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What can we learn from the results of the 2020 election?

Photo: 2020 electoral college result — Wikimedia Commons

The 2020 election broke the record for the most ballots cast and is set to be one of the largest percentage turnouts of eligible voters recorded. The massive vote total produced all sorts of contradictory results. In Florida, Trump won alongside a $15/hr minimum wage ballot measure. In California, Democrats won a thumping victory even while referendums for workers rights and rent control went down by large margins. Legal weed triumphed in “deep blue” New Jersey and “dark red” South Dakota. The Movement for Black Lives and QAnon have supporters in the incoming Congressional freshman class while Arizona, but not Illinois, voted to tax the rich. 

The record participation — and record cost — seems totally incongruous to the main battle. President-elect Biden campaigned principally on character and competence rather than any particular policy. Biden infamously assured wealthy donors “nothing would fundamentally change.” He sold access to campaign policy advisors, trumpeted Wall Street support for his economic plan and constantly promoted cooperation with the right-wing. All this was packaged as a return to the “pre-Trump status quo.” 

Ultimately, the election boiled down to a referendum on Trump and his program. But the results defy oversimplified narratives. A variety of journalists in the corporate media are attempting their own crude type of “class analysis,” trying to draw out larger political truths about the U.S. working class based on the results. These should be viewed with skepticism. Their analysis is skewed not only by their own individual class biases but distorted fundamentally by the main choices on offer in the election. 

Put simply, no working class program was on the ballot when it came to the two main ruling class parties, while both presented themselves as better for working class households. Additionally, the corporate media uses totally flawed definitions of class and their reporting, as a rule, omits large sections of the poor and working people who did not vote. 

With all that being said, there still is value for socialists in studying the election results and identifying significant trends within them. A few preliminary conclusions are: the “middle classes” continue to play a decisive role in electoral outcomes, national oppression retains a deep significance in U.S. politics, and the much-discussed “white working class” is not the homogeneous political subject that the corporate media asserts. 

Black voters desert Democrats nationwide

The principal narrative being produced by a large portion of non-right wing commentary on the election is that the “Black vote” saved Joe Biden. This narrative, which has a kernel of truth in that Black voters remain overwhelmingly in the camp of the Democrats, obscures the facts. All across the country, in both urban and rural settings, Joe Biden lost votes compared to Clinton in 2016 in majority Black areas. 

This is true in Detroit, Philadelphia, the majority Black wards of Milwaukee, every majority Black county in North Carolina and Arkansas, and all but three majority Black counties in South Carolina. In all of them Joe Biden lost raw votes, percentage share or both compared to the Democrats’ 2016 effort. In Mississippi, in 14 of 17 majority-Black counties the same result held true. This is also true for Tuskegee, the county seat of Macon County, Alabama.  All over Chicago’s South Side — the ninth, 15th, 16th and 17th wards — the same vote loss trend appears. 

In Dallas County, Alabama (home to Selma) and Lake County, Indiana (home to Gary) roughly the same percentage of people showed up to vote, as is true in Essex County, New Jersey (home to Newark) and Prince George’s County, Maryland. 

The principal exception is Georgia. Eight out of 11 majority Black counties increased their votes for the Democratic presidential ticket — notably in Rockdale county which saw a nine percentage point surge. Clearly the Democratic campaign in Georgia was driven by the past several years of well-organized voter registration and community organizing activities in Black communities. 

In Virginia too, Danville, Petersburg and Portsmouth all increased their vote total for Biden as compared to Clinton. Baltimore, Maryland also saw a noted increase as did Saginaw City, Michigan. However, these are generally exceptions. The entire pre-election discourse around “the Black vote” was whether there would be turnout in the necessary numbers. It largely did not happen. 

Black voters are still foundational to Democratic successes, returning large majorities in majority Black areas. But the “Black people saved Biden” narrative obscures that in a number of crucial states this vote was not decisive in flipping them. In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin it certainly was a less significant factor than the suburban surge in the direction of the Democratic Party. 

In North Carolina the poor performance in majority Black counties clearly played a significant role in Biden’s failure to win the state. 

Of course voter suppression plays a role in some of this, but the trend of a declining Democratic vote share in majority Black areas is too widespread to be explained without placing dissatisfaction with Democratic Party elites at the center of the analysis. 

The signs of this dissatisfaction are all around us, and are most pronounced in light of the rebellions this summer. Many of these were located in Democratic-run cities where the same mayors and elected officials campaigning for Biden were months earlier defending abusive police, repressing the movement and thwarting calls for reforms. There is now an increasingly dense network of Black anti-capitalist militants at the heart of the social movements coursing through the country. A significant number of younger Black people supported Bernie Sanders and the election of Cori Bush. In a muddled way this dissatisfaction even manifested in the various controversies around voting that cropped-up around various entertainers like Ice Cube, the debut of the Black Party and a growing Black conservative presence. 

All these data points together reflect the abject failures of the post-Civil Rights-era Democratic Party leadership to address the needs of Black America. Now, as the struggle for Black liberation renews and grows, it is calling into question that leadership along with its definition of “progress” and its answer to national oppression. 

The “Black voters save America” plot line flattens all of this, and instead of presenting a community in crisis, struggle and internal turmoil searching for answers to ending 500 years of oppression, it presents a passive, quiescent community of poor, huddled and suffering masses with little agency or alternatives other than waiting to see if the Great White Father delivers. 

Demography: Not destiny after all

The Democratic strategists’ lazy assumptions that “demography is destiny” — that the growing percentage of nonwhite people would make it impossible for the Republicans to win federal elections — has been disproven. Communities are not monolithic. Large numbers can stay home. The Republicans can adapt their messaging sufficient to slice away significant numbers of Black and Latino voters. Demography is not destiny, and pointing out that Republican candidates are racist is not enough to win. 

Trump’s sharp increases in his vote totals and percentages in South Texas, including many almost entirely Latino border counties, has been widely noted. What also seems clear is that this increase was not out of nowhere, but came alongside muted enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate. 

In all but three border counties Biden got a smaller percentage of the vote than Hillary Clinton in 2016. In eight of the 15 counties we examined, Biden got fewer votes overall than Clinton despite nationwide turnout increases. 

Trump actually won Zapata County, for instance, despite Clinton having won the County by 33 percent. But more Democrats turned out for the 2020 Democratic Senate primary election than did for Biden this fall. Had the exact same number of voters in the earlier race cast a ballot for Biden, he actually would have won the county. 

In most of these counties Bernie Sanders was the top vote getter in the 2020 Democratic primary. Zapata County was won by democratic socialist Sema Hernandez in the 2018 Democratic Senate primary and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-endorsed Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez in the 2020 Senate primary as well. The story is not so simple as a county moving to the right politically — not at all. 

In Bexar County (San Antonio), where Bernie Sanders also won the primary, the Democrats gained 120,000 votes and four percentage points compared to their 2016 presidential total. Additionally a random sampling of heavily Latino precincts showed marked increases which clearly played an important part in that margin of victory. 

In a sense the South Texas results bear more resemblance to North Carolina’s majority-Black counties than to some other Latino urban areas. Likewise, Arizona appears more similar to Georgia with a large Latino voter turnout than to South Texas. Combined with the further consolidation of a portion of the traditional “suburban” vote, this carried the day for Biden in addition to increased turnout among Native American voters. 

The suburban surge was real

The results clearly reflect that the Biden/Harris ticket was a beneficiary of a suburban surge in key states. What exactly that means is more complicated than the term implies. 

In the traditional sense it means winning relatively more affluent voters. In Pennsylvania, the Democratic presidential ticket lost votes in Philadelphia while in nearby Montgomery County (the 51st wealthiest in the country) Biden gained four percentage points on Hillary’s 2016 share, just about the same in Bucks County. In Chester County, another suburban Philadelphia county, Biden increased the vote total by six points.

This parallels the evidence in the exit polls that Biden made gains among those with household incomes between $50,000-$100,000 and those with over $100,000. In largely suburban Oakland County, Michigan, Biden gained roughly five percentage points on Hillary Clinton, just over 90,000 more votes. Or seen in a different way, in North Carolina, Mecklenburg County (which contains Charlotte) increased it’s turnout, but every county surrounding Charlotte went to Trump with a percentage increase or the same percentage vote as in 2016. 

In Georgia, Biden gained nine percentage points with voters making between $100,000-$200,000. Trump lost seven percentage points, strongly implying most of Biden’s gains were explicitly at the expense of Trump. 

In Wisconsin, a boost from the Milwaukee suburbs and the college town of Madison played the key role in lifting Biden to a higher margin that Hillary reached in 2016. 

Bottom-line: while it certainly is being overplayed by centrist political operatives, the suburban anti-Trump surge was absolutely real. 

The white working class 

The “white working class” is one of the buzzwords most associated with Donald Trump. Supposedly they are his “base” and in a related sense are presented as so irredeemably racist and hateful that most liberal and some “left” analysis views them as being worth only of mockery, certainly not a target for organizing. 

The first question is then, what do the results really tell us? Is the white working class Trump’s base? Our first problem is, there are no real “class” statistics for U.S. elections. Class isn’t about income, but relationships. Do you work for a living? Or do you pay people to work for you to make your living? That is the basic class distinction in capitalism. 

Instead we have two stand-ins: whether or not you went to college and how much money you make. Leaving aside how inadequate that is, what can we learn from these stats? 

To start, Trump got a significant chunk of support from people on the higher end of the income scale. For instance, in North Carolina, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio, Trump won the majority of voters making over $100,000 and lost the majority of voters making less than $50,000. Depending on what age-group we are talking about anywhere from 40-60% of low wage workers are white. 

So, what white workers are we talking about? If a white worker making $102,000 working at a fracking site and a white worker making $29,000 working at Wendy’s, and the former votes for Trump, the latter for Biden, who is more representative? And what of all the white workers who stayed home? Is the white working class Trump’s “base” or just a certain sector of it? 

Another way of looking at it is this. Trump struggled to get a majority of workers making less than $50,000 in many states, but in Alabama and Iowa he won them, he also won every other economic category. In Maine 33% of voters were white women without a college degree, won by Biden. So was Trump’s base in Maine the white working class? Making the same point in different ways, is it logical that Biden could win back majority white counties like Erie, Pennsylvania; Blue Earth County, Minnesota; Hillsborough County, New Hampshire and Saginaw County, Michigan without winning additional white workers, especially those lower down on the income scale. 

Trump obviously needed white working class people to win. He clearly tried to speak directly to them and mobilized them significantly in many places. But it appears he did not do so consistently and universally. Elements of the white working class are part of Trump’s base, but factors including location, income, gender and so on make a huge difference in the propensity for a “white worker” to vote for Trump. To what extent does Trump really represent a new reactionary current within the working class, and to what extent does he mobilize the traditional Republican coalition plus a small sliver of traditional nonvoters? This is a question that has to be studied rather than taken for granted. 

Whether or not Trump won a majority of white workers, to generalize too much about white workers is to lose sight of a critical element: that a not insignificant number of white workers actually rejected Trump’s crude program or were unmoved by it. And we cannot assume all 70 million Trump voters were drawn to Trump’s racist policies any more than we can assume Biden’s 75 million voters were drawn to his interventionism or his own racist record. The number one concern for Trump voters they said was the economy. The top concern for Biden voters was the pandemic. It would be ridiculous to look at the electoral results, based on two reactionary bourgeois candidates, and assume a genuine working-class and antiwar political program could never resonate broadly, including among both Biden voters and some Trump voters. 

Results and prospects

The first takeaway from the above is that “pushing Biden left” is a nonsensical notion. Biden’s core political strength is the center ground. Our ruling class dominated politics trends towards  the “center” because “center” really means “status quo” and the people for whom that works best hold a controlling interest in the political elite. 

The “suburbs” are the largest numerical reserve of voters with enough relative access to wealth to be responsive to a politics premised on relatively small changes in the social and economic structure.   

In the three states deemed most critical in Clinton’s loss — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — Biden reversed the outcome by mobilizing exactly these voters while proving uniquely unable to inspire a strong response from the Black working class. Biden’s weaknesses nearly cost him the election — against a hugely unpopular and widely hated president in the middle of a devastating economic crisis and pandemic that he has bungled in historic fashion. It is stunning that the election was so close. 

A core part of the Democratic establishment’s political message is opposition to transformative change. By definition that means many “progressive” and all “socialist” policies are subordinated or deemed unacceptable. Overall the Biden White House (with assistance from Democratic Congressional leadership) has a narrow electoral base to function exactly as how they presented themselves, as a check on anything “fundamentally changing.” They feel they owe nothing to the leftward-moving sections of the base. 

One other major takeaway is the clear and growing cleavage between the Democratic Party in a formal sense and the Black working class. The election results seen alongside a summer of uprisings and the obvious growth of anti-capitalist critique within the Black community itself reflect the growing politicization of a long-term mass indifference to Democratic politicians. 

There is the growth not just of a political alternative, but a social alternative, in Black political life. That is a determination not to live in old ways and to govern in new ways. At the same time, even in diminished form, the Black vote is still foundational for Democrats and increasingly Black capitalists are demanding more representation at the highest levels of party and government. This of course requires concessions to ruling class moderation. 

In and of itself, dissolving the myth of a unitary “Black politics” contributes to the delegitimation of the ruling class’ political hegemony. 

Finally, it’s clear many white workers voted for Trump. It is also true Trump increased his share of the vote among Black and Latino workers in many places as well. In the same vein, it’s clear that many white workers also voted for Biden, and as a social strata are not some unvariegated mass of racists. 

The election results make at least one thing very clear. Low-wage white workers who vote are far more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. Putting that alongside the generally more “progressive” views of non-voters, it seems fair to say that low-income white workers are the least likely subset of white workers to be moved by the xenophobic, racist, sexist, hyper-capitalist phony “working class” politics promoted by Trump. 

This affirms that low wage worker organizing is one of the most promising sites for building multi-national unity that can act as a beacon to the rest of the class.

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