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DNC Day 3: Build (The Capitalist State) Back Better

The third night of the Democratic National Convention was defined by a speech from former President Obama in which he mounted a strong defense of bourgeois democracy and laid out a lesser evilism argument for voting for Joe Biden. But the solution to the problem of Donald Trump is not voting for Biden and his plan to re-legitimize capitalism, but to build a working class party of combat to fight both Republicans and Democrats in the struggle for socialism.

Sybil Davis

August 20, 2020
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A photoshopped graphic of Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, and Hillary Clinton staring in different directions against a black and blue background

Following two relatively unremarkable days of the Democratic National Convention, the third day featured the clearest picture of the pitch for Joe Biden yet, including what appeared to be the unveiling of a new slogan: Build Back Better. Yesterday’s programming made it crystal clear that the argument from the Democrats, their allies, and many Republicans is to vote for Biden because he represents stability and a return to normalcy for the American state.

The “Build Back Better” slogan was repeated by many to explain Biden’s economic plan to get us out of the current crisis. Despite being vague to the point of absurdity, the slogan allows Biden’s team the rhetorical wiggle room to argue for both stability and change. Build Back Better could mean “build back with universal health care,” but of course, it doesn’t. They mean “Better” in the most capitalist sense. Biden will “build back” American capitalism so that it is stronger than before, and he will repair the damage Trump has done to the public perception of the state.

Biden’s core appeal to many is stability. For these people, Biden represents a return to the Obama era and a re-legitimization of the state and its apparatus. This re-legitimization has been a theme of the entire DNC, with speaker after speaker arguing that Trump has made a mockery of the American state’s institutions. Biden’s candidacy must be understood as the coordinated effort of the ruling class to re-establish as legitimate the American state and all of the oppressive institutions that go along with it. Given the Democrats’ goals, supporting Biden must be a non-starter for any socialist who seeks to dismantle capitalism. How can we expect to fight the state in the same breath as we are supporting a man whose entire purpose is to rebuild it?

Obama: The Best Advocate of the American State

Barack Obama’s speech was unquestionably the highlight of the night. Obama is among the most gifted defenders of the American state, and he was in peak form on the third night of the DNC. Speaking at the Museum of the American Revolution, in front of a wall celebrating the U.S. Constitution, Obama had a clear message: American democracy is in danger, and you have to play a role in saving it. Obama laid out a passionate defense of the American state and bourgeois democracy— a sophisticated “lesser evil” argument, if you will. In one especially evocative moment, he brought up the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, saying: 

They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life. 

He also began to outline a lesser evilism argument by acknowledging that the current system wasn’t perfect, but that if we ever hope to change it, we need Biden in office because he will be less bad than Trump. In this appeal, addressed directly to the activists on the streets, he said: 

You can give our democracy new meaning. You can take it to a better place. You’re the missing ingredient — the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed. That work will continue long after this election. But any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election.

Obama, in his speech, was speaking directly to a sector that had largely gone unaddressed up until that point in the DNC: people who don’t typically vote, with a specific focus on young people. Studies show that more and more young people are becoming disaffected with capitalism and are taking radical conclusions. This is especially true in the present moment, in which a sector of radicalized Black and Brown youth is leading the movement on the streets. This is the generation that poses the biggest threat to the Democrats, because they are the ones who were tweeting #DemExit after Sanders lost. They are the ones who are expressing initial interest in creating a new party, and they are the ones the Democrats need to find a way of co-opting if the party hopes to continue.

Obama’s speech was the most direct and effective appeal to mobilize this sector. He was, without saying it, acknowledging Biden’s weaknesses as a candidate and some of the failings of the current system, while also arguing that the promise of America is that our activism and votes can bring the country closer to fairness and justice. However, his solution is not to overthrow the system that has so drastically failed all but the wealthy but to make it work better — and better for the capitalists, not the working class. Biden, Obama would have you believe, is the first step towards righting the ship of the American state. In his speech, Obama was unique in that he didn’t — as so many other speakers did — imply that Trump is the sole problem with the system. In this, Obama is both more progressive and more dangerous than the other speakers. He acknowledges that structural issues exist, which gives him a false sense of authenticity that then, in turn, gives his strategy of “organize, vote for the Democrats, and eventually things will get better!” more weight. 

Harris: A Pitch to the Middle Class and the Activists

The person with the unenviable task of following Obama was vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris. Harris’s speech was relatively uneventful — she talked at length about her family background and shouted out her historically Black college (HBCU) education — but it was interesting how she mirrored the rest of the speakers in how she played both sides of the Democrats’ target audience: women in the suburbs and the activists in the streets. 

Harris’s story about her parents featured moments in which she mentioned that her parents met while participating in the Civil Rights Movement and also that she was raised by a single mother who “worked around the clock to make it work — packing lunches before we woke up — and paying bills after we went to bed.” These two pieces of imagery are intended to appeal to two different sectors in hopes of bringing them into the Democratic tent.

This strategy, as contradictory as it may seem on paper, makes sense because both groups are the ones who the Democrats need to win over the most in order to defeat Trump in November. We saw in 2016 the importance of the middle class suburban voter to Democratic success when a lot of Trump’s win was attributed to his support among suburban white voters — with Forbes going so far as to call the suburbs “the real battleground.” Given this, it makes sense that Harris would attempt to appeal directly to the 47% of white women who voted for Trump and likely helped put him over the top in key states. 

The same is true of activists. This sector is the one most in danger of breaking with the Democrats, and Harris joined Obama in directly appealing to them. In her speech, she said: 

There’s something happening, all across the country. It’s not about Joe or me. It’s about you. It’s about us. People of all ages and colors and creeds who are, yes, taking to the streets, and also persuading our family members, rallying our friends, organizing our neighbors, and getting out the vote.

This is the Biden/Harris pitch to activists: do your little activism thing but also make sure that you vote for us so we can solve the crisis. Whether or not this appeal will be effective for the Democrats is yet to be seen, but the fact that  Democratic Party has taken up specific politics towards activists signifies the power of the movement. As the previous nights of the convention have shown, the party line is unequivocally moderate, but its goal of re-legitimizing the state’s institutions has no chance of succeeding if it does not at least pay lip service to the hundreds of thousands of people calling for change in the streets.

One thing that was striking, if unsurprising, about Harris’s speech was how small the promises of the Biden/Harris campaign actually are. Their imagination for social change seems to stop at “expand[ed] access to health care, expand[ed] access to the ballot box, and…more working families [making] a decent living.” They lack any sweeping promises in the midst of a crisis other than things getting a little bit better for some people. They are unprepared both in policy and in rhetoric to actually address the current crisis.

“What We Do… Will Echo Through Generations”

Barack Obama, in one section of his speech, said: “ Because what we do these next 76 days will echo through generations to come.” And, in a way, he’s right. He’s right that what we do in the period to come will echo through generations. He is right that we are part of a tradition, a heritage that is larger and older than us. And he’s right that we need to fight against Trump and his policies that target the most oppressed and have us hurtling toward conflict with China and a worsening crisis. But the way to do that isn’t by looking to the tradition of the Democratic Party which has defanged every significant social movement in the U.S., but to mount a united offensive of the working class and oppressed. And that is why we can’t support Joe Biden.

We’ve seen what Democrats do to social movements — we saw it with Obama himself and the anti-war movement — and we need to understand the vital importance of the current moment. We are in the midst of the largest movement in American history. More people have taken to the streets than ever before, and the crisis is still just beginning. As infections, unemployment, and homelessness continue to rise, we will undoubtedly see more class struggle, more uprisings, and more movements. What we do now will echo through generations, and we owe it to future generations to fight now. Now is the time to fight back the forces of capital as they advance and try to force the working class to pay for the crisis. Now is the time to reject the state-sanctioned violence and the capitalist system it supports. Now is the time to begin the preparatory tasks for the fight ahead.

Biden helps with none of that. Not only is he not an ally of the fight against capitalism, but he’s an active opponent. That’s why the Democratic Party platform is explicitly anti-communist, and that’s why Biden won’t even agree to defund the police, let alone abolish them. Biden doesn’t make our work easier; he makes it harder. Because that is the legacy of the Democratic Party: a legacy of taking social movements, convincing them to support the “lesser evil,” and then leaving them to die. We can see examples of this just within the legacies of the last two Democratic presidents. Obama’s election demobilized the anti-war movement while the war continued to rage, and Clinton was able to gut the welfare system with limited pushback because his status as a Democrat gave him some clout among the working class. 

With her speech urging those marching on the streets to also ensure that they vote (with the silent implication being “for Biden”), Harris shows the way that Democrats co-opt movements. They come alongside them, make some good speeches, use some of the right words, maybe even raise a demand or two, and urge the movement to support them in their candidacy. Then, once they are in office, they discard and betray the movement that got them there. They’ve been doing this for generations, and it has been the death knell for the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the gay liberation movement, the feminist movement, the anti-Iraq War movement, and the first Black Lives Matter movement, and now they’re trying to do it again. 

Now is a time in which we badly need a party that will actually fight back Trump and his authoritarian assault on democratic rights, deadly mishandling of the crisis, and racist policies. We need a party that will link the fight on the streets with elections as part of a larger strategy for winning socialism. The issue with the Democrats is not that they are a political party that runs in elections, but the fact that they are a capitalist political party that runs in elections. Because they are owned and operated by and for capitalists and their interests, they can never be on our side. To combat the bourgeois parties, we can’t just throw up our hands and leave electoral politics behind. Rather, we need to create a party of the working class, with radical politics, that will use elections as a platform to denounce bourgeois democracy, the capitalist state, and all the abuses of imperialism while rallying a broad sector of the working class behind the banner of socialism. 

To fight back against the capitalist assault that has already come at the hands of Trump and his cronies (and will surely only intensify as the crisis deepens), we need to look to our tradition, but not the tradition of milquetoast Democratic politicians who said they were on our side in elections and then screwed us when they were in power. Instead, we need to look at the revolutionary tradition. 

For hundreds of years, there have been brave revolutionary political thinkers who stood strong, rejected the lesser evil, and fought for liberation. They show us how to pick up a fight against not just this or that politician, but against the capitalist system itself. This current moment will be studied in the history books of the future, and what we do now will determine if those books are on the tragedy of the American capitalist resurgence or the liberation of the socialist revolution. Biden sets us on one path; organizing a combative party of the working class sets us on the other. 

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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