At the Democratic Convention, Bernie Sanders argued that the left should hold its nose and vote for Joe Biden:
The future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake. We must come together to defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president. My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.
My friend Nathan Robinson, at Current Affairs, made a similar argument, claiming that this is our “last chance” to stop Donald Trump, and that we will be “fighting for our lives against an aspiring dictator” if he wins.
This is a grave mistake. Trump, for all his faults, poses no existential threat to the republic. What’s more, Sanders and Robinson are deeply underestimating the damage a Biden presidency will cause. The Republican Party has become what it is because of Democrats like Joe Biden. These Democrats are pushing the Republican Party further and further right, and a Biden presidency will make the Republican Party even more dangerous going forward. Let me show you how it works.
Democratic Presidents Push the Republicans to the Right
Since World War II, every two-term Republican president has been more right wing than the one before. Dwight Eisenhower was first. Then Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. In between these five Republican presidents, there were four sets of Democratic administrations: Kennedy/Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama.
Each of these Democratic administrations made key concessions to the right, and these concessions produced resentment and frustration. Kennedy/Johnson went to war in Vietnam to prove that they were just as tough and anti-communist as the Republicans. Carter appointed Paul Volcker Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and began pursuing a ruthless anti-inflation policy that drove up unemployment and laid the foundation for the neoliberal era. Clinton sliced the federal budget and attacked the welfare system. Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, starving the recovery of necessary stimulus and allowing extraordinarily unequal growth.
Carter, Clinton, and Obama all oversaw increases in inequality. The top 1%’s share of income increased under all three:
Democrats promise to help us and then let the oligarchs get their way. The frustrated American has nowhere to turn but the Republican Party, and Republicans attract them by becoming steadily more nationalist and more committed to liquidating the establishment and its institutions. Ordinary rank and file Republicans hate government because they think it’s too corrupt to do any good for them. Every chance the Democrats get to prove them wrong, they fail. Worse, they reinforce the view.
When Americans vote for Republicans, they’re often voting against the consequences of the right wing policies of Democrats. Think about it:
Nixon won in part because Americans didn’t trust the Democrats to end Vietnam, a war the Democrats started because they were afraid of looking soft on communism. Of course, Nixon then escalated the Vietnam War.
Reagan won in part because Americans believed that Carter’s economic policies–the right-wing policies of Paul Volcker’s Federal Reserve–hadn’t made them better off than they were four years ago. Of course, Reagan then escalated Volcker’s war on inflation.
Bush won in part because he promised to return the surplus Clinton had accumulated through miserly right-wing budgeting to the American people via tax cuts. Bush then gave that money to rich people and spent trillions on insane vanity wars.
Trump won in part because he promised that the people who were left out of Obama’s recovery–the “forgotten people”–would be his priority. Of course, he has continued to give piles of money to rich people and to prioritise inflating the stock market over ensuring ordinary Americans can pay their bills.
It wasn’t always like this. Franklin Roosevelt forced the Republican Party to adapt to him. Before Roosevelt, the Republicans were the party of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. They had little regard for the government’s ability to step in and protect its citizens’ fundamental economic rights. But after Roosevelt, the Republicans became the party of Eisenhower. They became a party that was comfortable building interstate highways with public money and wouldn’t dare raise a hand to Social Security.
McCarthyism broke the domination of Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, and with it, the ability of the Democratic Party to set the agenda. From that point forward, the Democrats have adjusted to the Republican Party, and in the process they have normalized its excesses and encouraged it to go further. Nixon was comfortable secretly bombing Cambodia because Kennedy and Johnson lied about their wars. Reagan was comfortable driving unemployment through the roof in the early 80s because Carter had already begun the experiment. Bush was comfortable cutting taxes for the rich because Clinton had given him the surplus he could use to fund it. Trump has been able to prioritise the stock market portfolios of the rich because under Obama a skewed recovery had become our new normal.
Joe Biden loves to tell us that “nothing will fundamentally change”. If nothing changes, another Democrat will normalise what Trump has done and frustrate the American people into voting for someone even more right-wing.
Look at what’s happened with Bush. He’s more popular than ever before. In the 00s, we recognised that Bush was nuts. Bush believed the God wanted him to bring peace to the Middle East by spreading democracy by the sword. That’s crazy! He killed hundreds of thousands of people and accomplished absolutely nothing.
But Barack Obama destroyed Libya in 2011. The civil war in that country continues to this day. And many of the people who recognised that Bush was nuts made excuses for that, and they made excuses for Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State who urged him to do it. They acted like it was no big deal. And now people don’t think Bush’s wars were a big deal, either. They miss him. When Obama was first elected, the American people knew Bush was a terrible president. In January of 2009, Bush had a net favorability rating of negative 19. In the summer of 2016, it was plus 9. A year after that, it was plus 22.
The experience of the Obama administration made the American people decide that George W. Bush was okay. Worse, it made Trump possible. Some Americans moved from Obama to Trump, looking once more for hope and change. Many others stopped voting, because Obama broke their confidence in our political system’s ability to help them. They believed in Obama, and Obama let the rich get richer and let the forgotten stay forgotten.
The Democrats are a big part of how we got to where we are. And if we think that the Republicans are authoritarian nationalists, it is the Democrats who have encouraged them to become that way. The ordinary American cannot look to the Democrats to resist the ravenous elite. They look to the nationalist firebrands of the right because there is nothing else on the menu. The Democratic Party is the party of the Ivy League technocrats who scorn them and tell them to “learn to code”.
Joe Biden solidifies all of this all over again. He is the embodiment of keeping things exactly the way they’ve always been. The American people have been bludgeoned for forty years by oligarchs. They can’t take it anymore. They’ll vote for anyone who promises to make it stop. If the Democrats won’t stop it, they’ll vote for someone who will. The next Republican will be worse than Trump, and Joe Biden will make it happen if given the chance.
Donald Trump Doesn’t Pose an Existential Threat to Democracy
The Democrats say we have to stop Trump because Trump is an authoritarian who poses an existential threat to democracy. But for Trump to be a dictator, he would have to stage sham elections or ignore the results of elections that are free and fair. Trump hasn’t tried to hold a sham election–he’s tried to delay one that’s free and fair, because he knows that if he loses he won’t be able to ignore the result. He hasn’t even managed to secure his delay, much less anything more than that.
Authoritarians use crises to seize power. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán used coronavirus to consolidate power around himself. But Trump responded to coronavirus by running away from decision-making responsibility. Instead, he kicked decisions to governors and mayors. Coronavirus gave Trump an opportunity to centralise power around himself, but he chose to decentralise power instead. He likes the trappings of power, but is afraid of the real deal.
Trump talks a big game about cutting trade links with countries all over the world. But his trade wars usually bring us back where we started, with trade deals that are almost indistinguishable from those that came before. His new version of NAFTA is virtually identical to the old version of NAFTA. He has tried to push jobs and investment out of China, but they’ve been sliding down the coast to Vietnam instead of returning to America. His bark is worse than his bite.
Ultimately, an authoritarian needs the backing of the military. The military has to allow the authoritarian to hold sham elections, or to ignore the results of elections that are free and fair. But America’s leading generals largely despise the president. Our intelligence services loathe him. The military remains committed to the constitution and will arrest Trump if he loses and attempts to carry on. Trump knows this, and that’s why he suggested delaying the election–he knows he could lose, and he knows that if he loses he won’t be able to keep going.
Trump has treated protesters terribly–but he’s not the first American president to do so. The Hoover administration used tanks to bulldoze the bonus army’s camp in 1932, killing two demonstrators and injuring dozens. It was a brutal and shameful act, but it wasn’t the end of American democracy:
The Democrats said Bush had an “imperial presidency“. Then Barack Obama tried to outflank congress with a series of outrageous, unconstitutional executive orders, and many of the same people cheered him on. Now when Donald Trump throws out piles of orders that are probably unconstitutional, the Democrats try to get us outraged again. But the American people are used to the president trying to get away with things. Barack Obama made it cool.
Many of Obama’s unconstitutional orders were struck down by the courts. The Democrats tell us we should be worried that Trump is packing the courts full of stooges who will approve of everything he does. But judges aren’t very predictable. Neil Gorsuch has already voted against the president’s wishes on transgender employees. John Roberts increasingly votes against the president’s wishes to protect the court’s legitimacy. Many of the court’s liberals have historically been appointed by Republicans. Earl Warren was appointed by Eisenhower. John Paul Stevens was appointed by Gerald Ford. David Souter was appointed by George H.W. Bush.
Even if Trump really does pack the court, many on the left have called for packing the judiciary or reforming its structure. In the past, they’ve suggested doing this simply because they don’t agree with the politics of the current judges–not because they believe the judges to be authoritarian. If it’s really the case that Trump manages to load the judiciary up with raving authoritarian nationalists, the judicial reforms already under consideration by the left could be used to undo the damage.
The real concern is not a president who is allied with judges–it’s an authoritarian ruler who is allied with the military. Donald Trump alienated all the leading figures in our armed forces by ignoring their advice, leaking classified information to the press, and blatantly disparaging both them and the intelligence they gathered. Because of this, they will never support any authoritarian bid emanating from him.
We need to articulate a compelling left-wing alternative to the politics of the past 40 years. When Republicans are in office, we flip out over every little thing they do. We oppose it all. People who reject the status quo come to the left and look to the left for a new way forward. But when Democrats are in office, there is no meaningful left-wing opposition. Intellectuals point out the failings of Democratic presidents, but they are derided as bad sports. People who reject the status quo are pushed toward the Republican Party, and pushed into authoritarian nationalism.
A Biden Administration Will Create a Whole New Generation of Bad Democrats
The left hopes that replacing Trump with Biden will buy the left time. But Biden will pack his administration full of a whole new generation of vulgar careerists. It will be these people–not the left–who inherit the Democratic Party when he leaves. They will have the institutional knowledge and connections and access to money that are needed for success in American politics. They will continue servicing the oligarchs. And the Republican Party will respond by growing ever more bellicose, ever more grandiose, ever more willing to tear the whole thing down. Biden will accelerate the rise of new nationalist figures who might be able to do all the things Trump can’t even dream of doing.
We can’t have that, and for that reason I can’t support Biden, even as a matter of strategy. To give the left more time, we need to give the left something to oppose. We can oppose the Trump administration in its second term. But if it’s Biden, we’ll be stuck defending him as he slugs the ordinary American in the face. The American people won’t forget the black eye we’ve given them, and they’ll vote for the leaders who will be the death of us.