The United States Faces Interlocking Crises

Trump was beaten, but not by as much as the Democrats had hoped. Biden's policy will not overcome the American crises.

By the beginning of December, the COVID-19 virus is killing 3,000 people a day, with 200,000 new cases and over 100,000 hospitalized. Already 280,000 have died; predictions indicate that the next three months may be the worst, perhaps with as many as 450,000 dead.

In declaring a national emergency last March, as the COVID-19 virus had clearly invaded, U.S. president Donald Trump set up a White House coronavirus task force. But he maintained handling the virus was the responsibility of individual states. He told reporters “The Federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”

The federal bureaucracy bungled the rapid production of COVID tests, failed to supply personal protective equipment (PPEs) and provided contradictory information. State and hospital officials entered life-and-death competition with each another as they attempted to procure supplies. Some even found that once they were located and paid, the federal government swooped in to reappropriate their purchase. As a result, medical personnel were instructed to reuse PPEs designed for a single time; many wore garbage bags in place of protective gowns. Nurses and their supporters staged pickets demanding protection and a reasonable patient-to-nurse ratio. By the first week of October National Nurses United (NNU) estimated more than 1700 healthcare workers had died from the virus.

The raging pandemic complicated the 2020 U.S. federal election. Its emergence forced candidates to rethink their campaign outreach and reconfigure their party conventions. It also required voters to decide how they would vote. Of the 154 million U.S. citizens who voted, 100 million voted early, whether in person or via mail. Despite the difficulties of holding such a massive operation during the pandemic, a federal oversight body called it “the most secure in American history.” Shortly after the announcement, which did not fit Trump’s narrative, the official he had appointed head of election cybersecurity, Christopher Krebs, was fired.

Throughout his campaign held “super-spreader” rallies where few precautions were taken. He labelled mail-in balloting the perfect way to “steal” the election and insisted that to be transparent, results had to be announced election night. Rallying his base to confront voters at the polls, which is illegal, Trump also encouraged his loyalists to aggressively challenge ballots as they were being counted.

Over the course of the campaign, and with mixed results, Trump dispatched lawyers to state and federal courts to reverse state laws that allowed early counting. In Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans controlled the legislatures, they refused to legislate early counting procedures even given the pandemic. Additionally, Trump rushed through his third appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. Her swearing-in ceremony was held in the White House Rose Garden the very evening her appointment had been approved by the Republican-controlled Senate, just a week before the election. This was necessary, Trump explained, because the court might need to rule on a contested election.

A Constitutional Crisis?

Two-thirds of all those who voted for Biden did so to block Trump’s re-election. But given Trump’s narcissism, no one outside Trump’s base expected he would concede. Many predicted that his threats to deploy federal marshals, his bullying of officials and a barrage of lawsuits would result in a Constitutional crisis. This scenario was predicated on there being a relatively close vote, as in the 2000 Florida election. In that case the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to shut the recount down and the Democratic candidate, Al Gore conceded to George W. Bush. Unlike that election, Trump’s scenario might necessitate close votes not in just one state, but in half a dozen.

Anti-Trump forces were afraid that Trump would declare himself the winner election night and stop ballots from being counted. They called for “Count Every Vote” rallies the day after the election and these took place in hundreds of cities. The leadership of the more progressive unions discussed what they might do in case a Constitutional crisis and investigated the possibility of a series of actions that could lead to a general strike. Almost two dozen central labor councils around the country passed resolutions committing themselves to respond in such a case.

But there were no close votes. Even in the “swing states” Biden won these by several thousand votes—Arizona (11,000), Georgia (12,000), Michigan (154,000), Pennsylvania (50,000), Wisconsin (20,000). Nonetheless Trump claimed he had been winning until fraudulent ballots were slipped into the mix. Republican challengers watching the count in Philadelphia and Detroit claimed thousands of ballots were mysteriously delivered in the middle of the night and that election software transferred Trump votes to Biden. Offering these assertions in affidavits, they added, they were treated unfairly when forced to stand a pandemic-mandated six feet from the counting tables (of course the rules applied to the Democratic Party challengers as well). Lawsuits were filed but lacking evidence were quickly dismissed.

As Michigan counties began to certify their results, a routine vote deadlocked when two Republicans claimed that discrepancies with fewer than 400 out of several hundred thousand ballots prevented them from certifying Wayne County. When a crowd of 300 watching the meeting via zoom insisted that this was out of order, the two reversed their vote. One then made a motion to set aside all Detroit ballots. Had the motion passed, a city that is 80% African American would have been disenfranchised and Trump would have won the state. In the end, the two Democrats and two Republicans voted to certify the county’s ballots and send them on to the Michigan Board of Canvassers.

That night both Republicans received a call from Trump; the following day they signed affidavits disavowing their vote -- but there is no process for doing so. Meanwhile two top Republicans legislators were invited to meet with Trump at the White House and off they went. Demonstrators showed up to confront one at the airport while another was photographed with a bottle of Dom Perignon at Trump’s hotel bar. Was it possible for the Michigan board to deadlock, throw the election to the Republican-controlled legislature and send Trump’s electors to the Electoral College? Even in the unlikely and illegal event this could happen, it would have to launch a snowball in at least two other states for Trump to win.

In the end, the Michigan Board of Canvassers voted three to zero (with one Republican abstention) to certify, sending the Biden electors to the Electoral College, which will vote on December 14. While not conceding, Trump agreed that the official transition could begin. Subsequently Trump issued a 46-minute talk outlining how the election was stolen while the man he just pardoned, former national security advisor Mike Flynn, called for Trump to declare martial law and have the military conduct a revote. But the Constitutional crisis has fizzled out as lawsuits continue to be dismissed and states certify their electors.

Why Did Trump, and the Party that Backed Him, Do So Well?

Nationally Trump won almost 74 million votes – 10 million more than he won in 2016. Republicans maintained their majority in the Senate (pending two runoffs still to be held in Georgia) and captured some seats in the House of Representatives. Not one state legislature went from majority Republican to majority Democratic. And given that the next year state legislatures will reorganize district boundaries based on the 2020 census, the Republicans will retain their advantage.

A majority of workers in unions voted for Biden, as did a majority of those earning less than $100,000. The 35% of African American, Latinx, Asian American and Indigenous voters went heavily for Biden, with Black women the most committed at 91%. But given that Trump’s record provided tax breaks for the rich, attempted to cut the health care benefits of poor and working people, loaded the National Labor Relations Board with pro-business officials, cut several hundred health and safety regulations, and failed to take charge of the pandemic, why did so many working people vote for him?

Since all politicians and most union leaders talk about “Buy America,” Trump’s “America First” didn’t seem so off the charts. Whether he was talking about African Americans or immigrants, Trump could tell white workers that others weren’t hard-working people but lazy types looking for a handout -- as other presidents insinuated. Trump seemed like the Archie Bunker character from the old sitcom “All in the Family.” He cast himself as the tough guy willing to fight against all odds. Yes he’s racist, and insensitive – and sometimes his supporters thought he went too far – but he was seen as directing a low-unemployment economy so some overlooked the racism and others were delighted that he was finally saying out loud what they thought. Of the 65% of the U.S. voters considered white, the majority (57%) voted for Trump. Structural racism maintains highly segregated communities and a tiered workforce. Inequality is normalized.

Of course, the white nationalists and militia types were emboldened by Trump. They came to his rallies with guns and organized anti-mask rallies to defy local officials. They counterdemonstrated at Black Lives Matter rallies and sometimes infiltrated the crowd. They will be attending the December 12th Washington, DC demonstration in support of Trump planned for two days before the Electoral College meets.

Trump claimed credit for a thriving economy, but the average worker was earning in real dollars what a worker earned forty years ago. Just the other day, Trump bragged that the Dow Jones hit 30,000. He took credit for that figure, pointing out that was the first ever. But the statistics about the pandemic, real wages, infant mortality, poverty, drug usage and the lack of affordable housing reveal growing inequality and despair. The virus attacks the most vulnerable section of the working class: the elderly and the low-paid staff that takes care of them, the homeless, prisoners, meatpackers, farm workers, transit workers. Blacks, Latinx and Indigenous are four times more likely to be hospitalized than the white population, and Blacks are twice as likely to die.

Many of the working people and people of color who did vote for Trump decided to stick with him because they didn’t find Biden presented a concrete alternative. Although Biden supported a $15 an hour minimum wage, the heart of his campaign was exposing Trump’s failure to act when COVID-19 spread. Trump could win Florida by 370,000 votes, but a referendum for doubling the minimum wage passed by an even larger margin. Couldn’t Biden have won Florida if he had campaigned for raising the minimum wage?

Some reporters wondered why Trump had any votes from people of color. When a columnist asked one African American who had voted for Trump why he had done so given Trump’s racist rhetoric, he responded by saying, “ As a Black man I’m not comfortable with that, but I’m a results-oriented kind of person. If you’re providing opportunities to people, I’m OK with that, I can live with talk. I need to see action.”

Trump is the president and commander-in-chief for the next two months. Given Biden’s announcement that he wants to have the United States rejoin the Paris Agreement, the World Health Organization and the nuclear pact with Iran, one suspects that the murder of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh -- labeled a “criminal act” by the European Union – is one of the first moves toward checkmate on Trump’s chess board. What will follow?

While Trump selling off oil rights in Alaska seems to have encountered legal problems, he has fired his Secretary of Defense and put “yes” men in charge. Meanwhile he pushes ahead with federal executions for death row prisoners and discusses possible pardons for his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and for his children. Most important on his “to do” list is ruling that non-citizens are not counted in the 2020 census.

It’s in Biden’s Ball Court Now!

Coming into office Biden faces a public health crisis combined with an economic crisis in a country where many refuse to wear masks or socially distance. With two months before inauguration hospitals are near capacity, health care workers exhausted, and most public schools and universities operate online. Each week over a quarter million file for unemployment benefits; Congress has not enacted any additional aid to individuals, small businesses, or states since the spring. When the Center for Disease Control moratorium on foreclosures runs out at the end of the year, in the dead of winter, 28-30 million renters face eviction.

Biden’s 40-year record includes opposition to mandated busing to integrate schools, support to Bill Clinton’s welfare cuts and mass incarceration bill, defense of the Israeli regime and support for the war in Iraq. In 1991, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he failed to curb the innuendo leveled at Anita Hill when she testified at the hearing for Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nor did he allow other witnesses the chance to corroborate her charge of Thomas’ pattern of sexual harassment. Although he has expressed regret over the case, he tried to squirm his way out of accepting responsibility by claiming “I wish we could have figured out a better way to get this thing done.”

Yet the level of the crisis requires a boldness that is not characteristic of Biden or the team he is assembling. True, unlike the Trump administration, his transition team’s announcements about possible appointments reveal a far more multiracial and experienced group of administrators. Many are retreads from the Obama and Clinton administrations. So far, the most “radical” is Janet Yellen, whom the New York Times labeled a “pragmatic progressive.” That means she is inclined to shape policies based on what she knows can pass a contentious Congress.

While it may even dawn on Biden and his Vice President Kamala Harris that returning to the “normalization” of the Obama administration isn’t enough, both of them are centrist politicians who, in their campaign speeches, disavowed bold moves. Biden made clear he is the Democratic Party and he defeated Bernie Sanders. For her part, Harris once called for an end to fracking, but changed her tune when she joined up with Biden, who supports fracking, and has always supported oil and banking interests.

A fight has already broken out inside the Democratic Party, as the right wing accuses outspoken social justice advocates such as Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) of being responsible for the failure of the Democrats to sweep the election by their left-wing rhetoric. The truth is that independent-minded Congressional Democrats -- although joined by just elected Cori Bush (Missouri) and Jamaal Bowman (NY) -- are marginal power players in the party. (Bernie Sanders caucuses with the Democrats but he remains an independent.)

For his part, Sanders had noted that only by implementing policies that will directly affect the lives of working people that we can begin to overcome these crises, and the environmental crisis that led to the pandemic in the first place. He calls for public  healthcare (“Medicare for all”), raising the minimum wage, mandating paid leave, rolling out a jobs program based on cutting fossil fuels, cancelling student debt and making education free beginning with pre-kindergarten, ending mass incarceration and developing a human immigration system. Without a multifaceted program that prioritizes the needs of the majority, the current crises will fester. This, in turn, can easily give rise to another, and perhaps more capable, authoritarian figure who promises to restore America’s “greatness.”

Will the depth of the crises drive the Biden-Harris administration beyond their program, their centrist instinct, and the team they are assembling? It is hard to imagine. The only hope is that the multiracial struggle initiated by Black youth around the George Floyd death continues to flourish.  The call for “Black Lives Matter” and “defunding the police” go to the heart of a violent security state apparatus and instead demand using resources for human needs.

3 December 2020


The US system of “democracy”

The United States has a peculiar, and highly undemocratic, system of electing the U.S. President and members of Congress. This voting system, set up over 200 years ago, was designed for men of property and weighted toward slaveholders for whom each slave gave them an additional three-quarters of a vote. As social movements, including the Civil War, subsequently expanded who was eligible to vote, various Constitutional amendments and laws enfranchised former slaves, immigrants from Asia countries, women and Indigenous people and lowered the voting age to 18. Despite this expansion, the electoral system remains undemocratic both in who is registered to vote and how their ballots are counted.

* Some votes count more than others: In most states the majority party in the legislature has the power to draw Congressional districts to their advantage following the census that is conducted every decade (“gerrymandering”). Secondly, whatever the population, every state has two Senators. So, the citizen living in Wyoming has a representation forty times greater than one living in New York state. Third, the president is chosen not by the popular vote but by the Electoral College. Each state sends electors who equal the number of the state’s Congressional seats. In the past twenty years two candidates who won the popular vote (Hilary Clinton in 2016 and Al Gore in 2000) did not win the Electoral College vote.

* Citizens are not automatically registered to vote: Citizens must present identification to register to vote in the state where they live and must re-register every time they move. If people fail to vote within a certain period, they are removed from the rolls. The time for re-registration varies from state to state. If convicted of a felony, a person loses their right to vote while serving their sentence. In several southern states this may be a permanent loss, in others the person must petition to regain their vote. (In 2019 Florida voters passed an amendment to automatically restore voting rights to those who completed their sentences. This would affect 1.6 million people; the state legislature subsequently passed a bill stating that only those who had paid off their fines were eligible.) Over the last decade several Republican officials have sought to remove voters from registration rolls, claiming to eliminate voter fraud. This has resulted in several hundred thousand voters being purged. Often people with similar or identical names have been eliminated.

* Limiting who are the candidates and their programs: Since the 1920s, when Socialist Party members were elected to federal, state, and local offices, state legislatures have enacted laws that restrict “third parties.” These laws require high registration fees and collecting a designated number of signatures from voters within a limited time frame. Once certified, these parties face legal challenges from the Democratic and Republican parties. Even when all these barriers are surmounted, the amount of financing required circumscribes what these parties have been able to accomplish. Over the last quarter century, only Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign for presidency on the Green Party ballot garnered as much as three percent of the vote.

Dianne Feeley