Part 2 of an examination of Biden’s first 100 days.
A demographic transformation has made the United States a much less cohesive society than it was at the end of the second world war when the country became the brash successor to Britain as the dominant capitalist power globally.
Not only has the population more than doubled from 140 million to 330 million, it has also changed radically in its ethnic composition. In 1945, 90 per cent of Americans were white, the rights of non-whites were negligible and desegregation of housing was explicitly considered ‘Un-American’. Today, more than thirty per cent of the much larger population is non-white – nearly 100 million people who, after successive waves of struggle, are not prepared to accept second best.
Biden owes his election to the way they turned out in huge numbers for him. He won 15 million more votes than Hillary Clinton to beat Trump clearly by 81 to 74 million in the popular vote. Like Clinton, but on a higher turn-out, he had the support of nine out of ten black voters and two of every three Latinos.
The main difference between 2016 and 2020, apart from the record numbers voting, was the big lead Biden had over Trump among voters on lower incomes. If you convert the New York Times exit poll into votes, more than 64 million of Biden’s 81 million votes came from households with a combined income below $100,000 – that was nearly 17 million more than Trump, compared to a roughly even split in 2016.
Among people from households with an income of more than $100,000, whereas in 2016 the votes broke fairly evenly between Clinton and Trump, the 2020 election saw Trump beat Biden by 54% to 43% (or by around five million votes) in that category.
In other words, wealthier voters swung to Trump, no doubt pleased with their tax cuts, while Biden secured a staggering increase in support – something like 20 million more votes than Clinton – from less well-off voters. And this must have included a large increase in working class white voters because overall he won 41% of the white vote, compared to Clinton’s 37%.
Further evidence of the Democrats regaining working class support – white and black – can be found in the states Biden won back from Trump. Of the five he flipped, three – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – were in the de-industrialised ‘rust belt’ where Trump had promised but failed to deliver jobs. In Pennsylvania, for example, the two counties that Biden took from Trump were Northampton, once the home of the giant Bethlehem steelworks, and Erie, another former centre of the steel industry where Trump made three campaign stops, including for one of his final big rallies.
The defeat of Trump has opened a new phase in US politics in which the progressive left has opportunities to advance, capitalising on Biden’s need to keep them onside. Whether it can do so depends on how well it can rise to three major challenges.
Firstly, the left will need to continue to build mass pressure for their policy agenda to overcome resistance from the Republicans and backsliding from the centrists around Biden. In January, Sanders warned that the Democrats will lose control of Congress in the midterms next year if they don’t follow what he calls an “aggressive working-class agenda”. Recalling what happened after the victories of Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008, he said: “In 1994, Democrats in power lost big because they were not bold. In 2010, it happened again. If we do not take aggressive action now to protect working families, it will happen in 2022.”
The Rescue Plan was the kind of thing he had in mind, but the failure of Biden and Harris to make a real fight for a $15 minimum was warning signal. Former Obama chief of staff and Chicago mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, is among those touting the idea of a compromise with employer lobby groups that would allow states to opt-out of a $15 federal minimum to a floor of $12.[i]
Predictably, centrists claim that policies corporate interests oppose are an electoral liability. After the November elections, they tried to blame a handful of Democrat Congressional losses on the left, but Sanders was quick to point out that all 112 co-sponsors of Medicare For All and 97 of 98 co-sponsors of the Green New Deal won their elections. “These are not just good policies, they’re also good politics,” he said.
Secondly, uniting the US working class in all its diversity across a huge continent is a herculean task. The Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, despite not ultimately being successful, lifted the left to a level arguably never seen in the US before. Tens of thousands of people are now active in organisations such as Our Revolution, Justice Democrats and Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA alone now boasts 85,000 members, four members of Congress and 155 elected officials in 32 states. However, when you look closely at the 13 state legislatures on which its members sit, almost all of them are in the north and north east of the US and not in the West, South West and South East where the working class has been growing fastest.[ii]
In 1949, my father, Brandon Howell, conducted a demographic study for the state of Nevada in which he projected that the state would see its population grow from 173,800 to 208,800 by 1970. He was way out. By 1970, nearly half a million people lived in the state. Today, Nevada has a population of more than three million, mainly centred on Las Vegas. While states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and New York have seen their populations plateau, there has been phenomenal growth over the last fifty years not only in Nevada but also in states such as Arizona (from 1.7m in 1970 to 7.3m in 2020), Texas (11.2m to 29.4m), Georgia (4.6m to 10.6m) and Florida (6.8m to 21.5m). These so-called sunbelt states have become big political battlegrounds, but they are not places where socialist ideas and working class organisation have strong roots.
Finally, while there is currently a large overlap between Biden and the left on the domestic front, the same cannot be said of foreign policy. When Blinken was appointed secretary of state, Lord Finkelstein described him in the Times as someone “who continued to support liberal interventionism even when, after the Iraq war, such a position was unpopular among Democrats”.[iii]
Blinken has recently changed his tune, saying in March that the US will not “promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force” because “however well intentioned” those tactics “haven’t worked.”[iv] This apparent U turn is borne largely of necessity: the ‘forever wars’ have cost $6.4 trillion[v] and thousands of US lives and are deeply unpopular. But Blinken also knows that regime change – or regime weakening – can often be achieved through a combination of sanctions, special forces, proxies and drone strikes backed by the occasional bombing raid.
That strategy frees US resources to focus on its main goal of isolating China and Russia and strengthening its grip on maritime global trade. The US can’t do much about the improving transport infrastructure integrating China with central Asia and Russia, but it is looking to encircle that land mass with its vastly superior naval and nuclear might to ensure it calls the shots on sea routes. Blinken is therefore busy whipping NATO countries into line and trying to build up the ‘Quad’ alliance with Japan, India and Australia.
The EU, and especially Germany, are reluctant to be the US’s junior partner in this new Cold War. The EU Commission has agreed a major investment deal with China. The US are opposed to it and it has run into opposition in the European Parliament, but one in every two VWs is sold in China and Merkel’s ministers have made clear that business comes first – a stance that reflects a wider weariness in Europe of its interests being subservient to those of the US, reflected in the new Brussels buzz phrase ‘open strategic autonomy’. As Portugal’s former Europe minister put it recently: “Our ability to chart our own economic policy and choices does not have a ceiling”.[vi]
But the left and the peace movement – in the US and worldwide – can’t afford to rely on dissension among the major Western powers to prevent a worsening of the new cold war to the point where tips dangerously into a real one. This is no idle scaremongering. The head of the US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, said in an article published in a military journal in January that “there is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons” and that the US “must shift its principal assumption from ‘nuclear employment is not possible’ to ‘nuclear employment is a very real possibility’ and act to meet and deter that reality”.[vii]
Faced with such a stark danger, the left cannot afford to let US hypocrisy on ‘human rights’ go unchallenged. Some in the West – notably including the Murdoch-owned media – are lobbying for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in China next February. Blinken’s spokesperson cryptically encouraged speculation in April by tweeting that “we don’t have any announcement regarding the Beijing Olympics…but we will continue to consult closely with allies and partners to define our common concerns”.[viii]
US ‘concern’ about the human rights of Muslims in China is a bit rich, to say the least, given how since 2010 it has mounted 14,040 confirmed drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen, killing 8,858-16,901 people of which 910-2,200 were civilians and 283-454 were children.[ix] Biden and Blinken were among the architects of this extra-judicial slaughter. They need to be held to account.
Steve is author of Game Changer, an insider’s account of Labour’s dramatic 2017 election campaign, and two novels – the latest of which is Collateral Damage, the story of a Palestinian woman’s search for the truth about the death of a fellow activist.
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[i] David Sirota, ‘Rahm Emanuel Headlines Event For Group Fighting $15 Minimum Wage’, Daily Poster, 2.4.21.
[ii] According to the DSA website, the 13 state legislatures on which its members serve are: Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maryland, Minnesota, Hawaii, Montana, and Michigan.
[iii] Daniel Finkelstein, ‘What makes Biden’s right hand man tick?’ The Times, 2.12.21.
[iv] As reported in the Financial Times, 4.3.21.
[v] ‘America has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and Asia since 2001, a new study says’, CNBC, 20.11.19.
[vi] Quoted by Dominic Lawson, ‘Germany, not Brexity Britain, will vex Biden’, Sunday Times, 24.1.21.
[vii] As reported in The Times, 4.1.21.
[viii] Ned price @StateDeptSpox, 6.4.21.
[ix] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, figures to 10.4.21.