Decline and decay
Gridlock domestically, economic stagnation and rebalancing abroad. Mike Macnair assesses the situation following the elections. This article is based on an opening given to the November 15 aggregate of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists members
The US election is not quite 100% settled. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, and secretary of state Mike Pompeo are still saying, ‘Hey, wait for the litigation and you’ll see that Trump might have won.’ I would not entirely rule out that possibility. There is a remote chance that things are not all done and dusted.
There is another problem for the Democrats too, because in the Senate, as things stand, there are 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats (included in the latter are two independent senators). And, when it came to the presidential election, there was a wafer-thin margin dividing Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And there is a twin Georgian senatorial race culminating in January: will the Democrats take both seats, which would give them a tiny Senate majority? Will it be one Republican and one Democrat? Or will the Republicans win both seats, as they have held Georgia since 2004?
What is lying beneath senior Republicans’ reluctance to concede the election is the very widespread belief in the GOP that it is totally illegitimate for the Democrats ever to win an election - if they are declared winners, there must have been some kind of fraud. What Republicans have been pushing for as a party since the 1980s is to limit universal suffrage, by way of exploiting the penal and legal systems to squeeze in particular African-American voters out of the electoral rolls.
Having said that, it is pretty clear that there are ‘heavy manners’ coming in from the capitalist financial sector and media, and from significant parts of the state core, insisting that Trump must concede - otherwise the legitimacy of ‘democracy’ will be called into question. That is the message which media outlets both in the United States and outside are giving us right now. So it is near certain that we will see a Biden presidency, thanks to his clear majority in the electoral college - but on the basis of only 50.96% of the popular vote, as opposed to Trump’s 47.33%. (There is also the 1.2% for Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen, which takes the total for the right up to 48.5%.)
While there will probably be a Republican majority in the Senate, the Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives - despite having lost ground, which is a significant factor. But members of the ‘Squad’, the small group of leftwing Democrats in the House, did get re-elected, so things are far from straightforward.
What can we say about the election in general? First of all the polls were wrong. There was a big mobilisation around ‘Trump is a fascist, so vote for Biden’ and this in response generated a mobilisation of ‘quiet’ Trump supporters. By European standards it was not an incredibly high turnout, but it is still the highest for a presidential election for many decades. So the mobilisation of both Trump supporters and opponents was highly significant.
I think that the publication of polls during the election campaign can play the role of generating support for the candidate who is behind. In this case, according to the polls, the Democrats looked set to take the presidency and both houses of congress, giving them the ability to make major policy changes. But that produced a big increased turnout on the Republican side.
There are examples of that happening in the UK too. In 2010, for example, when the media and the polls were predicting that the Liberal Democrats were going to drive Labour into third place, there was a big turnout of working class voters at the last minute. As a result, far from the Lib Dems relegating Labour into third place, there was a hung parliament and subsequently a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.
And then there was 2017, when the narrative was that Jeremy Corbyn would be utterly marginalised. But the denunciations of Corbyn produced a significant uptick in the Labour vote. It took Boris Johnson’s Trumpian message, “Get Brexit done”, to get over that in 2019 - as well as Corbyn demoralising the party and people who believed he stood for radical change by throwing his allies to the wall over the ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign.
That is why in several countries the publication of polls is banned once the election campaign officially starts. Because it is those who pay for the polls who choose the questions, this produces polling driven by spin. And this in turn leads to an election campaign more influenced by the polls than by the candidates’ actual policy proposals. It could be said that this is as much a democratic question as, for instance, regulating the amount of money which candidates are allowed to spend on advertising. So it is not just about freedom of speech, but freedom of funded speech. For example, freedom of speech does not mean that MPs have the right to bring public address equipment into the House of Commons to drown out opposing speakers. The use of advertising-funded media, and paid polls, to spin elections is just the same in principle as a parliament where one side is drowned out by the other side’s amplification.
The polls, the narrative created and the heavy manners from the media could also be seen in the cutting out of all the rivals to Biden in order to force Bernie Sanders to concede the Democratic primary. Sanders was not allowed to get as far as he did previously, when he challenged Hillary Clinton.
What can we learn from the election itself? According to the Associated Press/Pew Center, reported in The Sunday Times (November 15), “blue-collar workers” earning less than $50,000 a year, who were supposed, according to the media narrative, to have been the backers of Trump in 2016, actually voted for Biden by 55%, a marginal increase on Clinton’s performance (ie, 53%), while Trump won just 44% - a rise of 2% compared to 2016.
The ‘middle-income’ group - people earning between $50,000 and $99,000 (which is pretty well-off by UK standards: £37.5K - £75.2K) went 57% for Biden (a rise of 11% over 2016) and 42% for Trump (a fall of 8%). So the fairly well-heeled ‘middle classes’ swung heavily in favour of Biden. Towards the upper end, people who earn upwards of $100,000 a year were 54% for Trump and 42% for Biden. So there was a substantial swing of the upper classes and top end of the upper-middle classes in favour of Trump.
The Clintonistas and ‘mainstream’ wing of the Democratic Party (Biden included) have been arguing ever since the 1990s that class is no longer fundamental to elections. According to them, what matters is creating a demographic coalition of different interest groups. How well has this worked?
Well, 55% of white women went for Trump (up 3%, compared to 2016), while 44% went for Biden (down 1%). As for Latinx (or Latino) voters, Trump got 32%, which is up 3% on 2016. I take it that means Biden got somewhere up in the 50s-60s in percentage terms nationally. In Florida, where the Latinx are mainly Cuban Americans, Trump got 56% and Biden 41%. And Trump won some border counties completely dominated by Latinx voters in Texas, as well as substantially increasing his vote in other border states. Some of these people will be recent migrants, while others have been there since the Yankees conquered the region - but, either way, they have no solidarity with others from across the border. Trump’s border wall is evidently winning him votes - or his rhetoric is.
However, African-Americans are still very strongly pro-Democrat: 87% to Biden (down 1%), 12% to Trump (up 2%). Catholics in general swung in favour of Biden, with 52% supporting him (up 6%,), while 47% were for Trump (down 3%). Perhaps this is a matter of personal identification, because Biden strongly emphasises the fact that he is a practising Catholic.
In trying to make a coalition which marginalises the class issue, what the Democrats are attempting to do is bring together women and ethnic minorities to produce a majority against the Republicans. But that did not work, because they were not able to retain the support of women, while Trump made gains among Latinx voters. But they are retaining that of African-Americans - precisely because most are part of the same demographic as the low-paid working class.
The upshot, however, is that the polls suggested a radical swing away from the Republicans and the possibility of real change - including not just in regard to policy on Covid-19, but also the Supreme Court, over which the Republicans now have control. But that did not happen, precisely because the Democratic project of creating a coalition of minorities to make a majority did not happen either.
In respect to third-party candidates, as I have said, Jorgensen for the Libertarian Party got 1.2%, which was in fact 1.82 million votes. Howie Hawkins for the Green Party - a union activist who was endorsed by a range of left organisations - got just 0.2% (381,000 votes). It has been observed by several commentators that the fact Jorgensen was standing swung the vote in Biden’s direction in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And, if Georgia, as expected goes to Biden, then that would also be the case there. So the Jorgensen vote, although it accounts for a very small percentage, is not trivial in the effect it had on the margin between Trump and Biden in the swing states.
Conversely, it is reasonably likely that the Greens would have won enough votes to give Trump victory in Pennsylvania if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, as a result of a move by Democratic lawyers, had not struck Hawkins off the ballot there. In ballots for state offices they did win enough votes to ensure that, if these had gone to Hawkins, Biden would not have won the state.
All this emphasises the fact that Biden had a very narrow majority. There is a dynamic of polarisation in American society, indicated by a whole series of events. But this has not resulted in a dynamic of radical support for the Democrats, while the far-right version of Republicanism is down, but very definitely not out.
This has implications for the possible consequences. In my view they are going to be limited, since Biden’s power will be limited. He will not be able to reform the Supreme Court, because he would need the Senate to back him on that. He cannot pass any meaningful legislation, because he would need Senate agreement. He is likely to have the greatest of difficulty in getting anything in the way of a Covid-19 economic recovery package passed. The terms will be more or less dictated by the Senate: that is, dictated by the Republicans.
McConnell has announced that the Republicans in the Senate will block any cabinet appointments. Biden can semi-circumvent that, as Trump has done, by making ‘acting’ appointments, but at some stage they have to go before the Senate, which can overrule them. So it is very much the case of fiddling with the game.
Biden will not be able to rejoin the Paris treaty on climate change, which was denounced by Trump, because he would need the support of the Senate - in fact a two-thirds majority would be needed, so this is off the agenda. However, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement with Iran (the ‘nuclear deal’) was not presented as a treaty and would not have been passed by the Senate if it had been, so Biden could move in that direction; but he is unlikely to be able to remove statutory sanctions against Iran, so can only deliver in a limited way in this field.
That said, in foreign affairs he will have more room for manoeuvre. But on the domestic front, there will surely be at least two years of gridlock, resulting in the further impoverishment of Biden’s voting base. Voting for him will be seen by those who previously backed him as having been a waste of time. He will be hamstrung as a result of the US constitution that gives control of the Senate to the rural states, and therefore to the Republicans. Yes, some might conclude that the constitution must be overthrown; but equally others will conclude that the only real alternative is to vote Republican, in order to gain the patronage (‘pork’) a Republican president with a Republican Senate could deliver.
An example, going right back into our own history here in Britain, when our politics was a lot more like America, was that of 1870, when the Liberal government attempted to legalise trade unions. But the conservative judiciary ruled that there was a kind of ‘criminal conspiracy’, which would not be removed by the attempted legislation. This was “conspiracy to force employers to do something they did not want to do”. So, with the Liberals proving unable to bring about trade union reform, working class votes then swung to the Tories in the next election. The Conservatives did deliver (significantly more limited) trade union reform, which legalised this ‘criminal conspiracy’, where it was in furtherance of a trade dispute - the formula which has been fiddled with at the edges in strike law ever since 1872.
Anyway, it is more than possible that Biden will be a one-term president, because he will be too old or ill to be able to run for a second term. But McConnell’s view is that there should not be any Democratic two-term presidents. This was his view on Barack Obama - it did not work in his case - but McConnell is in a stronger position with Biden than he was with Obama.
As for black lives, they will continue not to matter. This is not just because Biden will not be able to do anything about that, because he does not have the power to legislate - or to reform the Supreme Court, which is what is needed to get rid of its bizarre misinterpretation of 18th and 19th century English law. This results in the position that police officers are supposed to be protected in their ‘good faith’ use of violence against the public.
But black lives will continue not to matter because Biden does not want do anything about it. He was one of the central architects of the militarisation of the American police through the use of the ‘war on drugs’ as an instrument of state control. And Kamala Harris was once a public prosecutor in California, playing the same system of the abusive use of public prosecution power, the failure to disclose adverse evidence, etc. She did so in a way which was typical of the bad-faith conduct of American public prosecutors, in the interests of getting re-elected by appealing to hard-line voters. That is not going to change.
Biden has the power to appoint public officials, which will mean the promotion of Democrats and their contacts to positions where Senate approval is not needed, but to what extent they will be able to enforce different policies is substantially limited by the fact that in the last four years the Republicans have been busy stacking the judiciary with their own appointees - not just the Supreme Court, but also way down the federal judicial structure. So it is quite likely that any initiatives which are designed to use executive discretion to pursue the Democratic agenda will be struck down through judicial review proceedings in federal courts - and, of course, it is also the case that the Republicans have significant control of state legislatures and legislative processes. For example, in California companies including Uber got a “ballot initiative” (referendum) passed to exclude the possibility of employee protection legislation affecting their “contractors”.
Some comrades have queried the amount of space we have given to the US constitutional order in the Weekly Worker, but it is a key issue, when it comes to democracy and building a working class alternative. All this illustrates why making everything turn on the presidential election and the need to defeat the ‘fascist’ Trump in favour of the non-fascist Biden is unlikely to generate very much by way of an alternative.
What will Biden be able to do? He can conduct diplomatic operations which do not involve new treaties, as well as making diplomatic shifts and initiating military operations overseas. The Democrats will attempt to use such operations and diplomatic postures to get Kamala Harris or whoever back into the White House in 2024 - just as, for example, the killing of Osama bin Laden was used in the 2012 presidential campaign to get Obama re-elected.
What can we expect in terms of Biden’s international agenda? We have to be a bit cautious about this. Yassamine Mather has done considerably more research on this than me,1 but I note that Biden has said explicitly that Palestine is low on his agenda, and that he will not seek to move the US embassy back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Although he is probably not going to continue with Trump’s ‘Deal of the century’, neither will he champion an agenda for a two-state solution, and he is unlikely to attempt to do anything in the way of diplomatic operations of this sort.
There is talk of a ‘reset’ of relations with Saudi Arabia, but I see no reason why that will be anything more than Mohammed bin Salman having to move into the background, when it comes to Saudi policy-making.
As for the Iran nuclear deal, Biden will not be able to ‘put Humpty together again’. There has been extensive talk from the Democrats about getting the deal going again, but they will have serious difficulty in doing that without a Senate majority, and it is very unlikely that any significant number of Republicans will go over to the Democratic side on this question. If anything, it is more likely that there will be Democratic senators who will side with the Republicans, thereby blocking any renewal of the Iran deal. My guess is that Biden will not waste serious political capital in trying to do it. But what I think he can do, and is likely to do, is dump on the Iranian exiles - royalists, Mojahedin‑e‑Kalq and so on - who have been treated like celebrities for the past few years as part of the promotion of the ‘regime change’ agenda.
I expect that there will be a limited orientation towards China. There is certainly going to be less of Trump’s aggressively protectionist rhetoric, which disconcerts potential allies - the Japanese, South Koreans, etc - as well as the Chinese. On the other hand, expect the continuation of warnings about Chinese ‘expansionism’ and more military encirclement operations.
One of the things which is a shared feature of both the Democrats and the Republicans is that they approve of the Modi regime in India. I would guess that Indian efforts, which at the moment are on a relatively low level, would be to push northwards at the border in order to cut off the connections between China and Pakistan. I think this will be endorsed by the new president and we may see another proxy war in that context.
Some are saying that Biden will delay pulling troops out of Afghanistan, which Trump has announced. But I see no reason why he should. It has always been the case that it is in the United States’ strategic interests to allow Pakistan to have a big say in what happens in Afghanistan by way of the Pakistani agency in that country: ie, the Taliban. The US’s war in Afghanistan is and always has been a derailment of US policy in the region, forced by the need to be seen to ‘do something’ after 9/11; the problem remains the lack of an ‘exit strategy’.
I would expect Russia to move significantly up the agenda - apparently Trump has been privately providing heavy weaponry to Ukraine. And I would guess that the issue of Georgia’s boundary disputes with Russia will resurface. Perhaps the United States will weigh in more explicitly on the side of Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia and pressurise the Russians to remove their ‘peacekeeping’ forces. It seems reasonably clear that Turkish air intervention has defeated the Armenians militarily and there are now refugees flooding out of Nagorno-Karabakh, so there is going to be ethnic cleansing of that enclave anyhow. At the moment my expectation would be that of rather fiercer anti-Russian rhetoric.
There will probably also be more diplomatic leaning on the Germans over the Nord Stream gas pipeline, because it is against the United States’ interests that the Germans should have direct access to Russian gas rather than relying on Poland, which is a US client. Of course, Germany is a US client too, but it is one that is able to promote its interests more effectively and with a greater degree of independence than Poland.
Then, of course, there is the question of Britain and the European Union. Biden has not given an explicit ‘no’ to Brexit - rather it is a case of ‘Well, OK, if you want to do it, but ...’ The ‘but’ essentially means that the UK must comply with the transition agreement, and there must not be a border on the island of Ireland. Hence, what follows from that is what we have just seen in Britain - Dominic Cummings getting the push. The media is presenting this as a spat over ‘person power’ - between Cummings, on the one hand, and Boris’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, on the other. But this is obviously untrue. It is plain that what is in dispute is the nature of Brexit. It is not that there will be no Brexit, but that, once Biden has taken office, the United States will lean on the UK to make a deal which is a whole lot softer.
While Trump was in the White House, the agenda of the break-up of the European Union was definitely being promoted: of Britain’s exit being followed by that of other member-states and the replacement of the US’s bilateral arrangements with the EU by a whole series of individual ‘hub and spokes’ treaties - or what would be even better from the US point of view: a free-trade zone in Europe without any legislative power. That would force a race to the bottom in regulatory forms, which would be favourable for US business operations in Europe.
But it seems to be the case that Biden’s advisors on foreign policy are pushing an agenda that focuses more on containment of China and Russia. In relation to Russia, this will probably involve a more aggressive posture and one that is not too disconcerting to Germany, which means not being as sympathetic to Brexit as the Trump administration. That certainly seems to be what the leadership of the Tory Party has judged is likely - hence the eviction of Cummings from No10. And we have yet to see what the other implications will be.
Finally, then, just a step backwards. Trump keeps talking about “Make America great again”, even though US imperialism has remained “great” in terms of its global hegemony. But the underlying basis of Trump’s victory in 2016 clearly has not gone away - ‘We need a strong man to get us out of this situation’. The loss of legitimacy of the liberal polity has only found reflection to a limited extent in a turn to the left, in the shape of the Democratic Socialists of America - and the DSA is a lot smaller than the Corbyn surge into the Labour Party and just as politically incoherent. In other words, while there is an ideological revival of the left in the USA, it should not be overstated.
In the end, one way or another, the current US constitution will have to be overthrown. As things stand at the moment, however, it is more likely to be overthrown by the right. In essence, members of the elite, by virtue of their near complete control through the corruption of both the electoral and judicial system, make no concessions to those at the bottom of the pile. This means that they are so dependent on the police to protect them that they cannot exercise any degree of control over the police to enforce an acceptance in practice that ‘Black Lives Matter’ - which in reality is largely an issue of whether poor lives matter.
The underlying dynamic is of decay and decline. The issue is not that this will result in the US ceasing to be the world hegemon power in the immediate future. It will not. It means that the form that US decline has taken since the mid-1970s, and will continue to take now, is that the US exports death and destruction to the rest of the world in order to preserve that hegemony in spite of its own internal decay.
See ‘New returns to a failed old’ Weekly Worker November 12.↩︎