by Dee Knight. Republished from the Socialist Forum (Winter 2021)
The lessons and impact of the 2020 elections are far reaching. The constant charges of “voter fraud” – really a campaign of attempted suppression of Black voters – hearken back to the Jim Crow era that followed the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. The tactics used by the Trump campaign are a harbinger of continued stormy times ahead. And the efforts of mainstream congressional Democrats to blame the Left for their disappointing results can be considered a preview of coming battles both inside and outside of the Democratic Party.
At a congressional Democratic Party caucus meeting after election day – while tens of thousands of Trump opponents celebrated in the streets of cities across the country – mainstream Democrats stood up to blame progressives for costing them several important seats. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shot back:
Progressive policies do not hurt candidates. Every single candidate that co-sponsored Medicare for All in a swing district kept their seat. We also know that co-sponsoring the Green New Deal was not a sinker. Mike Levin was an original co-sponsor of the legislation, and he kept his seat…
Bernie Sanders echoed AOC, adding that 70% of voters expressed support for Medicare for All, a massive jobs program and a Green New Deal.
AOC blasted mainstream Democrats for “trying to blame the Movement for Black Lives for their loss.” She highlighted the huge share of white support for Trump, who whipped up his supporters on the dangers of rioting, socialism and anarchism. AOC said “we need to do a lot of anti-racist, deep canvassing in this country.” She added that “a lot of Dem strategy is… to avoid poking the bear. That’s their argument with defunding police, right? To not agitate racial resentment. I don’t think that is sustainable.” She meant white racial resentment.
“I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy,” AOC continued. “And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy… If they keep going after the wrong thing, they’re just setting up their own obsolescence.”
Speaking of obsolescence, it’s extremely doubtful that Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the mainstream Democrats are friends of progressives and our base: working-class people of all colors and genders who need more than merely defeating Trump and Trumpism, however important that is. People need an end to police killings, to homelessness and evictions in the midst of a pandemic. They need an end to the loss of jobs and loved ones to a virulent health crisis that could have been controlled months ago, as it was in other countries. People need an end to spiraling debt, a realistic hope of having homes, and a planet to live on past 2030. And we need peace.
Instead of peace there are endless wars and threats of more. Biden’s incoming team includes experts in military domination who are eager to continue and intensify the new cold war against China. Their main quibble with Trump on foreign policy is that he has been too willing to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Biden just wants the U.S. to “return to the head of the table” globally – in other words, domination as usual. There’s no talk of reducing the military budget or stopping the nuclear arms race against Russia and China, or of using those gargantuan funds for domestic programs.
Biden has been ending his speeches with a prayer for “our troops,” with not a word about bringing them home. He voted for the Bush wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He co-authored the 1994 crime bill that beefed up police forces and intensified mass incarceration of people of color. In 1996 he joined President Bill Clinton to “end welfare as we know it,” saying “the culture of welfare must be replaced with the culture of work.” (Will he move to implement a massive jobs program now?) In June 2019 he reassured a group of Wall Street titans with these words: “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change… I need you very badly. I hope if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down. I promise you.” So we should expect no change to the monstrous gap between rich and poor.
Black Voters and the Myth of “Voter Fraud”
After the election Biden told African-Americans “I owe you,” since their votes put him over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia. Now he needs to deliver – with an end to police violence, mass incarceration, unemployment, and institutional racism, instead of mere cabinet window dressing. He needs to be held accountable.
Black voters in those states overcame a juggernaut of “voter fraud” allegations designed to suppress Black voters. It was the Republicans’ main gambit for winning, and one that has served well for generations, most notably in the 2000 elections. Black leaders in Jacksonville, Florida protested then that their voting rights were denied, and 28,000 ballots in Palm Beach County went uncounted in 2000. Richard L. Hasen, author of The Voting Wars, said “The myth that Democratic voter fraud is common, and that it helps Democrats win elections, has become part of the Republican orthodoxy.” The late Congressman John Lewis, famous for braving police and their dogs while demonstrating for civil rights and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, commented on the “voter fraud” myth that “I thought we’d passed this long ago. But it seems we must fight this over and over.”
One celebrating Black voter in Atlanta told TV reporters that she credits Stacey Abrams for the Biden win in Georgia. Abrams “lost” the race for Governor in 2018 to Brian Kemp, who at that time was the Georgia secretary of state. Abrams filed a federal lawsuit claiming that Kemp had impaired citizens’ ability to vote, using voter-roll purges and abusing voter-ID laws, depriving them of their rights under the First, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Meanwhile, as founder of Fair Fight Action, Abrams conducted a two-year campaign, traveling to all Georgia counties and registering tens of thousands of people to vote. These numbers made the difference in Georgia twice: first on November 3, and again on January 5 in the senatorial runoff.
The battle for democracy is far from over. While Trump denounced “vote fraud,” the reality is voter suppression. It’s a continuation of Richard Nixon’s famous “Southern Strategy” of 1968, Ronald Reagan’s promotion of “states’ rights” in 1980, George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton campaign ads in 1988, and George W. Bush’s manipulation of votes in Ohio and Florida in 2000. In all these cases the goal was to encourage white votes and foster efforts to suppress Black voters. Trump is so incensed it didn’t work this time that he has maintained a constant barrage of bizarre efforts to change the vote, and instigated a mob takeover of the Capitol.
The Electoral College and “Winner-Take-All”
Then there’s the Electoral College, through which Trump won the presidency in 2016 while losing the popular vote. It’s a “winner-take-all” game at state level, no matter how close the vote. And states with smaller populations have a disproportional number of electors, based on the total of their congressional representatives and senators.
The system is a time-worn relic of the constitutional deal between northern capitalists and southern slaveocrats, by which slaves were counted as “three fifths of a person” for purposes of representation in Congress. After the Civil War, Black people were counted as “five fifths,” but their votes were suppressed by intimidation and the infamous Black Codes, which denied African-Americans their rights as citizens. The framers of the constitution never intended for Black people – or women – to vote. It took a century of struggle following passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments that recognized the rights of the freed slaves after the Civil War. The 1965 Voting Rights Act reinforced those rights and sought to end the Black Codes and massive voter intimidation throughout the former Confederate states.
Long lines at scarce polling places in Black communities, massive purges of voter rolls, plus voter ID requirements and much more show this intimidation continues to the present. Black people in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin finally beat it back in 2020. But white supremacy continues to reign across the country in myriad ways. The Electoral College reflects the disproportionate number of electors in the South and other states with smaller populations. To solve this injustice we need to abolish the Electoral College, or at a minimum end the “winner-take-all” rule at state level. Southern senators object. According to South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, “The desire to abolish the Electoral College is driven by the idea Democrats want rural America to go away politically.” Rural America is not the problem –racism is. And segregationist Alabama Senator James Allen in 1969 declared “The Electoral College is one of the South’s few remaining political safeguards. Let’s keep it.”
Only a much larger Republican loss in Congress could allow abolition of the Electoral College. So the alternative battle is to end “winner-take-all.” The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It has become law in 15 states and Washington, DC, with a total of 196 electoral votes. It needs an additional 74 electoral votes to go into effect. The bill has passed at least one chamber in nine additional states with 88 more electoral votes.
Georgia voters got a huge victory January 5, when Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won two Senate seats, effectively demoting Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader. Georgia had become the epicenter of the fight for democratic rights. Black voters and their white allies, who successfully flipped the state for Biden, mobilized in unprecedented numbers to win. Metro Atlanta DSA issued a statement: “This was a huge victory for grass roots democracy. Organizations led by people like Stacey Abrams fought voter suppression. Others worked hard to activate voters in our Latinx communities. Labor groups like UNITE HERE put an incredible amount of resources into the race. We donated, canvassed, dropped lit, phone banked, text banked, and voted… And we did it together.”
Fighting Against Fascists and For Democracy
The January 6 riot in Washington was historic. According to the New York Times, “the assault on the capitol was the first by a large hostile group of invaders since the British sacked the building in 1814.” Black Lives Matter activists noted the police response to white gun-toting protesters storming the capitol with the Confederate flag, while some DC police fraternized and took selfies with them. The mother of Michael Brown, killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, told the Washington Post the lack of a police response was stunning: “no shooting, no rubber bullets, no tear gas – nothing like what we have seen.”
Trump brazenly admitted that “We will never give up, we will never concede… and that’s what this is all about.” Rep. Liz Cheney said, “There’s no question that the president formed the mob, …incited the mob, …addressed the mob. He lit the flames.” Trump himself tweeted to the protesters “We love you. You’re very special.” Facebook and Twitter took down his words and suspended his accounts. Not quite an impeachment, but it was a hint that Trump’s time is over. There was much talk of impeachment, or of removing Trump from office under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment due to mental incapacity.
In mid-November, following dozens of failed lawsuits to invalidate votes in key states, Trump invited state legislators to the White House, pushing them to refuse to certify the election outcome and then nominate new slates of electors. Prior to Thanksgiving, Trump supporters made death threats to election officials in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada. In Milwaukee, former sheriff David Clarke declared “We need a chapter of the Proud Boys… in Wisconsin because they’re the only ones with the courage to get in the face of Black Lives Matter.”
Back in Michigan, ten days after the election 14 men were charged in a plot to kidnap the governor and take over the capitol with “200 combatants who would stage a week-long series of televised executions of public officials.” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel declared: “We are one of the few states that does not ban guns in our state capitol building, and clearly there have been threats made on the lives of our legislators.” She added: “In April, we had armed gunmen, some of them the same defendants in this case, that were hovering over state senators with long guns, screaming and yelling at them as they were deliberating…” The defendants were charged, arraigned, indicted – and released on bond.
Faced with these fascistic threats, labor councils across the country announced plans for a general strike if Trump were to succeed in his attempted coup. These were not the first strike pledges. The People’s Strike movement was launched on May Day 2020, initiated by Cooperation Jackson (of Jackson, Miss.), “after we saw working class people launch a wave of labor strike and rent strike actions across the world in response to the severe negligence” in the face of the pandemic. People’s Strike builds on the tidal wave of mass marches and rallies led by the Movement for Black Lives in the wake of police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others.
The Biden team looks less horrifying than Trump’s shock troops, of course, but consider this. Richard Stengel, head of Biden’s transition team for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, has branded himself “chief propagandist.” He is urging the government to use propaganda against its “own population,” and says it should “rethink” the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of speech, press and assembly. In 2018 he stated, “Having once been almost a First Amendment absolutist, I have really moved my position on it, because I just think for practical reasons in society, we have to kind of rethink some of those things.” Are those “practical reasons in society” the continuous mass protests against police killings? Thousands of people have been jailed for protesting, and have waited months for charges to be dismissed, while thousands more face continued charges for exercising their First Amendment rights.
Regarding people’s rights and mass incarceration, neither Biden nor Harris inspire confidence. Biden has specifically rejected calls to defund the police. Harris was a hardline California Attorney General. Her primary challenger Tulsi Gabbard said during the TV debates: “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California, and she fought to keep the cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”
At the Chicago Ideas forum in 2011 Harris mocked people who say “Build more schools, less jails! Put money into education, not prisons! There’s a fundamental problem with that approach,” Harris declared. “You still haven’t addressed why I have three padlocks on my front door… There should be a broad consensus that there should be serious and severe and swift consequences to crime!” Harris is unlikely to help reverse mass incarceration, or deal with the poverty that breeds crime.
“Our Task is to Hit the Ground Running!”
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, told a New York City DSA convention in August 2020: “Our task is to hit the ground running” – “ground” as in streets. Key demands are defund the police, protest continued police murders, and call for a full program of people’s recovery.
We need to differentiate our socialism from Trump’s red-baiting. Bernie says we need a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights: a job that pays a living wage; quality health care; a complete education; affordable housing; a clean environment; and a secure retirement. This is an echo of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “economic bill of rights,” proposed in his January 1944 State of the Union address. FDR said the “political rights” guaranteed in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” He said the government should guarantee to all people in the country employment, clothing, and leisure with enough income to support them; farmers’ rights to a fair income; freedom from unfair competition and monopolies (for small business owners); housing; medical care; social security; and education for all.
Imagine if Biden would inaugurate his presidency with such a sweeping commitment – that would be a very big new deal! But we can’t expect to get it without a massive popular struggle, just as it took mass mobilizations and strikes led by the Left to win FDR’s New Deal.
We need a broad popular alliance. The Sunrise Movement says “By joining together – Black, brown, and white – to organize and demand the change we need, we’ll make our voices heard in record numbers on the streets and with our votes.” The U.S. Peace Council says “our only way forward is to stay mobilized – demanding justice and accountability against racist killer cops; in defense of migrants rounded up and deported; in solidarity with LGBTQ and disabled people; and against endless wars, sanctions and occupations.”
Biden has rejected the call to stop racist militarized policing, to invest in alternatives to policing while cutting police budgets and establishing democratic community control of the police. That just means we have to keep fighting for these things – in the streets, workplaces, and city halls across the country. As Colin Kaepernick wrote recently, instead of police and prisons, “we can create space for budgets to be reinvested directly into communities to address mental health need, homelessness and houselessness, access to education, and job creation as well as community-based methods of accountability. This is a future that centers the needs of the people, a future that will make us safer, healthier, and truly free.”
We should mix determination with optimism. There’s a dramatic change of mood in the country and rejection of Trump’s fascistic measures (with or without Trump). It shows in battles to save the U.S. Postal Service and preserve the safety of students and teachers in the midst of school re-openings.
There is a new determination among labor leaders to fight. Through the Emergency Workers Organizing Committee (EWOC), DSA has forged an alliance with the militant United Electrical Workers union (UE), which says: “The labor movement we need must be a militant movement, built from the bottom up. And it must be based on clear-cut principles: aggressive struggle, rank and file control, political independence, international solidarity and uniting all workers.” We can use the alliance with UE to help build fighting unions everywhere. Major organizing drives of Amazon, Walmart, Tyson Foods and McDonalds workers, while bolstering militant teachers, nurses, longshore, transport and construction workers, could feel like a CIO revival.
What’s most important? Is control of Congress the key? There’s a debate brewing about how change happens. All progressives would welcome a Congress and President that could deliver Medicare for All, a massive jobs program, a Green New Deal, police reform and all the rest. But if the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s proved one thing, it’s that people marching by the thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands are the main force for change. FDR’s New Deal needed intense mass pressure in the streets and factories, which was delivered by huge campaigns organized by the left.
The movement to defund or abolish the police didn’t emerge from the 2020 elections. It was the hurricane of people power in the streets that did it. Power sparked by Black Lives Matter multiplied exponentially when working people and youth of all colors and nationalities marched together. The explosive marches focused on defund/abolish. Now they will tend to morph into broader struggles on all the issues. This has already begun to happen in the hundreds of strikes, including local wildcats and stoppages, throughout 2020, and in the tenant struggles and rent strikes which are intensifying everywhere.
The tenant fight is especially urgent, as millions of people are facing evictions if federal and state governments fail to intervene. The late December extension of eviction moratoriums in New York and some other states was a start, but it mainly “kicked the can” a few months down the road. “Tenants won this moratorium,” declared DSA’s Cea Weaver, a leader of New York’s Housing Justice for All coalition. “This moratorium is good news, but it’s not a solution to the pandemic housing crisis,” she warned. “We are deeply disappointed that, unlike previous proposals which would have protected tenants for up to a year after the state of emergency ends, the moratorium only lasts until May 1. And we also know that any bill that doesn’t address back rent is not enough. Albany must still #CancelRent along with this eviction moratorium. If they do not, they are potentially condemning hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to financial ruin as a result of the pandemic.”
The coalition mobilized tens of thousands of tenants to push the NY State Assembly to pass the moratorium extension. NYC DSA has launched a “Tax the Rich and House the Poor” campaign to get the funds for both housing and green energy in New York. This movement needs to be national. An estimated 7 to 14 million households are at risk of eviction nationally, owing about $20 billion in back rent. There is $1.3 billion in rent relief in the current federal relief package – not nearly enough to stem a homelessness crisis that threatens to explode from nearly 600,000 to many times that number.
Any failure to address the housing crisis will merely intensify the looming real estate credit crisis, leading to bank crises that hang over Biden’s debut like an impending tornado. But it will take a people’s tornado to force federal, state and local governments to deal with it.
The strange, ever-rising stock market is not a reflection of a healthy economy. It actually shows that the trillions the Fed pumped into the corporations had nowhere to go in the real economy, so the investor class dumped them onto the stock market. “The market right now is clearly foaming at the mouth,” as one market analyst told the New York Times just before Christmas. Another said “We are seeing the kind of craziness that I don’t think has been in existence… since the internet bubble” in early 2000. Another said “It’s not as obvious a bubble as 20 years ago, but we’re close to bubble territory.”
Now there’s a question for the Biden administration: can it come up with a recovery plan that can mobilize these billions, together with trillions from the military budget and new taxes, to put people back to work converting the country to sustainable energy and guaranteeing health care?
It’s an existential question – really “do or die” for Biden. But that’s true also for us. A mass people’s movement needs to manifest the strength to force real change. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says, we need to hit the ground running!