Biden and Trump would be very different presidents — but they share a crucial flaw
It is clear now that Biden will be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020 barring unforeseen circumstances. And the differences between Biden and Trump will be played up by both sides. And, yes, there are many differences between Biden and Trump especially in terms of social and cultural issues, judicial nominations, the administration of executive departments and agencies, and taxes and regulations. There will also be significant differences in temperament, rhetoric, tone and consistency. However, throughout the coming campaign there will not be much discussion by the candidates or the media about a key issue: Power. And this is a big omission because in our society power is concentrated in the hands of the few thousand corporate executives and billionaires who inhabit Wall Street to the detriment of the many millions of workers and small businesspeople who inhabit Main Street. In the following analysis I will examine the coming general election and its aftermath in terms of its impact on the existing power structure of the U.S. political economy. Specifically, I will focus on the crisis of our democracy; Wall Street’s view of the Biden-Trump contest as a win-win for Wall Street (and its unified opposition to Sanders); what to expect from a Biden or a Trump presidency; and what can be done by progressives to continue the struggle for justice and democracy.
The Crisis of Democracy and the Reality of Plutocracy
The political discourse in the 2020 presidential campaign is replete with crises. The latest and immediately most serious is the Coronavirus crisis. But there are many other crises that have gotten some attention including health care, prescription drugs, the middle east, income inequality and taxation – while the climate crisis as well as the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe have not gotten the attention, they deserve even though they threaten our very existence. But there is another crisis that is never really mentioned at all – the crisis of our democracy. The reality is that our democracy is succumbing to an overwhelming tide of plutocracy – the rule of the wealthy, the corporate-Wall Street-billionaire elite. Unfortunately, Biden and Trump actually represent and are tied to the interests of the plutocrats. Only Sanders has proposed an all-out assault that would limit the power of Wall Street and expand the power of Main Street. In a very real sense, the primary and general elections represent not just a choice between candidates but a choice between reclaiming our democracy or reinforcing the plutocracy.
We usually think of democracy in terms of voting. If the adult citizens of a country can vote for a number of candidates, then we call it a democracy. Voting is important both in terms of who qualifies to vote and who is allowed to vote. And there is much discussion during this election season about who exactly is qualified to vote and whether they are even allowed to vote. However, voting is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a democracy. The other key ingredient to a democracy can be summed up in one word: Power. Who has it and who doesn’t have it? Who sets the rules for the functioning of the political-economic system? Who makes the underlying decisions that determine not only the policies of a nation, but also which groups obtain the benefits and which groups suffer the losses? Unfortunately, in relation to the bottom-line issue of power – the U.S. is not really a democracy; it is a plutocracy – the rule of the wealthy. That is not just my opinion. A Princeton University study that examined 20 years-worth of data (1981-2002) concluded, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
I have previously analyzed the process through which corporations and billionaires dominate our political economy through a system of legalized corruption in which they basically purchase the allegiance of politicians by investing billions of dollars in campaign contributions; obtain favorable legislation by spending billions more in lobbying; and ensure that the legislation is supported by pro-corporate judges who have been appointed by those same politicians (see here, here and here). Both Biden and Trump are products of and continue to rely on this system of legalized corruption that institutionalizes a plutocracy as opposed to a real democracy.
A Biden-Trump Election is a Win-Win for Wall Street
On the Republican side, the plutocrats are comfortable with Trump. The problem was the Democratic side of the ledger. The plutocrats did not like Warren, but they hated Sanders. Their goal was to defeat Sanders at any cost and to select a Democratic candidate on which they could depend. Buttigieg rose and then fell. Bloomberg spent a lot of money, rose and then fell. Biden was really their last chance. A Biden-Trump election was the plutocrats’ dream scenario.
Biden Is A Product and Supporter of the Plutocracy. Biden has been and continues to be a willing participant in the system of legalized corruption. He has always relied on donations from Wall Street and the billionaire donor class and he has returned the favor by supporting policies that aide Wall Street to the detriment of Main Street. (See this article for a detailed analysis of Biden and his relationship to Wall Street and billionaires).
- Biden Relies on Wall Street and Billionaires. Wall Street has always supported Biden. According to the Center for Responsive Politics the entire finance capital sector (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) has been the largest business sector contributor to Biden’s various senatorial and his 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns. Between 1990-2007, this sector invested $6.87 million in Biden. And that support has continued for his 2020 presidential campaign. The finance capital sector’s investment in Biden is just behind its investment in Trump and much greater than its investment in any other Democratic candidate. In terms of small donors, Biden has raised $25.3 million or 37% of total funding from small donors – much less than Sanders.
According to the Center on Responsive Politics, the Financial Sector as a whole (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) has invested $47.2 million in the 2020 presidential election so far. Of this total, $10.3 million or 22% has gone to Trump; $10.1 million or 21% has gone to Biden and just $2.8 million or 6% has gone to Sanders. And it is clear that Biden is due for a massive increase in funding following Super Tuesday. These figures are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg and will soon explode; after all, the Financial Sector invested $338 million in the 2016 presidential election.
Biden also relies on billionaires. According to an updated Forbes article as of January 2020, sixty-six billionaires have given to Biden’s campaign. Most of these billionaires are from the financial capital sector. Also, expect Biden to pick up the backing of the 94 billionaires who previously supported Buttigieg and Klobuchar – the two candidates who suspended their campaigns and endorsed Biden immediately before Super Tuesday. In addition, there is a Super Pac that supports Biden called “Unite the Country.” Super PACs can legally spend unlimited amounts of money and can buy ads to support or oppose particular candidates. They are not supposed to be controlled by or tied directly to campaigns. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Unite the Country spent $8.9 million as of March 5, 2020. The finance/insurance/real estate sector accounted for $5 million or 56% of the total raised by this PAC. All these figures will increase substantially in the near future
- While Biden speaks of change – He literally promised Wall Street and billionaire donors that “nothing will fundamentally change… if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down. I promise you.” In his first campaign speech delivered to a largely union crowd in Pittsburgh, Biden stated “Let me say this simply and clearly, and I mean this: The country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs and hedge fund managers. It was built by you. It was built by the great American middle class.” In an interview, Biden stated, “It’s high time we helped Main Street.” His website is full of plans to increase taxes on the wealthy, enhance Social Security, expand government social services and get tough on Wall Street.
All these statements and plans sound very progressive. But based on past policies and current statements, it is apparent that Wall Street does not have to worry much about Biden actually delivering on his anti-Wall Street rhetoric. As detailed in a previous article, Biden has supported and often led the fight for legislation that further consolidated the financial industry, eliminated laws that had curbed Wall Street’s penchant for excessive speculation, and increased protections for banks while eroding protections for consumers. And he supported trade deals that benefitted Wall Street and other big corporations while eliminating 4 million U.S. jobs primarily held by union manufacturing workers. Conversely, he is culpable for the failure to pass legislation that would have helped strengthen unions and protect the rights of consumers.
And Biden even admitted all of this when he gave a wink and a nod to Wall Street and the billionaires at an elite fundraiser in NY City last year. Biden stated “The truth of the matter is, you all, you all know, you all know in your gut what has to be done. We can disagree in the margins, but the truth of the matter is it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change…I need you very badly. I hope if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down. I promise you.”
Biden’s Plans for Voting Rights and Economic Democracy are Vague, Limited and Lack Credibility. Unlike other candidates, Biden has not proposed any specific plan to enhance voting rights. His approach to expanding the power of workers is weak when compared to Sanders. And his strategy to implement his program depends on Republicans. Biden’s plans and strategy are not reassuring for those who care about limiting the plutocracy and expanding democracy.
- Vague pronouncements about voting rights. Biden’s website contains many plans. However, there is one striking omission – restoring and expanding voting rights. Biden’s website includes only the following vague statement about voting rights, “We must strengthen our democracy by guaranteeing that every American’s vote is protected. We’ve got to make it easier — not harder — for Americans to exercise their right to vote, regardless of their zip code or the color of their skin, and make sure we count every voter’s voice equally.” In another section, Biden promises to “to empower the Department of Justice to enforce voting laws and restore the Voting Rights Act. Adam Eichen, in an article in Jacobin Magazine, puts all this into context: “In a political climate plagued by voter suppression and extreme partisan gerrymandering, it is imperative that every Democratic presidential candidate pledge to pursue policies that strengthen our democracy. If the past decade has revealed anything, combatting right-wing politics requires fair elections and diverse voter turnout. Many Democrats have risen to the challenge. Almost all of the remaining major candidates have released comprehensive democracy platforms. Their plans, though varying in strength, include concrete policies to end gerrymandering and empower voters. Joe Biden, however, stands alone. Though he has provided a detailed campaign finance reform plan — which, encouragingly, includes public financing of elections — his website is scandalously vague on the topic of the franchise.” This lack of specificity calls into question a promise that Biden made in a December 2019 op ed “if I am elected president, I will make voter protection a foundation of my administration.”
- Limited proposals for economic democracy and lack of credibility. Like most of the other Democratic candidates, Biden has presented a plan to expand the ability of workers to join unions if they so desire. His website includes plans that other candidates supported such as allowing workers to join a union if a majority sign cards authorizing the union to represent them; banning state Taft-Hartley laws that prohibit unions from collecting dues or comparable payments from all workers who benefit from union representation that unions are legally obligated to provide; and ensuring that federal dollars do not flow to employers who engage in union-busting activities, participate in wage theft, or violate labor law. These would be important achievements. However, there are two problems. First, Biden’s view of expanding the rights of workers is very limited relative to Sanders proposals. Sanders proposes a significant expansion of the rights of “at will” employees by only allowing employers to fire them for “just cause” i.e., their work performance, as opposed to almost any other reason as currently allowed. Also, Sanders includes provisions to require corporations to include worker elected members of the board. These proposals would establish a more balanced power dynamic within corporations. Second, he lacks credibility in any effort to expand workers’ power because he is culpable in the failure of the Obama administration to pass the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009 which included a number of Biden’s current campaign proposals and the failure to pass Labor Law Reform in 1978
- Biden says that he will depend on a Republican “epiphany” to get his program passed. At a fund raiser in November, Biden stated, “With Donald Trump out of the way, you’re going to see a number of my Republican colleagues have an epiphany. Mark my words. Mark my words… It’s going to take two things: One is somebody who in fact, knows how to reach across the aisle and get things done…" This is almost identical to statements made by President Obama during his 2012 reelection campaign, "I believe that If we're successful in this election, when we're successful in this election, that the [Republican right wing obstructionist] fever may break, because there's a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that. My hope, my expectation, is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn't make much sense because I'm not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again." Well, the Republicans “fever” did not break in 2012 as predicted by Obama and Republicans won’t experience an “epiphany” in 2020 as predicted by Biden.
Biden Was the Final Choice of the “Never Bernie” Plutocrats. The plutocrats (Wall Street, corporate executives and the very wealthy) along with their media and political allies wanted to defeat Sanders at all costs because he not only provides a striking contrast to the corporate-supported Biden and Trump but also a living, breathing alternative to the plutocracy.
- Sanders did not play Wall Street’s donor game. We all know how the “politics-as-usual game in played – politicians rely on Wall Street and billionaire donors to finance their campaigns and, in return, Wall Street and billionaire donors expect those same politicians to pass their special interest legislation. Sanders has raised $134.1 million in total donations. Small donors (those who give less than $200) form the backbone of Sanders’ fundraising accounting for $74 million or 56% of all donations. Wall Street has provided just 2% of Sanders total funding. Not one billionaire has donated to Sanders campaign.
- Proven Track Record. The plutocrats know that Sanders would follow through on his promises to limit their power and expand the power of workers. Rolling Stone published an article by Mike Taibbi examining Sanders decades long fight against Wall Street. Sanders has also proposed significant increases in the regulatory protections of workers, consumers, clean air and water and to make polluters pay the costs of the pollution they cause. And Sanders has a long history of attempting to expand the rights of voters, minorities, LGBTQ, and workers. Oh, and don’t forget the trillions of dollars of tax increases on Wall Street, corporations and billionaires that he has proposed to fund the Green New Deal; free public pre-school through college education; universal health care and much more.
- Mass Mobilization. Most troubling of all was that Sanders promised to get his program enacted through the mass mobilization of millions of workers. This is the last thing that the plutocrats would like to see – an educated, mobilized and activated citizenry focused on ending the privileges of the plutocracy
- Biden was the Final Choice of the Democratic Primary Voters. The driving question in the Democratic primaries appears to have been “Who can win – Who can beat Trump.” For almost all Democrats – and an untold percentage of independents – both Biden and Sanders would be better than Trump. It is debatable which of the two is stronger or weaker against Trump. Each has strengths and weaknesses. And don’t believe the so-called pragmatists and pundits when they talk about electability – they got it all wrong in 2016 with Trump vs Clinton in the general election and Trump vs all the Republican primary candidates; they got it wrong in 2008 with Clinton vs Obama in the primaries; they got it wrong in 2004 with Kerry vs Bush; and they got it wrong in 2000 with Gore vs Bush. The pundits and media have determined that Biden is the most electable candidate – partly based on their analyses and partly on their position as part of the corporate media. The “establishment” consolidated their forces and undertook a well-coordinated and all-out offensive against Sanders. Obviously, they were victorious as the majority of the Democratic electorate since Super Tuesday determined that Biden had the best chance to beat Trump. This judgment may or may not pan out in the general election. Indeed, an article in The Intercept is entitled, “Democratic Voters Played Pundit in Picking Joe Biden. History Suggests They Are Bad at That Game.”
In sum, Biden checked all the boxes for Wall Street and the billionaires: he relied on their donations; he proved his loyalty by supporting and championing pro-Wall Street policies over a number of decades; he promised that he would remain loyal as president and not really implement any significant limits on Wall Street or expansions of power to workers and progressives; and he was the alternative to Sanders. The consensus among the plutocrats: Biden is their man.
Trump Also is a Product and Supporter of the Plutocracy. It is obvious why Wall Street supports Trump as do many billionaires
- He has delivered trillions of dollars to Wall Street and the billionaires in the form of massive tax cuts and subsidies; eliminated and eroded regulations on Wall Street as well as the regulations covering many of its corporate clients such as the oil and gas sector; weakened labor unions; packed the courts with pro-business judges; privatized public assets; eroded social safety net programs; and is attempting to cut Social Security and Medicare. Trump’s embrace of the Corporate (and Wall Street) agenda was detailed in a previous article (Wrong Way Economics: Trump's Roadmap for Corporate Domination)
- Trump uses the rhetoric of the insurgent but implements the policies of the corporate establishment. Trump uses the language of the insurgent to attack the elites that he says are out to get him. He promises to “drain the swamp,” attacks the mainstream media a “true enemy of the people,” and targets a growing number of institutions including the government’s intelligence agencies, the media, foreign allies, the Department of Justice, establishment politicians, scientists and the Congressional Budget Office. But, irrespective of and often in direct contradiction to his rhetoric, Trump’s bottom-line policies overwhelmingly benefit the plutocrats – his billionaire and corporate executive comrades. There have been some hiccups such as the tariff wars. But all in all, Wall Street seems very pleased with Trump
- Wall Street and the billionaire elite have expressed their pleasure by showering Trump with money, lots of money. For example, in June 2019, Trump raised $25 million in just 24 hours in Florida including $6 million from online donors; $8 million through phone-banking, and, $10.8 million, the largest chunk, from high-dollar Republican National Committee donors. Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee for the Trump campaign and the RNC, announced that individual donors can now give up to $580,600 each to support Trump’s reelection. Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire who made his initial fortune owning casinos, has pledged to spend $100 million to reelect Trump. And there are a number of PACs created to funnel money from rich people to Trump’s campaign. According to calculations based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Trump has raised $111 million or 51% of his total from small donors and $34 million from Big Business. Trump leads all candidates in the amount of money raised from business, Wall Street and small donors. That is quite a feat. In terms of money, Trump will be a formidable candidate.
Wall Street sees a Biden-Trump Election as a Win-Win. Wall Street and the billionaire class are all in for Biden. For example, the stock market was in freefall because of the spread of the coronavirus. From February 19th through February 28, the S&P 500 fell almost 432 points or 12.8%. It recovered a bit on March 2nd but fell again on March 3rd. But on March 4th, the market posted a strong gain of almost 127 points or 4.2%. This miraculous recovery – an event that actually stopped a significant decline in the stock market at least temporarily – was none other than the result of the Super Tuesday Democratic Party primaries. The stock market was elevated because the political life of Joe Biden (a tried and true Wall Street ally) was resurrected, and the Sanders juggernaut was blunted. A NY Times headline read, “Stocks Surge as Biden Leads Super Tuesday Results: Health care stocks led the gains, as investors reacted to the latest Democratic primary results.” The article quoted one Wall Street insider, “Compared with Mr. Sanders, Mr. Biden’s ‘proposed tax rises are relatively modest, he supports light touch regulation and he would pursue a much softer line on tariffs,’ Michael Pearce, an economist at Capital Economics wrote to clients. ‘The prospect of a Biden-Trump showdown would be a clear positive for the markets, and probably a small plus for the economy too’ (bold added).” Note that the emphasis was on the Wall Street market, with a possibility that the general economy (and thus everyone else) might benefit by a little, but maybe not.
The Victory of the Plutocrats—What to Expect From the Next President
Wall Street, the corporate elite and the billionaire donors got their dream contest—Biden vs Trump—an election in which they win no matter which candidate is elected. The question now is what to expect from a re-elected Trump or a newly elected Biden.
What to Expect if Trump is Re-elected. The re-election of Trump would be a victory not only for the plutocrats but also open the possibility of an autocracy
- Corporate Agenda. Trump will continue to implement what I call the “corporate agenda” of increasing the profits, wealth and income flowing to big corporations and the billionaire donors by decreasing their taxes; increasing the de-regulation of laws and rules that protect the public (air, water, food, drugs, labor, etc.); cutting Social Security, Medicare and social programs in general; privatizing and corporatizing our public assets such as land and public services such as education
- Rhetoric of National Capitalism. Trump will implement the corporate agenda in a way that further divides the nation by using what I call the rhetoric of national capitalism. Trump expertly pits “us” (white, American born, heterosexual, Christian) against the “other” (everyone else) by instilling fear and hate
- Legalized Corruption. Through this system, Wall Street, the corporate elite and the billionaire class purchase the allegiance of politicians by investing billions of dollars in campaign contributions; obtain favorable legislation by spending billions more in lobbying; and ensure that the legislation is supported by pro-corporate judges who have been appointed by those same politicians. (See the following article for a detailed explanation of our system of legalized corruption)
- The Movement towards Autocracy. There are many articles examining how Trump is paving the way to an autocracy – examples include his expansion of the president’s power, subversion of the system’s checks and balances, initiation of a war on government, application of official power to further his own interests, and even his embrace and admiration of autocrats around the world.
What to Expect if Biden is Elected. Yes, Biden would be a significant improvement over Trump - especially if the Democrats actually win the Senate and keep the House. And stating the obvious, Biden will also be much more sensitive to pressure from progressives than Trump.
- Light Touch Regulation and Mild Tax Increases on the wealthy. In the words of the previously quoted Wall Street insider, “Compared with Mr. Sanders, Mr. Biden’s ‘proposed tax rises are relatively modest, he supports light touch regulation and he would pursue a much softer line on tariffs.”
- Biden will not – and never has – challenged the power of Wall Street and the billionaire donor class. The previous quote of Biden at a fundraiser tells us all we need to know, “We can disagree in the margins, but the truth of the matter is it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change…I need you very badly. I hope if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down. I promise you.”
- Biden will appoint members of the Wall Street elite to powerful positions in his administration. Senator Warren famously used the phrase, “personnel is policy” to show how a policy can be supported or subverted by staff and officials. Thus, the choice of staff and nominees for important positions are critical for an executive to implement his/her policies. If you want a progressive policy, then appoint progressives. If you want a conservative policy, the appoint conservatives. If you want a pro-Wall Street policy than appoint Wall Street insiders. Biden’s close economic advisors include, Eric Mindich, a former Goldman Sachs partner, Peter Scher of JP Morgan, Don Graves of KeyBank and Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary who is infamous for spearheading some of the major financial deregulation initiatives of the Clinton administration. Other names mentioned as possible Treasury Secretary candidates are Jamie Dimon, the chair and CEO of JP Morgan Chase and Anne Finucane, vice chair of Bank of America. It is clear that Biden will not only pick Wall Street insiders to key economic positions in his administration but will never veer far from the policies favored by the Wall Street plutocrats.
- Biden will not – and never has – attempted to empower workers, women and minorities to create their own movement. As detailed in a previous article, Biden has been an agent for Wall Street and the billionaires to the detriment of the millions of workers and small businesspersons who inhabit Main Street. Under a Biden presidency, the vast transfer of income and wealth from workers to Wall Street and the billionaires will continue. As previously discussed, Biden is culpable for the failure to pass legislation in 2009 and 1978 that would have aided workers to exercise their right to organize and collectively bargain.
- The hope is that Biden will be pressured to do some things that make peoples’ lives better and that progressives use this period to strengthen the movement to actually win elections in the future
- The fear is that millions of workers will grow ever more frustrated, the Democratic Party will lose even more credibility, our institutions will lose legitimacy and the forces of autocracy will continue to grow – creating the conditions for an even more dangerous version of Trump in the future. Yes, Biden would be better than Trump – but that is a low bar given the challenges we face as a nation, a species and inhabitants of the earth – and it is a low bar compared to the Sanders alternative.
What Can Progressives Do To Strengthen Democracy?
A Sanders victory for the Democratic nomination and the possible victory in the general election would have been profound. This would have constituted a deeper level of what it would mean to “win.” And from this level a win would mean the ability to openly discuss and attempt to address the major issues of our time: which candidate will best be able to help lead the fight for an effective democracy over our existing plutocracy; address the climate crisis on a scale proportional to the crisis itself rather than seeking totally inadequate incremental changes; create the conditions for peace over war, justice over the oppression of classes, races and genders; and ensure that the richest nation in world history can provide everyone with a good public education; quality health care; adequate shelter; a clean and healthy environment; provide women with the ability to determine their own reproductive decisions; and ensure that all citizens can not only to be able to vote but to also have a real role in determining the decisions that significantly affect their lives – not as privileges afforded to the few but as rights enjoyed by all. In these terms, only one candidate would even attempt to accomplish these goals; only one candidate would actually mobilize millions to accomplish these goals; only one candidate would fight the plutocracy and empower workers; only one candidate is actually feared by the plutocrats and their political and media allies – and that candidate is Bernie Sanders. And that’s why the plutocrats and their political and media allies wanted to defeat Sanders.
So, what can progressive do now? Here are some ideas to begin a discussion about next steps.
Help Defeat Trump and If That Fails – RAISE HELL. Bernie Sanders crystalized the approach of many progressives towards Trump when he stated, “Let me begin by reiterating what I have said from Day One of this campaign, and that is that Donald Trump is the most dangerous president in the modern history of our country and he must be defeated… In my view, he is a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe and a religious bigot and he must be defeated, and I will do everything in my power to make that happen.” But what if Biden loses? Or what if Biden wins and the Republicans continue to control the senate, do not experience the “epiphany” predicted by Biden but, instead, engage in the same strategy of near-total obstructionism they utilized against Obama after they won a senate majority in the 2010 elections. Each of these scenarios would be depressing. But each would also herald the moment that progressives must galvanize and unite to oppose Trump and/or an obstructionist senate at every moment. This means constant demonstrations, occupations and coordinated actions and events against Trump and his political allies here, there and everywhere. In the words of the movement, “No Justice, No Peace.”
Pressure Biden at Every Turn, at Every Moment as a Candidate and as President if He Wins. Biden will be susceptible to pressure from progressives. He is a weak candidate whose primary reason for support was that he could defeat Trump. He may or may not be able to defeat Trump. But the Democrats chances rely on creating more turnout for Biden than the Republican turnout for Trump. And to do this he needs progressives to not only vote for him and support him but to get out the vote of others. This is not a plea for making nice. It is a plea for tough love – Biden has to do more than mouth platitudes while we have to make sure that he commits to keeping his promises – and to expand the breadth of those promises as much as possible.
Pressure Biden to keep his promises – and to loudly and directly let him know when he fails to do so both during the campaign and, if he is elected, throughout his administration. Just take a look at his website for his many promises. He promises to expand voting rights, get private money out of federal elections, expand workers’ rights and the power of unions, create a public option for Obamacare, protect the right of women to control their own reproductive decisions, counter the effects of racism and bigotry, and protect the rights of the LGBTQ community.
Pressure Biden to expand his agenda to include important planks of Sanders democracy program. There are a number of Sanders’ proposals that should be included in Biden’s plans. This will be difficult since these proposals are directly opposed by Biden’s billionaire and Wall Street investors. But that is part of political drama in which we find ourselves
- Expand the power of voters and democracy. As stated, Biden is very vague on this subject which means that he probably won’t do anything to follow through if he becomes president. Conversely, Sanders was very specific. His website contains specific plans to “end racist voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering… secure automatic voter registration for every American over 18… abolish burdensome voter ID laws… make election day a national holiday….pass a constitutional amendment that makes clear that money is not speech and corporations are not people…replace corporate funding and donations from millionaires and billionaires with public funding of elections that amplifies small-donor donations…” The Sanders website also includes specific proposals that provide substance for each of these programmatic goals. Nothing vague here. Progressives should push Biden to be more specific so that he can be held accountable if he becomes president
- Expand the power of workers. Both Sanders and Biden have promised to expand the ability of unions to organize and collectively bargain, though Biden, as previously discussed, lacks credibility here. But there is another very important proposal unique to Sanders that would allow employers to fire “at will” employees only for “just cause,” i.e., their performance on the job. As an article in Vice states, “The overwhelming majority of American workers are employed "at will," which means that they can be fired for basically any reason, regardless of performance on the job. If your boss doesn't like your shirt, or your politics, or your favorite sports team, they can fire you. Theoretically, workers enjoy certain protections that allow them to organize unions or combat racial and gender discrimination. But in the modern American workplace, the balance of power so favors employers that these protections are rarely enforced in practice.” Most union workers are protected by “just cause” provisions in their contracts. “At will” employees are not protected at all. This Sanders proposal would represent a major expansion of workers’ rights. Biden should be pressured to adopt this position – though he would resist since it would really upset his donors
Progressives should decisively oppose the nomination of any Wall Street and corporate officials for key governmental positions. Progressives should attempt to prevent the nomination of any Wall Street connected individual to any major position in a Biden administration. Indeed, no corporate connected individual should be nominated for any position that has any direct or indirect relationship with the industry from which he/she has served. Robert Kuttner in The American Prospect identifies other individuals that progressives should organize against if Biden wins. Furthermore, progressives should support the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act introduced by Senator Warren that would, among other things, end the revolving door through which congressional staffers and elected officials become corporate lobbyists and corporate officials and/or lobbyists become congressional or executive department staff or officials.
Organize and Mobilize. One of the most significant features of the Sanders strategy to get his
programs passed or at least considered is probably what worried the plutocrats the most – Mass Mobilization. An In These Times article captures this element of what a Sanders presidency would have entailed, “Sanders understands that change at this scale will require mass movements to pressure Congress and every level of government—and to change their composition. Americans isolated and atomized by cutthroat capitalism must engage in massive collective action. His political program isn’t just about policy, then, but about the capacity of ordinary people to participate in democracy. This disruption includes, critically, his plans to facilitate direct participation in decisions from our workplaces to our energy systems, shifting the balance of power in our society. No one contends that Sanders alone will spark, let alone be, a mass movement. The Sanders campaign slogan, “Not Me. Us.,” conveys precisely that. Sanders, as he puts it, is ‘gonna be organizer-in-chief.’’
It would have been relatively easy for progressives to coalesce with a President Sanders leading the charge. But that is not going to happen. The challenge for the progressive movement now is how to do this without Sanders being president. There are a number of models that could be considered for such a strategy and examples of similar strategies currently being utilized by progressives
Mobilize Within the Democratic Party. The Tea Party provides a model for this strategy even though it was focused on the Republican Party. The Tea Party basically functioned as the shock troops for the right-wing of the right-wing Republican Party. The Tea Party utilized direct action and running primary opponents against any Republican official who did not toe the line on specific policies such as shrinking the size of government by simultaneously cutting taxes and cutting social programs. The Tea Party was formed in 2009 to directly oppose the Obama administration and to purge moderate Republicans. The Tea Party was primarily funded by the Koch brothers, the libertarian/Republican billionaires who made their money in oil and gas. Quite a few Tea Party-supported politicians won their elections and rose to leadership positions in congress. The Tea Party successfully changed the internal dynamics of the Republican Party and formed one of the most powerful caucuses within congress. Ultimately, the Tea Party itself faded from the scene after they basically won – the Republican Party became a uniformly right-wing “conservative” party and Trump was elected president.
Initial forays into the “mobilize within the Democratic party” strategy have been launched by groups such as Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, the Working Families Party, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have all endorsed and supported progressive candidates against corporate Democrats, including incumbents. This strategy drives the corporate Democrats crazy. Indeed, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced a new policy to blacklist any consultants or firms that do business with any candidate that challenges a Democratic incumbent in a primary. The “establishment” Democrats realize that “primarying” incumbents is an effective means to move the “party” in a progressive direction. After all, it worked for the Tea Party which gladly accepted that the short-term loss of some incumbents in favor of the long-term gain represented by the election of more supportive politicians. Running progressive candidates in the primaries and general elections is a medium and long-term strategy that cannot be judged just in terms of whether the candidates initially win or not. This effort marks an investment in building a grass roots base of activists and a progressive leadership that has experience running in elections. This strategy requires a lot of work and money; however, it should be expanded – and progressive groups should combine and coordinate their efforts
Mobilize Outside the Democratic Party. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) exploded on the scene in September 2011. The popular slogan of the OWS, “We are the 99%,” succinctly referred to the great gap between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. And the term, Occupy Wall Street, as well as the actual occupation of public spaces across the U.S.- including Zuccotti Park in NY City’s financial district - directly targeted the institution most linked to the inequality of a system based on wealth, income and power. Young people formed the initial surge of activists for OWS but it gained support from older people, some unions and other progressive groups. The general program of OWS is remarkably similar to the Sanders 2020 platform: more balanced distribution of income and wealth, more and better paid jobs, bank reform, curtailment of Wall Street speculation, and forgiveness of student loan and mortgage debt. The OWS movement was great at galvanizing support, changing the terms of political debate and energizing thousands and thousands of people. However, it also had weaknesses that limited its long-term existence; primarily, it lacked an institutional base like unions or a political party to insure its survival over time. The OWS movement did not disappear; instead, in the words of an article in The Atlantic, “it just splintered and regrouped around a variety of focused causes.”
The Red for Ed teachers’ movements of 2018 provide another example of a movement outside of the political party system. The Red for Ed movement involved many thousands of teachers who walked off their jobs in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. These states had all significantly cut school funding over a period of years so that teachers were burdened with low pay, very high teacher to student ratios, and no money for the resources they needed for their students. In 2018, they walked off the job in these “red” republican-dominated states and forced the republican governors and legislators to begin to address the issues. In 2019, the teachers uprising spread to Oakland California, Chicago Illinois and even Dedham Massachusetts. The teachers in each of these instances by and large had the support of their communities.
Movements like Occupy Wall Street and Red for Ed were not the result of long-term planning. Instead, they were sparked by some initial event and then took off. Though they were not planned way in advance, they later became more organized and centralized. Progressives can’t create such a spark that will mobilize many thousands. But progressives can create a political infrastructure that could be used to support such movements when they arise. At the most basic level, this infrastructure begins with the creation of personal ties between individual activists in common struggle – for example, those working on the Sanders and Warren campaigns. It requires these activists to stay in touch. And it requires groups who support each other in solidarity to keep in touch and offer mutual support when needed – such as civil rights, environmental, and peace groups supporting unions on strike. Or unions supporting the struggles of other groups. Such mutual support not only creates a level of trust but also an infrastructure of solidarity that can be utilized when needed.
The challenge just might be how to combine the outside-the-party fervor and focus of the Occupy Wall Street movement with a progressive version of the inside-the-party fervor and focus of the Tea Party. Senator Sanders was able to do both in his 2020 campaign. Now it is up to us to figure out how to develop this combination without a presidential candidate who could more easily galvanize and focus the activities of millions of supporters and thousands of activists throughout the country. It is a difficult challenge, but it can be done; after all, the Tea Party arose without the leadership of the Republican Party establishment – it just targeted the existing cast of Republican elected officials. Nor did Occupy Wall Street have the support of President Obama - the occupiers just organized and mobilized.
Wall Street and the billionaires are fine with Biden and they are fine with Trump – even though Trump represents a real threat to our democracy in terms of leading us further down the road to autocracy. But Biden will continue to lead us down the road of a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy elite). Wall Street really doesn’t care which of these two roads is taken. Wall Street is very clear that Sanders is the enemy because he has tried and will continue to try to limit their power and expand the power of Main Street. To Wall Street, a Biden vs Trump election is a win-win. And Wall Street and the billionaire elite – as well as their political and media allies – have done everything in their power to prevent the possibility of a Sanders victory in the primaries.
This fundamental lack of distinction between Trump and Biden in the eyes of Wall Street does not bode well for the long-term health of our democracy and the working class. Both Trump and Biden will continue to enact policies that will increase the flow of income and wealth going to corporations, Wall Street and the billionaire donor class – as has been the case for the past 45 years under both Democrat and Republican administrations. Trump has proven that he will try to speed this process as much as possible. But, so will Biden - as proven by his support for the deregulation of the financial sector, the Bankruptcy Bill of 2005, a balanced budget amendment, anti-worker/pro-corporate trade deals, and proposed cuts to Social Security and social programs to reduce the federal debt. Biden is a tried and true life-long friend of Wall Street – to the detriment of Main Street and working families across the U.S.
However, there are important distinctions between Biden and Trump from the perspective of progressives. Biden may be a plutocrat, but he is not an autocrat. And Biden is vulnerable in some ways to pressure by progressives as opposed to Trump who will try to destroy progressives at every level. The fear is that – even if Biden is elected - a continuation of the pro-plutocrat policies that have dominated our politics for 45 years will make the millions of workers and small businesspeople who inhabit Main Street even more frustrated and angry, de-legitimize the entire political system, and create an even stronger possibility that our plutocracy could become an autocracy as people search for real change.
Progressives thus face an enormous challenge. We have to defeat Trump but be able to pressure Biden to embrace policies that favor working people over billionaires – something that he and has not really done before. But, more importantly, we must continue to build power by expanding the progressive movement. The defeat of Sanders was a blow because he was the only real threat to Wall Street’s domination of our political economy and, in terms of the remaining candidates, the only one who actually attempted to significantly limit the power of the plutocrats, expand the power of workers and set us back on the road to democracy. We may have missed an historic opportunity that may not appear again. But that depends on us – not on any one candidate. Our challenge now is not only to defeat Trump but to generate a mass progressive movement to continue the struggle for justice and democracy. Now is the time to follow the advice given by Joe Hill, a labor organizer, leader and songwriter, before he was executed by the state of Utah in 1915: “Don’t Mourn, Organize!”
Kenneth R. Peres retired as chief economist of the Communications Workers of America. Formerly, he served as economist for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Montana House Select Committee on Economic Development, and the Montana Alliance for Progressive Policy. Ken has held teaching positions at the University of Montana, St. John's University, Chief Dull Knife College, and the City University of New York. He obtained a PhD in economics from the New School in New York City.