U.S.: the Democrats, “national unity” and the Left

By Luis Meiners

With the Democratic National Convention over and the Biden-Harris ticket officially nominated, the Democrats have started the final stretch of the campaign towards the presidential elections in November. Trump’s polling numbers have been going down for months and Wall Street, the bipartisan political establishment and the state apparatus seem to have found a safer bet in the democratic ballot. National unity to defeat Trump, the rallying cry of lesser-evilism.

The past two weeks have been a showcase of the democratic party line for the elections, especially on how they seek to double down on the lesser-evil strategy. In the context of a historical uprising against systemic racism and police brutality, an ongoing economic crisis, and a pandemic that rages on under criminal mismanagement, the Democratic Party wants to channel the energy in the streets and the justified anger at the Trump administration into the ballot box. In doing so, not only does it seek to win by a comfortable margin, but also to effectively drown the current challenge to the status quo.

Unite the party for “National Unity”

The rise of insurgent candidates like Sanders in 2016 and in 2018 the successful primary challenges of what would later become “the squad”, which campaigned against the establishment of the Democratic Party were indicators of a deeper trend. The aftermath of the 2008 crisis has had strong consequences for the Democratic Party and the US political regime as a whole.

The last decade has seen growing political radicalization, especially in large sections of the youth. The emergence of important mass struggles combined with the disappointment with the Obama administration fueled this process. Trump’s victory in 2016 and his presidency thereafter further polarized the political landscape.

Against this backdrop, Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 was a hard blow on the neoliberal establishment of “centrist” and “moderate” democrats. This was the picture when the 2020 primary started, with a fragmented field featuring a dwindling Joe Biden and what appeared to be Sanders in pole position. The establishment closed ranks, and managed to sideline Sanders and secure Biden´s nomination. But this didn’t close the underlying processes which created the crisis and provided the space for Sanders, nor did it make “Joe” any more appealing as a candidate.

This situation explains the insistence in “party unity” and sheds light on the role played by Bernie Sanders, AOC and other “progressives” in this process. Dropping out early on the race, endorsing Biden and joining the “task forces” for the party platform, was clearly acknowledging that it is not enough with Biden to get people out to vote and secure victory in November. “Progressives” needed to play an active part in reconciling a disenchanted base. Sanders saying that Biden can become the most progressive president since FDR is the logical consequence of his strategy. Trying to “realign” the democratic party only ends in the realignment of the “insurgents”.

This orientation is justified under the banner of stopping Donald Trump. The arguments of lesser evilism are highlighted by the need to defend democracy. And so, the “big tent” of the Democratic Party is made even bigger to accommodate “moderate” and even “conservative” Republicans. Under the banner of national unity, “progressives” end up sharing the stage with the likes of Colin Powell.

“National unity”

Not coincidentally, “national unity” was one of the main themes during the Democratic National Convention. The lineup of speakers, which included from progressives such as Sanders and AOC to republicans such as John Kasich and Colin Powell, was clearly meant to convey this concept. And it was also emphasized by the speakers themselves.

Sanders was in charge of making the argument from the “left”. He presented the election as “the most important in modern history”, and framed it as a struggle in defense of democracy against authoritarianism. This, he argued, called for working together with “progressives, moderates and even conservatives”. John Kasich, former republican governor of Ohio, mirrored the speech from the right. “America” he said “is at crossroads” and the “stakes are greater than ever”. He argued that he was speaking in the DNC as a lifelong republican, because “Americans need to unite to overcome the divisiveness”.

Wall Street has gotten behind this approach. The Biden campaign outstrips Trump in billionaire donors. As a recent New York Times headline read “The wallets of Wall Street are with Joe Biden”. The choice of Kamala Harris as vice-presidential candidate further deepened this trend. The Wall Street Journal described the feeling in the financial world as a “sigh of relief”, as they were confident that her pick reflected that “tougher financial regulation is not a top priority”. Kamala´s connection to the Silicon Valley tech giants is well known.

The democratic ticket has also gained increasing support from the so called “intelligence community”, as the rift between the Trump administration and the high spheres of the state apparatus becomes more open. The most recent case was that of Trump’s former chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security, Miles Taylor, who publicly expressed his endorsement of Biden on the grounds that Trump is “dangerous for America”.

It is clear that progressives are merely the “junior partners” of the real democratic coalition, which features prominent establishment republicans, Wall Street wallets and important voices of the “intelligence community”. Once again, “national interests” are the way in which the ruling class presents its own agenda. 

“Leadership abroad”

One of the main hit points of the democrat campaign is how “Trump has undermined America´s image abroad”, and how he is “unfit to be commander-in-chief” . By contrast, as Obama argued in his speech at the DNC: “Joe and Kamala will restore our standing in the world”. Leadership abroad is the euphemism used to present the defense of US imperialism.

The presence of Colin Powell as a prominent speaker at the DNC was a clear indication of this. Inviting “the man who made the case for invading Iraq”, as a recent New York Times article described Powell, is certainly a strong message. Nor is it coincidental that he in turn would call for support for a president that “trusts the intelligence community”.

The presidential duo have their own credentials to show for their support of the interests of US imperialism. Biden has a long standing record in this sense, including his vote in favour of the invasion of Iraq as a senator in 2004. As a senator, Harris co-sponsored senate resolution 6, which objected a UN resolution condemning Isreali settlement policy in Palestinian land. She has publicly praised the genocidal state of Israeli and posed in friendly pictures with Benjamin Netanyahu.

So, what can we expect on foreign policy with Biden-Harris in the White House? Democrats speak of reasserting US leadership on the global stage against Trump’s “isolationism”. They have also been clear that they will adopt a hard stand against China, and have openly criticised Trump for being soft on Russia. With this approach, there is little doubt as to why they have become the favored choice of the “intelligence community”. They currently express the road forward for US imperialism.

Debates on the left

Trump´s open racism, sexism, authoritarianism, his blatant contempt for human life in the face of pandemic, the simple fact that he is a billionaire who openly defends billionaires, give millions of people more than enough reasons to loathe the perspective of four more years of him in the White House. The Democratic Party knows this. That is why they are openly aiming to make spin around “character”. From the opening night to Biden´s acceptance speech, “decent” Joe to “evil” Trump was one of the main themes.

On the premise that the election is all about Trump, the lesser-evil logic of anybody but Trump flourishes. There is a very strong push to put pressure on the left. Of course, the stalinist and maoist factions are quick to get on board, and several important personalities on the left have followed suit. One recent example is Angela Davis, who had already called for a vote against Trump and has now stated that Kamala Harris makes the ticket “more palatable”. This is particularly striking taking into account Kamala’s far from progressive, tough on crime, record as a prosecutor (with milestones that include jailing parents for their children’s truancy), which led to the popular phrase “Kamala is a cop”.

This brings to the fore the debate about lesser-evil once again. Gramsci once described this logic as the process of adaptation to a regressive movement. This is completely true. Together with the idea of “realignment”, which suggests that the democratic party can be taken over or pushed to progessive policies, these strategies have effectively weakened the left. Sharing a stage with the likes of Colin Powell should be warning enough as to where things are headed.

Some sectors of the left, and more recently parts of the mainstream liberal media, have described Trump as a fascist and framed the election in terms of a struggle in defense of democracy. Whether or not the concept is suited to describe Trump, it is inadequate to describe the reality of the US. Even more, in terms of struggle against fascism, history teaches the lesson that mass mobilization, and not lesser-evil voting is the key to confront this. So, voting for the ticket that aims at getting people off the streets is hardly the path to stop fascism.

All of this debate places once again the crucial need to build an independent socialist party. Socialist ideas have grown in popularity, there is a true opening for this strategic task. Unfortunately, parts of the socialist left are focused on electoral politics on the democratic ballot line, and postpone building an independent party for an indefinite future. It is up revolutionary socialists to regroup and argue for the need to start taking concrete steps in this direction.