The once-powerful United States is teetering on the edge of political collapse because millions find themselves unrepresented. The record-setting 160 million votes cast in the presidential election which would ordinarily indicate heightened political engagement actually hides a crisis of legitimacy.
While Biden will become the 46th president of the United States, Trump’s contestation of the results speaks both to his personal political power and to the fracturing of American society. This situation cannot be blamed on Trump alone. The delegitimizing of the political system has been a bipartisan effort.
Since Democrats and Republicans act on behalf of essentially the same interests in office, the two-party system is a misnomer. Changes remain marginal and never threaten the status quo. The Democrats’ long record of betraying the hopes they arouse in campaigns is unlikely to be broken. Their claims to inclusivity, protection of workers, and defending civil and human rights were forged decades ago and today constitute a dwindling reserve of popular legitimacy as Democrats in office, like the Republicans, focus on neoliberal legislative and executive agendas set by those who bankroll them.
Donald Trump eked out an electoral college victory in 2016 in part because he claimed he would end the bipartisan neoliberal policy consensus. He also promised to make the Republicans a “workers party” that would stem the loss of living wage jobs sent overseas, and end international trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP which decimated entire industries. He did nothing of the sort, but he knew what people wanted to hear. The tone deaf Hillary Clinton, by contrast, received $675,000 to give speeches at Goldman Sachs events. Therein lies the rub.
Neither of the two major political parties are talking about what people need. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 265,000 fatalities on Trump’s watch, the Democrats continue to support the for-profit healthcare system which is partly responsible for the high death toll. Both parties have also failed to lay out a plan for how they will rescue businesses in the wake of shutdowns, which prevented the spread of the disease but created economic catastrophe. Instead, the Democrats point to Trump’s incompetence and his dismissal of the severity of the pandemic and cast blame solely upon him. Americans face the hard reality that without comprehensive, universal health care and an infrastructure with the capacity to find, test, trace, isolate and support millions of infected people, the crisis will not end even after Biden is sworn into office.
The election result does not indicate that Biden won, only that Trump lost. He repels more than half of the country but continues to enjoy the support of a large minority, receiving 10 million more votes in 2020 than he got in 2016.
The president’s open racism, crass boorishness, unpredictability, and unhinged posts on Twitter created anxiety, fear and hatred for millions of people who were inspired to get rid of him. So much so that there was spontaneous public celebration across the country when Biden’s victory was announced. However, thousands also descended upon Washington for an event dubbed the “Million MAGA March.” Trump himself made a brief appearance demonstrating also that he will do everything in his power to keep this support and whip it up as necessary.
The real problem is that the US electoral system gives just two political parties a reasonable chance of victory, leaving out far too many points of view, interests and causes. The left wing of the Democratic Party is routinely excluded from important decision making. Most of the millions with urgent needs who waited in long lines to vote for Biden are unlikely to see them fulfilled by a man who reassured wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change.” While inequality, racism and insecurity rise, progressives seeking to address them can either work within a party beholden to billionaires or forget about having a government that actually improves Americans’ quality of life. Those who did not accept this choice were deemed “spoilers” who risked keeping Trump in office.
However, Biden is clearly aware that the sizeable left and progressive bloc of voters can no longer be ignored. While his cabinet appointees are a mixture of Democratic Party establishment figures and members of the defence and surveillance state, he has also appointed Louisiana congressman Cedric Richmond to lead the Office of Public Engagement and to “serve as a liaison with the business community and climate change activists.” Interestingly, Richmond was the recipient of $341,000 in campaign funds from donors in the oil and gas industry. Indeed, Biden will carry on the Democratic tradition of appointing corporatists to top cabinet positions. Current and former staffers from major tech companies including Uber, Amazon, Lyft and Airbnb are well represented in the revolving door from the Obama administration.
Biden’s choice of Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who made money doing business with defence contractors, is a fellow supporter of the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Libya. He co-founded WestExec Advisors with Michelle Flournoy, also widely expected to be appointed to a high position in the new administration. WestExec is a secretive ‘strategic consultancy’ firm which secures contracts with the US military for its clients in ways that aren’t technically lobbying and so do not require disclosure of the names of the people and entities involved. Avril Haines, who will serve as Director of National Intelligence, has also worked for WestExec.
These consultancies—which are filled with Beltway insiders like Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and William S. Cohen—exist in a grey zone between the corporate and governmental worlds and they are set to define Biden’s foreign policy. Clearly, those who voted for the “lesser evil” are in for the same, banish the thought, the greater evil, all the greater for being more predictable, reliable and well-mannered.
And what of the 73 million who voted for Donald Trump? Unhappy, even angry, though they are to see their man lose, they are also convinced he is the rightful victor. But Trump’s supporters don’t blame him for not delivering—they prefer to think that the “deep state” prevented him from doing so, depriving him of his second term. Of course, Trump did succeed in giving wealthy people the largest tax cut in history. But his MAGA hat-wearing devotees are nonetheless in his thrall.
The Republican Party includes many sane people who know Trump lost. However, most are afraid to say so publicly lest they anger the base. Trump has upset too many conventions on his way to becoming the unexpected nominee and then the unexpected president, and the establishment of his party won’t miss him personally. However, they know popularity when they see it and are loathe to offend their voters while his quixotic effort continues. Of course, if Trump’s supporters had a realistic expectation of fairness and true representation in government even some of the most ‘deplorable’ would leave the Trump camp.
Until that unlikely eventuality materializes, however, they will be used to make the case for one wing of the duopoly while also having their needs ignored. Americans of every political persuasion are used as dupes to give the appearance of real democracy and the possibility of change.
The majority of Americans are relieved to see Trump gone. However, they want and need more as the pandemic continues and the economic situation deteriorates. What will they do when they lose their homes and jobs with a president whose only qualification is that he doesn’t offend their sensibilities?
The word collusion has been applied over the last four years to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. However, there are far more egregious examples of collusion in the United States. Trump claimed to bring about a new worker’s party but any gains for workers were illusory. The democrats campaigned with Trump as their poster child, but Biden promises not to allow Medicare for All or any other publicly supported health care system to be realized. He received a record breaking number of votes despite refusing to do something that the people need and want.
Americans are constantly told that they can never have what they want. They have to live with defence spending eating up 60 percent of the discretionary budget. They have to live with healthcare tied to employment even as they lose their jobs. They are expected to be happy with little or nothing done on their behalf as long as the obnoxious orange faced man is gone. Trump was in his way a gift to the Democratic Party, which got away with promising only to eject him from the presidency.
The engine of government will continue in the Biden years. Neoliberal budgets will be approved, and neoliberal laws will be passed. The system is set up for them. Bill Clinton came from a place called Hope, but deregulated financial services, which impoverished the country. George W. Bush was a uniter, not a divider, but started unending wars and helped rich people get even richer. Barack Obama promised not just hope but audacious change. He also continued the wars and bailed out the very actors that created the catastrophic 2008 crash and recession.
Trump is a con man. He didn’t deliver on promises, fomented bigotry and continued the wars. Biden has promised the least. His clumsy slogan “Build Back Better” shows the depths that even propaganda has descended to. Americans not satisfied that he isn’t Trump are labelled unreasonable spoilers. However, the widening gap between what Americans want and what they get may finally be making the nation ungovernable.
The day will come when memory of the Trump bogeyman will no longer be enough to silence discontent. Jobless and homeless people may not be very tolerant. Ungovernability may turn from prospect to reality.
Margaret Kimberley is a New York-based writer and activist and senior columnist at Black Agenda Report.