You are reading a State of Dystopia post. These entries note the news events that put us on the cyberpunk dystopia timeline. Read them now to see the future we’re going towards. Or read them in the future to figure out where things went wrong.
“Biden’s win changes nothing and signifies stalemate that could see Trump run again in 2024,” reads the headline of an opinion piece by famous philosopher Slavoj Žižek for Russia Today. “Brace yourselves. The next Donald Trump could be much worse,” cautions Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara.
The question of a resurgence of Trumpism in the near future is a pertinent one, particularly if you care about dystopian trends.
This post is an exploration of that issue. The ultimate question addressed here is how the 2020 election results portend for dystopia.
To make this accurate, I will argue that this is not the immediately single worst outcome. But, I will still argue that this is close to the worst, within the foreseeable future.
Note: this post is long, and I don’t want to trick you into reading more than you’re used to. If you’re short on time, skip ahead to the conclusion (“TL;DR“), where I’ve summarized my argument as best I could. And if you want to read about why the Biden administration will probably be disappointing, skip to the section “Centrism in a crisis.”
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The changing bases matter
Knowing the changing voting demographics of the Democratic and Republican parties is essential to understanding the trajectory we are on.
Simply put, Democrats represent wealthier, more educated people now than they used to. And the Republican Party may not be a working class party, but it is taking in a larger share of working class and less-educated votes.
This matters for a simple reason: it is the interests of these people that the Democrats are increasingly speaking to. It’s fundamentally affects the order of priorities. It means that even progressive leaders of the party will be fundamentally constrained, more than they would be otherwise. The economic agenda of the Democrats was much more progressive in decades past, and that was in large part due to huge swathes of the working class voting for the party.
Take the example of Elizabeth Warren during the Democratic primary. Her supporters were certainly progressive in their outlooks and political goals. But her supporters were also considerably higher income and better educated than Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Because of their economic status, Warren’s supporters simply did not need single payer healthcare the way Sanders’ supporters did. Thus, Warren ended up backtracking on Medicare for All, and then suffered polling losses because of her backtracking.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that repeated polls show Democrat voters becoming more and more liberal…
…But that they are still led by staunch centrists. Much of that can be attributed to corporate donors and neoliberal orthodoxy, which ensure party leadership remains beholden to center-right economics. We all know that.
But a large part of it has to do with the base of Democratic voters. This base is increasingly educated and well-off. They might be progressive on social issues, but they won’t fight on economics. They’re not evil people; it’s just not built into their core interests.
This is part of a phenomenon that economist Thomas Piketty has done incredibly valuable research in. Surveying 70 years of elections in U.S., the U.K., and France, Piketty found the center-left and labor parties have seen their base of working class voters leave in the neoliberal era.
You could think of the typical Pete Buttigieg or Kamala Harris supporter part of what he terms “the Brahmin Left,” or educated professionals who are socially liberal and typically city-dwellers. Meanwhile, the working class is divided as a voting base: many drop out of politics and the remainder that votes, will likely vote for whichever party speaks most directly to their class position.
[…] Nominating centrist Democrats who don’t speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting.
Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism’s ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a “bifurcated” voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.
In 2016, Piketty’s work proved prophetic. Working class areas, hard-hit by decades of neoliberalism and de-industralization, supported the guy who articulated clear economic arguments and spoke to class dynamics. That alone wouldn’t have given Trump the numbers, but people also simply didn’t turn out, and the combination gave Trump the edge.
And contrary to the lectures you may hear about how choosing not to vote reflects your societal privilege (“you abstain because you have the privilege of not being affected by the results”), nonvoters in the US are disproportionately low income and racial minorities (as Piketty accounts for).
As for how the Democratic Party’s voting base is changing, there are a couple articles that describe it beautifully. Both cite Piketty. To be efficient, I’ll just quote and link them.
In one sense, these [the popularity of Warren and Sanders] are cheering ideological victories, and a testament to the ongoing appeal of class-based politics. But the truth remains that all this has come about almost entirely within a political party whose own professional-class character, in the same years, has only grown stronger than ever. The 2018 midterms, after all, were won in the affluent suburbs; Democrats now control every single one of the country’s twenty richest congressional districts.
Is this a reliable base on which to challenge the power of capital — or even to fight for basic social-democratic reforms? The experience of the last fifty years suggests otherwise.Source: “Is This the Future Liberals Want?” by Jacobin
In 2016, Piketty found, for the first time voters in the top 10 percent of income were more likely to vote Democratic than voters in the bottom 90 percent, making the realignment Sanders wants to force that much more timely. Without it, Democrats could eventually become both the party of the well-educated and also the super rich. That is a party whose policy ambitions would be hemmed in by the concerns of those already doing fairly well. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, in backing off of banning private insurance in her first legislative stab at Medicare for All, was responding in part to well-educated supporters she met at rallies who were concerned they might lose their top-shelf private health insurance.Source: “Can Bernie Sanders Alter the Course of the Democratic Party?” by The Intercept
None of this is hidden, by the way. You may have heard of a 2016 quote by Chuck Schumer, the highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, outlining the priorities of the Democrats pretty clearly: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
These constraints are fundamental. 40+ years of neoliberalism of the Democrats actively pursuing suburban professionals aren’t going anywhere. And they will restrain what Democrats are willing–and able–to do. Every year that more wealthy, suburban, former-Republicans join the Party, the chances that a progressive economic agenda can dominate get dimmer.
Or think about it this way: it’s currently easier for the Republicans to speak to the working class than it is for Democrats.
Skeptical about that? Don’t be. The bases haven’t just been changing with the Democrat voters becoming richer, better educated, etc. Republicans have taken in working class votes.
The GOP Base
A college degree is more of a dividing line in the United States than ever. It’s far from a perfect approximation of ‘working class,’ as many with college degrees end up underpaid in working class jobs (not that working class jobs should have low pay; they shouldn’t). But, a degree still confers a good deal of economic privilege relative to those who do not have one.
And voters without college degrees by and large have swung to the Republican Party. This is especially pronounced among white voters:
But the 2020 election results showed GOP gains among minorities as well. It is increasingly common to find articles exclaiming that Trump improved with every demographic group except white men. Those exclamations are true. Was it only the wealthy minorities who went for Trump? Some, surely, but not all.
- Starr County, Texas, is 96% Latino and one of the poorest areas in the country. Hillary won it with a crushing 79% of the vote. This time around, Biden won it by just 5% over Trump.
- Biden got about the same number of votes as Hillary. Meaning, not many who voted blue in 2016 changed their minds.
- Instead, votes surged in the area in support of Trump: he got 4x as many votes from the county as he did in 2016.
- Zapata County, Texas, is 94% Latino. In the 2020 election, it went for a Republican president for the first time in 100 years.
- Theories abound as to why. Many cite economics: the area is dependent on the oil and gas industry.
- At the very least, however, Republican success here can be attributed to the fact that they spoke to the distinct nature of Zapata County, rather than treating them as an untouchable part of the wide ‘Latino’ label.
- According to the US Census, the median income is just over $31,000 and a third of the population lives in poverty.
- In Florida, Trump won 45% of the Latino vote, which is 11% higher than his 2016 performance.
- This is widely attributed to Trump’s portrayal of Democrats as socialist, to a large community with Cuban and Venezuelan heritage.
- There is certainly truth to it, but it’s not the whole picture. NBC’s exit poll (linked above) found about half of Latino voters who voted Trump in Florida are not of Venezuelan or Cuban heritage.
- And yet, 60% of Floridians voted to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. More Floridians voted “yes” to increase minimum wage than voted for Trump or Biden.
Keep in mind, of course, that no demographic is a monolith, and Democrats also saw more support from Latino communities in Arizona than they did in 2016.
Yet, it’s the reliance of the liberal sphere on monolithic approaches to minority voting that contributed to Democrat losses in Texas. The only people who are sincerely surprised that Trump could possibly make gains with voters who aren’t white men are affluent professionals in the knowledge economy.
To give you an example: check out this NBC article from late October, featuring a professor at a prestigious university puzzling over how on Earth Trump could be apparently increasing his support among Asian Americans.
Paul Ong, a research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said he expected more movement away from Trump because of his use of xenophobic and discriminatory language to describe the pandemic, such as “kung flu” and “China virus.”
Within that same article, record unemployment among Asian Americans is noted:
A UCLA report revealed that 83 percent of the Asian American labor force with high school degrees or lower has filed unemployment insurance claims in California, compared to 37 percent of the rest of the state’s labor force with the same level of education. In New York City, Asian Americans were found to have the highest surge in unemployment during the pandemic, according to a report released by the social services nonprofit Asian American Federation.
Yet the connection between unemployment and stagnant wages is never connected to sustained or increased support for Trump. It’s just a mystery, or some error in polling.
Or check out this article from Fortune. Its authors are flummoxed by Black and Latino support increasing for Trump, and come up with the absurd–in fact, offensive and trope-laden–explanation that men of color are too easily attracted to appeals to masculinity.
Honor culture is not just deeply rooted in the white working-class communities that have embraced Trump, it is common in Black and Latino communities as well. There, too, men must always project strength by respecting what sociologist Elijah Anderson called the “code of the street.” In the vernacular of the street, one must always “step up” when disrespected.Source: Fortune, “Why Trump made gains among minority men against Biden.”
Never-mind the fact that Trump saw improvements with women of color too. Sure, there may be some truth to it, but is that really why? If so, why would the numbers increase when Trump ran against another man, compared to when he ran against an unpopular woman four years ago? Must just be that men of color are sexist. Once again, wages and employment never enter the explanation.
There’s nothing mystical about Trump’s or the GOP’s increasing support among minorities. Trump, and the GOP he heads, speaks more to working class concerns and anti-elite sentiment than it ever has, and the Democrats are increasingly an elite party. That message cuts across racial and ethnic lines, because class cuts across those lines too.
Nothing here is supposed to indicate that the GOP will inevitably become a genuine, multi-ethnic and multi-class coalition. Simply that it is indeed on a path to become more working class and more racially and ethnically diverse.
It’s worth noting that during the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders consistently performed well with Latinos–the best of any candidate by a considerable margin. This was rarely discussed during primary coverage, if ever.
Democrats had a weak performance
It is essential to assess the Democrats’ performance. It tells us both how strong the party is right now, and how redeemable it is (ie., how capable it is of resisting a dystopian future).
Democrats had four years since the last failure to figure things out. Not only that, but the final year of the competition’s term was marred by catastrophes in health and the economy. Not to mention accompanying social unrest.
The 2020 election was not about Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump. The 2020 election was about Trump vs. his absence. Sufficient people were motivated to come out simply to remove him from office, especially after the disaster that 2020 has been, but just barely.
The danger here is that there is little to suggest a popular demand for Biden or his ilk. If Trump could get this close to winning despite his approach thus far, what could a competent right-wing president with Trump’s politics and aesthetic do?
This is not mere speculation. Look closely at the votes in the election, and you’ll find a disturbing image. Even amid record turnout, Democrats have suffered.
For one thing, you could look again at Trump’s historic success with Latinos in Southern Texas, as mentioned in the previous section.
But that’s far from the end of the story for the Democrats’ under-performance. Here’s a list to help you keep track, not including the Texas results already mentioned.
- Most polls had Biden winning Florida by 2-5 points in the last week before the election. Trump won by over 3 points.
- Most polls in the final week had Texas as a tossup, with Biden winning or losing by a point or two. Trump won by a comfortable 5.6 points.
- Most polls in the final week had Biden winning Michigan by 7-13 points, with an average polling lead of 7.9%. He won by just under 3 points.
- Biden’s average polling lead over Trump in Wisconsin in the final week was 8.4 points. He won by 0.7 points.
- Every poll since September 2019 had Democrat Sara Gideon winning the Senate race in Maine. Instead, she lost by 4 points.
- Gideon also outspent Collins more than two-fold, $50 million against Collins’ $23 million.
- The South Carolina Senate race saw Democrat Jaime Harrison raise record amounts of money. He outraised Lindsey Graham 2-1 in the final quarter and polls had the race tied.
- Harrison lost by 10 points.
- In Montana, polls showed Republican Steve Daines leading Democrat Steve Bullock by 1 point. He instead won by 10 points.
- Bullock far outspent and outraised Daines: Bullock netted $43 million while Daines managed $27 million.
- In Iowa, the last week of polls showed Democrat Theresa Greenfield leading Republican Joni Ernst by about one point. Greenfield lost by 6 points.
- In Texas, polls showed Republican John Cornyn’s up by 5-6 points against Democrat MJ Hegar. Cornyn still won, but by 10 points.
- In Kentucky, polls had Mitch McConnell with a 10 point lead against Democrat Amy McGrath. McConnell won by nearly 20 points.
- In Alabama, Democrat Doug Jones raised $26 million to opponent Tommy Tuberville’s $7.4 million. Jones lost by 25 points.
- It’s worth noting Jones was not expected to win. Though, that just makes it even more of a waste of money.
- In North Carolina, Democrat Cal Cunningham raised over 2x as much money as his Republican opponent Thom Tillis.
- Polls showed Cunningham with a slight lead. Cunningham lost by about 2 points.
You may have noticed a slight trend here–that Democrats raised records amount of money in multiple states to lose in stark contradiction to polling showing them with leads. Even when Democrats were projected to lose, they lost by bigger margins than expected.
And that list does not even take into account House races–remember that the Democrats actually lost seats, reducing their majority–or state-level races. For the sake of brevity (or something approximating it), I left those out.
Even in the case of the presidency, the thing Democrats actually won by a comfortable margin, things were much closer than they ought to have been. You might consider that overly pessimistic: polls showed Biden winning the Midwest, and he did. What more is there to it? But look critically at the votes themselves, and there’s little encouragement to be found.
For instance, the ‘white working class’ vote in the Midwest was highly cited as part of the reason for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. Coverage of the latest election would have you believe that Joe Biden patched up those weaknesses, as he won those Midwestern swing states this time around.
But a closer look at the data reveals Trump’s strength hardly ebbed. As John Austin pointed out in an analysis of election results for Brookings:
This time around, Biden carried only nine of the Michigan’s 83 counties—up from seven Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. In Wisconsin, Biden won 13 of 72 counties in 2020, up by only one from Clinton in 2016.
As in 2016, Trump also won numerous struggling older industrial city-regions, which used to be Democratic, blue-collar strongholds. Meanwhile, Biden carried a number of older industrial communities that had turned an economic corner—some that were once squarely Republican.
In other words, being cynical about the Democrats’ “win” is not unwarranted in the slightest. Frankly, optimism in their victory is foolish, not merely because Democrats will do little meaningful with their win, but because their victory was so meager.
Will lessons be learned?
At this point, the Democrats’ weak showing is well-discussed, as is the second failure of the polls. For instance, a recent piece in The Washington Post pointed out that 2020 election polling was overall less accurate than 2016’s polling.
We may be entering another period of reckoning over “what went wrong.” But it will be scant, knowing the Democrats and their media apparatus. Hell, did the reckoning over 2016 ever really finish? The result was seen as illegitimate by many liberals, with varying degrees of Russiagate explanations taking up the better part of Trump’s first term. The Democrats clearly made many of the same mistakes they did in 2016, and won because of a historic catastrophe–it’s hard to imagine they will learn this time around.
But there were surely signs that some lessons had been learned. Pollsters began covering swing states much more than before, and compensated for other weaknesses.
And of course, turnout among Democrats surged, with many having learned the lesson of not taking Donald Trump seriously enough the first time around.
But the polls were still wrong, and while turnout surged this time for Democrats, turnout also surged for Trump.
The Party that Wields No Power and Bears No Responsibility
Key to understanding the dystopian angle of this election, is the fact that the Democratic Party is very unlikely to change.
What do these explanations have in common?
- Half the country is effectively bigoted. Especially in swing states.
- Russia “hacked” the election (either by literally switching votes or influencing how people voted on social media).
- The electoral college means the popular vote isn’t enough to determine the presidency.
- The electoral college means the votes of inbred idiots count more than the votes of advanced society.
- Gerry-mandering lowers blue votes.
- Voter suppression—whether by vigilantes and police, or more often, voting requirements and the placement of polling centers—lowers blue votes.
They all absolve the Democratic Party.
Before anyone gets to angry:
I do not deny the fundamental unfairness of the electoral college. As someone who has lived in both California and a Southern swing state, I believe a direct, popular vote ought to determine the presidency.
Similarly, I believe gerrymandering is a genuinely grave threat to democracy, and that reforms are needed to reduce the many variations of voter suppression. And, I do believe large swathes of Americans are tolerant of bigotry.
As for election-hacking…there are a range of Russiagate takes, but to put it simply—there isn’t a lot of evidence Russia literally changed votes in the 2016 election (let alone to the point Trump could be elected) or that Russian social media disinformation did enough to get Trump elected either.
The reason I list these is not to doubt the many systemic flaws in American democracy. It’s because we’ve all heard, and will hear again, countless takes from liberal outlets and politicians, lamenting how rigged everything is against Democrats in some way or another.
And amid that barrage, remember the uncomfortable truths avoided:
- The Democrats have won with the same structural imbalances before, multiple times.
- Democrats have even won landslides with those same constraints. They did it just 12 years ago.
A realistic accounting of the Democrats losses in 2016 and eeked-out victory in 2020 will mostly include the things I listed, but they alone are far from enough to account for their weaknesses this time. Particularly as the changing bases of the parties explains most of the current dynamics.
Why bring this up now? Because these explanations will not go away. They’ll be kept ready for 2022 and 2024, when Republicans return with a vengeance, and all-but-guarantee the Democratic Party will learn little.
Are the kids alright?
Much has been made of the younger generations—millennials and zoomers—who lean not just Democrat, but progressive, and are on track to make up a huge voting bloc.
There is hope there. The enormous youth support for Sanders during the primary is a good sign. But it is not immediately clear that a more progressive constituency will result in more progressive politics. Not on fundamental, economic issues, at least.
Case in point: Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris are young (for politicians). They’ve tried to embody the aesthetic of the younger, progressive crowd, to mixed results. They’re also beloved by Silicon Valley and billionaires. Buttigieg didn’t get the youth vote he wanted, and ended up beloved by older voters. Big surprise.
Further, if one goes onto online leftist spaces, they can find an easy transition between “leftists” and “liberals,” despite the fact that most self-proclaimed leftists online are quick to distinguish themselves from liberals (myself included).
There is an overwhelming overlap, increasingly, between liberals and leftists on social issues, and on the moral imperative of voting for Biden. I’m not kidding: look at the social media posts. Woke Instagram pages blend quite well into the branding the Democratic Party is trying to adopt. Somehow, pontificating about how people should consume–support black businesses, don’t buy from X brand because their CEO said something bad, etc–passes for leftism. It’s just neoliberalism with a woke spin.
Look also at what your leftist friends say about the 2020 election results. Why did Biden only barely win? Usually, the answer is some combination of voter suppression and the electoral college. Which are true, but simply not enough to explain the full thing: easier to condemn the country as irredeemably racist than realize both parties are opposed to your economic interests.
Sad as it is to say, a significant portion of the young leftists of today may just be the moderate liberals of tomorrow.
Centrism in a crisis
Crucial to this post’s argument is an outlook on what we can expect from a Biden administration. Or to put it differently, whether Biden truly will be a centrist in a time of crisis.
The answer is yes, but at the end of this post, I will point to some signs of optimism.
The easiest indicator, of course, is Biden’s record. Or Kamala Harris’ record, as she may well become president partway through Biden’s term. A list of their misdeeds would be worth its own post. Suffice it to say that Biden has been on the wrong side of just about every issue for his whole career.
Even that fails to capture it: he was not merely a passive centrist. Biden was key to pushing for the Iraq war. He was key to implementing draconian tough-on-crime policies. He was key to burdening college students with debt and key to the credit card industry in general. As for Kamala Harris–she hasn’t been around long enough to be as bad as Biden. But she certainly managed to get some bad points in, being tough-on-crime herself and particularly punitive to the working poor.
Side note: There is nothing that shows the impotence of the left (of which I am a part) like Kamala Harris being selected as VP. Months of protests about cops sucking, and Democrats’ answer was to make a cop VP. That managed to draw praise from many of the “ACAB” crowd, at least in my anecdotal experience, and is a good demonstration of what Democrats are willing to do to placate their progressive wing (surface level pandering). It also indicates how likely the party is to be pulled to a genuinely progressive agenda, as opposed to an aesthetically progressive one.
But we can be more strenuous. It’s possible, for example, that the record of Biden and Harris matter less than many think. Perhaps it’s more of an indicator that they are opportunistic, and can be swayed by their environment. If that is the case, the question becomes whether the environment around them will result in them pushing for change.
To that end, we get an even more resounding indicator that a Biden/Harris administration will simply not deliver.
The Biden transition teams
Consider, for example, Biden’s agency review teams. These are in place to smooth the transition in different executive departments and offices to one in line with the incoming administration’s goals.
Many on the list are from universities. Some are from unions. And quite a few are from big companies, including former or current executives. So, for example, the transition in the intelligence community will be overseen by people straight from Disney and Uber:
And the people overseeing the transition at the Office of Management and Budget come from Amazon, Lyft, and AirBNB:
And that’s just the surface-level stuff, the most recent places these people have worked at. Many of them are connected to the powerful in other ways:
Sarah Lazare, writing for In These Times, pointed out that one-third of Biden’s Pentagon transition team come from places funded by arms makers–think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
You get the idea.
The Cabinet and other appointees
The New York Times reported on the 11th that Biden’s chief of staff will be a longtime democratic operative, someone who’s spent the last two decades either heading the staff for other centrists or working with venture capital and lobbying groups (or lobbying adjacent).
As for the other leading White House staff:
- Rep. Cedric Richmond will lead the White House Office of Public Engagement to interface with climate activists. He gets loads of money from oil and gas donors.
- Steve Ricchetti will serve as a senior adviser to the president. He founded a lobbying firm that represented health insurance companies and drug manufacturers, among others.
- Brian Deese will be the top economic advisor in the White House. He’s an executive from BlackRock, an enormous private equity firm (the largest by assets under management: BlackRock oversees $7.8 trillion).
- Deese was the head of BlackRock’s sustainable investing division–we’re saved!
And the cabinet? The high-level officials who oversee the various swathes of the executive branch and report to the president? There was a time when people wondered if Bernie or Warren would make it onto the cabinet. But unsurprisingly, current reporting says that’s unlikely. Warren lobbied hard to get a position as Secretary of the Treasury, and could not even land that. It’s unlikely Bernie would get a cabinet-level position considering he is even less liked by the donor class than Warren.
So who actually got Treasury Secretary?
Janet Yellen, former chair of the Federal Reserve. Liberal outlets like the New York Times have praised her for her “sensible,” centrist policies as Fed chair. Meanwhile, consider what conservative outlet The Washington Examiner has to say about her:
On the issue of our national debt, which has climbed to World War II-levels as a percentage of our GDP, Yellen will encourage Biden to put the breaks on potentially trillion-dollar spending packages with a negative return on investment.Source: “Janet Yellen could be the (very relative) debt hawk we need,” by Tiana Lowe in The Washington Examiner
Biden was never going to pick anyone who could reasonably be called fiscally conservative. Considering that Warren was on the table, Yellen, who has called our debt “unsustainable” and our monetary policy unfixed in the long run, is about as good as the Right and the markets could have hoped for.
It’s funny (if you have a dark sense of humor) that a conservative writer is about as happy with the Secretary of Treasury nomination as writers for the New York Times and CNN.
Then there are other economic appointees. Neera Tanden is the most (in)famous of these, as the new Director for the Office of Management and Budget. It’s a seemingly-obscure, bureaucratic position that wields a good deal of power: it proposes the annual budget for Congress and is the voice of approval for rules across federal agencies.
There really is a lot you can say about Neera Tanden, one of the worse Democratic operatives. She punched an interviewer who asked Hillary Clinton about her support for the Iraq War; publicly outed someone who filed a sexual harassment complaint at the think tank Tanden led; and pushed for the bombing of Libya during the Obama years.
In fact, all you really need to know about her can be summed up by this 2015 email, in which she argues that Libya should give the U.S. oil in exchange for “stabilizing” the country.
Meanwhile, Biden nearly picked an abysmal person for Secretary of Energy: Ernest Moniz, someone who’s insisted on fracking and natural gas and is staunchly opposed to the Green New Deal. He serves on the board of one of the worst polluters in the country. Thankfully, pressure from the progressive flank brought a less-terrible option: Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan.
The Secretary of Agriculture? News just came in it’s Tom Vilsack. He was the agriculture secretary for all 8 years under Obama, and is currently the chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. That’s a trade group that advocates for American dairy companies overseas.
Let’s hop over to the foreign policy side of things:
Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State is Antony Blinken. Blinken’s foreign policy record is basically one of status quo interventionism. He was Biden’s top aide when Biden pushed for war against Iraq. As deputy National Security adviser, Blinken helped oversee the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya.
Then there’s Avril Haines, Biden’s pick for Director of National Intelligence. Haines used to be deputy director of the CIA, and she was essential in building the Obama administration’s legal justification for drone assassinations.
And his Secretary of Defense pick? Lloyd Austin, a former general. Austin retired in 2016, which makes his appointment a breaking of decades-old norms on civilian control of the military. Trump got a lot of criticism for doing the same thing in 2017; prior to Trump and Biden, this had last been done in 1950.
But that’s not even the worst thing. Immediately after he retired as a general, Austin joined Raytheon’s board of directors. For those who don’t know, Raytheon is one of the largest arms-makers in the world, and is the world’s largest producer of guided missiles. He’s also on the board of a major steel producer, and a health care company, and has his own consulting firm.
Those are just highlights. For more detail on them and the other confirmed picks to foreign policy and national intelligence, check out this article by Sarah Lazare in In These Times.
But adding insult to injury, look at the coverage of Biden’s appointments thus far in the liberal press.
This is almost beyond parody. It’s maddening. It shows not just the hard limits of diversity absent structural change, but how quick the Democrats are to pander on diversity to distract from policy. Of course there’s nothing wrong with diversity, and it should be strived for–but when it comes to elites, diversity is the only bone they’ll throw your way, because it challenges nothing structurally.
As for the remaining cabinet members? It’s yet to be seen, but most of the names being floated are career centrists.
The final makeup of the cabinet will also depend on which party holds the Senate, as the Senate confirms cabinet picks. But even in early days, the prognosis isn’t too good.
Other hints of the agenda
One way in which Biden appears different from Obama is that he’s more specific on progressive policies. Obama, of course, sounded progressive, and did backtrack on key promises. Even then, however, Obama campaigned more on vague rhetoric than many remember. In the lead-up to this election, Biden certainly campaigned on vague rhetoric himself, but he also has outlined concrete, specific plans.
They far outstrip what Obama ever offered in 2008, or what any Democratic nominee has offered in decades. Period. When people say Biden is running on the most progressive platform of a party’s presidential nominee in history, they aren’t exactly wrong.
For instance, Biden’s economic plan may be short of what Bernie would offer, but it’s a vast sum relative to Biden’s career or most predecessors, at $3.5 trillion.
David Sirota, former speechwriter for the Sanders campaign, pointed out in Jacobin that Biden’s top aide said federal spending would likely be significantly scaled back during Biden’s term. This is what he said in a Wall Street Journal interview:
“When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare,” said Mr. Kaufman, who is leading Mr. Biden’s transition team. “When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit…forget about Covid-19, all the deficits that he built with the incredible tax cuts. So we’re going to be limited.”
Biden’s aide didn’t say that in April. He didn’t say that before concrete plans were released. He said that during the Democratic Convention, when Biden was crowned the nominee, with the economy clearly in tatters.
Ted Kaufman is not some Biden campaign hanger-on. He’s the head of the transition team. When someone in his position starts talking about limited options, alarm bells should go off. This is the kind of talk you heard in 1993 when Bill Clinton, after winning the presidency with a campaign that talked big about all that he would accomplish, suddenly became a deficit hawk. Similarly, in 2009, after George W. Bush handed Barack Obama a Great Recession, right-wing Republicans and centrist Democrats leaped in to tell the newly elected president everything he could not do.
Or we can go back just a bit further. In July, Biden had a digital conference with some big donors, including an executive of private equity behemoth Blackstone. In the conference, Biden told donors they should step up, but that he would do nothing to make them.
This is from the report Biden’s campaign distributed to the press. Once again, credit goes to David Sirota, writing for Jacobin:
“I come from the corporate state of America, many of you incorporated here,” said Mr. Biden. “It used to be that corporate America had a sense of responsibility beyond just CEO salaries and shareholders.”
“Corporate America has to change its ways. It’s not going to require legislation. I’m not proposing any. We’ve got to think about how we deal people back in.”You can read the full pool report here, on Scribd–uploaded by Sirota.
Then there’s the fact that a Biden administration may very well be hampered by a Republican Senate. If Mitch McConnell stays on as Senate majority leader, it’ll be true that some constraints are not purely Biden’s fault. Yet, it would also be likely that Biden, along with House Democrats, pre-emptively restrict themselves, as they always do, and not even bother trying.
Losing the lockdown debate
Up until this point (and for much of the rest of this article as well), I have had evidence for my points. It does not guarantee my conclusions are correct, but it lends stronger backing to them.
This point however, is much more speculative, and may be contentious. And to be clear, this is not a judgment on whether lockdowns are good or bad overall.
With that said:
- Lockdowns and even semi-lockdowns lower the quality of life for large numbers of Americans, specifically Americans without financial security (of which there are many).
- As the Democrats’ voting base is increasingly wealthy, it is increasingly less affected by lockdowns (though many Democrats still are, of course). As the Republican’s base includes more working class votes, it is more affected by lockdowns (though many Republicans are, of course, wealthy and less affected).
- Lockdowns and related restrictions are more likely to be ordered by Democrats (though not necessarily).
- Many high-profile politicians backing lockdowns have been caught violating their own restrictions, and will continue to be caught doing so.
- Covid-19 has a high death toll indeed; but it is not sufficiently deadly in its current form to pose widespread danger to the non-elderly.
- The overwhelming majority of people who have coronavirus will feel fine.
- America has little in the way of a social safety net. Federal Covid stimulus is largely expired or expiring.
- Vaccines will take some time to be introduced and will have staggered roll-outs. They may have a short effectiveness, with antibodies wearing out within months.
It is not Covid denialism to acknowledge the above. But it lends to an observation: that people do not like lockdowns (for good reason), and there is good reason to expect lockdowns may continue well into spring or even summer of 2021. Stimulus may pass, but Congress will feel no urgency: if they did, another round of stimulus would have already passed months ago.
In the United States, there’s little to catch you if you fall through the cracks. A national lockdown, or federal support for state lockdowns by Biden, may not necessarily tip the scales against Democrats in 2022 and 2024. A severe backlash may be minimized if adequate support is provided: such as unemployment insurance, stimulus checks, etc.
Additionally, widespread mask use and increasing the availability of testing could avoid larger-scale lockdowns. If this comes to be the case for most of the U.S. under Biden/Kamala, Democrats may well reap the rewards.
Yet it is quite easy to imagine some sequence of events like this:
- Biden administration better-centralizes the pandemic response.
- Vaccines roll out first to hospital staff and the elderly, nursing home residents, etc in early 2021. Most people have to wait weeks to get vaccines.
- In the meantime, coronavirus infections continue to soar, as do hospitalizations, though death rates fall.
- Biden either issues a nationwide stay at home order, or more likely, Democratic governors impose their own restrictions nationwide.
- Democrats attempt accompanying stimulus, but its roadblocked by GOP Senate, and compromised legislation takes way too long to enter the economy. State-level assistance proves inadequate.
All the while, ordinary people would have experienced some form of restricted life for a year. Patience would wear thin as material assistance fails to accompany lockdowns, and vaccines fail to be the magic bullet that returns life to normal. Liberal media outlets, this whole time, would likely crow about how effective Democrat-led lockdowns have been. Not to mention, every instance of Democratic politicians exempting themselves from their own restrictions would inspire (justified) resentment.
This is speculation, but its based on some anecdotal evidence: 1) I work in media for my day job, and regularly witness insular liberal journalism, disconnected from ordinary people. 2) I live in the South.
I will leave you with one bit of evidence that helps make the case. Coverage of the 2020 election focused relentlessly on coronavirus. If you only read the New York Times or Washington Post, you would naturally assume Biden would win a landslide; Trump had utterly failed to contain a deadly pandemic.
But it was a leap to assume the pandemic weighed as heavily on the minds of Americans as it did journalists in New York and San Francisco. Certainly it matters to many Americans; but that doesn’t mean it’s prioritized the way a newspaper’s coverage is.
As ‘early’ as late September, when most polls predicted strong Biden leads, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that in Arizona and Florida, the economy was the single most important issue, considerably more than coronavirus.
We know how that turned out by now: Arizona ended up blue for the first time in decades, but just barely, whereas Trump kept Florida by a comfortable margin. This is despite predictions Biden would win both by two-point margins.
If you read liberal and center-left outlets at the time, you could easily be convinced that Biden had it in the bag, because coronavirus was out of control. But if you were thoughtful about the impact of lockdowns, and noticed that Trump repeatedly emphasized the harm of lockdowns on the campaign trail, it wouldn’t be hard to predict what actually happened.
For now, across the country, the story is that voters either cared more about coronavirus, or trusted Biden more with the economy, or both. But it’s far from obvious that will hold up once Biden is the incumbent, presiding over what looks to be a slow recovery.
Is this the worst outcome?
I would argue that this is not the single worst outcome, but from here on out, I will argue that it’s still one of the worst outcomes: at minimum, it’s little better than a Trump victory.
Naturally, this involves some hypothesizing and extrapolation. Take all of this with skepticism if you aren’t already. Disagreement is welcome, provided it’s thoughtful.
First, here are the main outcomes that could have happened. This is not a list of every possible outcome, of course. Simply ones that were either likely, or may have had a reasonable chance of happening.
In no particular order:
- GOP wins the presidency and keeps the Senate
- GOP wins the presidency and loses the Senate
- Close race prompts Trump to not only declare victory early, but call on vigilantes to take action against vote counting/similar efforts
- Close race prompts Trump to not only declare victory early, but call on vigilantes to take action, and use federal power to clamp down on voting
- Overlapping/similar: Biden wins; Trump declares a national state of emergency later in the winter regarding coronavirus or unrest, which allows him to stay in office past his first term
- DNC wins the presidency in a landslide and flips the Senate
- DNC wins the presidency by a comfortable margin and flips the Senate
- DNC barely wins the presidency, and fails to flip the Senate
Of those outcomes, the worst (I think) would be Trump using presidential power to stay in office, rather than simply winning the electoral college vote “fair and square.” Such an action would be a departure from democratic norms unlike any other in the U.S., and could cause irreparable damage to U.S. democracy going forward.
Even in that case, however, I do not believe Trump would have sufficient support from the military or intelligence agencies to remain in power much longer, if the votes did not support it. It’s not clear he’d even have the full support of his party.
The military would likely forcibly remove him at some point, but that in itself would be historic in a bad way. Would the Pentagon form a provisional government, but until the health emergency ends (which could range from a year to…never)? Would they run the next elections? Or simply escort Trump out of the Oval Office, and allow Congress to do the rest?
This involves enough speculation—due to the unprecedented nature—to be functionally useless for me to write about.
Consider the other options, however, with which we have more familiarity.
The “Democrats win bigger” scenario
If Democrats had a larger victory (whether that included flipping the Senate or simply winning the presidency by a wider margin), they would’ve had a mandate to govern, like Obama did in 2008. If they had the Senate, of course, they would have two years to pass items on their agenda with few constraints. Court battles surely would loom, but they would not be able to hold back everything.
Now, I will be first to say that we ought to have little faith in Democrats to pass ambitious, expansive legislation even with both the presidency and legislature. However, winning a resounding victory against an incumbent who failed to lead the country through two of its biggest crises (coronavirus + recession) would allow room for progressive voices to push through stimulus, minimum wage increases, and the expansion of public programs at more localized levels.
In short, a larger victory for the Democrats would still have left MUCH wanting. But it would leave the same concerns as the current situation, while at least leaving a larger opening for genuinely good policies.
The “Trump wins” scenario
On the flip side, if Trump had won, he wouldn’t have won in a landslide (judging by the fact that he just lost). He likely would be seen as a repudiation of the lockdown approach, and the guy who could get things back to normal.
But absent larger assistance—something his administration would surely fail to deliver on sufficiently—life would not fully go back to normal. Coronavirus wouldn’t slow, and the many Democrats in charge of states and cities would impose their own restrictions in response as hospitalizations amped up. Even deregulating such that unemployment shrinks drastically, the hard problems of inequality and wage stagnation would go nowhere. Another Trump term would have meant continued disorganization and subservience to the wealthiest Americans. Some of that could be passed off with nativist rhetoric, but not all.
In short, a second Trump term would’ve had many dangers (especially on the climate side), but would’ve been saddled with four years of a struggling economy. The popularity of his politics could very likely be weakened by that point. It would be similar to Obama’s two terms, which began with enthusiasm, and concluded with Obama districts flipping to Trump.
And if that didn’t happen—if Trump was even more popular after another term—the populist right would be in a similarly advantageous spot as they seem to be heading for now, anyway.
Anyway, the proof is in the pudding: he presided over a crisis, and lost. The uncomfortable truth is that he did not lose by that much, and that means his approach has not been repudiated.
Where we stand now
- Democrats will have the presidency and House, but crucially will be held back by the Senate (probably).
- This will further provide excuses for establishment and corporate-backed Democrats to not push for anything of substance.
- If Democrats manage to win the Senate, they will do so with an incredibly bare majority (an even 50-50 with Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote as VP).
- And the centrist wing of the party will still retain its iron grip and blame all failures on the progressive wing.
- Trump’s politics, not having been truly repudiated, will foment in popularity as Democrats struggle to handle crisis.
- This will especially be the case if lockdowns continue absent significant stimulus to go along with them.
- In the meantime, right-wing populists will line up to take Trump’s place, or Trump will spend four years rebuilding his popularity.
- Absent bold action from the Democrats, they will face an extremely tough time winning in 2024.
Frankly, the best outcome from here on out will be one of the following:
- Trump, in spectacular health, runs again in 2024, and in doing so holds back a more competent alternative for another four years.
- The person who takes Trump’s mantle is even less competent.
- The old guard of the GOP manages to ensure a less extreme victor emerges from the primary.
- Such a person, could, of course, still be as dangerous as Trump or even more so. It’s not much of a hope.
- Such a person could still very well be pushed by a populist insurgency and Congress.
- Additionally, this is pretty unlikely. The old guard has either run to the Democrats or given into Trumpism. The base is also unlikely to stand for it.
But of course, the question many may have is whether the populist right really will be in a stronger place in four years.
Will there be a worse Trump?
How bad was Trump in the first place?
One may wonder why this question is being asked in this post. For one simple reason:
When you wonder what a “worse” Trump would look like in 2024, it helps to have a direct point of comparison. And frankly, most of those opposed to Trump lack imagination about how much worse he could have been.
It is hard for many to think of him this way, but there have been some saving graces in Donald Trump. These have held back the worst outcomes many initially feared in a Trump presidency.
Some of those things:
- Poor relations with the intelligence community and some of the military’s leadership has held back the force of a presidency unified with the Pentagon (see: Bush, Obama).
- Additionally, these place realistic limits on the extent to which Trump could be a dictator.
- Disorganization, ineptitude, corruption, and even lack of a backbone has held back more ambitious projects—such as the building of a wall, the family separation policy, etc.
- (To be clear: the family separation policy was a travesty. It still is. But the key point is that the administration folded because of public pressure, and it ended).
- Examples include the short-lived tenures of radical, competent individuals like Steve Bannon and John Bolton.
- Also: Trump frequently appoints acting officials to helm agencies and departments, resulting in legal challenges. For example, his administration’s restriction on DACA was just ruled illegal by a federal judge…for the simple fact that the head of the DHS was not confirmed by the Senate.
- Also: Trump has spent five weeks losing legal battle after legal battle in his attempts to overturn the election.
- A lack of any serious commitments to economic populist causes has meant Trump’s presidency failed to deliver on that which could have boosted his popularity.
The short version is that, as harmful as Trump’s rhetoric and norm-breaking has been, the Trump administration’s ineptitude and volatility have acted in stark contrast to the directive force of a true fascist dictator.
In fact, by some metrics, Trump isn’t even as bad as his recent predecessors:
- Obama deported more people in his first term than Trump did.
- To be factual: this is partially because more people have been apprehended and turned away at the border under Trump, and also because of changes in how the Trump administration has pursued deportations.
- Nonetheless, if you’re an immigration activist, it’s hard to argue the hard numbers of mass deportations represent a significantly more ethical outcome.
- Trump is no friend of the press, and his DoJ’s prosecution of Julian Assange is an incredibly significant threat to press freedom. But, the Obama administration used the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers more than all previous presidents combined.
- The Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2001, and gave sweeping powers to the executive. It’s the thing that was used to justify (among other things)…
- The deployment of troops to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and others.
- The Bush-era NSA’s warrantless surveillance.
- The Obama administration’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which gave the presidency the ability to indefinitely detain citizens.
- In 2002, the Bush administration used its new War on Terror powers to detain an American citizen (Jose Padilla) suspected of a terror plot, without any charges and on U.S. soil.
- In 2011, the Obama administration ordered a drone strike to kill a US citizen (16 years old) because his father was a terrorist.
- The White House Press Secretary at the time defended it by saying the kid should have had a better father.
- Before the end of his first term, George Bush had already started two wars.
Putting Trump in this context matters for two reasons: first, it helps us understand his severity in more relative terms. But secondly, and more importantly, it shows the steady build-up of executive authority. It shows the history that will allow a more authoritarian president in the future to enforce their impulses.
The GOP has painted itself as the party of the working man for decades. There’s nothing new there. But the party was firmly in lockstep with the Democrats in enacting a neoliberal economic agenda, and a strong advocate of pro-business policies.
Now many prominent figures within the Republican sphere have learned from the success of Trump. They speak now to their voters’ class more than they ever did, and (often correctly) point to the Democrats as a party of wealthy elites…a change made possible by the party realignment discussed earlier. They recognize the failures of neoliberalism and the globalized free trade to at least some extent, often more than prominent Democrats. Reagan may still be a popular figure, but the economic orthodoxy of his time is fast falling out of favor.
Here are some examples.
- Lindsey Graham famously flipped from being loudly anti-Trump to one of the guy’s most ardent supporters. But he also flipped from being more centrist in policy and rhetoric to more populist.
- Marco Rubio now advocates for what he calls “Common Good Capitalism.”
- He articulates something true: that American capitalism is now characterized by financial markets that are no longer tied to real-world business.
- “Our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market. The market exists to serve our nation and our people.”
- “Economic stability for working-class families is not a feature of today’s economy, however. Business profits have become increasingly estranged from production and employment. This is mainly driven by large, transnational corporations. Many of these corporations are now using our country’s resources to speculate on financial assets, including their own share prices.” (Source: “What Economics is For,” a 2019 speech by Rubio).
- Senator Tom Cotton, in March, criticized a paid sick leave bill by House Democrats for not going far enough.
- The paid sick leave bill did not apply to those working for Fortune 500 companies. Cotton was, in effect, criticizing centrist democrats for not covering enough workers, a critique shared by the left wing of the party.
- He’s the guy who advocated deploying troops to quell protests this summer.
- Senator Josh Hawley proposed having the federal government cover 80% of wages for US workers in an op-ed, something that has been done in the United Kingdom and Denmark.
- He’s previously introduced legislation to bar Big Pharma from selling drugs at higher prices in the U.S. than other countries.
- He just teamed up with Bernie Sanders to push for $1,200 individual checks in the next stimulus, something both parties are ready to forego.
- He also wrote a bill to let any American sue China for coronavirus damages and blamed sex trafficking on the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Or, consider the phenomenon that is Tucker Carlson. The Fox News show host doesn’t just mention economic issues that sound left-wing from time to time–he talks about inequality regularly.
Consider this monologue, from January 2019:
Corporate tax cuts are also popular in Washington, and Romney is strongly on board with those, too. His piece throws a rare compliment to Trump for cutting the corporate rate a year ago.
That’s not surprising. Romney spent the bulk of his business career at a firm called Bain Capital. Bain Capital all but invented what is now a familiar business strategy: Take over an existing company for a short period of time, cut costs by firing employees, run up the debt, extract the wealth, and move on, sometimes leaving retirees without their earned pensions. Romney became fantastically rich doing this.
Meanwhile, a remarkable number of the companies are now bankrupt or extinct. This is the private equity model. Our ruling class sees nothing wrong with it. It’s how they run the country.
Not all commerce is good. Why is it defensible to loan people money they can’t possibly repay? Or charge them interest that impoverishes them? Payday loan outlets in poor neighborhoods collect 400 percent annual interest.
We’re OK with that? We shouldn’t be. Libertarians tell us that’s how markets work — consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives. OK. But it’s also disgusting. If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it’s happening in the inner city or on Wall Street.
In an interview shortly after that monologue, Tucker even said he would consider voting for Elizabeth Warren.
These comments don’t hurt Carlson’s ratings. They’re a regular feature on his show…which happens to be the most watched cable show in the country.
Consider that for a moment: the most popular Fox News show, the biggest cable show in the country, is hosted by a conservative who sometimes sounds more left wing than the Democrats who actually wield power.
And as for his more recent comments? He spent much of the summer of 2020 stoking fear about protests and statues. He said Kyle Rittenhouse was justified in shooting protestors because someone had to maintain order. Carlson even used populist language to tie corporate support for Black Lives Matter (a phenomenon worthy of criticism) to businesses being destroyed, saying “For a lot of big corporations the total annihilation of small businesses is one of the best parts of this new revolution.”
In June, Carlson’s top writer resigned after being caught posting racist messages in an anonymous forum. He wrote some of the rants against protestors. What does “top writer” mean? Um:
“Anything [Carlson is] reading off the teleprompter, the first draft was written by me,” Neff claimed in a recently published article in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.Source: Forbes.
You’ll have to pardon the digression on Tucker, but he does an excellent job of marrying economic populism with conservatism.
I’m not suggesting that Tom Cotton or Tucker Carlson specifically will become the next GOP hopeful (though they could). The point is that right wing populism has only become more popular, and some seemingly competent people have emerged as figureheads of the movement.
These populists fly in the face of orthodox thinking about American politics. They’re conservatives who support the free market, but have far fewer qualms with expanding the government’s role in the economy as long as it goes to the ‘right’ people. Rather than abase themselves before all corporations, they can target some for regulation (like tech companies). They are willing to shed corporate support if the payoff is an active voting base (Wall Street donated 4x as much to Biden as Trump). If the army has to step into domestic strife, so be it, and the climate can go fuck itself as long as good ol’ oil keeps up American luxury.
The question now is whether the populist faction will prevail in the next two to four years.
Who will win the party?
The road is wide open ahead to Trump’s successor, someone who would adopt his dangerous rhetoric and combine it with policy. Such a person would be empowered by the changing base of the GOP.
The question now is whether the populist elements of the GOP will succeed in strengthening their grip on the party. The GOP is still, without a doubt, a pro-business and anti-labor party, and will likely continue to be so even if dominated by populist elements: the question is how power will be negotiated with economic elites.
It also remains to be seen whether the GOP will take enough note of the current working class vote realignment–whether they will shoot themselves in the foot by continuing their utter subservience to capital (like the Democrats).
However, the GOP’s populist stars have definitely noticed the 2020 results. They are optimistic. It’s worth considering why.
A party that operates behalf of the working class? Certainly not. Republicans, like Democrats, are fundamentally beholden to capital. But, and this is key, Republican party leaders respond more to their base than their Democratic counterparts. The GOP arguably fears its base of voters more than Democrats do, because the activist part of the base is effective.
An easy way to tell: the party establishment firmly disliked Trump (a relative outsider) in 2016, but was forced to concede to him given the enthusiasm for him in the primary. Post-Trump, the party and many of its leading figures either adopted his rhetoric and positions, or effectively shut up. Once again, see the young rising GOP stars of Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton, and the new tunes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham.
But there’s more to it than that:
Think back to what feels like ancient history now–2010. In 2010 the Tea Party took off. Certainly there was top-down support for the movement (such as through Koch-backed think tanks and conservative media support), but there can be no denying the genuine grassroots energy of the movement.
The Tea Party may have been short lived, but it definitively took electoral victories. Tea Party candidates unseated many Republican incumbents in primaries, and many of them went on to win national office. Republicans famously swept in the 2010 midterms, obtaining their highest seat count in the House since 1946 and the largest number of state legislators since 1928.
The Tea Party alone didn’t guarantee Republicans success in 2010, but they certainly contributed. By one estimate, the Tea Party generated an additional 2 – 5 million votes for Republicans in the 2010 midterms. The movement brought some now-familiar names to the national stage, like Rand Paul and Mike Pence.
And there is data to suggest that Republican incumbents and career politicians are more vulnerable to challenges than Democrat incumbents.
For example, two researchers for The Brookings Institute analyzed House races from 1990 to 2016, and found a couple clear trends:
Two other researchers, writing for Vox, found similar trends with political newcomers having more success in the Republican Party:
So sure, there’s no guarantee that populists will maintain or complete their takeover of the Republican Party. But they at least in a good position to, and all the more so if one considers the likely centrist politics of the Biden administration.
Trump, Round 3?
Speculation has abounded as to whether Trump himself will run again in 2024. This speculation has appeared increasingly valid, for a few reasons.
First, Trump has openly talked about his plans to win back the White House in 2024. We all know Trump talking about doing things means little, but it’s at least a decent possibility.
Second: Newsmax. Newsmax is a conservative news site that has recently surged in popularity.
On November 3rd, Fox News called Arizona for Biden, earlier than other outlets and to the outrage of Trump and his supporters. Around the same time, Newsmax stood by Trump and his claims of election fraud.
Trump urged his followers to head to Newsmax. So during election week, an interesting thing happened to the ratings:
- Fox went from 3.1 million viewers the week of Nov. 2nd to 1.6 million the week of Nov. 9th.
- Newsmax went from 181,000 viewers on the week of Nov. 2nd to 329,000 on the week of Nov. 9th.
Now, obviously not all of Fox’s lost traffic went to Newsmax, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Fox’s numbers rebound. And yet, the next few years could very well see a shift in the conservative media landscape. Already, for the first time ever, a Newsmax show has beaten a Fox show in viewership.
Newsmax’s CEO is close to Trump and the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Trump allies are exploring a buyout of Newsmax TV, to create a new conservative news network. So it wouldn’t be outlandish if Trump were to simply spend four years crying about how the election was stolen, while building up his own media apparatus to rival that of Fox News.
Whether that would happen in the first place, and how it would turn out if it did, is unknown. It is also reasonably likely Trump would be too lazy to be President again, and simply use four years of political rhetoric on his own media platform as a business venture and nothing else.
Frankly, I do not view this as the worst outcome. I would not want Trump to win another term; but I would prefer Trump to someone more competent and genuinely ideological.
Ultimately, the jury is still out. We will see who wins the battle for the Republican Party. There is good reason to think the populist faction will gain momentum, as laid out before. But then the question is whether Trump will indeed make another run, and if so, whether he will be seriously challenged by others with similar approaches.
But one thing is certain: whoever runs in 2024 will do so against an uninspiring Biden/Harris administration.
Points of optimism
Trying to see the points of optimism here is not a weak move–it’s rational, the only way with which we can fully gauge dystopia.
And even more importantly, I cannot predict the future. There are some compelling arguments worth noting.
First, there may still be an opening for more progressive legislation from a Biden administration.
See student debt as an example: even Chuck Schumer, a staunch centrist and key member of the Democratic establishment, has actively called for Biden to write off up to $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower on his first day as president. This presumably can be done without Congressional approval, and if Chuck Schumer is behind it, it might actually be possible–despite the fact that Biden was once instrumental in creating the student debt crisis in the first place.
But, we must be rigorous…a counter-point to student debt cancellation as a point of hope:
It’s unclear that this would strongly benefit Democrats politically. It might keep surges in turnout, and might even sway some Republicans with college debt. However, as the Democrats are firmly a party of the educated, this legislation may mostly benefit the base.
It may not translate, in other words, to sufficient support for those who have been left behind, while functioning as the one compromise the centrist Biden administration gives to the progressive wing. That’s not an argument against cancelling student debt, by the way, just the realistic context it would take place in. But hey, it’s something.
Additionally, consider this point by David Sirota about the first Trump-Biden debate. Remember, Sirota was Bernie Sanders’ speechwriter in 2016 and 2020. Sirota probably has more contempt for the Democratic establishment than me, and even he was able to find a point of optimism during the Biden-Trump debate:
During a discussion about the budget, Biden brushed off his old deficit hawk buddies, outright rejected GOP talking points, and instead made the point that the federal government must spend what it takes to rescue cities and states.Source: David Sirota’s blog, the Daily Poster
It was a moment that won’t get a ton of attention from a media obsessed with frivolity, but it wasn’t some small matter. It was everything. If a new administration accepts deficit concern trolling and the Beltway’s austerity frame, then it is doomed to fail. If a new administration rejects that frame, then the possibility of real change remains alive.
It is hard to overstate how big a shift this is for Biden. He was the guy who spent decades touting his work with Republicans trying to cut programs like Social Security in the name of budget austerity. Now he’s expounding on the need for countercyclical deficit spending.
Further, while it remains to be seen how active the left will be in pushing the Biden administration, the left is in a stronger position now than it was when Obama ran. Biden is not a centrist in sheep’s clothing, like Obama; status quo is practically his middle name. If popular pressure for wealth redistribution materializes in force, it may push him (or Harris) after all.
This may have been too long to be readable. I apologize for that, but the nature of this requires thoughtfulness and careful wording.
The short version is this:
- Many outcomes were possible this election. This is probably the second-worst, with the first being Trump literally seizing power as a dictator (rather than just whining and failing countless legal challenges).
- Democrats will hold the presidency, likely without the Senate. Absent a popular mandate, helmed by career centrists and neoliberals, and with McConnell as a final barrier, Biden’s term will likely be a disappointment in a struggling economy.
- The Democrat and Republican parties are influenced by their bases. Democrats are increasingly wealthy and educated, reducing the practical need of the party to fight for a better economy. Democrats also behave within the party line more. This may likely inhibit pressure from within to force Biden/Harris to change tunes.
- The GOP, by contrast, is attentive to its activist base, which is increasingly working class and populist.
- Particularly as, for the last couple decades, GOP incumbents have been statistically more vulnerable to insurgent primary challenges.
- There are many people within the conservative sphere that have taken up Trump’s rhetoric, who are more ideologically consistent and may not make the same mistakes Trump has. Many of them sound more progressive on economics than leading Dems.
In short, while nothing is certain, there is plenty of reason to suspect a worse Trump would not only run in 2024, but win in a landslide. And if anything cements our dystopia, it’s the most powerful person in the world doing jack-shit about climate change, expanding the surveillance state, and addressing neo-feudalism by throwing the worst-off under the bus for the sake of the slightly-less-worse-off.
Nothing’s certain though. I’ll leave you with a bit of grounded optimism, from someone who can put it better than me. Pardon me for citing him four times.
[…] We don’t know where we are in our historical story. A Biden presidency may well be the final Weimar America period — the last interregnum of artificial calm, stasis and establishment let-them-eat-cake-ism before everything collapses into mayhem at the hands of a much smarter, shrewder and even-more-reckless version of Trump.Source: David Sirota for Jacobin
However, one thing we’ve learned in the last few years is that things are unpredictable and can change quickly — and that means they could change for the better, if we’re willing to put in the work.
The crushing reality of life in this oligarchy seems to be changing minds a lot faster than politicians might let on. The fake, manufactured, self-serving “center” of the Beltway discourse may have held for now — and may be lifting the spirits of Wall Street moguls — but usually reality wins out at the end of the day.
Notes & Clarifications
Is right wing populism bad?
I left it out of the main post because this topic, in itself, would warrant a full essay.
My personal belief is that right wing populism is not necessarily wholly bad, and it depends on the variation. The variations are essential, however.
Right-wing populism could, for example, include support for raising the minimum wage and war-drum-beating with China. Or it could mean raising the minimum wage and reducing interventionism.
The first could lead to high-casualty conflicts. The latter is much less likely to. In either case, an increase in the minimum wage would be good.
But keep in mind that this post has been written in the context of trying to understand, and avoid, the most dystopian outcomes.
The unfortunate reality is that the most likely, best-case version of right-wing populism would do little to mitigate climate catastrophe. It would be America-first on steroids: drones bombing migrants fleeing water crises, that nightmarish stuff. The movement might do its best to protect Americans, but at the end of the day, a global effort is needed to avoid global disaster.
Moreover, it seems quite likely that a right-wing populist presidency and legislature would be a compromise between business interests, the donor class, and populist voters. The result would far more likely be immigration restrictions than minimum wage increases. There may be some corporate restrictions (which is good) but little wealth redistribution or fundamental changes in market power.
Lastly, there’s plenty of reason to suspect a right populist movement would allow for state suppression. Trump has used his executive powers in a less dictatorial fashion than he’s been accused of doing, but the presidency undoubtedly has tremendous powers already to monitor, detain, or otherwise crack down on citizens.
It could be against undocumented immigrants, or Chinese Americans, or Black Lives Matter, or Antifa—the seeds are there with the Department of Justice saying it would treat Antifa involvement as domestic terrorism. Or Trump coming close to deploying the Army across the country. The post-9/11 build-up of the security state will be of immense benefit to any right wing populist who decides there is an internal enemy to be targeted.
However, that does not mean strategic partnerships between the populist left and populist right are to be eternally avoided. It’s a vibrant debate, and I encourage those interested to hear out the different sides–see Glenn Greenwald’s podcast featuring Krystall Ball and Nathan Robinson, in which one argues that the populist left and populist right can be a viable coalition on certain issues, and the other argues for much more caution.
What can we do?
(I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone does. But here’s a guess).
First: pressure the Biden administration like hell, and specifically for actions that benefit working class, and lower-middle class, people. This means focusing on economics, class: it doesn’t have to come at the expense of race or gender, and has the best potential to make a winning coalition across the country.
First and a half: pressure progressive politicians. They listen to you more than the centrists, are ultimately the ones who will be exerting pressure on centrists (to the extent that happens at all), and it’s their job to advocate for you. Make them.
Second: Work to build left power and labor power. Organized labor isn’t simply a relic of old-school leftism. It’s tactical: when corporations are dominant, there isn’t much that can act as a countervailing force. This is all the more so when corporations can simply dominate politics.
Third: Support candidates opposed to status quo politics…but it’s probably not a good idea to be too obsessed with Democratic Party politics. This too is a point of debate; is it better to attempt a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party, or build power outside the party and force the party to negotiate with said outside power?
Fourth: be locally active. You exert little influence at the federal level. Being involved with your city, county, or even state may seem small in who is affected, but these things do matter in aggregate.
There’s probably a lot more that can be said, but this post is really about understanding the problems first and foremost. If I figure out how to solve this country’s problems, you’ll be the first to know.
Where does dystopia come into this?
Some of you may feel frustrated at the way in which this post has been articulated: it’s a political analysis post on a blog about the reality of cyberpunk dystopia. On the surface that might be fair.
Two responses to that:
- Who said the road to cyberpunk dystopia was going to be flashy? This is real life. That means there’s a lot of boring details to go around. You don’t need to engage with them at all times, and most posts will not be this long, but only an idiot would ignore them when they are plainly relevant to dystopian outcomes.
- What aspects of cyberpunk dystopia do you think are unaffected by those who wield political power, and how that power is organized?
- If you think climate change makes for dystopian outcomes, does it not matter what the people in charge of the world’s largest economy do?
- If surveillance is your thing, think the executive branch has nothing to do with it?
- If it’s wealth inequality, or corporate power, I’ve got a hint for you: political decisions made what you hate possible.
And that’s actually it, for now. Forthcoming posts won’t be this long; if you made it this far, congrats!