By giving unconditional support to Joe Biden, progressive Democrats almost got Trump re-elected. Trump came within as few as 21,462 votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin of winning the Electoral College. If those votes had gone to Trump instead of Biden, the Electoral College vote would have been tied 269-269. The election would have then gone to the House of Representatives under the Constitution’s 12th Amendment for a one-state, one-vote decision where Republicans have the majority in 26 state delegations of the incoming House.
The Democrats may have beat Trump, but they didn’t beat Trumpism. The polls had indicated a Democratic sweep up and down the ballot. But the Democrats failed to take back the Senate as they expected. They lost seats in the House where they also expected to gain. They failed to flip any of the nine of the state legislative chambers they had targeted and instead lost three more. Republican control of redistricting in 30 states means they will be able to gerrymander districts in order to extend their overrepresentation in state legislatures and the House compared to their popular vote. Trumps’ vote grew from 63 million in 2016 to 74.2 million in 2020. Even if they win both Senate seats in the January 6 special election in Georgia, the Democrats’ narrow congressional majorities mean no real change from the long-standing bipartisan policy consensus of domestic austerity and foreign imperialism, which has epitomized “work-across-the-aisle” Biden’s entire career.
Democratic progressives got crushed as bad as the Greens did in this election because they took their own voice and demands out of the campaign narrative. After the corporate Democrats closed ranks to defeat Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, progressive Democrats closed ranks behind Biden. Biden then ran against progressives as much as Trump. He boasted that “I beat the socialist.” He vigorously opposed the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. “Biden stiff-arms the left — which holds its fire” is how the Washington Post headline aptly characterized Biden’s relationship to progressive Democrats in its article on the first Trump-Biden debate.
Progressive Democratic politicians and pundits took Biden’s slights in silence. They equated defeating Trump with eliminating the neofascist threat. Socialist professors pontificated that progressives had to support Democratic neoliberalism in this election in order to defeat Trumpian neofascism. Once the neofascists are gone, they said, then we can start a left party. Trump was certainly the most racist, cruel, corrupt, dishonest, ignorant, and incompetent president the US has ever had. But Trump is far from the whole problem. Trump had the backing of one of the two major parties, which is now the political home for the white-supremacist right that has had significant power in the US political system throughout its history. This hard right has grown in recent decades under the public austerity enacted by neoliberal Democrats. The economic insecurity created by these policies has provided fertile ground for the rightwing messaging machine’s racist scapegoating and conspiracy mongering to cultivate a sense of victimhood, resentment, and anti-scientific irrationalism in a far-right base that is growing even though its traditional white Christian nationalist base is diminishing demographically.
The Democrats should have crushed the Republicans in a landslide. As Ralph Nader had lamented in September, “Biden should be thirty points ahead in the polls against the delusional, falsifying, lawless, selected occupant of the White House who spends most of his time tweeting insults, lies, and fictional accusations when he isn’t watching the Fox News adoring bloviators. Instead, Biden’s lead is in single digits.” Nader urged the Democrats to campaign on popular progressive demands.
Instead, Biden campaigned like the second coming of Hillary Clinton. Like Clinton, he campaigned as Not Trump, not for positive reforms. Like Clinton’s “Stronger Together” slogan, Biden would “Unite a Divided Nation.” That may have played to the sensibilities of Never-Trump Republicans and suburban professionals, but it didn’t resonate so much with working- and middle-class voters struggling under the covid economic collapse. Without a progressive economic message to expand the Democratic vote by motivating more working-class non-voters and winning back more Obama-to-Trump voters, the urban share of the total vote, the Democrats’ strongest working-class base, declined from 34% in 2016 to 29% in 2020. Even after four years of his racist and misogynistic rantings, Trump gained among African-American men and women, Latino men and women, Asian Americans, and white women – among every ethnic and gender group except white men.
Progressive Democrats contributed to this result by making no demands on Biden or raising progressive demands in their own name. They rallied voters to Biden’s vapid centrism. They asserted that Biden was really a progressive. When the policy recomendations produced by the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force overwhelmingly embraced Biden’s centrist policies, Sanders still claimed that Biden would be “the most progressive president since FDR” if those recommendations were implemented.
Meanwhile, as people were suffering under a painful health and economic crisis, the silence of the progressives left the field open to Trump for his pandering economic demagoguery. While Trump figured that out it’s still “the economy, stupid,” Biden and his progressive enablers didn’t. Trump campaigned energetically to re-open the economy so that people and businesses could get back to work. As divorced from reality as Trump’s economic boasts and promises were, at least he spoke to the economic hardships and apprehensions people were feeling. The economy was the top issue among all voters (35%) and especially among Trump voters (83%).
Biden could have constantly blasted Trump and the Republicans for failing to contain covid and thus collapsing the economy. He could have spearheaded a fight for an immediate covid relief package. He could have campaigned on the $15 minimum wage that was nominally in his platform. Just as Clinton’s economically tone-deaf campaign in 2016 cost her the “Blue Wall” Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2016, Biden lost Florida in 2020 by 3.3% (372,000 votes) while the $15 minimum wage won there by 21.6% (2,274,000 votes).
Unlike 2018 when the Democrats won with national messaging on health care, the top issue that year, Biden 2020 replicated Clinton 2016 by never centering progressive economic reforms, nor did progressive Democrats with their own voices to give economically struggling voters a reason to vote Democratic. Not Trump was not enough. The Biden Democrats and their progressive cheerleaders tried again to beat something with nothing. Not much changed in the overall results from 2016 to 2020.
Our Green presidential campaign raised up progressive demands within an ecosocialist framework. Few heard us. We were blanked out by the media, not only the corporate broadcast and cable networks including NPR and PBS, but also the progressive media, from Common Dreams to Democracy Now! Our leading platform demands were far more popular than Biden’s and Trump’s. 62% supported a Green New Deal. More people opposed fracking than supported it (44%-35%). 72% supported Medicare for All (defined as “a government-run health care plan” in this election day Fox News exit poll). 79% supported a Federal Job Guarantee. 75% supported a shift in federal budget priorities from military spending to domestic social and environmental protections.
Instead of raising progressive demands, prominent progressive personalities attacked the Greens for asking people to vote Green to support those demands. Don’t Vote Green was their message in a series of open letters (e.g., safe states, environmentalists, no states) in progressive online publications, very few of which would print our responses (safe states, environmentalists, no states), with the honorable exception of CounterPunch. In 2000, many of these progressive luminaries endorsed Ralph Nader. They have been moving to the right ever since. In 2004, they called for a Safe States Strategy of voting Kerry in swing states and Green in safe states. In 2020, they moved further to the right over the course of the campaign, from a Safe States Strategy to a No States Strategy of voting for Biden in every state, even in states like California and New York where Biden led in the polls all year by 25%-30%. The last fear-mongering push called for running up the Biden vote in the safe states to deter a Trump coup even as scores of retired top military brass and intelligence officials denounced Trump and endorsed Biden and as big capitalists poured hundreds of millions into Biden SuperPACs.
This retreat to the right by socialist public intellectuals and politicians revealed a profound lack of confidence in the viability of their professed politics. It also displayed a naiveté about the immediate danger posed by the neoliberal Democrats on the life-or-death issues of climate, poverty, racism, and war. These progressive influencers have given up on the idea that the most effective way to fight the right – both the center-right Democrats and the far-right Republicans – is with an independent left alternative.
Biden is now taking progressive support for granted because they posed no threat of voting Green. As Lawrence O’Donnell once explained drawing on his experience as a Democratic Senate staffer, “If you want to pull the major party that is closest to the way you’re thinking, to what you’re thinking, you must show them that you’re capable of not voting for them. If you don’t show them that you’re capable of not voting for them, they don’t have to listen to you. I promise you that. I worked within the Democratic Party. I didn’t listen or have to listen to anything on the left while I was working in the Democratic Party because the left had nowhere to go.” Progressives gave their power away by giving Biden their unconditional support.
Progressive Democrats have no leverage on the Biden administration as it stuffs its cabinet with deficit hawks and war hawks. Nor do they have leverage with the corporate Democratic leadership in Congress. This powerlessness was ruthlessly demonstrated when corporate Democrats ganged up on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to deny her a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over her top legislative priorities, Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. The Democratic leadership recruited a member of the pro-corporate New Democrat Coalition, Kathleen Rice, to make a last-minute bid for the prized open seat on the committee. The Steering and Policy Committee, the leadership body of the House Democratic Caucus, crushed AOC’s bid by voting for Rice 46-13.
Corporate Democrats blame progressives for the Democrats’ poor election results, claiming they enabled Trump to smear Democrats for supporting Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. That’s not what happened. Biden joined Trump in opposing those popular programs and progressive Democrats stood by silently. However, down ballot progressive candidates and initatives did well. Democratic House candidates who did run on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal won and some of those who didn’t lost. It was not progressive policies but their absence in the national party message coming from the Biden campaign that explains how the Democrats underperformed overall.
The Green presidential vote came in at a little over 400,000, or 0.3%. That is a middling result for the Greens in a presidential election, which peaked at 2.7% for Ralph Nader in 2000 and fell as low as 0.1% in 2004 and 2008. The 2020 election was a referendum on Trump. Anybody But Trump was the overriding sentiment on the progressive side. 2016, on the other hand, was an open seat with the two most unpopular major party candidates in polling history. The Greens received their second best result in the 2016 dynamic with 1.1% of the vote. The larger political dynamic of each presidential campaign has determined Green results far more than their own candidates, message, or campaign execution.
400,000 is not enough votes for the Democrats to feel pressure from their left, but it is a base upon which the Greens can build. Even knowing that they will not be competitive with the major party candidates, the Greens have practical political reasons for running presidential tickets: advancing Green policies, recruiting new Greens, and securing state ballot lines, which make it much easier to get local Green candidates on the ballot in the next election cycle. While we did not get a traditional media platform to advance our policies, we did recruit many new Greens attracted to those policies through social media, especially young people who feel that real solutions can’t wait and want to fight for their futures on climate and economic and racial justice. Green ballot access took a hit. Greens lost six of the 21 state ballot lines they went into the election with because the Green presidential vote failed to meet state ballot retention thresholds. The Greens will recover those ballot lines with the hard work of ballot petitioning, but the harder work will be year-round grassroots organizing to strengthen local parties and run winning local issue and electoral campaigns.
The Greens have won over 1,200 elections over the years and currently have 110 members elected to municipal offices, including 22 elected in 2020. If the Greens are going to become a major force in American politics, they will need to expand their numbers of elected municipal officials into the thousands as we go into the 2020s and, on that foundation, to state legislatures and the House. When the Greens have built that kind of political base from the bottom up, their presidential campaigns will be influential at the top.
Progressives should draw two conclusions from this situation where Democratic neoliberals and Republican neofascists share power in a closed two-party system that imperiously dismisses progressive demands that have majority support.
1. Replace the Electoral College with a Ranked-Choice National Popular Vote for President
The Electoral College installed a Republican who lost the popular vote in 2000, 2016, and almost again 2020, even though Trump lost the popular vote by 7.1 million. This situation screams out for replacing the Electoral College with a ranked-choice national popular vote for president.
Progressives must insist that ranked-choice voting be part of this reform. A plurality-winner national popular vote will just entrench two-party rule and the dynamic of the last 50 years in which Democratic neoliberal austerity fosters Republican neofascist reaction and the two parties share power and alternate control of Congress and the presidency in a relentless march to the right.
We need ranked-choice voting so that the left alternative can run without being vilified as a spoiler. With a ranked-choice national popular vote, the Green ticket can be supported without the fear that vote splitting between a Green socialist and a Democratic centrist will result in a plurality win for a Republican rightist who is the least popular of all.
2. Independent Left Politics
2020 shows that progressive dependence on Democratic neoliberals to defeat Republican neofascists is a recipe for progressive defeat. Still many progressives point to the support Bernie Sanders received in his two presidential campaigns as evidence for why socialists and progressives should try to take over the Democratic Party. What happened over the last five years is stronger evidence for the opposite conclusion.
Sanders won 15 elections running as an independent for Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, for the US House, and for the US Senate. In both of his Democratic presidential campaigns, the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party united to defeat him. Progressives get to make speeches in the Democratic Party, but the corporate Democrats make the decisions. Indeed, the progressives are useful to the party establishment because they draw progressive votes to the corporate Democrats. While polling shows majority support for many of the policies that Sanders campaigned for, none of them have been implemented and Biden didn’t campaign for them.
Progressives inside the Democratic Party drain their energy and resources in Democratic primaries and internal party fights with the corporate wing that are largely out of the view of most voters. Progressive Democrats must support corporate Democrats who win primaries and must comply with the demands of the corporate party leadership in order to have access to the party’s councils and resources.
The lesson to draw from the Sanders experience is that it is more effective to run against the both corporate parties by taking the socialist message independently to the voters right through to the general election. The way to defeat both Republican neofascism and Democratic neoliberalism is with an independent Green socialism.
*Howie Hawkins was a candidate for president for the Green Party of the United States