Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election is a powerful reminder that far-right populism is not invincible. It also represents a major victory for left coalition politics in the United States. Against expectations in some quarters, the forces of a (very) broadly defined left and centre-left held together, under considerable strain held over from the Democratic party primaries earlier in the year, and carried Biden to an electoral college majority as well as the largest popular vote share in US history. The moderate and progressive wings of the shotgun marriage that is the Democratic party kept their vows and put the defeat of the adversary first. The result comes as relief to hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the world. But it should not come as an unqualified one: the election indicates much about the US, which casts a shadow over the left/centre-left Democratic coalition strategy and over Biden’s political project.
The fact is that Biden’s victory was a victory for Biden, not for the Democratic party. For proof, just listen to the party itself. The New York Times reported that at an “extraordinary party confab” held shortly after the results became clear, Democrats from across the country “wept, cursed and traded blame” over what can only be described as a humiliating result on every electoral level except the presidential.
Americans went to the polls on November third to elect representatives to their legislative branches, not just to their federal executive. This fact mattered more this year than almost any other year: this time, the Democrats needed a majority in the House and Senate not just in order to legislate. Many also wanted to make good on the boast that Democrats could expand the number of Supreme Court seats and avert a dark half-century of unchecked hard-right dominance over the judicial branch. Hence the hoped-for “blue wave” on which victorious Democrats would ride to supermajorities House and Senate. But the party failed to capture the Senate and actually managed to come back with a decreased majority in the House. Democrats didn’t just not win: they definitively lost. What does this have to do with Biden? As primary voters, Americans are routinely told that our choice of presidential candidate directly impacts “down-ballot races”. Biden’s strategy set the agenda for the Democrats’ nationwide strategy, which was a losing one.
How then to make sense of Biden’s seemingly crushing victory? Simple: more people wanted Trump gone than wanted him to stay. But while facts on the ground show that voters wanted a Democrat in the White House as opposed to the Republican, across the country they showed a punishing lack of enthusiasm for the Democrats as a party and refused to allow them to actually govern the country. So what malfunctioned?
In a nutshell, Democratic strategy took voters of colour for granted. For years, the changing demographics of states like Texas have been augured as a sign that Democratic supermajorities in those states are imminent. The idea that Black people and Latinos are by nature Democratic voters is pervasive. During the Democratic primaries Biden’s team and its media surrogates made clear that the party needed a “normal” Democrat in order to guarantee the normal, natural level of minority support. Biden’s left-wing challengers were implied to be too far-left for this naturally small-c conservative demographic, especially in Republican-leaning states the blue wave thesis suggested Democrats could win. Bernie Sanders’ failure to carry Black voters in South Carolina during the primaries was offered up as proof that he couldn’t win minority support but that Biden would. It was thus after South Carolina that primary voters decisively closed ranks around Biden.
In the event, Biden carried enough support across demographics to win the presidency. But to capture Congress, Democrats needed campaigns that could excite the Latino population, and not just in border states like Texas: nationally, this group is about a third larger than the African-American population. Now make no mistake: what we saw was not necessarily Democratic failure on the back of low Latino turnout. In Texas’ Starr County (96 per cent Latino) for example, we saw Biden lose only a small amount of ground with voters relative to Hillary Clinton’s performance there. It was the county’s surge in support for Trump that saw the Democratic margin of victory there fall from 79 per cent to just 5 per cent. Meanwhile, we have heard much of Cuban and Venezuelan Americans’ steadfast opposition to any hint of socialism. These facts have suggested to some that if anything, Biden over-performed among Latinos and certainly could not have been outdone by any other Democrat. But if Biden’s performance among Black primary voters earlier in the year was anything to go by, then we cannot ignore the facts: during the same primaries Sanders, who took a very different approach to Biden with Latino outreach, outmatched all challengers here. He won the Latino vote in Nevada by 36 points, California by 35 points, and Texas by 13 points. If primaries say anything about the electorate at all, then Biden’s candidacy represented a fatal trade-off. Latinos likely cost Democrats states like Texas and won them Arizona – a state where Democratic victories are partly owed to the long-standing work of activists and organisers associated with the left, such as Nuestro Pac (founded by Sanders’ Latino outreach director Chuck Rocha) and Living United.
Sanders’ victories among Latino primary voters may appear not to square comfortably with Trump’s hugely increased turnout among Latino voters in the general election. The fact is we don’t know what would have happened if a different Democrat had been the nominee. All we can be sure of is that the Democratic party believed demographics were destiny in states like Texas, and they were wrong. In the future, they will need to avoid incomprehensible situations like the one in which Biden, when questioned over his record on immigration, told a Latino man to “go vote for Trump”. They will need to invest time and energy in Latino communities in order to understand their experiences, values and political desires. And they will need to not oversteer in any one direction: Trump also increased his support among Black voters by 4 per cent. The electorate is not straightforwardly becoming “more progressive”, as hoped for: demographic and ideological shifts provide opportunities for Democrats, but that is all.
That’s where campaign tactics come in. Here Democrats also under-delivered. We’ll never know how different things would have been if the Biden team had done more to campaign and to fight right-wing digital disinformation (especially regarding abortion) among key demographics like Latinos. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has highlighted a shocking underinvestment in digital campaigning by many Democratic candidates. And despite the crucial work of ACRONYM, Democrats still have no digital media machine to match the Republicans’.
And yet candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America had a smashing night, winning 28 out of 37 national races. Some of the most prominent of these figures, like Jamaal Bowman, entered politics for the first time out of the Black Lives Matter movement, which data suggests drove a huge spike in Democratic voter registrations. The Democratic left, unlike their rivals, has been able to win minority and white support on the basis of class-based appeals to their material interests. Meanwhile, the Biden strategy made the fatal error of thinking Latinos and African-Americans do not respond to messaging or policy offers, even as “winning back the white working class” was a central campaign focus, one which he delivered on. But this focus overlooked the long-established fact that Trump’s base is richer than most Americans and was never the working class. Democrats’ ideologically-charged confusion about white and non-white workers is not just wrong: it creates fatal illusions of strength among non-white workers, thought of merely as “minority voters”.
The future of the victorious Democratic coalition is undecided. Trump is gone, so the next four years will not be about who enabled him for a second time. It is now possible for Democrats to have a substantive debate about their future. Meanwhile, Trump’s increased vote totals and the electoral victories of far-right rising stars like Madison Cawthorn show that right-wing extremism is not dead. Complacency is not an option. And as prominent Republicans like Marco Rubio begin to pitch the GOP as the “party of the multiracial working class”, Democrats should not let themselves lose sight of the lessons of 2020.