The result is now clear: Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States. Trump and his lawyers are still working overtime to steal the election, but Biden will become president on January 20, 2021. But the result is not without drawbacks, and what it means for us in Canada is not yet clear.
Biden is on pace for an Electoral College victory identical in size to the one secured by Trump in 2016, flipping two states that have long been regarded a loyally Republican (Georgia and Arizona). But the expected ‘blue wave’ that would have washed over Texas, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and perhaps even Ohio did not materialize. In the Senate, the Democrats have only added one seat, and unless they win both January 2021 run-off elections in Georgia, Mitch McConnell and the GOP will retain power.
Even with those victories, the Senate would be tied 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote, meaning every bill would be on a razor’s edge. And while the Democrats have retained the House of Representatives, it is with a reduced majority, as Republicans made pickups across the country. This division of power is of course baked into America’s woefully unrepresentative political structure, bur regardless, this cannot in any way be considered a smashing victory.
This result could make even modest left policies more difficult to achieve. Republicans will likely be as obstructionist as they were during the Obama years, and Biden will likely use the narrative of a Republican-controlled Senate as an excuse to not even attempt some progressive efforts, including those located within his own platform. One can even envision a good-cop, bad-cop routine, where McConnell happily stymies progressive legislation emanating from the House, and Biden ostensibly lamenting this (while sighing relief that he did not have to use his veto pen and anger his party’s progressive base). The Republicans’ likely control of the Senate also means that Biden will need bipartisan support to implement his cabinet. And while I was skeptical of Biden appointing any progressives in ideal circumstances, the chances of a Bernie Sanders Labor Department or an Elizabeth Warren Treasury are even slimmer, especially as their states have Republican governors who would choose their replacement in the Senate.
One potential silver-lining in the House is that the reduced Democratic majority came entirely from moderate or conservative Democrats losing their seats, with progressives in swing districts like Katie Porter surviving, and the Squad expanding to now include rookie congresspeople like Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. When you add them, plus other Sanders supporters like Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, and Mark Pocan, left-leaning Representatives now hold the balance of power, and may well be required to usher bills through the House. It should also be added that while the narrative from conservative Democrats like Jim Clyburn and Abigail Spanberger is that the left cost Democrats swing districts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has highlighted that not a single candidate who endorsed Medicare for All lost their seat, including some representatives from Republican-leaning areas.
One might also point to the fact that while Florida went comfortably to Trump, and flipped seats red in the House, it also voted strongly in favour of a $15 minimum wage. This indicates that even Republican voters are open to key elements of the Democratic platform, but that the Democratic leadership utterly failed to connect that platform to the material realities of the people on the ground.
Ultimately, the reality is that due to both the Senate composition and Biden’s own ideology, one should not expect much in the way of groundbreaking reform, though key executive orders from Biden can undo serious Trump damage and make meaningful improvements for vulnerable groups such as trans people, potential Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and Muslim immigrants, among others. Additionally, Biden will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, the World Health Organization, and perhaps the Iran nuclear deal. None of these changes are earth-shattering, but they are at least marginal improvements over the status quo.
Nonetheless, the left cannot rest for even a moment, especially since they are being attacked for supposedly ushering in congressional defeats—even though both Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib drove massive turnout to aid Biden in the swing states of Minnesota and Michigan—but also because neoliberal Democratic Party timidity will almost certainly usher in the next Donald Trump, who may be just as vile but much more competent.
This is where Bernie Sanders will make his mark, as he plans to release a ‘first 100 days’ plan alongside that of Biden’s, which will almost certainly draw some of the early battle lines over the next few months. Both in Congress and (especially) outside it, the grassroots left delivered Trump’s defeat. Now they must save the Democratic Party from itself.
What could be in store for Canada?
Here in Canada, the result was largely met with jubilation, given that anywhere from 75 to 80 percent of Canadians supported Biden over Trump. Some pathetically fawned over Harris’s brief life in Montreal, and many cheered on the ‘return’ of the United States as it was known during the Obama years. Ultimately, however, one should not expect too much in the way of changing relationships between our two countries. While Biden may shift minor policies around pipelines, and may be a better partner when it comes to preparing the border to re-open safely during the COVID-19 crisis, he will still be a steadfast partner in Canada’s ongoing assault on Latin American socialism and democracy.
Publicly, the Trudeau government is suggesting that Biden and Harris will be bring more commonalities and stability to the international partnership, but one wonders if the prime minister worries about not being perpetually bailed-out by favourable comparisons to Trump whenever he fails personally or politically. Further, it must never be forgotten that Trudeau was unflinchingly complicit in Trump’s worst actions and human rights abuses, and never took bold stands against the president when NDP leader Jagmeet Singh would.
It should also be said that many in Canada’s capitalist and investor class are cheering on Biden’s victory south of the border, and what it represents. They suggest that because Trump is gone, but that the Senate will likely remain Republican-controlled, that any progressive policy will be blocked, creating the best climate for capitalist investment, and ensuring that any social and economic progress in the US doesn’t inspire hope in Canadians for the same—which was always the concern should Sanders succeed.
The defeat of Donald Trump is unquestionably a good thing. He posed a devastating threat to democracy and had to be dispatched. But the ideology and politics which made Trumpism possible are barely unscathed, and the Democratic Party seems unwilling to grapple with the reality that only a multiracial working-class coalition can build a better society.
Unless the left can continue to expand influence within the party and broader society, Biden’s victory may only be the briefest and weakest reprieves from a protracted descent into fascism.
Christo Aivalis is political writer and commentator with a PhD in History. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and Passage. He can be found daily on YouTube.