Expecting 2008, Democrats got 2016 again, an unnervingly close election that Joe Biden appears to have won by razor-thin margins in a few states. If the blue wave has proved almost as illusionary as the blue wall four years ago, it is because centrist Democrats, as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren constantly warned during the primary debates, have refused to learn the lessons of 2016. Biden’s campaign was only a tweaked version of Hillary Clinton’s failed playbook.
This was illustrated most forcefully by Republican gains among Latino voters in several states. It is not particularly surprising that wealthy Cuban and Venezuelan exiles, screeching about communists on the doorstep, managed to cut deeply into the Democratic margin in Miami. But what happened in the seven major Texas border counties whose population of 2.6 million is 90 per cent Mexican in origin (Tejanos)? The national party has many neglected or abandoned constituencies, including Puerto Rico, Indian Country and Appalachia, but southern Texas has a unique strategic significance. This was acknowledged two days before the election when the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, visited the McAllen area, at the southernmost tip of the state. ‘The road to the White House,’ he declared, ‘goes through South Texas. Remember, Beto lost by about 200,000 votes in 2018. We can make up these votes alone in the Valley. If we take Latino turnout from 40 per cent to 50 per cent, that’s enough to flip Texas.’
But the Biden campaign failed to pave the road to power with campaign resources or to pay attention to local issues. Continuing a long tradition of electoral negligence, the national Democrats were confident that Biden would enlarge Clinton’s winning margin in the region even if they didn’t divert funds or personnel from the all-important suburban battlefields. The border, after all, is one of the poorest regions in the country, with a population routinely vilified in Republican propaganda as aliens and rapists. In any case, the polls were predicting historic Democratic victories; a blue wave along the Rio Grande was assured.
As the fantasy of great gains in Texas dissipated, Democrats were stunned to discover that a high turnout had instead propelled a Trump surge along the border. In the three Rio Grande Valley counties (the agricultural corridor from Brownsville to Rio Grande City), which Clinton had carried by 39 per cent, Biden achieved a margin of only 15 per cent. More than half of the population of Starr County, an ancient battlefield of the Texas farmworkers’ movement, lives in poverty, yet Trump won 47 per cent of the vote there, an incredible gain of 28 points from 2016. Further up river he actually flipped 82 per cent Latino Val Verde County (county seat: Del Rio) and increased his vote in Maverick County (Eagle Pass) by 24 points and Webb County (Laredo) by 15 points. The Democratic congressman Vincente Gonzalez (McAllen) had to fight down to the wire to save the seat he won by 21 per cent in 2018. Even in El Paso, a hotbed of Democratic activism, Trump made a six point gain. Considering South Texas as a whole, the Democrats had great hopes of winning the 21st Congressional District, which connects San Antonio and Austin, as well as the 78 per cent Latino 23rd Congressional District, which is anchored in the western suburbs of San Antonio but encompasses a vast swathe of southwest Texas. In both cases, the Republicans won fairly easily.
The explanation? As Congressman Filemón Vela (Brownsville) was quoted as saying in the Valley Morning Star, a Harlingen newspaper, ‘I think there was no Democratic national organisational effort in South Texas and the results showed. The visits are nice, but without a planned media and grassroots strategy you just can’t sway voters. When you take voters for granted like national Democrats have done in South Texas for forty years, there are consequences to pay.’
In the end it was the economy that sunk hopes of a Democratic landslide. It was a gigantic mistake to make the election a plebiscite on Trump’s bungling of the pandemic without making an all-out effort to convince voters that a Biden administration would sustain family incomes and small businesses until Covid was defeated. The 2.2 trillion dollar relief bill passed by the House should have been the basis for an aggressive campaign, but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, allowed the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to take it hostage and Biden, mumbling through the two presidential debates, never really crusaded to free it. Meanwhile, the third-quarter employment figures, however misleading, gave Trump an unexpected boost; they were proof, he claimed, of the shining future ahead. A new national lockdown would send that ‘recovery’ to hell. The Democrats underestimated the resonance this argument had with the shop-owning and entrepreneurial middle classes facing extinction or digestion by Amazon. It wasn’t so hard to convince bar owners, building contractors, franchise managers, small manufacturers and the like that closures were a greater evil than half a million more Covid deaths. (This is, of course, a global phenomenon: just look at the role played by hysterical small business owners in the violent protests against new lockdowns in Western Europe.)
As for working people, forced every day to choose between income and health, Biden’s vow to put science in charge of the pandemic was easily spun by Republicans as proof of a economic apocalypse overseen by the dread Dr Fauci. The Democratic counter-response was weak, in part because the union movement had even less prominence in the campaign than in 2016. The uncontrolled spread of Covid restricted the door-to-door canvassing that has always been the contribution of union members to electoral battles. The Biden campaign did give greater emphasis than Clinton to workers’ rights, collective bargaining and the $15 minimum wage, but it broadcast the same empty messages about job creation and the future of work. ‘Millions of green energy jobs’ is an abstraction that utterly fails to connect to the concrete circumstances of Rustbelt and inner-city communities. Mainstream Democrats have had more than a generation to respond to the simple question: what will you do to increase job opportunities here in Erie (or Warren, Dubuque, Lorain, Wilkes-Barre and so on)? They have never offered a serious response. Concrete solutions would involve geographically targeted public investment, control over capital flight and financial outflows, and, above all, a massive expansion of public employment. These are avenues most Democrats are too terrified to go down.
Since Reagan, Republicans have always fought to turn institutional power against the Democrats, pushing them onto unfavourable terrain and disorganising their base. In winning the House Speakership in 1994, Newt Gingrich introduced the ruthless style of political combat and absolute oppositionism that McConnell has so exquisitely refined. The election of 2010 was an even more important turning point. That year the Republicans mobilised the full power of the network of billionaire donors, regional policy centres and political action committees that they had been building for thirty years to storm state legislatures and governors’ mansions across the heartland and sunbelt. They won 700 legislative seats and flipped twenty state legislative chambers, numbers that grew during the Obama years. Since in most states legislatures remain responsible for redistricting, the Republicans ruthlessly gerrymandered state and congressional seats to enshrine their majorities. That’s why winning back state legislative majorities in this census year should have been the highest Democratic priority after the White House and Senate. The most important target was Texas, where Democrats were confident they could take the nine additional seats needed to control the House. In the event, they didn’t win any, so Republicans will be free to conduct a new gerrymander.
The United States, as pundits hourly remind us, is now cleaved into two almost equal-sized political universes. But power abhors stalemates and clearly in the present world the evolution is towards differential experiments in post-fascist oligarchy and pseudo-democracy. A weak and court-enchained Biden-Harris White House, built on the betrayal of progressives and subservient to a donor class of Silicon Valley and Wall Street billionaires, will face a new depression without the wind of popular enthusiasm at its back. Where does this point except to total destruction in the 2022 midterm and the further triumph of the new darkness?