The 2020 Presidential Election: The Democratic Party at the Crossroads

Joe Biden’s strong performances in the South Carolina Democratic primary on February 29 and the critical “Super Tuesday” primaries of March 3 have re-shaped the U.S. 2020 presidential campaign. In the early primary contests Senator Bernie Sanders established a lead in both the popular vote and delegate count. With his victory in Nevada on February 23 he was poised to take command of the race. Fearful of the mass movement inspired by a democratic socialist, corporate America and the Democratic Party establishment had struggled to identify a viable centrist alternative. But the results in Nevada forced their hand. Encouraged by the results in South Carolina they set aside their misgivings about the former Vice-President.

Party leaders—and undoubtedly major donors--persuaded Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to withdraw from the race. With the center and right consolidated, Biden won 10 of 14 states (although not California). Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican and world’s ninth wealthiest man, dropped out of the race after having reportedly spent $620 million, followed a day later by Elizabeth Warren. Thus Biden has emerged as the clear frontrunner in a two-man race with Sanders. A further round of primary contests on March 11 could seal Sanders’s fate: he hopes to make a last stand in Michigan, where he won in 2016, but Biden enjoys a substantial lead in the polls.   

The 2020 presidential election throws a spotlight on the structural problems and contradictions of neoliberalism as it enters a crisis phase both within the United States and throughout the world. Since the late 1970s the United States has experienced a massive concentration of wealth at the top that is unprecedented since the 1920s. Prior to the coronavirus “black swan” the stock market had soared to record highs. However, neoliberal globalization and outsourcing have produced massive de-industrialization and impoverishment for large sections of the American working class. The global financial crisis saw trillions of dollars redistributed upward to bail out the big banks during Obama’s presidency. All of these factors played an important role in Trump’s victory in 2016.

Although Trump campaigned in 2016 as an economic nationalist he has governed exclusively on behalf of the main power centers of American capitalism. Notwithstanding the trade war with China he has been unable to articulate, much less deliver, a coherent economic nationalist project. Having further consolidated neoliberalism within a more authoritarian framework, he has now indicated his intention to scale back social programs after the election

Trump plans to base his reelection campaign on what he has called a “blue collar boom,” with the “lowest unemployment in 50 years” and household income “the highest ever recorded.” In fact, since 2016 real wages have stagnated; in the midwestern industrial core manufacturing employment has declined. Student debt levels are projected to reach $2 trillion by 2021, representing enormous drag on the economy and helping to account for the Sanders’s popularity—and “socialism”--among America’s youth. The real level of unemployment (including discouraged workers) is more than twice the nominal rate. The number of part-time, precarious and “gig” workers has soared.    A recent Brookings Institution study showed that low wage workers (defined as earning less than $16/hour comprise 44% of working adults between the ages of 18 and 64).  Ann Case and Angus Deacon have carefully documented the declining life expectancy for the U.S. working class since 2015. “Deaths of despair” resulting from suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug addiction are ultimately a result of growing economic insecurity caused by de-industrialization and declining wages

While the two major parties are clearly polarized on cultural issues, their disagreements on economic policy and foreign policy are largely a matter of degree. The transition to neoliberalism and the succession of “forever wars” was entirely bipartisan. Democratic Party leaders abandoned the working class. They championed Wall Street’s de-regulatory bacchanal, largely ignored the evisceration of trade unions, and presided over deep cutbacks in the welfare state and the signing of the neoliberal trade pacts: NAFTA, the WTO, and the TPP.

Joe Biden played a leading role in all of these policies and projects. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he organized support for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. As Vice President he participated in the illegal destruction of the Libyan state with its catastrophic impact on the Middle East, north Africa, and the European Union. Although Biden now provides rhetorical support for some of the policies of his more progressive primary opponents it is unlikely that he would fight for them as president. Indeed, he has recently reassured his wealthy donors that if he is elected president “nothing will fundamentally change.”

By contrast, Bernie Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist” and calls for a “political revolution.” These words are essentially metaphorical. They indicate his distinctive and ambiguous position with respect to the Democratic Party as well as his determination not to be co-opted by the party leaders. Sanders advocates a set of social democratic policies that are relatively moderate by comparative and historical standards: universal health care, free university tuition, a “living wage,” support for trade unions, a modest wealth tax, an aggressive strategy to combat climate change, reduction in the military budget, and a non-interventionist foreign policy. That these policies have provoked so much fear and hostility at a time when they arguably offer the only democratic path out of the deepening neoliberal crisis is an indication of the hubris, complacency, and greed that swept over the American corporate and political establishment during the 1990s in the wake of its “unipolar moment” and the demise of the Left on a global scale.

The selection of Biden is not without risks for an establishment that appears increasingly as an ancien regime. It has been justified in large part on the basis of two assumptions: that of Biden’s greater “electability” and the related assertion that in the general election Sanders supporters will ultimately vote for Biden as the “lesser evil.” Yet, both of these assumptions are questionable. Polls consistently show that both Biden and Sanders would defeat Trump by a roughly similar margin. Moreover, Biden has numerous vulnerabilities. He has yet to provide a full accounting of his son’s role as highly paid member of the board of Burisma, the Ukraine energy company, even as he himself was leading the Obama Administration’s policy towards Ukraine and Russia. Prodded by Donald Trump, the Republican-led Senate has just opened up an investigation of this issue. The 77-year old Biden appears to be exhibiting signs of cognitive deterioration.

A generally hostile media have reinforced the attempt of leading Democrats to de-legitimize Sanders by linking him to the Soviet Union and Russia.   For example, The New York Times has implied that as mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1987 Sanders participated in a “sister- city program” with Yaroslavl that served as a vehicle for Soviet propaganda. The Times failed to report that the program was established by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and was enthusiastically supported by the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The Washington Post has claimed that “according to people familiar with the matter” Sanders has been briefed by U.S. officials that “Russia is trying to help his political campaign.”

Thus the Democratic Party leaders are reprising Clinton’s 2016 strategy. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbon restoration: “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” They are overlooking Biden’s manifold and glaring weaknesses as a presidential candidate. They may also underestimate working class resentment and disenchantment with the Democratic Party leadership and overestimate the susceptibility of Democratic voters to yet another round of Russophobia. By alienating Sanders’ large and passionate base, they bring the survival of the party itself into question.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.