By Richard Liu
NOTE: The views expressed in this piece are the writer’s, and are not necessarily the views of Lot’s Wife. This piece was finalised before the United States experienced a coronavirus outbreak, and before Tara Reade accused Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her in 1993.
So, here we are, election year 2020. For the Democrats, the show can go on no longer, the circus is over, that parrot is no longer pining for the fjords. The Establishment voters has chosen their champion: Joe Biden. With that out of the way, I henceforth proclaim that with big Buttigieg energy and 0% of the vote counted, Donald Trump has claimed a landslide victory and will be returning to the Oval Office for a second term!
Perhaps that’s a bit premature, but for myself, along with other progressives both in the U.S and across the globe it seems all but certain now. So, one might wonder why I am so resigned to defeat. Well, the reason is that the Democrats have thrown away their best chance of defeating the most dangerous president in history. His name was Bernie Sanders.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist (even though his policies more closely resemble that of European social democracy) has lost. He’s unlikely to run again, but not for lack of trying. For no other outsider candidate in modern U.S. history has inspired and created a diverse, grassroots movement that has primarily built itself on small individual donations and ingrained itself in the imagination of so many young people, in the hopes that, somehow, Washington could work for them. Alas, it was not to be. Sanders has dropped out of the race, paving the path for Biden to clinch the nomination and face Trump in November.
I purport that the real battle in American politics today is not necessarily a battle of left versus right, it’s not a divide of the urban liberal against the rural conservative; the real battle is establishment against anti-establishment, the old institutions against the insurgent outsider. Both Republicans and Democrats seem almost surprised by the rise of the alt-right and the progressive left, but if anything, it’s far overdue. Congress regularly polls at or below 20% for approval; the real shock should be that the rise of genuine, alternative candidates has taken this long to emerge.
The rise of anti-establishment, whether left or right, is built on populism, a desire to uplift and empower “the people” against the “elite”. This isn’t new. In the 21st century, the U.S. saw two populist movements that generated massive momentum and media coverage, both in response to the Global Financial Crisis: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. While Occupy’s shouts of “we are the 99%” died out, the Tea Party movement succeeded. The Tea Party was a big tent, with gun rights activists, birther conspiracists, libertarians, and Christian nationalists among them. After breaking through in the 2014 midterms, the Tea Party was embraced by the Republicans, and has since pushed its rhetoric to the fringes of the right.
These movements have been the bedrock from which Sanders and Trump built their support. Both direct their ire towards the very same elites: the party establishments. Trump based his campaign on a promise to “Make America Great Again”. The idea that America was once great and that America could return to a “golden age” is immediately enticing regardless of your political affiliation. To Trump and his supporters, Washington is a swamp that only Trump alone can fix. When a charismatic leader promises sweeping change, that genuinely speaks to their woes, who says that the system is inherently broken and they have a solution, one can see why Sanders and Trump can rally such support.
Perhaps the clearest indication in the rise of anti-establishment opinion is the growth of alternative media, including InfoWars, The Young Turks, Rising, The Jimmy Dore Show, The Ben Shapiro Show, Secular Talk, and others. Such shows have seen considerable growth in recent years and now capture large audiences from an “outsider” perspective, be it from the left or the right. For many everyday Americans, the talking heads on broadcast TV seem far removed from the problems they care about; when other outlets appear to genuinely address their concerns, it’s no surprise they are growing.
During that same timeframe, trust in the mainstream media has plummeted to record lows. It’s hard not to see why. With over 90% of American media owned by six corporations, it’s not surprising that their pundits fail to speak truth to power and hold the powerful accountable. it’s this dynamic in which why Americans have lost trust in their institutions and rightly so. Today, Americans see their media as primarily self-serving and having a distinct status quo bias, protecting entrenched power structures. No better example exposed this than the two populist candidates who questioned the Establishment line and were unsuccessfully shut down.
Trump in 2016 was slathered with negative press. He feuded with left and right, even with the nominally conservative Fox News, on several occasions. Despite media coverage being generally negative for the former Apprentice host, Trump relished in it, holding the saying that “any press is good press”. In the month of February alone, Trump, then a long-shot, shocked the country by racking up $2 billion USD in free media coverage, when the campaign only spent $10 million on ads. Even though media was sour on Trump, voters weren’t dissuaded, and he gained a share of the media far in excess of his polling numbers.
As for Sanders, his policies are favoured in state after state, both in 2016 and in 2020. The media knew it would lose when it came to policy, and so began the dirty smear campaign. Sanders supporters have been compared to communists , Nazis, told their candidate amounts to “political suicide”, told that they’re a cult, and so much more I couldn’t even begin to cover it all.
What most differentiated Trump from Sanders was their willingness to attack establishment media figures and politicians. When Trump was pushed on party unity, Trump shrugged, claiming that he didn’t need party unity to win. However, Sanders has said repeatedly that Biden can beat Trump, even when Sanders needed to make the case that only he could take on Trump, in order to win the Democratic primary. Sanders has also refused to go for the jugular, even going so far as apologising to Biden after one of his surrogates published an op-ed detailing Biden’s flagrant corruption. Sanders’ comments have always been predicated with “my good friend”, but this posturing of party unity with the corporate wing goes against his entire idea of political revolution. What Trump understood that Sanders did not was that the Establishment is not your friend. This understanding is why Trump’s attacks on the “fake news” were so successful in launching his campaign into the stratosphere. Sanders failed to go after establishment figures effectively, and against a biased media. He needed to take off the gloves, call out those biases, and go after Biden’s corruption. In the end, he failed to do so. Ironic as it sounds, the revolutionary candidate was too nice to the Establishment, and it ultimately torpedoed his campaign.
One would be right to ask: why do you care so much? Why I, a Kiwi in Australia cares so much about the political discourse of a land that I have never set foot on. The election of the president of the United States doesn’t change the fact that Jacinda Ardern sits in the Beehive in Wellington. But it is a statement of fact that the politics of the most powerful nation to have ever existed has influence across borders. Who the President of the United States is matters; their words and actions shape behaviour in Western society, and can legitimise otherwise deviant views. A head of state that conflates white supremacists with the virtuous people willing to stand up against them, that compares undocumented immigrants to animals, that denies that right-wing extremism is on the rise, says to the nation – and the world – that this behaviour is normal, and allows attacks on minorities without the social stigma that they once carried. Trump’s casual dehumanisation of Muslims as seen by his travel ban, and his praising of white supremacists as “good people”, has contributed to a rise in far-right violence. I was aware of this better than most as a far-right white-supremacist committed an act of terrorism and murdered 51 innocent people in my hometown of Christchurch in March of 2019. So yes, it matters very much to a New Zealander like myself. It’s up to progressives all over the world to push for change and to call out authoritarianism and bigotry in all forms, particularly in a state as volatile as that of the U.S. The left needs to stand up and fight with our allies in other countries, to push us all towards a better, more equitable future. With that, it’s time to realise that the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party will fail to rein in the alt-right, and so it’s time to chart a new course. Just as the Tea Party movement transformed the Republican Party, the populist left will need to mount a takeover of the Democratic Party and use it as a vehicle for real, social-democratic reform, so as to stand up to the alt-right.
Despite running on a populist, anti-establishment agenda, Trump has failed to deliver. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to end foreign wars, yet his actions have taken the U.S. to the brink of war with one of the most powerful states in the Middle East. He repeatedly said that he would “drain the swamp”, but if anything, Trump’s record number of corporate lobbyists in his administration has actively fed and nurtured it. Trump said he would cover everyone with healthcare, but his attacks on the Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as Obamacare) have led to the highest number of Americans lacking adequate healthcare since 2014. Trump knows better than most that populism sells.
Bernie is the opposite. Sanders is a true populist for the working class, and not a populist only when it is convenient for him. I know that when Sanders advocates for Medicare for All, he backs it entirely. There is no guesswork if his position is going to flip-flop. He has said the same thing now as he did decades ago. Sanders is one of a rare few politicians who sees that change cannot be created top-down. It’s clear that even the Democratic-controlled House will fail to hold the President accountable, as they authorised Trump’s mammoth $738 billion “defence” bill by a vote of 377-48, without provisions to withdraw U.S. support in the Saudi Arabian-led genocide in Yemen. It’s time to realise that a mass people’s movement is needed to realign the U.S. into a country that can deal with the threats of the present and future. In that regard, Sanders has succeeded.
Had Sanders emerged victorious, he would have commanded a broad rainbow coalition of his dedicated support base, former Trump supporters swayed by his populist message, and loyal Democratic voters repulsed by the concept of the incumbent gaining a second term. There is no indication that Sanders could not expand his base further; we already know his policy platform is overwhelmingly popular, and by harnessing the power of the Democratic Party, Sanders would expand his coalition to one that can take back the White House. Trump’s populism would be exposed for the paper tiger that it is, and in Sanders, Trump would face a candidate with an extensive record of fighting for the working class. Come November, Trump would have met his match in Sanders. As Justice Democrats co-founder Kyle Kulinski put it: “the only way to beat a fake populist is with a real populist”.
Contrast Sanders’ coalition with Biden. Biden’s campaign is built on reconstructing Obama’s 2008 coalition, that which propelled the first African-American to the White House. To that end, Biden namechecks Obama every ten minutes. Obama in 2008 ran on on a powerful, yet vague, message. Hope and change. The left read into his position a more progressive candidate, while the centre saw him as a continuation of Bill Clinton. In the end, the progressive wing left disillusioned, as Obama failed to implement the change that we wanted. Could we say that Biden, even under the most generous interpretation, could come even close to building the same coalitions that Sanders, Trump or even Obama built? There is no question that the former Vice President doesn’t have the political will or charisma to build a coalition to take back the White House.
There are genuine, sincere questions to be made about Biden’s mental state as well. He has told voters that “poor kids are just as bright and talented as white kids”, and made ridiculous comments about kids rubbing his leg hair and “jumping on [his] lap”. He has falsely claimed he was arrested trying to visit Nelson Mandela in prison, and said he worked on the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement with a leader that had been dead for almost 20 years! Other examples include forgetting which office he’s running for, fabricating a story about his involvement in Afghanistan, and even failing to recall which President he served under. In isolation, one could forgive any of these comments, but taken as a cohesive whole, it paints a picture of a man in serious cognitive decline. Mental decline among the elderly is a serious, sensitive issue, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t matter.
If elected, Democrats will have to shoulder the burden that Biden will be the oldest person ever to hold the office of President. It’s important, perhaps more important than ever, that he assembles an experienced cabinet that will put working Americans first. It’s incredibly worrying that a potential Biden administration would have the same Wall Street crooks that instigated the Great Recession at the highest posts in the Treasury. Biden will further Obama’s legacy and, as Biden has promised to his wealthy donors, “nothing will fundamentally change”. With a looming global depression rearing its ugly head, Biden will do as he did in 2008: bail out Wall Street, and give crumbs to Main Street. Nothing Biden says about being a moderate is correct. Joe Biden is an extremist.
However, Biden is no fool. He knows that he must give the left of the Democratic party some reason to support him, at least until they pull the lever at the voting booth (a couple months after which they will learn he never had a genuine political will to run with whatever idea they voted him in for). So, what have they done to earn the progressive vote? Biden has staked his campaign on a return to “normalcy”, on nostalgia for the Obama era, on the belief that he’s the safe and “electable” option. Unfortunately, for many voters, that’s not enough. After all, Hillary Clinton was the “safe and electable” candidate, but Democrats ceded the White House to Donald Trump. Before the general election, the Establishment will need to make peace with the sleeping giant that is the progressive left, awakened by the prospect of a Sanders presidency, and build a coalition that works for all Americans.
To win over progressives, will Biden show a genuine will to implement Medicare for All, after polls from virtually every state showed it had majority support? Unfortunately, no. Biden has instead promised to commit to a woman as his running mate, and to nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court. Biden is pandering, trying to win progressives purely on tokenism alone. I’ve always seen identity politics as a disgrace that should’ve been disposed of long ago. Progressives need to realise that the concept of identity politics is inherently antithetical to our goals of equality of opportunity. The left should nominate the best candidate based on their merit, on policy, not on something woefully stupid such as a candidate’s gender identity alone, or whether someone has more or less melanin. Identity tokenism will shut the door on a Biden presidency. How silly is it that the centrist elites seem perfectly content with equating identity with politics, as if they are one and the same? 64% of young Americans are concerned about the future: it matters not whether Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams is your Vice-President when you fail to stop the degradation around us. I don’t care what colour Godzilla is as he fucks up my house. Destruction is destruction no matter who is at the helm.
So where does the election of 2020 go from here? Donald Trump, for all his character flaws (and boy does he have many), is an exceptionally sharp and quick-witted character. He exudes a type of charisma that enamours crowds. His fundraising machine dwarfs that of Biden and he comes into his re-election campaign with a gargantuan war chest, sprawling campaign infrastructure, the undying love of the Republican party, and fervent supporters to boot.
As for Biden, he does not command the same level of voter enthusiasm that have been hallmarks of the Sanders and Trump campaigns. Even at this point in the race, where Biden should be shoaling up his base for the battle in November, Trump beats Biden’s “very enthusiastic” support by a factor of more than two to one. I would have no doubt – none – that Trump would absolutely dominate Biden. Biden is his ideal opponent! He is the swamp monster that Trump’s faux-populism has been railing against, a Washington insider captured ‘prostituted’ by the corporate hegemony, a product of the dark money that is destroying American democracy. Trump is nothing if not vindictive, and he will clobber Biden over the head with Biden’s son’s role in the Ukraine scandal. In addition to that, Biden’s voting record is tainted, from his disastrous Iraq war vote, advocating of cuts to social security, overt Wall Street corruption, support of NAFTA and PNTR with China, and drafting of the bankruptcy bill that locked working families into crippling debt. Biden cannot genuinely say he will fight for working people because his record proves otherwise. After all, those policies are just the tip of the goddamned iceberg!
I would be remiss not to discuss the turnaround that the Biden campaign had, from being absolutely decimated in the first three contests to unseating Sanders as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. South Carolina changed the state of the race. After Sanders more or less won the first three contests, the Palmetto State, where a sizeable proportion of the electorate is African-American, handed Biden his first victory; he blew out Sanders by almost 30 points. Without missing a beat, the mainstream news beat the war drum, pronouncing him the “Comeback Kid” and pumping up the narrative that it’s all “Biden! Biden! Biden!”. Biden’s almost 100% positive coverage on news networks where the campaign didn’t spend a single cent, ballooned to the tune of over $100 million in just 72 hours. Compare this with Sanders’ blowout win in Nevada a week earlier, where he trounced Biden by more than 26 points; Sanders received three times as much negative coverage as Biden, and none of the positive media narrative. Making things worse, this was followed quickly on the day prior to Super Tuesday, where the centrists coalesced behind Biden. Former rivals Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, as well as Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic challenger to Ted Cruz, bowed out and handed Biden their endorsements in an effort to stop Sanders.
All of this was the perfect storm to blunt Sanders’ momentum and deny him a path to the nomination. The concerted and highly effective media smear campaign, having the entire Democratic establishment rally around Biden at the 11th hour, and pumping the Biden narrative – it was too much for the Sanders campaign to overcome. Super Tuesday, where Sanders was poised to win the lion’s share of delegates just days prior, saw Biden sweep the board, from the Deep South, to even the most liberal states in the union. Ultimately, voters were deceived by mainstream news and establishment Democrats into believing Biden was the most electable option in November. For progressives, what little sympathy that was left for the Democratic establishment was erased, as we saw as the DNC was willing to coalesce behind and lose with a declining, neoliberal corporatist instead of winning with a social democrat.
Now the Establishment pleads for unity. “You will vote as you are told”, they say. They throw out useless, vapid platitudes such as “Vote blue no matter who!” right after they relentlessly smear the left. If the Democrats lose in November, do not be mistaken for a second. They will blame progressives; they will criticise the lack of a youth turnout. That Sanders did not bow out early enough. That the playing field was dragged too far left. The Establishment will never accept that their ideas are unpopular, that they set up their own defeat.
If by some absolute miracle Biden wins, the Establishment will say it was because of the magic unicorn of the “disaffected Republican” and continue like they always have, ignoring the progressive wing and placating their new fake bloc for four years. Progressives in the U.S, Australia and elsewhere do not owe you our vote as you give us the bird. We are not your firewall, we are voters with a conscience, we will refuse to fall in line. A vote for Biden is a vote for the status quo. A status quo that created a Trump figure in the first place. Can we genuinely say that this system is working when nearly four out of five Americans are working pay check to pay check?
The image I have painted is bleak, but there is yet hope moving forwards. The left has become mainstream, and our policy proposals have moved into normal discourse. It would have been inconceivable to think, even four years ago, that America would be so close to having a $15 minimum wage, a national single payer healthcare system, legalisation of marijuana, and an end to foreign wars. Let’s not forget Sanders was overwhelmingly winning the under-45 vote. The writing is on the wall. Corporate Democrats are a dying breed, and a new generation of left-wing Democrats will be there to replace them. Already a new generation of Democrats have taken their seats in the House, fighting for the ideals that we hold dear. In time, they will be a generation of leaders, of Senators, Governors. Presidents. We will get there in the end; our champion might not be Sanders, but the White House will be ours. My friends, our time will come – I only fear that it might be too late.
Richard is an ordinary member of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand.