This is a “People Power” Moment: It’s Time for a Revolution in the Name of Democracy
Repeat this phrase over and over: This is not a “close” election. Trump is trying to steal an election by precluding a definitive outcome.
The votes must be counted until the result is official. But when the final votes are counted, Joe Biden is likely to win the presidency by the same or greater margin than Barack Obama in 2012, when it was 51.1 to 47.2 (+3.9). Furthermore, Biden will shatter the all-time record for a presidential candidate by getting over 10 million more votes than Obama in 2008. Biden’s vote margin will end up at around 7 million votes, which will more than double Hillary Clinton’s 2.9 million vote margin in 2016.
But this is not in any way a story just about Joe Biden. It’s a story of how about 82 million of us came together to put a stop to the nightmare that has taken over the White House, infested the federal government, and poisoned an already warped national and international discourse even further. Biden received around half of his vote total from BIPOC voters, and, of course, he would never have a chance of winning without the huge margins they/we gave him.
Because U.S. elections are still determined by an archaic set of laws designed to appease the purveyors of chattel slavery and privilege the ruling class, the “electoral” vote makes the presidential election look close. But the outcome here may not be close either. While Biden could win with 270, he could also near or surpass Trump’s 304 electoral vote total from 2016. [Note: Trump won states with 306 electoral votes, but lost two “faithless” electors.] Of the remaining states that have not been called, North Carolina and Georgia will be decided by less than 1 point, and Nevada and Arizona may be within 1 point. So Trump has sent lawyers out to file frivolous lawsuits aimed to disqualify Biden votes. Some of his well-armed supporters have mobilized on the ground to foment disruption and intimidation, while others in MAGA nation are “standing by” waiting for orders from their favorite bellicose strongman.
This is a pivotal moment in U.S. political history. Trump is spreading outright lies about the election and projecting onto Biden and the Democrats his own reliance on election fraud, tampering, and disenfranchisement to win by illegitimate means. GOP leaders are reluctant to repudiate Trump because he’s proved with this election that he’s far more popular than they are. An amoral opportunist like Mitch McConnell epitomizes this element. They want Trump’s voters to preserve their hold on power under a system that overrepresents white and rural voters in the Senate and gerrymandered House.
So it’s going to take an outpouring of public pressure to either force Trump to concede or get this country to move on despite his endless rants. Trump won’t care what the news declares, so long as right-wing media and QAnon threads serve as primary sources of information for his followers. There’s no Walter Cronkite-like figure to end the delusion because there is no shared, bipartisan agreement that America shares a national purpose as it did from World War II to the Cold War — the peak period of liberal capitalism and American imperial power. We can say “Good riddance” to American exceptionalism and that national consensus rooted in white, cis-male, heteropatriarchy. But what we have now is a systemic crisis and an age of volatility that will be resolved one way or another over the next generation. That is why we need to connect our immediate actions to a long-term strategy to build a new and more democratic social order.
In sum, we need a people power movement now to unite all the democratic forces against Trump and his enablers. This must be connected to a long-term movement to build the next system — a movement whose strength will come primarily through what Grace Lee Boggs has called creative and visionary grassroots organizing. That means we must also be prepared to engage the war of ideas over the 2020 election, while connecting it to a debate about the values and relationships we believe should be at the heart of both the nation and the next system.
Putting the election at the center of all our work does not mean stopping our struggles centered on issues of racism, empire, Indigeneity, environmental justice, education, health care, food sovereignty, defunding the police, disability justice, immigrant rights, reproductive freedom, or other social justice issues. That work is more important than ever and our only hope of meaningful, radical change. What we must strive to do is align our work to the principal crisis of this moment and establish means to forge new solidarities between our movements and the millions of people whose consciousnesses will be rapidly awakened by ongoing events.
Before I go any further, let me also make clear: I am not the first to say anything written here, and I always try to draw attention to the people and organizations who are already modeling this work. (See, for example, this article titled, “Grassroots Models for Just Future: Learning from Black Radicalism in Detroit.”)
Define the narrative and address the concerns of 82+ million people at this moment
Trump is tweeting “STOP THE COUNT.” This is not only an authoritarian move; it is also an illogical move. With Biden leading in Arizona and Nevada at the time of those tweets, stopping all vote counts would give him 270 electoral votes and decide the election. That’s why Trump supporters only want to stop the vote count in states where the current count has him ahead, while they are protesting to continue the count in the others.
Here’s a key fact. The numbers and trends favor Biden to win Georgia and Nevada. Arizona is a toss-up, and North Carolina and even Alaska have more than enough ballots left to count for Biden to surpass Trump. However, Biden can win the presidency without any of those states if he wins Pennsylvania. And if the reports of votes left to count are close to accurate, he should win Pennsylvania going away by 50,000 to 75,000 votes, surpassing Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton in the state four years ago.
But Trump and his allies set up the process to delegitimize any Biden victory. Republicans forced delays in counting of mail-in ballots, which are going 70–80% to Biden because his voters actually cared about stopping the spread of Covid-19, while Trump spread lies and conspiracies about mail-in voting among his supporters. Even in Pennsyvania’s red counties, so few Trump voters voted by mail that that the mail-in votes leaned Biden, often by a 2–1 or greater margin.
Let’s also not forget that Trump’s postmaster disrupted mail delivery and ignored a deadline from a judge overseeing a voting rights lawsuit to find and speed delivery of ballots. USPS did not process more than 150,000 ballots by Election Day, meaning that some will be disqualified, including at least 853 headed for the razor thin contest in Georgia.
If Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia had counted most of their mail-in ballots prior to Election Day and released the results early on the night of the election (as Florida and North Carolina did), the narrative would have shifted dramatically. Biden would have been leading in all five of these battleground states at the outset. Florida would have been called as a Trump hold, but Pennsylvania might have followed not long afterwards as a Biden flip — giving him a much clearer path to 270. Ohio would have been called as a Trump hold, but Michigan would have been called next as a Biden flip, putting Biden only one state away from 270.
By this time, perhaps around midnight, the networks would have been focused on four toss up states that could decide the Presidency: North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona. And many would have gone to bed with Biden with leading or tied in all of them.
It is instructive to study what happened in Michigan, which has already been called for Biden and where he now leads 51–48. Trump looked to be far ahead with the early count and bragged of his big Michigan “win” around 2:00am Eastern time on Wednesday, November 4. But that was all an illusion deliberately fostered to enable Trump and the Republicans to gaslight the nation and embolden his most fanatic adherents. When the clock struck midnight on election night, there were still hundreds of thousands of votes not yet counted and these were overwhelmingly mail-in ballots from urban and suburban areas.
For example, Squad representative Rashida Tlaib of the legendary 13th District (covering part of Detroit and its suburbs) had around 76,000 votes when I checked a couple hours after Trump’s pseudo-victory speech. With the additional mail-in count, Tlaib garnered 144,000 more votes, a pivotal number that is almost identical to Biden’s total margin of victory over Trump statewide. Another important lesson to take away is that none of this would be possible without the dedicated work of grassroots organizers in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. Districts like these have been excessively gerrymandered by the GOP, so they are not remotely competitive. However, the sustained organizing work linking grassroots activism with voter outreach in districts like these provides a model for linking electoral work to movement building and structural change.
(One positive side benefit of all this tireless organizing is that Trump can NEVER come back Michigan again!)
Trump’s delegitimization campaign has an accomplice in John James, a young Black veteran who was supposed to soften the Republican image. Democratic senator Gary Peters defeated James by 85,000 votes. Yet, James just released a statement refusing to concede and stating that “millions of Michiganders may have been disenfranchised by a dishonest few who cheat.” He provided no evidence to sustain his call for a fraud investigation, yet James still proclaimed, “Those who object likely have something to hide.” This is the price of entry into Trump’s GOP.
We need to think very clear-headedly about where we stand in this moment. Defeating Trump was NEVER going to be an easy task. For example, surveys of Pennsylvania voters showed Trump remained relatively popular (50% approval rating), and there was nothing that would make his base reconsider or waver. He’ll get at least 300,000 more votes there in 2020 than 2016 because the rural and exurban white vote shot up. And despite rising diversity, the voting population of Pennsylvania is still over 80% white. Moreover, the GOP holds an estimated +16 point edge in favorability over the Democrats. The white suburban shift away from Trump was an essential part of Biden’s victory.
Stopping Trump from stealing this election or even delegitimizing a Biden win and presidency is a short-term imperative and a down payment toward the even more challenging long-term task of defeating Trumpism. Trump’s racism, xenophobia, pathological lying, authoritarian impulses, self-enriching corruption, suicidal destruction of the environment, endless favoring of the 1 percent, and grossly incompetent and inhumane handling of Covid-19 are either acceptable or desirable for tens of millions of people in this country. He’s going to end up with as many as 75 MILLION VOTES. That’s 12 million more than he got in 2016.
Trump got 85% of his votes from roughly 64 million white people, and the polls clearly underestimated how many would turn out in some key states. The media is not always wrong, but we know these educated, mostly white people they hire to do this analysis are not equipped to fly into these situations and make sense of them properly. Only the white woman at the Des Moines Register, Ann Selzer, who knew her own Iowa people, saw this correctly, when she broke with all others and declared Trump ahead by 7 points.
This poll was dismissed as an outlier by many liberals, especially urban and suburban professionals, who love to follow politics and wish for change without understanding the reality of why this country has such a historical record of reactionary tendencies. Trump actually carried Iowa +8.2%. The other poll misses were certainly not a media campaign to suppress the Trump vote, as some Trump conspiracy theorists claim, conveniently forgetting how the poll errors proved disastrous to the Clinton campaign strategy in 2016. (In fact, Biden’s own campaign repeatedly insisted to the public that the race was close in the swing states according to their internal polls.) When we talk about white members of the media not understanding race, it’s not just that many don’t have enough training to write about BIPOC communities. It’s that they don’t have training to understand whiteness in ways that Ethnic Studies teaches.
The white nationalist, Christian fundamentalist, heteropatriarchal, libertarian, strongman appeal is very real and very dangerous. This is why we live is such a period of volatility, especially while Trump is still in office. But the Trump shift to the far right has dialectically provoked a counter-mobilization, especially politicizing the younger generations who are going through their formative years. And Millenials and Generation Z could “dominate the electorate” by 2024 and 2028.
The first draft of the history of the 2020 election needs to be written by us and not conceded to the journalists, most of whom have still not adjusted to the new conditions of work and life in the age of Trump. It’s a pivotal story that can shape the lifetimes of younger generations and put everything else at this conjuncture in context if framed properly.
We must have what Grace Lee Boggs calls a “sense of history” about this moment.
We are living through a Constitutional crisis with two distinct aspects.
First, there is Trump’s blatant disregard for the law as written and established. He will make up any legal interpretation that suits his needs, tell any lie, exploit any conflict of interest, and fire any subordinate who does not bend the law and “facts” to his will. Worse than that, he’s using dog whistles to promote the strongman’s imperative that “law and order” must be imposed by force. And he has moved to demonize minoritized sectors of the population, left-of-center activists, and his political opponents in the exact ways that can lead to fascism.
Because he is now surrounded by loyalists, Trump is also going to try every legal maneuver in the book to overturn a Biden victory. The most dramatic next step could be a move to invoke discredited theories that would allow Republican legislators to substitute Trump electors for Biden electors. Of course, we know he also believes that “his” judges owe him payola. He said out loud that he wanted to rush Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court, so she could rule on the election. There is no doubt about what he’s doing and what he plans. Republican leaders who fail to rebuke Trump are complicit in their silence.
In fact, Trump telegraphed on Twitter and his pre-election speeches every single thing he has done to delegitimize the election outcome: attacking mail-in voting as fraud; calling for vote counting to stop on election night (except where he needs to catch up); accusing votes that don’t go his way of being corrupt or fake, especially when they come from cities with large populations of color; encouraging intimidation and violence to provide pretext for state repression and strongman declarations; and calling on the courts to intervene to get his way. That is why we need “all hands on deck” to respond to the immediate crisis of his relentless drive to delegitimize the election.
Secondly, Trump is exposing the deep flaws that have existed in the Constitution since the founding. While many GOP leaders have enabled Trump’s blatant disregard for the Constitution, the Republican Party is now completely beholden to extremist strategies to maintain minority rule. That has made the structural biases inherent in the Constitution more problematic than ever. The Senate and Electoral College grossly favor small states that are predominantly white and generally controlled by Republicans. And thanks to the Roberts’ Court gutting the Voting Rights Act, the Republicans have excessively gerrymandered House districts to the point where, as with the presidency, they can win majority control with a minority of votes nationwide. These problems are magnified by the effective demise of the moderate Republicans in Congress, plus the appointment of dozens of partisan, right-wing judges who must be endorsed by the Federalist Society but not the ABA.
As it was in the 1960s, the struggle over voting rights will be a defining civil rights issue of our times. As such. it is not just a legal issue; it is a movement issue. We need to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, stop gerrymandering, end voter suppression, pass universal registration, and make voting more accessible. Disqualified ballots may exceed the margin of difference in both Georgia and North Carolina. I’m talking here not about disqualified voters — the hundreds of thousands of voters who have been removed from the voter rolls, often dubiously — which is a bad enough problem. I’m talking about mail-in ballots that were cast but not counted because the signature was questioned or signed in the wrong location and provisional ballots that are not accepted.
The Constitutional fixes require abolition of the Electoral College and reforming the Senate, starting with D.C. statehood and the addition of two Senators for a population currently undergoing taxation without representation. That’s just for starters. We are in an age where the limits of representative democracy are being exposed, and new models of participatory decision-making need to be tested and expanded.
Now, the Constitutional crisis is just one aspect of a broader structural crisis. Thus, the substantive change that we seek will not happen overnight. Quick fix solutions are the product of snake oil salesmen. But in a moment of instability like this one, small acts carry the potential for a true breakthrough, setting us on an irreversible path toward profound, paradigm-shifting patterns of change. Trump’s self-centered, improvisational, and opportunistic campaign of 2016, with its narrowest of victory based on a combination of fluke events and unrecognized interventions, provided that potential breakthrough moment for the far right.
Amid all the tweets, hot takes, and media blather then, like now, it’s important to keep things in perspective. This is what I posted when the race was called for Trump in 2016: “Of course, all of your emotions are valid and we need a way to share our thoughts and feelings. But we also need to see the forest for the trees. This is a system in crisis. There is no center and no stability. So we should, as Wallerstein has been saying, expect to see these wild gyrations from right to left and left to right — as has been happening all over the world in this recent period. No matter what happens the rest of tonight, the crisis in the system will be even deeper tomorrow, and more people will be aware of that. As Grace said, this is a time of great danger and great hope. We have always been the leaders we are looking for.”
November 2016 inaugurated a new phase of resistance. November 2020 brings that phase to a close and opens up a new phase of reconstruction. No matter what happens, there will be millions of Republicans insisting the 2020 election was stolen (the updated “Lost Cause” narrative), and this will only embolden them to heighten their own attempts at voter suppression, intimidation, gerrymandering, and whatever other means they can deploy with a particular focus on disenfranchising BIPOC voters. That also means that Republicans in Congress are very likely to continue the obstructionist stance that Mitch McConnell prioritized when Obama was president.
Because it is also tied to neoliberal restructuring that has gutted the “middle class” and white cultural war reaction to the emerging BIPOC majority, political polarization will spread in concert with social, cultural, and economic polarization. This has been a clear trend over the past 50 years, since the rupture of the liberal integrationist and reformist order that bifurcated in the late 1960s. Even though Biden identifies as a moderate, these are not times of moderation. The “Third Way” centrism of Clinton and Blair that emerged in the 1990s promised to split the difference between left and right. For a time, they managed power through triangulation and achieved economic growth through a combination of globalization and advanced technologies. Much of the growth, however, was illusory, the product of financialization that encouraged boundless speculation by the financiers, while immersing more and more people deeper and deeper into debt until the bubble burst.
When Gore was outmaneuvered by the Republicans and Supreme Court in 2000, the “Third Way” centrists were eclipsed by the neoconservatives, whose half-century of work to gain state power struck gold when the 9/11 attackers stunned a bumbling George W. Bush (while he was reading “My Pet Goat” instead of his intelligence briefings) and convinced him he had to do something big on the world stage like his daddy. The neocons breakthrough moment resulted in a disastrous fifteen minutes of fame, symbolized globally by the Iraq War and domestically by Bush’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” (non-)response to Hurricane Katrina. This set the stage for Obama’s breakthrough moment.
Pushed aside by Trump’s GOP, the neocons have fallen even farther than the centrists, who got key positions within the Obama administration and still wield considerable power over the Democratic establishment. At their cleverest, they have produced some enjoyable Lincoln Project videos. But despite whatever heartburn progressives get from Biden’s rhetorical overtures to the Never Trumpers, the neocons are not likely to be more than media pundits and minor partners within the anti-Trump coalition.
The neocon disaster opened the door for right-wing populism and Trump’s pseudo-isolationist “America First” ideology to take over the GOP. In many ways, his gutting of decades of U.S foreign policy — severely diminishing American relations with allies, disrupting global trade to pursue xenophobic China-baiting, and hastening the demise of American power abroad — may prove to be his most lasting accomplishment as president. The Biden administration will focus on re-strengthening those multilateral alliances like NATO, and he should re-enter the Paris climate accord and Iranian anti-nuclear pact. For this, he will garner goodwill from many international leaders exhausted by Trump. But though I’m deeply troubled by Biden’s anti-communist tendency, all those formulations of the Cold War — and even those of the Clinton era of neoliberalism — will never be the same after Trump because the structural conditions underlying their creation have shifted.
At its worst, Trumpism has contributed to the rise of authoritarian neoliberals like Jair Bolsonaro, while seeking to punish and humiliate Palestinians for standing in the way of his most self-serving deals with Israel. Trump’s racism and callousness toward the Global South have been readily displayed by his “sh-thole countries” comment and discriminatory immigration and refugee policies. At the same time, his administration’s indifference and ineptness — along with his repeated attacks on U.S. foreign intelligence — have given some in the Global South more space to operate. Led by Indigenous peoples, the democratic restoration of the Bolivian government is the most recent inspirational model of hope for a new wave of left reconstruction on a global scale.
Right now, there are hundreds of millions of people all around the world excited by the prospect of the Trump Presidency coming to the end. Don’t call it naïve. Most of them understand the significance of U.S. politics far better than the average American. Now is our opportunity and responsibility, regardless of what the Biden administration does, to build solidarity with those movements, peoples, and nations around the world that are resisting the authoritarian trend and seeking to create an alternative to neoliberalism.
This work mirrors the solidarity work we need to do to bring diverse peoples together within the U.S. — not necessarily within one organization or party at this time but within short-term and long-term coalitions and alliances that prioritize levels of unity that meet the demands of specific situations and moments. All of these changes underfoot have not gone unnoticed by Biden, who gave reason for optimism when he defined himself (an elderly white male) as a “transitional” candidate paving the way for younger generations.
There’s obviously more space to negotiate with Biden than Trump, but there are also clear trends and developments opening up space for critical participation within the Democratic Party. The Squad is growing, and there are even more inspiring figures at the state and local levels. If you’re excited by the prospect of Pennsylvania putting the final nail in Trump’s coffin, you would be wise to thank local politicians like city councilmember, Helen Gym: “the most popular politician in Philadelphia,” who is showing us all how to put grassroots activist values and practices at the center of progressive electoral work. This prospective win will serve as both a credit to the work of Gym and her colleagues AND set them all up to play a bigger role in the future of the party.
The politicization of everything and the return of real political choices
Trump’s campaign to delegitimize his decisive defeat must be exposed as unacceptable in every way. Republicans have already stacked the deck with voter suppression, gerrymandering, and “free speech” rights for corporations. Trumpism is moving us toward a world where every election would be nothing more than a contest to control the courts and the voting process.
This hyper-partisanship and hyper-politicization have significantly altered the political landscape. Even when his Florida voters were disenfranchised in 2000, Al Gore conceded a race that was illegitimately decided by Florida Republican officials, whose actions were validated by the Supreme Court. I include myself when I say that many on the left did not engage the struggle over the 2000 vote count enough, whereas the GOP sent operatives to the election offices to protest the count of legitimate votes and shape the national narrative. While Gore called for patience and trust in the process, the GOP succeeded in making him look like he was the one overturning a valid Bush victory. Trump’s lackeys know this game plan, and they are deploying it on steroids in 2020.
History repeats itself: first time as tragedy, second time as farce. The Florida vote count was much closer and provided a much more legitimate basis for both sides to claim victory. Trump is outraged before the initial vote count is even done. Whatever harsh and antagonist rhetoric one can find in history, there is no campaign by any sitting president in any election of the past century that parallels Trump’s deliberate attempt to delegitimize not just this election but the entire U.S. political system along with it. While we can’t predict how long and how far Trump will carry on this ignominious charade, he’s given us no reason to believe he will relent. Trump knows that once he is out of office, he’s facing multiple criminal charges.
The politicization of everything has exhausted much of the population. Our choice of news, sports, music, and public health officials is now determined by political leanings, and social media has obviously aggravated this trend. But while this is the new “normal” for some, it’s how “normal” life has always been for many oppressed peoples. Every attempt to hail a cab is a political event. Every class in school is a political event. Every application for a job or housing is a political event. And most of all, every encounter with law enforcement is a political event.
There is thus a bold opportunity for new awakenings and consciousness-raising in this moment of politicization, where we can begin to discuss and practice politics in ways that are more relevant and meaningful to the daily lives of people, especially working-class and BIPOC communities. This is the promise of the Squad’s ascent in Congress.
While Trump is escalating polarization to new heights, he is not the original source of it. In many ways, his seemingly fluke election was a recognizable manifestation of the demise of the dominant political order. When capitalism endured an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy during the Great Depression, the New Deal order emerged during the 1930s as the centrist path between Communism on the left and Fascism on the right. This was the role liberalism played as the hegemonic ideology throughout the West between the mid-19th century and the late 1960s.
Liberalism’s great success for over a century was in co-opting the Right and Left to narrow the parameters of debate to what liberals deemed rational thought and reasonable reform. Hence, for much of the twentieth century, there was bipartisan agreement in U.S. politics supporting the domestic and global pillars of liberal capitalism. To win elections, the mainstream parties generally offered variants that moved things a little bit (but not too much) left or a little bit (but not too much) right.
This is a part of much more complicated history, but, in short, Democrats and Republicans were united by a common commitment to uphold the basic tenets of U.S. empire and capitalism. Despite whatever differences they may have had, “patriotism” and “duty to country” made it self-evident that they shared a dedication to promote American power and preserve the legitimacy of the underlying system. And so long as the liberal order uplifted white workers into the “middle class” (with a white bread, middlebrow culture that provided a shared experience), white Americans generally shared that common commitment to upholding the system — known colloquially as the “American Dream.”
In parts of the world beyond the U.S., the main political battles were between liberals and socialists or Marxists. Or they may have been focused on battles between liberals and authoritarians. In the U.S., we were essentially limited to center-left versions of liberalism (Democrats) versus center-right versions of liberalism (Republicans). The dominant view of “politics” and political science concerned how to function and operate within this system. That is why for radicals, the most interesting and relevant political histories were generally those that challenged the two-party system or operated outside of it.
Over the past fifty years, the neoliberal restructuring of capitalism has fostered the maximization of immediate, private interest and profit with disregard for long-term sustainability. The demographic transformation of the U.S. has been interconnected with this process. The Great Migration of southern African Americans to the North and West, combined with the movement for desegregation from World War II to the 1960s, ended white monopoly control of cities. Then, the 1965 Immigration Act removed the most racist immigration restrictions, which, combined with new labor migration patterns serving the neoliberal economy, led to new concentrations of Latinx and Asian Americans in urban areas, increasingly within some rapidly changing southern states.
These demographic and economic patterns produced a re-spatialization of society that reflects both the polarization between Red and Blue states AND the polarization between rural and metropolitan areas within the most highly contested states (Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Texas). It is a true culture war that goes well beyond the rhetorical and ideological culture wars of the 1980s that were far more contained within the media and academia. That is why there can be no “rational” discussion of economic interest that does not factor in a critical and intersectional analysis of race and culture.
The upshot of all these developments is that the era of limited choice has been ending, and the era of real, stark choices has been unfolding before our eyes. That is why every debate and conflict in front of us should be seen as a symbol of the long-range choices we now face: between constructing a new system that is rooted in participatory democracy and equity; or a system even worse than the current one that is overtly authoritarian.
Connect work defending the Biden victory to a long-term strategy for social transformation.
Given the stakes of this moment and the social forces in motion, Gramsci’s war of maneuver/war of position analysis is vital, particularly for those on the left. “Maneuver” can literally refer to armed combat, which Trump has brazenly encouraged with a wink and a nod to his paramilitary supporters. We will have moved to a totally new situation if political violence (including state violence), already too high a threat, escalates dramatically further. That is why any protracted refusal by Trump to concede should be met with mass popular outrage and demonstrations (as safely as can be done during the pandemic).
Since the 1960s, there has been an upsurge of popular movements around the world that have modeled nonviolent forms of maneuver or movement. The concept of a “People Power” revolution is the legacy bequeathed to us by the millions of Filipinos who took to the streets to oust President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Although initially elected to office in 1965, Marcos declared martial law to continue his strongman rule as an anti-communist dictator with American sponsors. The mass demonstrations for democracy not only succeeded in eroding Marcos’s support, paving the way for opposition candidate Corizon Aquino to become president; they also worked to neutralize the possibility of an undemocratic resolution to the crisis by the Philippine or U.S. armed forces.
From the Women’s March to Black Lives Matter, we’ve witnessed an expanded capacity for mass mobilization, particularly by younger generations of activists, in the age of Trump. Mobilization is crucial. But it is not enough. It has to be coordinated with Gramsci’s war of position, including the battle over ideas and culture and the behind-the-scenes groundwork necessary to make mobilizations successful, meaningful, and impactful over the long run. The immediate message is clear. Trump is lying about having “already won,” about voting “fraud,” and about his voters being “disenfranchised.” The lies, the fraud, and the disenfranchisement have become defining features of a Republican strategy to win by minority rule. Since 1988, Republicans have now lost the popular vote 7 of 8 times, which is unprecedented in U.S. history. That the Trump base is aging and shrinking has only heightened the urgency of Republicans to cash in their chips now, as with the massive corporate giveaways, looting of the commons, and jamming the court.
By reaching out to the 82 millions of people who voted to be rid of Trump, plus millions more who support legitimate vote counting, progressive and left organizers can connect immediate objectives to long-term objectives for social change and transformation. After we get Trump out of office, there will be ample time to debate policy, strategy, and tactics.
Right now, it should be clear that a Biden win over Trump is a good result for many reasons. I have never been a fan of Biden, and I’ve spent much of my adult life organizing against the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. And though I was closest to my element talking to undecided voters who disliked both candidates, even I became surprised at how a sincere enthusiasm crept into my voice while phone banking for Biden/Harris this past week. My values haven’t changed. The most important thing for me is that electoral work is largely about playing defense. And as the saying goes, you can’t win a championship (in whatever sport you like) without a strong defense.
When Trump and the GOP swept everything in 2016, they were first and goal to overturn whatever progress on progressive measures had occurred during the Obama years and, more ominously, ram through a dismantling of the relatively democratic aspects of governance we take for granted. They have done incredible and immense damage. But it’s not game over. They failed to overturn the Affordable Care Act in 2017. They lost the House in 2018. Trump got sidelined by impeachment in 2019. Think of the 2020 Presidential Election as the 4th and goal stand. We brought out 82 million people to hold the line. That’s a great accomplishment.
Viewing electoral work at the presidential level as critical defensive work provides an answer to those who dismiss this work entirely (because all Democrats — or all except Bernie in the minds of some — are worthless neoliberals) and to those whose political creativity and imagination is limited only to electing Democrats. As the famed radical scholar, Immanuel Wallerstein, advised us, we can situate this tactical, coalitional, and defensive work to oust Trump within a broader strategy for social transformation.
We are in a protracted period of systemic crisis, but at some point, an historic bloc will form, and things will crystalize (perhaps rapidly, perhaps gradually) into a new social order. By allying with the liberals and neoliberals to uphold the election and stop the delegitimization of the Biden presidency, we focus on the immediate task of ousting Trump and stopping the momentum toward a far-right global order. I find the use of the phrase voting for “harm reduction” — a more affirming phrase than voting for “the lesser of two evils” — to be accurate but also insufficient. We are voting to end the deliberate cause of premature death and unnecessary suffering, but we are also giving our exhausted organizers the physical and mental breathing space to refocus on long-term strategies for revolutionary change.
Of course, it would be good to implement substantive policies and reforms that meet human needs sooner rather than later. Given the mixed outcome of the election, there’s less than ample reason to be optimistic that will happen any time soon. There is no shortage of chatter about how different candidates or different tactics might have led to a better outcome. I get it, though I am generally skeptical of left and progressive writings that *insist* some sweeping reforms would be achievable if Nancy Pelosi would just prioritize them. True, Florida just passed a $15/hour minimum wage. But California rejected affirmative action and approved a notorious anti-labor law by a wide margin.
Moreover, you can’t win dramatic structural change like Medicare For All or a Green New Deal simply because 62% of people in a survey like it in theory. Such a change necessitates fighting not just a policy war, but also a political war, an ideological war, a marketing and PR war, an organizing war, a legal war, a legislative war, and so on. Then to avoid a pyrrhic victory, you need to be prepared for both the political blowback and carrying out effective administration. To respect revolutionary health care work in places like Cuba requires us to recognize it doesn’t come about just by approving or even funding a policy; it requires years and years of sustained community organizing, education, training, and relationship building.
So while I voted for Bernie in 2016 and 2020, I’m not losing sleep over the idea that we could have had democratic socialism in America by next year or anytime soon. I’m also not in any way convinced Bernie would have beaten Trump. The suburban Democratic candidates projected to win local races in Texas all fell short after being stigmatized as extremists, radicals, and anti-police.
And we should not forget that Biden trounced Bernie in the decisive head-to-head Michigan primary by +16 points, despite extensive investments by the Sanders campaign and huge rallies with students and young people (including the last public event I attended before the lockdown). Biden topped Bernie by even greater margins among women (+24), African Americans (+41), and seniors (+51) points. Most importantly, Sanders’s white working-class support, crucial to his 2016 Michigan primary win over Clinton, evaporated in 2020 against Biden, suggesting that anti-Clinton sentiments or sexism were more a factor than any embrace of socialism.
We need our analyses to capture the nuance and contradictions we are grappling with. While we should never suspend criticism of Biden or regressive tendencies among the Democrats, it’s imperative now that we resist ultra-left, dogmatic, and sectarian impulses in order to engage a broad alliance along the lines of the Popular Front against fascism that the Left constructed in the 1930s and 1940s. And let’s not forget that our holistic strategies involve a mixture of defensive (uniting with Biden to defeat Trump) and offensive (helping left candidates win at the local level, while building grassroots power) tactics
We don’t have to reflexively take marching orders or parrot the words of the Democratic leaders and establishment. When Biden uses the language of American exceptionalism, you don’t have to say that Trump is trampling on the democratic values inherent in our national character. You can instead frame voting rights as a legacy of the Black Freedom Struggle and ask people to carry on the legacy of Ella Baker and Fanny Lou Hamer. We can meet people where they are at AND build a structural critique of white supremacy, genocide, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, and neoliberalism into our argument.
And it shouldn’t be an either/or choice between working with Biden to ensure his election is recognized or “pushing Biden to the left” as he forms an administration. The more grassroots power that left/progressive forces demonstrate now, the more leverage that will provide to the Bernie, AOC, and Progressive Caucus supporters working within the system to shape the Biden transition team.
Building grassroots power also means neutralizing the power of money and consultants over politics. We’ve seen $14 billion dollars in campaign spending in 2020, even more for Congress than the Presidential candidates. This is more than double the amount for 2016. It’s a sign of how much ordinary folks — especially urban/suburban professionals — have been compelled to engage politics in the age of Trump, and it’s helping keep liberal and progressive candidates competitive in the aftermath of the disastrous Citizens United ruling outlawing limits on corporate contributions.
But 2020 has taught us that such financing is not enough to win and is not always put to best use. Amy McGrath raised nearly $50 million and lost by over 20 points. Jaime Harrison raised over $100 million and ran a great campaign but lost by over 10 points. Unless Biden can convince Susan Collins to leave the country to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the U.K., the Democrats will probably need at least one and most likely two victories in the Georgia runoffs to capture the Senate. Money will flood in from anxious and wishful liberal professionals. It should go instead to those community organizations, who make deeper connections with voters by linking election-year mobilization to protracted movement building for social justice. This was the model that Seed the Vote used for the presidential election.
While predominantly white states and rural areas are becoming deep red, Georgia and Arizona are flipping. Texas is inching closer. Virginia, once home to the capital of the Confederacy, has decisively become more progressive. None of this happens without the work of grassroots activists. We have so much to learn from organizations like New Virginia Majority, whose co-executive director, Tram Nguyen, reminded us in 2019 that: “It took years of organizing and multiple election cycles that resulted in incremental progress for Virginia to reach the point where a Democratic sweep was possible.”
I know there are organizers out there who have been doing what Charles M. Payne, who wrote one of the greatest histories of the Southern civil rights movement, has called the “slow and respectful work” that proceeds unheralded for many years but creates the possibilities for movements to flourish. To everyone else, seek their directives for guidance through these turbulent times and make today the start of your protracted journey to build a whole new system over the next 20 to 30 years.
As Grace Lee Boggs taught us, we must believe we have the power within ourselves to create the world anew. A brilliant author will someday write A Tale of Two Cities classic about our interesting times. The time for us to act is now.
Scott Kurashige is the author or co-author of four books: The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles; The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century with Grace Lee Boggs; Exiled to Motown: A History of Japanese Americans in Detroit; and The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit.