poorer and perpetually insecure and has inflicted defeat after defeat on the organised American working-class; the ideological state apparatus relentlessly promotes the idea that there is no alternative to the current choice of two evils. Far from being ‘privileged’ voters, these are the unprivileged voters who have borne the brunt of forty years of assaults. Yet it is also, I would argue, a by-product of vote shaming, which further alienates the disenchanted.
The left must move beyond the lesser of two evils dynamic and tap into the rich tradition of class struggle that runs like a seam through American history. The labour struggles of the 1930s and the rank and file’s militancy during the ‘long seventies’ show that when mobilised, the US working class can be a potent and powerful political force that makes improvements in people’s lives. Now, more than ever, this political tradition needs to be revived and scaled-up with support for struggles from Black Lives Matter to workers and tenants fighting back in the economic crisis.
There is not now a nation-wide socialist electoral force. But this is not contributed to by press-ganging progressive opinion into compromising its political ideas and autonomy. Rather than polarising left opinion between people who do and do not ultimately decide to vote for the lesser evil (and millions of workers will choose to do both) the more vital questions posed in this election are how to respond to either regressive outcome – which will see new attacks on workers, competition with China and unserious or no action to deal with climate change – or indeed a possible constitutional crisis should the outcome be close. The alternative to lesser-evilism is prioritising radical politics. For it is only by prioritising radical politics that we can break out of the recurring choice between regressive politics and begin to build something better.