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Election Night 2021: The Right Strikes Back

A combination of Trumpism, the absence of a left-wing movement, right-wing identity politics, and the failures, and betrayals of the Biden administration made Tuesday’s elections play out well for the right-wing across the country.

Ezra Brain

November 3, 2021
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Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

In Tuesday’s elections, the Trumpist candidate won in Virginia, the self-proclaimed socialist lost in Buffalo, the cop won in New York City, Minneapolis voted to keep the police, and the incumbent Democratic governor of New Jersey is — as of this writing — locked in a dead-heat with the Republican who ran a campaign against critical race theory and mask mandates. In just about every election, the results show a shift to the right, strengthening the Republican position heading into the midterms and positioning Trump to be a major figure in politics going forward. 

Biden and the Democrats are facing the consequences of months of broken promises and inaction. On one hand, they squashed the progressive movements that provided them the victory in 2020. In addition, turning their back on popular demands like paid family leave, health care, and student loan forgiveness, among others, has made them increasingly unpopular. Running against Trump just doesn’t have the same power it used to now that the Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. Added to this is a rising inflation rate, supply chain issues, and Biden’s inability to get proposals through Congress despite having full control of both houses. It’s not surprising that Biden and the Democrats struggled to motivate people to go to the polls. 

But looking at election results alone doesn’t give one the full picture: On election night, John Deere workers voted to continue their strike and the next day Columbia University workers began their own strike. We should not mistake these election results as the foreshadowing of a mass shift to the right. There is potential for a movement that is really on the side of the working class and oppressed. 

Virginia

The highest profile race of the night was for governor of Virginia. An election that is often used as a bellwether for the current administration, the race was a tightly fought battle between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. McAuliffe, a long-time Democratic Party insider and a former governor of Virginia, specifically tried to position himself as a continuation of Biden, Obama, and the Clintons. This strategy was contrasted by Youngkin’s anti-establishment, lite-Trumpist campaign that specifically leveraged right-wing fear about critical race theory and LGBTQ+ education in schools to mobilize voters. While Youngkin was endorsed by Trump and echoed many of Trump’s talking points, he also put distance between himself and Trump. They didn’t campaign together, Youngkin eventually backtracked on the election fraud claims, and he weakly denounced a pro-Youngkin rally run by Steve Bannon where the assembled Trumpists saluted a flag carried on January 6 as “weird.” So Youngkin kept Trump at arms length but not quite out of reach, in an attempt to court the never-Trump Republicans and more conservative Democrats in a race for the suburbs which define Virginia elections. Youngkin’s strategy paid off and he was able to defeat what many would have viewed as a safe bet for the Democrats just a few weeks ago.

The implications of this are clear and concerning. Politically, this strengthens Trump’s position within the Republican Party. He claimed in the days before the election that his base would be what would give Youngkin the win. His line to Fox News a few days before the election was: “If I endorse somebody, they win.” Now that he has, at least partially, been proven correct, Trump has more room to throw his weight around within the party. 

Headed into the 2022 primaries and midterms, it seems almost assured that Trump will weaponize his base to gain even more of a say over who the candidates are and what the platform of the Republican Party is. Youngkin’s victory makes it clear: Trumpism isn’t dead, far from it.

But it wasn’t just Trump voters who came out for Youngkin. In fact, the strength of his campaign was to put together a coalition of supporters, including many who did not support Trump. Youngkin is the first Republican to win statewide office in Virginia since 2009 and he did so by winning more votes in the suburbs. Importantly, Youngkin also picked up 54 percent of independents and 17 percent of voters who said they disapproved of Trump. 

The more concerning implication of Youngkin’s victorious strategy is that it seems clear that we will see even more attacks against the specially oppressed, particularly in schools. Youngkin ran against critical race theory and protections for trans students in schools. He already declared that he would pass a law banning critical race theory in schools — a vague law that essentially bans teaching anything but the most white-washing, pro-American propaganda. Outside of Virginia, other candidates will learn from Youngkin’s strategy and also run against inclusive education and protections for students — many already are. 

For their part, the Democrats’ failure in Virginia is a repudiation of both their lack of results while in government, and their lack of positive proposals. To start with the latter, McAuliffe tried to make the election a reflection on Trump and position himself as a continuation of the establishment. Once again, the Democrats’ strategy of just running against Trump did not prove successful. Added to that is the fact that, despite holding the presidency and Congress, the Democrats still haven’t been able to pass any meaningful legislation in months. As inflation soars and supply chains break down, the Democrats squabble amongst themselves and cut parental leave, student debt relief, free community college, raising the minimum wage, and other popular policy proposals out of their bills. 

Buffalo

Buffalo faced a fascinating mayoral election on Tuesday night. In the Democratic Party primary, India Walton, a Black nurse and self-described socialist, successfully defeated Byron Brown, the incumbent mayor, winning the nomination. However, the Democratic Party establishment didn’t take this lying down. The incumbent announced that he wouldn’t be accepting defeat and would run as a write-in. The chair of the New York Democratic party refused to endorse Walton, comparing her to a leader of the KKK.

Initially, this was viewed by Walton and her supporters as sour grapes. After all, she had won the primary fair-and-square, she was the Democratic nominee, and Buffalo was going to elect a Democrat mayor. 

As it turns out, it wasn’t just sour grapes. Brown ran a fiery write-in campaign, explicitly campaigning against Walton from the right. The Democratic establishment assisted in this campaign by either refusing to endorse Walton or holding off on endorsing for weeks. The final numbers are still unclear, but it appears that he defeated her (as a write-in!) by 10,000 votes. In his victory speech, Brown doubled down on his red-baiting, saying: “Today’s election was not just a referendum on the City of Buffalo. It was a referendum on the future of our democracy.”

In a fight between the Democratic Party progressives and the Democratic Party establishment, once again, the establishment has come out victorious. It’s the same story we saw in 2016 and 2020 with Bernie Sanders. And it’s the same story we’ve seen throughout history. There is no reforming the Democratic Party. When progressives are able to win positions inside the Democratic Party, they are almost immediately co-opted and rendered toothless. Look at AOC and Jamaal Bowman refusing to oppose the Iron Dome as just one recent example. Working within the Democratic Party is assuring failure and co-option. 

Minneapolis

Minneapolis became the center of the Black Lives Matter movement after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. On the ballot was a referendum to replace the police force and Mayor Jacob Frey — who had become a very controversial figure within the movement for his ties to the police force. Indeed, Frey was so unpopular that at the height of the movement, protesters camped outside his house and then booed him out of a rally for saying he wouldn’t support abolishing the police. 

But now he’s been (very handily) re-elected and the voters chose to keep the police force. It should be noted that, even if the vote had gone the other way, the police still wouldn’t have been abolished but replaced by a “Department of Public Safety.”

So what became of the movement? 

Unfortunately, it seems to have (by-and-large) gone the way that so many movements go once the Democratic Party enters the scene. BLM has been co-opted, mined for trite slogans, and subsequently repressed by the Democratic Party apparatus. This is evident, not only in the re-election of a mayor who was questioned by BLM, but also by the former cop elected to the mayorship of New York City. The largest social movement in U.S. history has joined countless others in the graveyard owned and operated by the Democrats. 

To be more concrete: the Democrats used BLM and its slogans to win votes (even registering voters at marches) and did their best to appropriate the slogans of the movement without taking up any of their demands. They sent their allies in the social movement, NGO, and union leaderships to convince the movement to “get serious” and leave the streets for a voting booth. This demobilized whole sectors of the movement. Those who couldn’t be demobilized were harshly and violently repressed by police in Democratic-run cities until those who stayed in the streets were either so isolated or so intimidated that they no longer posed much of a threat. This process allowed the Democratic Party to strengthen itself, weaken the movement, and win power without actually having to give any meaningful concessions to the movement. 

This process can be seen in miniature in Minneapolis. Last summer, the movement burned a Minneapolis police station and 54 percent of Americans supported it. They booed their mayor for not abolishing the police. One year later, they voted to keep both the mayor and the cops.  

But it’s not all a shift to the right. 44 percent of Minneapolis voters voted to eliminate the police force — again within the severely compromised framework of the referendum. This is significant and marks a meaningful shift in how people view the police. While the movement has clearly been curtailed, its impact is still being felt. 

New Jersey

As of this writing, the New Jersey governor’s race is still too close to call. Incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy is running as a continuation of the status quo, touting his handling of the pandemic. Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican, also ran against critical race theory in schools. Ciattarelli essentially argued against the teaching of the terrible history of racism in the U.S. 

Ciattarelli also ran against sex education (saying that we shouldn’t be teaching 6th graders “sodomy”) and against mask mandates for school children. In these ways, Ciattarelli ran a notably right-wing campaign. And he might win. 

What’s Next

The full fall-out of Tuesday’s events are still to be seen. But it seems likely that this will deepen the problems in both parties. For the Democrats, they will start scrambling to figure out how they can stop their downward slide before the midterms. The right wing of the Democratic Party (represented by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) will almost certainly use this as validation of their strategy and argue (however ridiculously) that Biden’s agenda has gone too far to the Left. The party establishment will demonize progressives and use this loss as a way to further discipline the progressive wing of the party. 

The Republicans emerge victorious but with a potential Trump problem on their hands. The Republicans were strengthened overall but Trump specifically was strengthened because his trademark brand of anti-establishment reactionary populism combined with white identity politics proved successful, at least in Virginia. So the question is, how much of a fight will the establishment put up against Trumpism and how nice will Trump want to play with the rest of the party? He could use this validation of his strategy to restart open conflict between his base and the party establishment. He could also use this as a justification to begin to build towards his own campaign in 2024.

One thing is for certain, however: the election results show the absolute failure of voting for the Democrats as a way to stop the right. The right wing is insurgent and running specifically against the most marginalized. And the Democrats are only using this to win votes. They crushed and co-opted our movements which cleared the way for an anti-queer, anti-BIPOC bigot to take power in Virgina with another one potentially taking power in New Jersey. We should have no illusions: the Democrats aren’t our friends or our allies, and they certainly aren’t our saviors.

As India Walton’s defeat shows us, working with or trusting the Democrats simply doesn’t work. But as workers all over the country rise up and go on strike, and as others refuse to accept subpar working conditions in the Great Resignation, there is a clear path forward. We must organize this discontent against the Republicans and the Democrats. We must organize the 40% of people who voted to get rid of the Minneapolis police department against the parties that continue to fund the police. We must unite our struggles across identities and backgrounds, as a unified working class to fight back against the Democrats, the Republicans, and all other forces of capitalism and oppression. 

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Ezra Brain

Ezra is a NYC based theatre artist and teacher.

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