Lessons from Joe Biden’s victory
Democrats have an advantage now. Change requires consensus. People want a uniter. And Marxism is still unpopular.
Much has been said about Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US Presidential elections. There has been endless analysis about Trump’s enduring popularity, the apparent poll failure, similarity and differences with 2016, and so on. However, I think these are the biggest lessons we can draw from the results:
Democrats have an advantage now
If you look at the states that have been called for Biden, up to the point where he was declared the winner, you would notice that all of them are considered blue-leaning states. Biden didn’t even win (or need to win) the classical swing states, Florida and Ohio. While it looks like Biden may win Arizona and Georgia (as of this writing, these two states are too close to call), the important point is that he doesn’t even need them. In other words, going forward, Democrats would only need to win every blue-leaning state in order to win the White House.
This is indeed a big new advantage they have compared to, say, 2004. In that election, the path to victory had to go through red-leaning swing states like Florida or Ohio. The fact that John Kerry failed to win states like these meant that he fell short, even though he had secured every state considered blue-leaning at that time (just like Biden has done). The difference between 2004 and 2020 is that, more states have been added to the blue column, giving the Democrats a much bigger cushion.
The risk for Democrats going forward is, therefore, in blue-leaning states peeling away, and any Republican victory would require capturing one or more blue-leaning states in addition to holding all the red-leaning states. The “blue wall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin seem to be the easiest to peel away at this point. Hillary Clinton lost them by a small margin in 2016, and Biden has won them by a similarly small margin this time. Given that the “blue wall” states are substantially more conservative than states like New York and California, it means the worst move for Democrats would be to lose touch with attitudes in the heartland. Excessive radicalism in very blue states is also therefore perhaps the biggest risk for Democratic success going forward.
Change requires consensus
During the Trump Era, an increasingly impatient and activated Left kept inventing and promoting divisive policy proposals, like defunding the police, abolishing private health insurance, or even outright socialism. The problem with these proposals is that, they don’t have widespread acceptance. During the 2019–20 Democratic primaries and the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden resisted calls from the Left to take up these proposals, and he was criticized as being too conservative and not in touch with the mood of his party. However, it seems that Biden’s political calculation has paid off. Given the Democrats’ narrow victory, especially in the aforementioned “blue wall” states, it appears that America isn’t ready to embrace the Left’s new list of demands. The fact that left-leaning leaders in other Western countries have recently lost elections over more ambitious platforms further shows how Biden’s policy discipline was a smart choice.
There really is a need for reform in many areas. However, reform requires consensus, and election results from 2019–2020 have shown that the consensus for major change simply does not exist in America, Britain, Australia, and other Western countries, at least for now. Going forward, those who want change really need to think about reaching out to more people, and coming up with solutions that people can agree to as a consensus. Divisive language needs to go, and unpopular policies need to be refined to make them acceptable for the general population. The movement to legalize gay marriage doubled its support in a decade, other movements would be wise in seeing if they can learn some lessons there.
People want a uniter, not a divider
Donald Trump ran his 2016 campaign on being unapologetically divisive. His divisiveness, both on the campaign trail and as president, has been a reason why many people don’t like him. The problem in 2016 was that, Hillary Clinton was quite divisive too. She ran a campaign that was heavy on identity politics, and effectively described many of her fellow Americans as a “basket of deplorables.” Trump ran on divisive culture wars, but so did Hillary. It was divider vs. divider.
This year, Americans had a clear choice between unity and division, and unity won in the end. Joe Biden hammered his message of unity all through his campaign, so his win was a clear vindication for unity. I remember that, after Trump’s victory in 2016, many on the Left were shedding all pretense of bipartisanism, thinking that a divisive Trump Presidency must be met with an equally divisive “resistance.” Biden has now proven that wasn’t the right way to go. Indeed, the “Trump Derangement Syndrome” of some on the Left have just caused Trump supporters to cling even tighter to the president, which could have explained why he was able to turn up his supporters at high rates, thus overperforming his poll numbers both times. The Left’s divisive “resistance” to Trump is a lesson in how not to run a movement.
Socialism is still unpopular
Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign has had a lot of impact in normalizing the word “socialism” in America, and Jeremy Corbyn’s run as opposition leader in 2015–19 has done the same in Britain. It therefore seems to some young people that “socialism” is “not taboo” in the West anymore. However, the results in Florida, where the Democrats have gone backwards compared to even 2016, and have lost House members as a result, shows that there is still a big risk in being too close to the “socialist” label. This year, the Trump campaign ran up a big scare campaign about the Democrats having become socialist (still not true for the most part at least), and this campaign seems to have particularly resonated with Latinos in Miami.
While “socialism” is a broad umbrella (as Bernie supporters like to say, your local public library is socialism in a sense), the “socialist” label is still strongly associated with Marxism in Western English-speaking countries, and perhaps in the Spanish-speaking world too. The Left ain’t making things easy either: many socialist publications and online communities feature extensive discussions of Marxism even nowadays, and many socialist commentators make no secret that they harbor Marxist ideals, only supporting Bernie-style social democracy as a stepping stone. In short, whether Bernie likes it or not, ‘socialism’ continues to be a toxic word in the West, because it is still strongly associated with Marxism, which most people in the West clearly don’t want. Therefore, I think the Democrats, and their counterparts in other Western English-speaking countries, would do well to distance themselves from that word as much as possible (as Biden has already done during the campaign).
Indeed, there is a reason why Marxism is so unpopular in the modern West: as a 19th century theory, it is totally unsuited to our current context and our current needs. Marxist dogma is totally detached from the issues everyday working families face, and Marxist approaches to politics lead to counterproductive ideas like the “Bernie or Bust” campaign from 2016. This is not to mention the Marxism-inspired critical theory that is behind most of the divisive cultural movements in recent years. Instead of trying to revive Marxism, perhaps the Western Left should explore other ways to improve the lives of working families. Exploring the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) could be a good place to start.