Voting turnout during the 2020 United States presidential election—around 65 percent, the highest since 1960—was astonishing, and all the more so considering the context in which the vote took place: racist, violent and deadly repression, white supremacist vigilante horrors, a public health emergency turned into a politically willed catastrophe, and the tightening economic vice on workers. Many racialized and marginalized people risked life or limb waiting in apparently interminable queues. Many others drove long distances to find ballot boxes and avoid decoys laid out by Republican fraudster legislators.
The internal divisions of the US ruling classes have been as sharp as those on the streets, even if for differing reasons. Elections in liberal democracies are one way to parry social discontent while suppressing alternatives and deferring unresolved problems to the next bout of elections. This time the strategy may lose its efficacy, as systemic cracks open socialist possibilities.
Elections have their place in a wider struggle. After all, allies and sympathizers in state institutions can be useful, acting as alarm-sounders and space-makers mounting offensives from within or helping blunt the edge of actions against the people. Electioneering is now especially important in stopping and beating back white supremacist inroads in government, as Angela Davis, for one, pointed out. That is why millions, especially in racialized communities and the unions’ rank and file voted in unprecedented numbers and organized to get out the vote.
Many expect popular inaction now that the elections are over and that the Democratic Party has reclaimed the presidency. Yet mass protests have continued in many cities and not just because Trump attempted to overturn the popular verdict. Police killings continue and are met by more mass protests, as in Philadelphia and New York City. Agitation for respect for Black lives and defunding police, as well as for Medicare For All, climate justice and action, and much else that mobilized millions over the past half-year at least, is far from over.
And these numbers are only the froth on the boiling pot that is the United States. The ruling classes can barely keep the lid closed and are themselves divided on how to keep doing so. The time honoured strategy of racializing class differences is losing traction as Black-led movements increasingly find support in a younger disenchanted generation of whites. The threatening prospect of such unity is met, inevitably, with co-optation, diversion, and savagery of the white settler colonial capitalist state.
That is why the polarization on the streets was reflected in the verdict. More than half of whites voted Republican, led by small business and middle to upper incomes layers in exurbs, with a slightly greater proportion of white women voting for Trump than in 2016. The Democrats got the support of the vast majority of racialized communities and about half the white working-class. Age cohorts showed new splits: those above 44 leaned Republican while younger people went the other direction. It is significant that the 37 percent who did not vote included many who were denied that right, a method that may still enable Republicans to hold the Senate.
Ultimately, however, US elections offer a choice between two neoliberal corporate capitalist parties and can thus barely reflect the substance of the divisions now arresting US society. The fact is that today, socialism, which is not on offer as an electoral choice, attracts more and more support, particularly among the young. Fear of this widening constituency for socialism overrides fear of Trumpism. When this socialist constituency is combined with struggles for self-determination (the Black Lives Matter movement is one example), it is even scarier for the ruling classes of a settler colonial system. To keep a lid on these movements, even a moderate social democrat like Bernie Sanders had to be sidelined. The Democratic National Committee, the governing body of the Democratic Party, had to deploy the full force of the mainstream media’s hammering, complete with the heavy bullying of Michael Bloomberg and the purposeful dilution effect of numerous nomination candidates, to get social-democratic demands dismissed.
This portends well for socialists in future elections. As Liza Featherstone argues, many referenda got passed to improve conditions for workers and start reversing the upward redistribution of wealth, even in states dominated by the Republican Party. Against great odds, socialists even got voted into office in city councils and state legislatures, while left-leaning democrats were returned to Congress. It may not be about socializing the means of production, but it is an opening for socialist politics.
Until now, the ruling classes have succeeded in parrying and suppressing the potential for working-class unification and radicalization to continue reducing the working-class’s already diminished share of the national income while raising profits for the few and keeping world military supremacy. But aside from sustained street protests involving millions, thousands of wildcat strikes have broken out against ever-harsher and more dangerous working conditions. The continued success of this parry and suppression strategy may not hold very long. Let us consider its chief components.
First, the US electoral system acts as a most effective suppression mechanism, with its electoral college for presidential elections; disproportionate districting giving advantage to wealthy white minorities; state-differentiated electoral rules hampering national-level organizing for less financially endowed third parties; denying many their voting rights because of their penal records; obliging people to register and deregistering voters at a whim; redistricting by victorious parties (gerrymandering); inordinate demands for ballot inclusion; stacking district courts by Republican and Democratic parties to suppress third parties; campaign blackouts against third parties by privately-owned media monopolies; unaccountable and now runaway private campaign financing; election costs affordable only for billionaires, among other features of a capitalist version of “free and fair elections.”
These are tried and tested ways to select out any political formation straying from the capitalist line. The resulting narrowing of substantive differences among candidates and shutting out of popular issues like universal healthcare also dissuades a plurality of electors from bothering to vote. Against all this, the Democratic Party only call on activists to defend the electoral results, instead of calling out the recurring electoral frauds committed by the Republican Party.
There is, secondly, direct repression and terrorising, as with the recent street protests against which not only the police and military but fully 17 agencies, besides the FBI, devoted to spying, infiltrating, and framing political dissidents, like the case of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7. Police have brutalized and arrested so many thousands that even the likes of Human Rights Watch have taken notice. Hundreds languish in prisons on untenable charges and hundreds of them die of COVID-19 and other diseases.
While excluded majorities and racialized minorities have struggled and even died for the right to vote in capitalist democracies, elections have been turned into painstaking ruling-class efforts to suppress genuine representation. US elections are distinctive in this broader picture simply as the most refined and most effective way of attenuating, if not negating the popular vote and suppressing egalitarian anti-capitalist movements.
This is greatly facilitated by the same capitalist forces bankrolling both ruling parties. Buying politicians is legal in the US and has proved the best way of hedging and ensuring their compliance with capitalist preferences. There is a largely financial faction tied (if not beholden) to international capital flows and financier rent—including insurance and pharmaceutical firms, represented by Biden—and, on the orange-head side, elements representing national-market oriented capital and the mostly white petty bourgeois and upper working-class elements who have been losing out in the neoliberal era.
The capitalist faction represented by Biden (who promises more funding for the police) have no problem with violent repression of dissent and not just through the National Defense Authorization Act, but the Patriot Act and mass incarceration since at least the 1990s. That is what the majority of the Democratic Party really stands for and why keeping up protests and strikes is an essential complement to electoral strategies.
The fickle corporate boss model of the US presidency may have run its course, but settler colonial racism remains intact, as does the possibility of national convulsion and white terror in an eclipsing empire—that is, unless socialism prevails in streets and state at once. The outcome of the US elections is too feeble an attempt to keep deferring the lid blowing off the boiling pot.
Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro is a Professor of Geography at SUNY New Paltz and the editor of Capitalism Nature Socialism.