Can Democrats Stop a Return to Nationalist White Nativism?
Since the turn of the century, the major political geography of the USA, the division into ‘red’ (Republican) and ‘blue’ (Democratic) states, has shifted only on the margins. National elections are normally decided by small voter shifts within a few ‘purple’ (battleground) states. The 2020 presidential election was decided by small shifts toward the Democrats in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona.
The hullabaloo around the failed January 2021 insurrection and the claims of election fraud from the dominant Trump wing of the Republican Party were based on a continuing feature of that political geography. Republicans have the support of over 60% of white voters nationwide, heavily concentrated in rural areas, small towns, and some suburban neighbourhoods. Democrats receive the votes of most African-Americans, Latino and Asian-American communities, as well as younger, more educated voters of all races in larger cities and university towns. However, in non-presidential election years, Republican voter turnout is higher than that of Democrats. As a result, Republicans now control 30 of the 50 state legislatures while winning a disproportionate share of mandates in the national House and Senate.
In most states, the legislatures decide how the national and state legislative districts are allocated. In some states, the Republican majority crams most voters of colour into a few districts, allowing Republicans to win more seats than their overall popular vote would indicate. The ultra-right majority on the current Supreme Court refuses to consider this as depriving anyone of their constitutional right to representation. The other built-in advantage for Republicans is that all 50 states, from the largest to the smallest, elect two US senators. The electoral vote allocated to each state also follows a formula that favours smaller, more rural states. Democrats often win the national popular vote by amassing millions of ‘wasted’ surplus votes in California, New York and Massachusetts, while losing the national election based on receiving fewer electoral votes elsewhere. What usually happens in presidential elections is that the early reported votes, based on rural areas and small towns, usually favour Republicans, while the votes from larger cities with a denser interracial electorate get counted more slowly and are registered later. Hence the outraged cries from conspiracy theorists that the big cities have stolen the election through fraud from decent white people by (over-)counting the votes of African-American and immigrant communities.
Republican strategists have laid the basis for minority white Republican control over the last two decades by focusing on state races, allowing them to control much of the overall electoral process. This was insufficient for Trump to hold on to the White House in 2020, since local non-partisan electoral officials remained uncorrupted, and even Republican secretaries of state defended the true voter outcomes in their states. Trump and his supporters are now using the Republican primary process to purge these honest officials and the handful of Republicans in Congress who refused to endorse the coup. As of now, about 50% of contested Republican primaries are being won by Trump-supported candidates promising to guarantee right-wing victories in 2022 and 2024 regardless of the actual count of votes.
This is an extremely dangerous time for American democracy. Trumpist strategists claim that state legislatures have the legal right to overturn the majority votes in their states and submit their own electors to the Electoral College. Trump supporters tried but failed to persuade Republican officials to do this in 2020-21. (He also criminally asked the top Republican election official in Georgia to find him the 11,000 votes he needed to win that state.) But with the ongoing purges of the few remaining genuine conservatives in the Republican Party, coupled with the willingness of the 6-3 right-wing majority on the Supreme Court to permit voter suppression and other anti-democratic measures, we have little confidence that the Republican Party will defend democratic institutions in the USA.
If the Trump-controlled Republican Party is working hard to install a racist, nativist white nationalist, even neo-fascist regime on the entire country, the Democratic Party has not decided how to counter that threat. One disturbing sign of confusion and hesitation is the little-publicised contributions that political action committees linked with the official party have been offering to the most right-wing challengers in Republican primaries, those endorsed by Trump. The rationale for this behaviour seems to be grounded, with little evidence, in the belief that far-right Republicans will be easier to defeat in the general elections in November 2022. This is playing with fire but is consistent with other political interventions from the official Democratic Party.
Several pro-Israel political action committees (the most prominent being the American-Israel political action committee, AIPAC) are combining with other major donors to both the Democratic and Republican parties to pour huge sums of money into Democratic primaries to defeat democratic socialist incumbents in Congress. DSA incumbent congresspersons Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush managed to overcome massively funded opponents in their Democratic primaries this past week. Some democratic socialist challengers did squeak through in open seats against heavily-funded corporate democrats, like Greg Cesar in Texas and Summer Lee in Pennsylvania. But in many cases, when Democratic Party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and other top Congressional Democrats joined them in the assault against progressive challengers to entrenched right-wing Democratic incumbents, this opportunistic alliance prevailed. Progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros lost by fewer than 300 votes to anti-abortion and anti-labour Democratic incumbent Henry Cuellar in Texas. Other incumbent Congressional progressives, like Marie Newman in Illinois, Andy Levin in Michigan and Donna Edwards in Maryland, lost their primaries to more corporate Democrats who were heavily funded by right-wing and Democratic donors and supported by the Democratic establishment.
If the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party is intent on purging genuine conservatives from the Republican Party, the centrist wing of the Democratic Party seems equally intent on blocking the ascent of a stronger democratic socialist/progressive wing within the Democratic Party. Many of us on the left want to forge a tactical alliance with Democratic centrists against the Trump-led Republicans. It is hard to build a principled united front against fascism when the centrist allies you need are out to destroy the progressive and democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party.
The political strategy of Senator Bernie Sanders and the half-dozen current members of the Congressional Squad is coherent and clear: grow the democratic socialist/progressive bloc within Congress and the Democratic Party; advocate that the Democratic Party campaign for inclusive working-class issues; stand up uncompromisingly for the multiracial broad working class; and resist creeping fascism on every front. A cluster of left organisations that emerged from the Sanders campaign supports this approach, with volunteers and modest donors (Justice Democrats, Working Families Party, Our Revolution and several others like MoveOn) based on the internet. DSA, unfortunately, as a big-tent organisation with multiple factions, is more equivocal and less reliable as a supporter of this strategy. For instance, several ultra-left internal factions tried to oust Rep Jamaal Bowman from DSA membership because he went on a trip to Israel sponsored by J Street (a Jewish organisation that supports the rights of Palestinians, but not as precisely as the Palestine Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Campaign BDS specifies). This divisive, self-defeating campaign (in the guise of Palestinian rights) was rejected by DSA’s National Political Committee, but in the fallout, a few thousand members of DSA left the organisation. Some may have been protesting the NPC’s negative response to the call for ousting Bowman. Sanders, the Squad, and the other progressive post-Sanders organisations have all endorsed Bowman (a progressive African-American teacher and excellent legislator), who faces a serious challenge in a redesigned district. As of this writing, we fear that DSA member Jamaal Bowman, facing a vicious anti-socialist campaign with at best mixed support from the local DSA chapter, might be the first incumbent with Squad politics to be defeated for re-election.
There is a ray of good electoral news. Voters in rural conservative Kansas just decisively defeated a referendum vote to totally abolish abortion. Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country are waging all-out cultural warfare against women’s reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning decades of legal precedent. The same legislatures are passing legislation to restrict voters’ rights of communities of colour, again with a positive nod from the 6-3 right-wing majority on the Supreme Court. These manoeuvres feed red meat to the rabid Republican base, but there is evidence that more independently-minded Republicans and independents are not clearly following along. This could affect outcomes of the 2022 midterm elections. Normally, lower voter turnout than in presidential years favours Republicans, as does the abysmally low popularity of the Biden presidency. My crystal ball does not tell me whether Republicans will gain control of both chambers of the Congress, as many mainstream political analysts are predicting. A generic nationwide poll shows some recent shifts towards Democrats, though probably not enough to avoid a Republican sweep (given the built-in advantages for Republicans itemised above). Still, the internecine war launched by Trump and his supporters against traditional law-abiding Republicans may backfire, and the Democrats may recover just enough credibility to encourage parts of their normal base support (youth, suburban women, immigrants and African-Americans) to actually vote in November.
Stalled climate, health care and tax legislation in the form of a stripped-down version of Biden’s original Build Back Better proposal just narrowly passed the US Senate, with all 50 Republicans opposed. The two Democratic senators who had torpedoed the original proposals, Manchin and Sinema, were placated by including continued subsidies for fossil fuel industries (Manchin) and preserving the extraordinary tax breaks for hedge fund and private equity managers (Sinema). Cynical politics, but necessary because of the razor-thin Democratic majority and total blockade from Republicans against anything that could benefit Biden.
Finally, another ray of good news that portends well for the revival of the American labour movement, and hence for any future for left politics. Organising baristas at Starbucks is proceeding at an accelerated pace. Workers at over 250 Starbucks locations in the USA have already voted for union representation. Although this remains only a fraction of the 9,000 Starbucks shops in the USA, Starbucks’ management is now conducting fierce resistance, firing union supporters and even closing down many stores in highly visible and profitable locations where baristas have opted for union representation. Starbucks is now extending many of the policy changes and benefits demanded by union supporters, but specifically excluding union-represented stores from these concessions.
This Starbucks campaign feels different from any other I experienced as a union organiser in the USA or at the global level. The national union involved (Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union) is providing logistical and legal support to the organising Starbucks baristas, but is not trying to (and could not) dictate tactics and strategy to the grassroots Starbucks Workers United organising committees. In Eastern Massachusetts alone, five Starbucks stores were on strike in the first week of August, with strong support from labour councils, the Nurses’ Association and the labour committees of DSA locals. We are also supporting the independent union drives at Amazon, one of which has won a major representation election.
As a member of the national DSA Labor Commission and DSA’s International Committee, I am proud of my subsidiary role as an advisor and mentor to some of this new generation of worker activists. My particular role is to link them up with existing Starbucks unions in Chile, New Zealand, and now, increasingly, in Canada. At age 82, I am fully two generations older than most of them. I get the opportunity to participate in regular mass webinars or planning calls over Zoom with some of them on a weekly basis. I am delighted and heartened by their positive energy and enthusiasm. For DSA, this welcome focus on grassroots worker organising may help overcome some of its factional squabbling.
About every six months since 2016, I send the editors of Chartist my best take as an American democratic socialist on what might interest and inform readers in the UK that share my general political beliefs. In the 19th century, Americans used to breathlessly await the latest serialised chapter from a Charles Dickens novel as it arrived on board a ship. You, gentle readers, already have heard much of what I say here. However, when I review the history of my submissions to Chartist (the most recent appearing in March/April 2022), I am not displeased with how I have sketched out a general trajectory of American politics over the last half decade. I will continue to focus on national political developments that bear upon political choices of the Democratic left in the USA, and in particular the Democratic Socialists of America. Please think of this as the next chapter of an unfolding saga, in which the underlying elements remain relatively stable.
Chartist is the bi-monthly political magazine of the democratic left. In honouring the Chartists of the 19th century, our idea of democratic socialism is as much about the political movement and means of mobilisation used to advance political ideas as it is about the ideas themselves. Chartist seeks to provide a space for those who subscribe to this broad ideal.