Road Signs asked three socialists who are deep in the trenches of electoral organizing in the US South to share their perspective on what’s at stake in the 2020 election. How should we engage the battle to defeat Trump, even as we grow our independent political bases, build pressure on Biden to embrace progressive demands, win people to Socialism and shift the U.S. political terrain?
Whitney Maxey (WM) she/her is a movement organizer in Memphis, Tennessee
Melanie Barron (MB) is a labor organizer based in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Bennett Carpenter (BC) (they/them) is a movement organizer in Durham, North Carolina
What attitude should socialists take towards a Biden candidacy?
WM: The outcomes of this 2020 electoral cycle matter from the presidency down to the city level. We have a role to play and an ability to flex some of the hard-earned independent political power we have built in the last several years. Let’s use that power responsibly to create circumstances and avenues that can make possible today and tomorrow what was impossible yesterday. We can’t afford to let up now. The global multinational working class and communities of color are counting on us.
MB: Biden, in so many ways, is a terrible candidate; I freely acknowledge that. This presidential cycle isn’t so much about Biden as it is about getting Trump out of office. That seems to be the bet people were taking in the primaries, and that’s the bet we’re all forced to take now.
It has been an exhausting, demoralizing, and dangerous four years under Trump’s administration and that has to change. The US presidential election activates more people to political action in the US than anything else, and we need to be building with this momentum. Socialists need to be a part of that energy. Whether we like Biden or not, if we sit out large-scale organizing during a presidential election year, we miss out on the opportunity to engage and struggle with masses of people on how things could be different. Our main role in this moment is base building. The only way we’ll ever have an alternative is if we continue building independent political infrastructure that has the power to move a mass base of people to vote and otherwise act in service to a vision of a very different world.
BC: Beyond the dynamics of this specific race, there is often confusion among socialists about how to engage with elections generally, because we come out of a tradition that has historically viewed electoral politics skeptically. But ever since the Russian Revolution failed to spread to the West, it became clear that the path to socialism in the overdeveloped countries would have to involve contesting and winning elections. And because our terrible first-past-the-post voting system effectively precludes third party victories, the only way to win elections in the United States is by running inside one of the two major “parties.” I put that in quotation marks because the Democrats and Republicans are not really political parties in any meaningful sense of the term—they’re more like loose coalitions of multiple parties locked together in an uneasy alliance by a quasi-monopolistic access to the ballot line.
As AOC so trenchantly put it: “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” That is absolutely correct. In this country, however, they are, which means we have to wage a two-pronged battle. Within the Democratic “party,” we have to increase the power of the progressive wing against the corporate wing. And then in the general elections we have to unite with that corporate wing to defeat the unholy alliance of racists, Christian fundamentalists and plutocrats that the Republican Party have so effectively pulled together.
In that first battle, Joe Biden is our enemy. In the second, he’s our tactical ally. “Ally” doesn’t mean we have to like him. The US and the USSR weren’t allies during WWII because they liked each other, but because neither had sufficient power on their own to defeat Nazi Germany. We don’t have the power on our own to defeat Donald Trump. So yes, socialists should work our butts off to elect Joe Biden, while also building the progressive political infrastructure we will need to continue expanding the electoral influence of the Left.
What’s at stake in the 2020 Presidential Election?
MB: Anyone who’s ever had a bad boss knows on an intuitive level what’s at stake if someone like Trump retains power in this moment. We face an unpredictable, erratic future under the leadership of someone who is constitutionally incapable of escaping his own ego. Just look at his interpretation of federalism through the COVID19 crisis: he has “absolute power” one moment, states hold full responsibility the next. We see him turning to his base, doing whatever he can to recover his credibility and maintain his base’s loyalty. So there’s a long wish list of right wing agenda items on the table. Immigration? Abortion? Privatization? Deregulation? Imperial aggression? Take your pick.
WM: Trump is doubling down on neoliberal ideology to create the best circumstances for the market to do what it pleases with national medical resources. He rejects the demand for government to step in to at least try and make the process more equitable. This literally means the difference between life and death for people who have contracted Covid-19, who are disproportionately working-class Black and other people of color.
Since the start of the crisis, Trump has also increased sanctions on countries like Venezuela and boosted military presence throughout Latin America. The last thing these countries need is to be handcuffed as they struggle to see their country and the people in it through this crisis.
BC: Before COVID-19 struck, this was already going to be one of the most important elections of our lifetime. Now the pandemic has dramatically heightened the stakes. In the short term, the political decisions made in this moment will be matters of literal life and death for millions of people. That’s not hyperbole.
In the medium term, I suspect we are witnessing the final breakdown of the neoliberal hegemony that has dominated the political agenda for the last four decades, not just domestically but internationally. From where I’m sitting, it seems clear that the neoliberal playbook is incapable of coping with this crisis, just as the Keynesian playbook of the post-war period proved incapable of coping with the stagflationary crisis of the 1970s. Like, you can’t deregulate and privatize your way out of this. A clear sign of system change is when the old mantras cease to work. What’s not clear is whether the new hegemonic order that replaces neoliberalism will be better, or worse. That question will be answered by the success or failure of our efforts over the next few months and years.
And then there’s the long-term fate of our species and our planet—which, all the evidence indicates, will likely be determined by the decisions we make in the next few years. From a climate change perspective, we can’t afford four more years of Trump. The response we’re seeing to COVID from the Trump administration heralds the response we will see to climate change, if we can’t stop him: delay, deny and obfuscate until it’s too late to contain the problem, and then watch millions (if not billions) of people die unnecessarily. If we want to prevent that apocalyptic future, we need to act now.
How can we build our forces, win people to Socialism and shift the terrain as we engage in this electoral fight?
WM: We aren’t going to get everything we want in one fell swoop. We are fighting to build political power and fighting for hegemony amongst other competing forces who have started out much stronger than we are.
But the class struggle that centers race and gender is alive and well. Let’s not waste an opportunity to create more favorable conditions for the movements and communities we care about domestically and internationally by reducing Biden to be equivalent to Trump.
We have to engage in the conditions we are presented with even if they are not to our liking. We need to be central to, not standing aside from, the actual ideological and on-the-ground struggle underway in this country. That means mobilizing against Trumpism and the GOP in 2020 and beyond, and expanding the social bases that made up the Bernie coalition. It means developing independent political organizations and other statewide independent political power building formations that center people of color and the multi-national working-class, even as we continue to build tactical and strategic alliances with those that comprise the anti-Trump/anti-GOP front. Immersion in the battle at hand better positions our movements longer-term to win big, bold, and crucial demands like the Green New Deal and policies that center Black, Indigenous, and other people of color domestically and in the Global South.
MB: Whitney points to the really fun part of all this: the on-the-ground struggle. Not all of us are going to be positioned to play a direct role in presidential organizing, and that’s okay. More money and staff and volunteers than many of our organizations can even dream of will be poured into that fight through formal Democratic Party networks.
While we might be able to skim some resources from presidential mobilizations, our main task is going to be to build our own bases as much as possible through very concrete campaigns that people can latch onto. Ideally, those will feed into broader anti-Trump mobilization by getting people to the ballot box to vote down ballot for people they actually know and care about. Local and state races are strategic for base building because they allow us to organize on issues that are close to people’s everyday lives, and they create a sense of hope and possibility to be voting for, rather than just against something. That’s what made Bernie such an exciting possibility for so many people; he was someone you could actually vote for. And he’s also an inspiration because he started just where many of us are: at the local level.
That’s why efforts to build independent political organizations are so exciting to be a part of. We can change our city, our state, right now. Unions have a role in this, too. As organizations working to increase democracy in the workplace, they hold the potential for broad transformation and base building, just through a different entry point in people’s lives.
Another key task is going to be convincing people they should be participating in any of this at all. There are a lot of good reasons why people throw up their hands and don’t participate. “Why would I?” is not an unreasonable question in places where our enemies have such a stranglehold on power. We have to be prepared to convince thousands of people otherwise at the local level, through thousands of conversations and thousands of asks.
Finally, in places where voter suppression is rampant, we will be working with people to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy required to even register to vote, and then getting through the even more tenuous world of elections in the time of COVID-19. Registration deadlines and election dates are changing and causing confusion, and voting in person will be dangerous and restricted. Mass absentee voting will be a new kind of process to monitor and learn to navigate. Our organizations will need to pool resources, communicate, and coordinate as much as possible to make sure that our people don’t sit this one out, and to bring more people to our side than we’ve ever had before.
The 2020 election is often heralded as being the most important of our lifetime; and it will also be the most difficult to participate in. We should be preparing for the fight of our lives.
BC: Liberation Road has long advocated an inside/outside strategy, both to electoral politics and the Democratic Party: contest for victories inside the system, while building up the capacity of independent political organizations outside of it. I think the events of the past few years—heck, even just the past few months—have proven the fundamental correctness of this strategy. I know the Bernie defeat feels like a devastating blow. But when have we ever seen a self-avowed socialist wracking up 30-40% of the primary vote? And winning absolute majorities to universalist policies like Medicare for All? And building up a massive, volunteer-led organizing initiative, rooted in the multiracial working class? If you had told me that ten years ago, it would have sounded like a pipe dream.
So I think we build our forces by building independent political organizations within and across election fights, with a particular focus on hotly-contested swing states. Luckily we now have amazing organizations in many of these states: New Virginia Majority; Florida New Majority; Dream Defenders; the Ohio Organizing Collaborative; and here in North Carolina the Carolina Federation. Socialists in swing states should join those organizations; socialists in deep blue (and deep red) states should figure out how to resource them, whether by contributing financially, phone and text- banking remotely, or traveling to key swing states to put boots on the ground in the run-up to November. And wherever we are, we should be joining mass organizations: unions, DSA chapters, Our Revolution chapters, etc.
How can we build pressure on Biden to be more responsive to our bases and the needs of the people for which the Sanders campaign–followed by the COVID crisis–helped build broad popular support?
WM: Will Biden be an avid defender of social democratic ideas that excited and energized so many within social movements? No. But he was never going to be. That’s not the ideology or world view that he represents and is fighting for. But he does have to be responsive to the energized bases behind those ideals.
We’ve already seen that in the debate around the expansion of healthcare, which at its core is about human rights vs. the market. Will we allow the private market to effectively monopolize meeting our health care needs, or is healthcare a human right that must be insured by government action? Biden, and other moderate Democrats, have been forced by grassroots pressure to warm up to the idea of a public option for healthcare. We should build on that shift and not thumb our nose at it, especially since any gains we are able to make on this front will necessarily mean greater access to health care for working-class and people of color. We have seen shifts in their political positions on the Hyde Amendment and also on how to better center people in these Covid19 stimulus packages. These examples demonstrate our movements’ ability to influence those in Biden’s ideological lane, or close to it.. The shifts we’ve caused and witnessed should be looked at as building blocks to continue to pull moderate Democrats to the left when we can and where we can.
MB: Biden will feel pressure if we keep our demands loud, clear, and growing. As Whitney said, healthcare is shifting because Medicare for All has become a part of the national consciousness that isn’t going away.
The COVID crisis is a huge reality check for the sustainability of life in the US, and it’s a serious crisis for capitalism. It’s not just a health crisis but also a reckoning for the amount of credit and debt that props up many people’s livelihoods. When the payments stop, what else will stop? It is in Biden’s (and Trump’s!) interest to figure out a solution. This is an opening for us. Can we organize debt strikes and rent strikes? Can these types of actions achieve the scale that’s necessary to deepen the crisis for finance and bend toward an outcome in our favor? While Trump and his coalition are busy trying to get everybody back to work prematurely, we need to keep pushing for mass student debt forgiveness, mortgage relief, and monthly income payments to keep everyone home and afloat as long as possible until we are collectively much safer to return to public life.
Beyond the short term, the pressure on Biden comes from thinking about what’s happening down the ballot. Can we get many more AOCs elected to have more activist voices in the US house and senate? Can we outflank a neoliberal Democrat president by surrounding him with progressives? Can we have progressive electeds at the state level building local movements for change? Yes, yes, and yes – maybe not all in 2020, but we can get there over time.
BC: I think groups like Sunrise have been doing a really brilliant job strategizing how we start pushing Biden from the left already. We need a plan to take us through election day and we need a plan for the day after election day, and I’m encouraged that our movements are showing increasing sophistication in being able to navigate that both/and approach.
Having said that, I think the main way we pressure Biden and the corporate wing of the Democratic party to be responsive to our base is by, well, base-building. The more of “us” there are—and the more clearly and collectively that “us” is able to express our political power—the more ability we will have to move our agenda. What these last months and years have shown is that our “us” is growing… and that we still have a ways to go in expanding it. That will involve bringing into the political process millions of people who currently participate erratically, if at all—what Ibram Kendi has recently termed the “other swing voter.” And it will also involve winning more of the moderate middle of the Democratic party to our values and vision. I think that’s a key challenge for progressive forces in the coming period.