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Trapped in the Democratic Party

The Left, Bidenomics, and socialist strategy

Tempest’s Ashley Smith describes how Joe Biden’s economic program represents “imperialist Keynesianism” designed to rival China, ameliorate domestic social inequalities, and neutralize challenges from both the Left and the Trumpian right. The Left must build an alternative.

President Joe Biden has made “Bidenomics” the centerpiece of his reelection campaign, touting it as an explicit break with Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” and a return to FDR’s New Deal policies. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan calls it “the new Washington consensus,” while Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen terms it “modern supply-side economics,” a post-Keynesian development strategy. But Bidenomics should be labeled “imperialist Keynesianism.”

Biden designed it to prepare U.S. capitalism for imperial rivalry with China, ameliorate domestic social inequalities, and neutralize challenges from the Left and especially the Trumpian right. While the administration failed to secure increased spending on social infrastructure, it has implemented a new industrial policy investing in hard infrastructure and high-tech manufacturing to restore U.S. supremacy over Beijing and other rivals.

Biden won the support for this program from most of the union officialdom, NGO bureaucracy, and progressive and socialist politicians. They have helped demobilize struggle with the exception of the new rank-and-file militancy in the labor movement expressed in strikes against Hollywood, “no” votes against sell-out contracts, and union drives among unorganized workers.

In contrast, the Republican right has intensified their fight for their reactionary program in the so-called red states and nationally. Moreover, Donald Trump, despite his conviction and multiple indictments, remains the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination.

Faced with this threat, most of the Left will follow the lead of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar in endorsing and campaigning for Biden. That leaves the field open for the Republicans to posture as the only opposition to the Democrats, giving them the opportunity to win over sections of the discontented petty bourgeoisie, new middle class, and working class deeply dissatisfied with Bidenomics.

Once again, the Left finds itself trapped in the Democratic Party, largely demobilized and disoriented. Now is the time to reckon with the failed electoralist strategy that has led us into this cul-de-sac, abandon it, and adopt a new one based on organizing social and class struggle and reestablishing our independence from both capitalist parties.

The roots of Bidenomics

Breaking with this failed strategy begins with an accurate understanding of Biden’s program and why he adopted it. He never intended to implement a neoliberal program and did not adopt Bidenomics, as some on the Left argue, because of pressure from the small U.S. socialist movement, Bernie Sanders, and other left-leaning politicians.

Biden and his brain trust developed it to overcome the relative decline of U.S. imperialism. Three developments had led Washington into this unexpected predicament. First, the long neoliberal boom enabled the rise of new imperial rivals, especially China and Russia, as well as increasingly assertive sub-imperial powers like Saudi Arabia and India, among many others.

Second, Washington’s defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan undercut its hegemony in the Middle East and globally. Finally, the Great Recession hammered the U.S. and EU particularly hard, while China, based on its massive stimulus package, became for a time the epicenter of global growth.

These changes brought an end to Washington’s unchallenged hegemony and ushered in a new asymmetric multipolar world order. The U.S. remains the dominant power but is less able to dictate international politics than it has for the last few decades.

This new order is beset by the deep and multiple crises of the system that have exacerbated class and social inequalities and triggered political polarization in countries throughout the world. In the U.S., these inequalities have triggered waves of struggle from Occupy to Black Lives Matter and a ripple of labor militancy among both union and non-union workers.

The combination of crisis and resistance has led to the emergence of a new socialist Left with the DSA as its most prominent national organization. This radicalization on the Left enabled Bernie Sanders’ two unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. At the same time, the crises have driven sections of the new middle class and petty bourgeoisie toward increasingly reactionary politics.

Trump rode this tide of right-wing radicalism to the presidency in 2016, transforming the GOP into a party of the far right. Once in power, Trump implemented a program of “illiberal hegemony,” promising to “Make America Great Again” by putting “America First.” He abandoned Washington’s bipartisan grand strategy of superintending global capitalism and incorporating states with carrots and sticks into the so-called rules-based liberal order.

Instead, he nixed free trade deals like Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, implemented protectionist policies, inaugurated open great-power rivalry with China and Russia, and established a transactional relationship with both enemies and allies. At home, he carried out brutal attacks on oppressed groups, especially migrants, using them as scapegoats to deflect attention from the capitalist roots of the crises in people’s lives.

Trump’s policies intensified the Left-wing radicalization expressed in a crescendo of struggle from the Women’s Marches to rallies to defend migrant rights, the Red State Teachers Revolt, the 2019 climate strike, and the Black Lives Matter uprising, the single biggest popular mobilization in U.S. history. This resistance showed the immense potential for a new left to spearhead mass, disruptive struggle for systemic change.

Trump’s four years of erratic, right-wing misrule, especially his incompetent handling of the pandemic, accelerated the relative decline of U.S. imperialism, made its allies doubt Washington’s reliability, and emboldened its antagonists like China and Russia as well as sub-imperialist powers like Saudi Arabia. After Trump’s attempt to overturn the election on January 6th by encouraging his far right cadre to lead a mob in sacking the Capitol building, the U.S. looked not like a “shining city on a hill” but a “shithole country” coming apart at the seams.

Their program, not ours

Well before the 2020 election, Biden’s faction of the establishment designed imperialist Keynesianism to overcome Washington’s domestic and international challenges. It includes three intertwined goals: 1) rebuilding the foundations of U.S. capitalism, 2) stabilizing domestic politics under the hegemony of the Democratic Party, and 3) restoring and protecting Washington’s imperial supremacy over China and Russia.

The Biden administration put forward its signature proposal Build Back Better to accomplish the first two goals. At its center was a new industrial policy designed to renovate U.S. infrastructure and bankroll new manufacturing in high tech and the green economy. It also promised to invest in social infrastructure, mostly by increasing social service spending and funding STEM education to train workers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills that 21st century industries require to compete with China.

However, contrary to all the comparisons with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, Biden never planned to restore the old welfare state wrecked by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. At best, he aimed to raise U.S. social spending to the low levels of neoliberalized Europe.

Biden intended these reforms to quell the country’s political polarization. He hoped to co-opt the Left within the Democratic Party, get it to abandon its program, and support Build Back Better. He also wanted to undercut the appeal of Trump’s far-right nationalism by opening the floodgates of spending in Red States and the battleground states in the Midwest.

Paired with and based on this domestic program, Biden crafted a new grand strategy of “muscular multilateralism” to accomplish the third goal of reasserting U.S. supremacy over global capitalism and against its great power rivals. Unlike Trump, however, he promised to rebuild and expand its alliances and unite them all in a so-called “league of democracies” to compete with the “autocratic powers,” China and Russia.

Like Trump, he did not intend to incorporate these rivals into a neoliberal international order but rather to contain them. He promised to maintain sanctions on China, end U.S. dependence on Beijing in key strategic high tech industries, and confront both Beijing and Moscow.

Co-opting the Left

Biden won the Democratic Party establishment to imperialist Keynesianism, handily defeating Sanders in the 2020 primary. With Sanders’ help, Biden secured the support of union officials, the NGO bureaucracy, and most of the Left, including sections of DSA’s leadership.

Sanders and his allies justified their support for Biden by pointing to planks they secured in the Democratic Party platform, which they offered as evidence of their pulling Biden to the Left. In reality, they had been pulled to the right, starting a process of abandoning Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, plans to defund the police, debt cancellation, and other reforms to support Bidenomics.

President Joe Biden stands behind a podium flanked by a dozen police officers in uniform.
“We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police.” Photo by Alex Brandon.

Sanders led the way, predicting that Biden would be “the most progressive president since FDR.” But Roosevelt, truth be told, is no socialist role model. Remember, he declared himself the “best friend the profit system ever had” and led the U.S. into World War Two to establish Washington as the world’s dominant imperialist power.

Nevertheless, Sanders and the rest of the elected socialists soon began supporting Biden’s imperialist Keynesianism as the only realistic option for the Left. Their self-assigned task became trying to convince right-wing Democrats to vote for Build Back Better and fending off GOP attempts to block or water down the legislation.

Demobilizing struggle

Others on the Left claimed that they could both rally behind the Democrats and build movements to fight for a more radical program. But electing Biden took precedence, leading to a dramatic drop in struggle during the campaign and especially after Biden’s inauguration in 2021.

Liberals, the NGO bureaucracy, and union officials channeled the resistance against Trump into the Biden campaign. The organized far left was too small and disoriented by the surge of reformist electoralism to win an argument inside the various movements to sustain their independent fight for their own program.

The most significant setback was to Black Lives Matter. At a decisive moment, former President Obama met with LeBron James and convinced him to call off the NBA strike after the racist police shooting of Jacob Blake. Soon after, the league bosses, owners, and players announced a plan to turn NBA arenas into safe voting locations.

They, in conjunction with liberal Democrats, the civil rights establishment, and the NGO bureaucracy turned Black Lives Matter into Black Votes Matter in a de facto campaign to elect Biden, an enemy of the movement and its main demands. He had voted for New Jim Crow legislation, opposed defunding the police, and offered the standard promise of police reform.

Not only BLM, but the entire resistance under Trump was channeled into Biden’s campaign. The result was a drop in organized struggle when it was most needed to confront escalating attacks on abortion rights, ever-worsening climate change, horrific conditions for migrants on the border and inside the country, and an ongoing epidemic of racist police murder and brutality.

A partial exception to this pattern has been the new resistance from below within the labor movement. The combination of the pressures on essential workers during the pandemic, the spike in inflation, and the wicked profits secured by corporations have driven people to resist.

They have organized at Amazon, Starbucks, and in graduate programs; they have staged strikes at an array of companies and repeatedly voted down sell-out contracts. This summer labor organizing hit its peak with hotel workers striking in LA and actors and writers shutting down Hollywood. But even with this increase in struggle, strikes and unionization remain at historic lows.

Refurbishing U.S. capitalism

With the Left in his back pocket and struggle demobilized, Biden and the party establishment cut deals with centrist Democrats and a handful of Republicans to enact imperialist Keynesianism. He was unable to pass Build Back Better in its entirety because the terrible twins, Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, in cahoots with the GOP, blocked funding for social infrastructure.

Biden attempted to work around their opposition through executive orders, for example, forgiving some student loans. But most of the promised permanent increase in social spending never materialized. Even worse, the Republicans used the Supreme Court to overturn some of Biden’s orders like the one on student debt.

Nevertheless, Biden managed to pass an enormous package of legislation that will amount to over $4 trillion in spending over the next decade. To start with, he signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) to drag the economy out of the sharp recession triggered by lockdowns and interruption of supply chains.

It subsidized businesses to help them avoid bankruptcy, funded state governments to temporarily increase social spending, enacted the Child Tax Credit, and, like Trump’s CARES Act, issued checks to every citizen (excluding migrants, of course). Based on research funded by Trump’s sophomorically named “Operation Warp Speed,” the ARP rolled out mass vaccinations, enabling Biden to reopen the economy to get profits flowing again despite the ongoing pandemic.

On top of that, he signed three bipartisan bills that form the core of his new industrial policy to ensure Washington’s competitive advantage over China. The first of these was the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It plows money into repairing and upgrading roads, railways, and bridges as well as expanding high speed internet and building new electric vehicle (EV) charging stations across the country.

Second, he implemented the $740 billion Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which is purported to be the biggest piece of climate legislation in U.S. history. It funds the development of solar, wind, and EV manufacturing to end dependence on China, which has cornered the market in these industries. It also bankrolled the IRS to go after rich tax cheats and enabled Medicare to negotiate and cap drug prices.

But this was no Green New Deal. While the dollar amount seems high, it is spread out over a decade and is less than what the U.S. spends annually on the Pentagon. Moreover, it allows expansion of fossil fuel production and funds unproven carbon capture technology to mitigate the increased emissions. At best, it will only manage to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2050, when climate scientists argue the country must be at net zero.

Third, Biden passed the $280 million CHIPS and Science Act to ensure U.S. high tech supremacy over China. It finances the construction of semiconductor fabrication plants in the U.S., encourages the “friend shoring” of high tech supply chains, and subsidizes university and corporate research and development in the STEM fields.

Reasserting imperial hegemony

Based on this plan to refurbish U.S. capitalism, Biden implemented his strategy of muscular multilateralism for great power rivalry with China and Russia. He abandoned Trump’s unilateralism but preserved his predecessor’s focus on containing those powers’ increased assertion of their imperialist interests.

Biden’s strategy has included geopolitical, economic, and military dimensions. On the geopolitical front, he has attempted to put “America back at the head of the table” by banding together as a bloc including Washington’s traditional allies, convincing and cajoling them into obeying U.S. imperial dictates to contain China and Russia’s rise.

Central to this effort has been Biden’s reaffirmation of traditional alliance structures like NATO in Europe and the Quad in the Asia-Pacific. He also established new ones like AUKUS that unites Australia, Britain, and the U.S. to provide Canberra with nuclear powered submarines that can evade Chinese detection.

The administration brought all of its allies together in two summits and announced a third in South Korea to launch a new bloc, which it called “the league of democracies,” to oppose the so-called “autocratic states” of China and Russia. No one should take this old Cold War framework seriously, for two reasons.

First, the summits included pro-U.S. states with low rankings on Freedom House’s annual ranking of democratic liberties and excluded others with higher rankings simply because they oppose the U.S. Second, that framework is intended to whip up conflict with U.S. adversaries, not ameliorate antagonisms.

On the economic front, Biden sustained Trump’s sanctions and protectionism against China and in fact increased them, launching a new chip war to prevent Beijing from acquiring advanced semiconductor technology. Similarly, he imposed sanctions on Russia and expelled 10 diplomats for Moscow’s interference in U.S. elections.

The Biden administration adopted a new strategy of “de-risking” to sever economic relations with China in high tech industries with military applications and block investment in Chinese companies to prevent them from developing their capacities in semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. It has used its old and new geopolitical and military alliances to push states like Germany to adopt this strategy toward China.

On the military front, Biden has dramatically increased funding for the Pentagon, jacking it up by five percent over Trump’s last budget to $768.2 billion in 2022 and raising it even more to $858 billion in 2023. He used these funds to modernize the military, prepare it for war with China and Russia, and aggressively deploy it in new bases and exercises especially in the Asia-Pacific to counter Beijing’s increased number of bases and assertion of naval power.

The Ukrainian crucible

Biden’s reorientation on great power rivalry got off to a disastrous start with his shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which made the U.S. look weak and incompetent in the eyes of Beijing and Moscow. Vladimir Putin took advantage of that moment to launch his imperialist invasion of Ukraine in the hopes of reestablishing the old Russian empire.

It blew up in his face, as the Ukrainian resistance stopped Russia in its tracks, surprising the U.S. and NATO powers that had expected the country to fall. Biden seized the opportunity to support Ukraine for his own ulterior and imperialist motives. He united the NATO allies, got them to impose unprecedented sanctions on Moscow, pressured them to increase their military budgets, and provided money and arms to Kyiv.

Of course, the international Left should defend Ukraine’s right to ask the U.S. for such support in its struggle for self-determination. But we should have our eyes wide open to the fact that Biden only supports Ukraine as a proxy to weaken Washington’s imperial rival, Russia. Remember, the U.S. is the butcher of Iraq and a supporter of Israeli apartheid.

Biden’s motives became crystal clear when he convinced NATO to designate China as “a strategic challenge” for the first time in 2022 and then declared in 2023 that Beijing’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values.” As a result, NATO has begun to collaborate with Washington’s allies in Asia against China.

Biden has also pressured his allies to start ending their dependence on Russia for gas and oil, “de-risking” their economic relations with China, and preparing their military arsenal for imperialist war. But Biden has not managed to secure subservience from sub-imperialist powers like Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and many others that balance between the U.S., China, and Russia.

Nevertheless, the U.S. continues to ramp up the pressure on states all around the world to bend their knees to its dictates. In particular, Washington has tried to compel them to join it in confronting China over Taiwan, which is crucial not just geopolitically but also economically as it produces 90 percent of the world’s most advanced microchips. Lost amid the imperial standoff is the Taiwanese people’s right to self-determination.

Triangulation, Biden style

At home, Biden betrayed popular expectations of systemic reform to address workers’ and oppressed people’s demands. Just like Bill Clinton in the 1990s, Biden followed a strategy of triangulation—adopting positions between liberal Democrats and reactionary Republicans—in the hopes of undercutting the appeal of the far right.

Thus, he maintained the core of Trump’s vicious assault on migrants and their rights. He enforced Title 42, which kept the border closed to not only undocumented workers but also asylum seekers, leading to a dramatic spike in deportation. When he finally ended Title 42 in May 2023, he replaced it with a new border enforcement plan designed to deter applications for asylum.

This is part of Biden’s broader plan to expand the border regime in Mexico and Central America and deputize states there to block migrants from leaving. It also funnels money to those states to establish sweatshop industries to super-exploit their citizens and migrants.

Incredibly, the administration has celebrated their restriction of rights and credited their repression for causing a drop in border crossings. However, in a court decision on a case brought by the ACLU, a federal judge put a stay on Biden’s restriction of asylum, only for the 9th Circuit Court to put it back in place.

The temporary drop in border crossings seems to have ended, with arrests spiking in July. And U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, ICE, and Mexican authorities are gearing up to deter, arrest, and deport hundreds of thousands more heading up through Central America.

A large group of people seeking asylum at the U.S. border sit and lie down amid sleeping bags and other belongings. They look exhausted.
Asylum seekers at the U.S. border. Photo by  Sandor Csudai.

Similarly, despite Biden’s professed sympathy for Black victims of police brutality, he led the backlash against the movement to defund the police. Famously, in his 2022 State of the Union Address, he declared, “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police.”

His George Floyd Act, which failed to pass, proposed a new iteration of liberal reforms like community policing, training, and body cameras that would at best give a facelift to the state’s repressive forces. Even worse, his “Safer America Plan” promised to hire 100,000 more cops across the country.

Right-wing Democrats like New York City Mayor Eric Adams and others have outdone Biden, taking advantage of the manufactured moral panic over the defund movement to launch a law-and-order crackdown. That crackdown has given Republicans the green light to clamor for even greater repression.

Biden’s record on reproductive rights and access is little better. With a Democratic Party majority in his first two years, he did not codify Roe v. Wade or even overturn the Hyde Amendment that bans federal funding of abortion. Even after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling overturning abortion as a federally protected right, Biden has done little except to use it to get out the vote in the 2024 presidential election.

Moreover, in the face of the GOP’s all-out war on transgender people, Biden has put up little resistance save symbolic expressions of opposition to bigotry and ceremonies at the White House. In fact, he has adapted to the right’s attack, adopting a “nuanced position” on  trans athletes that, in the name of protecting their rights, actually enables their restriction.

His record on climate is also nothing to boast about. He has permitted increased drilling for oil and natural gas, albeit with increased fees, and approved the $8 billion Willow Project in Alaska despite opposition from environmentalists and indigenous activists. In fact, Biden has approved, in just two years, more oil and gas projects than Trump did in his entire term.

A boat straddles a crack in an iced-over body of water.
On March 13, the Biden administration approved the Willow Project, a controversial decision because of its environmental implications. Photo: Creative Commons (Manuel Ernst)

Finally, in contrast to his claims to be “the most pro-union president ever,” Biden has done little to improve conditions for workers. While he appointed liberal judges to the NLRB, he did not push for the passage of the PRO Act, which would have made it easier to unionize workplaces.

In perhaps his worst betrayal, he invoked the Railway Labor Act, convinced Congress to impose a settlement on railway workers, and barred them from striking for better wages, working conditions, and paid sick days. The self-professed “union man” broke a strike.

The far right emboldened

Neither such triangulation nor Biden’s other policies have managed to accomplish his goal of undercutting support for the Republican Party and the far right. If anything, the right is more emboldened than ever.

Biden’s appeal for bipartisan collaboration managed to secure only a handful of Republicans to pass his Infrastructure Act and Inflation Reduction Act, while the vast majority of the party opposed almost everything he had proposed. The days of centrist comity are long gone.

Biden has had no more success through his opening the spigot of spending for pandemic relief, infrastructure repairs and improvements, and new manufacturing plants. A stunning 80 percent of the new industrial projects are in red states. While Republicans happily took the money, they gave Biden no credit, and all new investment has yet to improve the president’s poll numbers in GOP strongholds.

While carrots failed, so did sticks. Prosecutions of Trump and his far-right minions have not stopped their growth and popularity. While the 650 convictions for the January 6th riot have disorganized some far-right groups, others have filled their shoes, and Trump, despite all the indictments including for conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election, remains the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nomination.

In fact, in an example of what The New York Times calls the “indictment effect,” Trump has successfully convinced his MAGA base that charges against him are attacks on all of them. Thus, he rallied his supporters and raised money to bankroll a campaign that careens further and further to the right.

Trump regularly rails against “pink-haired Communists teaching our kids” and promises “to keep foreign, Christian-hating Communists, Marxists, and socialists out of America.” The leading alternative to Trump, Ron DeSantis, has postured as a competent, disciplined right winger, threatening to “start slitting throats” of federal government employees to rip up the “deep state.”

The reason for the right’s staying power is obvious. Bidenomics has neither overcome the crisis of profitability nor triggered a new expansion. And the spike in inflation has hammered people’s standards of living.

These conditions have stoked deep dissatisfaction among the petty bourgeoisie, the precarious middle class, and sections of the disorganized and despairing working class. Republicans and the far right have exploited this to solidify, if not expand, their base of support.

As a result, U.S. politics remains trapped in what Kim Moody calls the asymmetric polarization between the Democrat’s corporate liberalism and the GOP’s far right nationalism. Thus, even with the albatross of the deeply unpopular Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the Republicans managed to take back the House while leaving the Senate with only a narrow Democratic majority.

If anything, the party and its faithful have lurched to the right in Washington, D.C. and across the country. In states they control, Republicans have escalated the assault on abortion rights with draconian restrictions and bans, opened a total war on transgender people, and banned Black Studies and LGBTQ recognition from public education.

In Washington, Republicans have become the party of “No!”, opposing almost everything the Democrats propose. The Republican majority in the House are even considering impeaching Biden and went so far as to attach amendments to the usually bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act calling for the Pentagon to ban abortion, eliminate transgender medical care, and end its diversity, equity, and inclusion program.

The return of neoliberal austerity

The Republicans’ victory in the midterms has brought Biden’s period of imperialist Keynesian reforms to an abrupt halt. Four developments have set in motion elements of traditional neoliberal austerity that are further undermining the popularity of both Biden and Bidenomics.

First, inflation outpaced wage growth and gobbled up workers’ paychecks with dramatic price increases in groceries, gas, apartment rents, and homes. Even with wages up and inflation dropping down to 3 percent this year, core inflation remains at 5 percent, and prices have not come down.

Second, Biden’s Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell raised interest rates to 5.5 percent in July 2023 and promised to continue doing so until inflation comes down to two percent, even at the risk of triggering a recession. This is barely disguised class war to slow the economy, drive up unemployment, and undermine workers’ ability to demand higher wages.

The Fed is punishing workers for a problem they did not cause. The real culprit is capitalism’s crisis of low profitability that has led corporations to underinvest in plant and machinery to increase the supply of goods. As a result, once the economy recovered from the pandemic-triggered recession, increased demand was chasing limited supply, driving up prices. Corporations then took advantage of this to engage in old-fashioned price gouging.

Underinvestment has thus led to persistent core inflation despite interest rate hikes. Nevertheless, central banks in Europe are following the Fed’s lead and raising their rates. These rate hikes are triggering an enormous debt crisis throughout the Global South and, with that, neoliberal austerity measures whose main victims are workers and peasants.

six women in robes carrying belongings on their heads walk toward the camera on a dirt road.
Women, walking with what possesions they can carry, arrive in a steady trickle at an IDP camp erected next to an AMISOM military base near the town of Jowhar, Somalia, on November 12.  Photo credit: United Nations/Tobin Jones. Original public domain image from Flickr.

Third, most relief measures enacted through the American Rescue Plan have been allowed to expire. In perhaps the most important example, the expanded Child Tax Credit, which had cut child poverty in half, ended with the failure to pass Build Back Better in its entirety, throwing millions back into destitution. In another example, 15 million people will be purged from Medicaid.

Fourth, House Majority Speaker Kevin McCarthy forced a compliant Biden to accept austerity measures in return for Republican approval of a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Biden agreed to freeze discretionary spending except Defense, Social Security, and Medicare; cut funding to the IRS to pursue rich tax cheats; impose new workfare requirements on recipients of SNAP (food stamps) and TANF (welfare); order 43 million people to restart student loan payments suspended during the pandemic; and, in a concession to Joe “fossil capital” Manchin, fast-track the approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

On top of all that, the far-right majority on the Supreme Court heaped further attacks on workers and the oppressed. It overturned Biden’s plan to cancel $430 billion in student debt, ruled in favor of the right of corporations to sue unions for property damage during strikes, banned affirmative action in higher education, upheld the right of businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people, limited the ability of the EPA to use the Clean Water Act to protect wetlands and tributaries, and judged as constitutional a federal law making it a crime to advocate “illegal immigration.”

Deep discontent with Bidenomics

These realities explain why Biden’s approval rating remains mired at 39 percent. Despite all the boosterism of his Bidenomics, only 37 percent approve of his handling of the economy, 58 percent disapprove, and a mere 20 percent agree the economy was excellent or good.

Biden is betting that the Fed will engineer a soft landing and that his spending on infrastructure and new plants will boost the economic prospects for the working class. Inflation has come down, unemployment remains low at 3.6 percent, wages are increasing at a faster rate, and 13 million new jobs, including 800,000 jobs in manufacturing, have been added to the economy since Biden took office.

Nevertheless, Biden’s bets are risky. With the world economy trapped in a global slump, Europe in recession, and China already slowing after its initial growth spurt after ending Zero-Covid lockdowns, the U.S. at best can hope for modest growth and a recession remains a distinct possibility.

Doubts about Washington’s ability to manage the economy led the Fitch Ratings agency to downgrade the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+. It cited three reasons for its decision: expectations of an economic contraction over the next three years, high levels of debt, and the political conflict between the Democrats and Republicans over raising the debt limit comprising competent fiscal management.

Regardless of the trajectory of the economy, Biden’s new investments and subsidies in high-tech manufacturing will generate a limited number of new jobs because the industry is not labor intensive and most of those will be in non-union plants and in right-to-work states. That has already led the UAW to withhold their endorsement of Biden.

A group of walking people hold signs reading UAW on a city street during a climate protest march.
United Auto Workers march for climate justice in New York. Photo by Thomas Good.

With the administration mired in low approval ratings, liberal boosters like Paul Krugman have defended Biden by inveighing against workers’ supposed inability to grasp just how great the economy is doing. In fact, it is boosters like Krugman who are out of touch with the lived experience of the working class, especially oppressed groups, in this country.

In the real world, workers, whose real hourly wages have declined by 3.16 percent under Biden, struggle to pay for the high cost of healthcare, rent, mortgages, childcare, among countless other things. And increasing numbers of people can’t make it, falling through the barely-existent welfare state to end up on the streets among the more than 600,000 homeless people. Those brutal conditions explain why there is so little “Joementum” behind the Democrats heading into the presidential election.

They also explain why Trump and the Republicans, despite their frontrunner’s multiple indictments and the party’s unpopular positions on any number of questions, especially abortion, have an opening to challenge Biden and the Democrats in the next election. Indeed, Trump and Biden are neck and neck in early polls, and the election yet again will turn on about 10 battleground states in the utterly undemocratic electoral college.

Biden and the Democrats will inevitably run not on Bidenomics, which is deeply unpopular, but as the only defense against the Republican Party, its far right program, and the prospect of another four years of chaos and reaction under Trump. In other words, the presidential race will devolve into a classic choice between the lesser and greater evil.

The Left at an electoralist impasse

Rather than pose an alternative to both evils, the Left, DSA, and its elected officials will likely line up behind the Democratic Party and campaign for Biden’s reelection as their overriding priority over the next year. In doing so, the U.S. Left risks falling back into the position it has occupied since the 1930s—a ginger group inside a capitalist party vainly trying to influence its policies.

This entrapment is the logical culmination of DSA’s electoralist strategy that prioritizes running candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line over building social and class struggle. That led DSA to miss the Black Lives Matter uprising, the biggest multiracial movement in U.S. history.

Of course, some chapters do engage in activist projects, and nationally the DSA has attempted to organize various initiatives around unions, such as aiding organizing drives and building strike solidarity. But those, in reality, come in second place behind campaigning for candidates inside the Democratic Party.

Initially, many in DSA advocated a “dirty break” electoral strategy of slowly building up a phalanx of elected officials to launch a new, independent party at some later date. Others, including those for a dirty break and those agnostic about it, put forward the strategy of accumulating elected officials as a “surrogate party” inside the Democrats to advance a socialist agenda.

Today, hardly anyone discusses the “dirty break,” “surrogate party,” or even Michael Harrington’s old “realignment” strategy of uniting unions and social movement organizations to turn the Democratic Party into a Labor Party. Instead, DSA has adopted what David Duhalde calls the “dirty stay” that aspires at best to influence the party and its politics.

In reality, all these strategies have backfired. The Democratic Party is not “just a ballot line” that can be used by the Left, but a corporate-backed political machine that has co-opted the Left for generations, using carrots and sticks to discipline socialists in its midst.

That discipline explains the pivotal betrayals of socialist principles by the Squad and other socialist politicians. Two examples stand out. First, Jamal Bowman violated DSA’s breakthrough resolution in solidarity with Palestine, voting in favor of $4.3 billion in military aid to Israel, visiting the apartheid state, and posing for a photo-op with war criminal Naftali Bennet.

Second, every member of the so-called Squad except Rashida Tlaib followed Joe Biden’s lead and voted to impose a contract on the railway workers, thus breaking the strike. They justified this betrayal by pointing to another bill, which would have mandated bosses to provide sick days, but that, of course, was doomed to failure.

Far from being exceptional, other left-wing and progressive politicians inside the Democratic Party have been similarly lured or forced into betraying their avowed principles. Take, for example, newly elected Mayor of Chicago Brandon Johnson, a former member and organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

With much fanfare from the Left, he delivered some small reforms, but on the big question of labor peace during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 2024, he rallied unions together to sign a “no strike pledge,” winning him plaudits from Democratic Party bosses like Illinois governor and billionaire J.B. Pritzker.

In another tragi-comic example, Ro Khanna spoke for 46 progressives, including DSA members, who voted against the debt ceiling deal, stating that they were doing so on principle. But he clarified that if that vote threatened to prevent the deal from passing, they would have voted for it.

Thus, he underlined that they would stand on principle when their opposition did not matter. But when it did, they would abandon principle and back austerity to keep the capitalist state functioning.

This is the predicament of any left politician, including DSA members, in a capitalist party. As Lily Sanchez put it, “As inspiring as the rise of AOC and other Squad members has been, it’s clear that they remain bound by a party that refuses to address the most pressing issues of our time.”

Denial, triumphalism, and shooting the messenger

DSA’s electoralist strategy has precipitated a crisis in the organization. It has lost momentum, seen many of its branches cease to function, and hemorrhaged thousands of members. Because of its loss of dues and its increased expenses it faces insolvency in the next two years.

DSA is not alone. Other liberal electoralist formations and NGOs are mired in similar crises. For example, the Justice Democrats, the initial organization behind AOC, has been unable to deliver reform, suffered declines in contributions, and been forced to lay off nearly half of its staff.

Most of DSA’s formal and informal leadership has failed to come to grips with the crisis wrought by their electoralism. For the most part, they have failed to recognize the thoroughly imperialist nature of Bidenomics. Those who do recognize this problem still avoid facing the reality that the strategy of running candidates inside the Democratic Party has reduced its politicians to becoming Biden’s hand-wringing supporters.

Most deny any crisis and instead claim that the strategy is working. For example, Emmett McKenna in the Socialist Forum discounts the significance of DSA hemorrhaging tens of thousands of members and the organization’s inability to discipline its elected officials. Instead, McKenna claims that DSA is stronger than ever precisely because it works inside the Democratic Party.

He remains silent about the betrayal of Palestine, since solidarity with that oppressed nation guarantees marginalization in the party. But he has the audacity to defend most of the Squad’s vote to break the railway strike because, behind the scenes, politicians worked to win more paid sick days in a deal with the railway bosses. Backroom deals do not excuse strike breaking.

Branko Marcetic went beyond denial to triumphalism in his account of a summit of elected socialists sponsored by the DSA Fund, Jacobin, and The Nation. For him the numbers in attendance seem to matter more than the absence of victories in advancing a left wing program and the multiple betrayals.

Others celebrate victories like New York’s Build Public Renewables Act, which requires New York Power Authority to produce all its power from renewables by 2030. While such reforms are, of course, welcome, they are an exception to the rule of fossil capital increasing their drilling and building more pipelines amidst an increasingly dire climate emergency.

When socialists call attention to DSA’s crisis and the failure of its strategy, the default for many is to shoot the messenger. For example, Neil Meyer stoops to parodying critics of the electoralist strategy as “dogmatists,” “wearing a newsboy cap, shaking a copy of a print publication, and muttering about 1917.”

He defends Sanders and DSA campaigning inside the Democratic Party, and he dismisses those who study history to predict that DSA’s electoralist strategy will fail yet again. He claims that we reduce the lessons of this history into “timeless formulas.” In fact, DSA is today tragically confirming our predictions and worst fears.

Despite exploding in size through the Sanders campaign, DSA is now in crisis and its politicians are in thrall to a capitalist party and its imperialist project. To ridicule people calling attention to this reality “dogmatists” is just name calling and a means to avoid serious debate.

Retreat into lesser-evilism

The DSA’s adaptation to the Democratic Party establishment is coming to a head over the upcoming presidential election. Following the lead of the Squad and Sanders, most of the formal leadership, prominent members, and indirectly affiliated websites will advocate support for Biden as a lesser evil to fend off the threat of Trump and the far right Republicans.

Those like Max Elbaum, who have long advocated a version of the Communist Party’s old, failed Popular Front strategy of supporting the liberal bourgeoisie (the Democrats) against the reactionary bourgeoisie (the GOP), have already called for campaigning and voting for Biden. Prominent DSA members like Eric Blanc have also signaled that they, too, will back Biden once again as the lesser evil.

Blanc contends on Twitter that it is necessary “to combine independent class politics against all corporate politicians with a broader fight against the right.” But Blanc and DSA’s strategy of running inside and backing the Democratic Party against the Republicans leads directly to class collaboration, not independence, and with that the subordination of socialist politics to liberal capitalist politics.

Blanc admits as much when he concedes the fact of AOC’s “accommodation to the Democratic Party” and justifies it “because she correctly sees the need for a broad coalition to defeat Republican authoritarianism.” In just a few tweets, he summarizes the retreat of DSA back into supporting the Democratic Party establishment as the lesser evil to stop the greater one.

In reality, this strategy of “lesser-evilism” has failed in the past and it will fail again today. It  fundamentally compromises building an independent Left, fighting for reforms, and even stopping the right.

First of all, the lesser evil is evil. That is certainly true of Biden’s policies from his imperialist Keynesian program to his strike breaking, warmongering against China, funding of the police, enforcing the border regime, and implementing new austerity measures.

Supporting Biden is a slippery slope to political accommodation with such evil, something Blanc explicitly admits AOC has done for “pragmatic” reasons. Once on that slope, the Left inevitably abandons the attempt to pose an alternative to both parties and surrenders the fight for its own program.

Of course, some claim that they can call for voting for Biden while simultaneously building opposition to advance the Left’s program. But that claim is simply at odds with how the Left, NGOs, and unions work once they decide to endorse candidates.

These forces are fundamentally different from an individual spending a few minutes to vote. They dedicate staff, time, and enormous amounts of money to convince their members and those they influence to vote for their chosen candidate.

And they have to make the case for that vote, which requires soft peddling or suppressing any criticism. You cannot say vote for evil to stop evil! You have to pass it off as somehow advancing a positive project or at least buying time for one.

That sets in motion a logic of demobilization of struggle and political accommodation, which is exactly what has happened for the last two years under Biden. Sanders sold Biden as the reincarnation of FDR. Save a few dissenting votes, Sanders and the Squad have backed Biden on almost every major bill.

Spending time, money, and energy to elect Biden diverted forces away from struggle to Biden’s electoral campaign. And once the NGOs, union officials, and the Left had a supposed friend in the White House, they abandoned building struggle to lobby Biden instead.

Thus, incorporated and demobilized, DSA and the Left have failed to offer a radical alternative to the Democratic Party, leaving Trump and the GOP as its only opposition. And Republicans have taken full advantage, presenting their reactionary project as the only solution to the multiple crises in people’s lives.

Thus, supporting the Democratic Party has not blocked the continued rise of the Republican right in the U.S., but has aided and abetted it. The only thing stopping them from exploiting their opening is the combination of Trump’s criminality and the Republican Party’s unpopular white nationalist program, which limits their appeal at the ballot box.

Cornel West defies lesser evilism

Cornel West’s announcement that he will be running for president on the Green Party ballot has brought this debate about lesser evilism to a fever pitch. Joan Walsh penned an atrocious attack on West in the flagship of Democratic Party liberalism, The Nation, condemning all independent, left-wing campaigns as spoilers only capable of delivering victories to the right.

Ben Burgis in Jacobin correctly defends West against Walsh’s slanders, but accepts her spoiler argument, advising West to abandon the Green Party and instead imitate Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders and launch another doomed socialist campaign for the presidential nomination inside the Democratic Party. In a similar article in The Nation, D.D. Guttenplan and Bhaskar Sunkara condemn third-party campaigns as at best unserious and at worst spoilers.

All four authors claim that if West ran in the Democratic Party primary, he could push Biden, in Guttenplan and Sunkara’s phrase, “in the direction of compassion and justice.” They base this on the mistaken assumption that Biden was influenced by Sanders and that the administration’s policies—its Imperialist Keynesianism—has not just been a lesser evil, but however half-measured, a positive good.

So, they contend that West should reprise Sanders’ role and pull the party to the left. Guttenplan and Sunkara conclude that doing so would be “good … for the Democratic Party.” Thus, far from challenging the lesser evil, they hope West’s doomed campaign would make it more palatable for an electorate unhappy with Biden. It is hard not to call this sheep-dogging for the party establishment.

To his credit, West has remained intransigent, rejecting such calls to abandon independent politics. While everyone on the Left should be sympathetic with his campaign, despite disagreements with this or that position he takes, the reality is that it does not have a base in social and class struggle, is hampered by the problematic politics of the Green Party, and will be marginalized not only by the Democratic Party but also by the vast majority of the Left, including his own organization, DSA.

And the campaign shares with much of the Left the assumption that elections are the vehicle to redress capitalism’s crises, exploitation, and oppression. In reality, as the victories of the 1930s and 1960s attest, the main advances won by workers and the oppressed were not through electoral campaigns but through social and class struggle—disruptive strikes, occupations, sit-ins, and demonstrations.

Crisis and reorientation

The Left’s electoralist strategy inside the Democratic Party has led it and the DSA into an impasse. Now is the time for a sharp reorientation toward independent politics and, most importantly, toward rebuilding resistance from below in workplaces and communities.

Instead of running candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line, which at best traps people behind enemy lines, the Left should run its own candidates on its own ballot line to begin establishing the political independence of the working class. This is especially true in one-party cities and districts where Republican or Democratic Party dominance neutralizes the spoiler argument.

But any such electoral activity must be secondary to organizing social and class struggle like that exemplified by the actors’ and writers’ strikes against the Hollywood billionaires. Such militancy is the motor force to win reforms, the means for people to radicalize and learn lessons, and the context in which socialist organizations can grow to become a genuine political alternative.

The opportunity for such a reorientation is enormous. The profound crisis in the system keeps generating a radicalization to the Left and episodic explosions of resistance. Our top priority should be to build infrastructures of dissent—new organizations for social movements and rank-and-file networks in unions—to sustain struggles and push for greater militancy, especially mass disruptive protests and strikes.

Through that strategy, we can renew the battle for our program of reforms like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, the movement to defund the police, the movement for open borders, and calls for free abortion on demand, the abolition of debt, and reparations. These demands and the mobilization for them have been allowed to wither on the vine as the Left has retreated over the last two years.

There is also a desperate need for the Left to mount resistance against the right and its relentless attacks on oppressed people as scapegoats for the crises in our society. It is time for us to build opposition in the streets to their war on Black Studies, trans people, reproductive rights and access, and our democratic rights, especially if Trump again tries to subvert them in the event he loses the presidential election.

The clock is ticking with multiple crises wrecking peoples’ lives. The Democrats have no solution to these but facelifts that preserve the system that causes them. The Republicans also have no solution but nationalist bigotry that will make everything worse. The Left must build an alternative to both, helping to lead fights for immediate reform while forging a new independent socialist party capable of leading a political and social revolution.

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Ashley Smith View All

Ashley Smith is a member of the Tempest Collective in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications.