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With Biden as President, Will the Empire Strike Back?

Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential election, but without the overwhelming victory projected by the polls. He will face a Republican majority in the Senate and govern a polarized country. All indications are that the government of the main imperialist power will be more absorbed with the domestic agenda than intervening in world affairs to claim the leadership position in favor of more globalized capital than Trump did during his administration.

Esteban Mercatante

November 9, 2020
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After four days of uncertainty, the official count declared Joe Biden president-elect on Saturday, November 7, something Donald Trump has so far refused to acknowledge as of this writing. Without the Democratic “blue wave” Biden’s supporters hoped for, it is almost certain that the Senate will remain in the hands of the Republicans. We can anticipate that the new presidency will be defined by internal divisions and institutional blockage.

With all the polls projecting a nationwide 8-point lead, Tuesday arrived with Democrats confident that their “blue wave” would paint the U.S. map. They expected a decisive victory — but no such thing happened. They won just enough to end the streak of incumbent presidents being reelected, which has been the case since Clinton.

The changes in 2020 are minimal compared to 2016. Trump lost several Rust Belt states, where U.S. industry had prospered until a few decades ago, when companies relocated to countries with cheaper wages and turned their factories into graveyards. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, which historically have favored the Democrats, were decisive in Trump’s 2016 victory, but this time they turned their backs on him, although by small vote margins. Trump did hold onto Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Florida, and North Carolina. Biden may still take Georgia from Trump, where the “tycoon” was expected to win.

A map of the United States in two colors, with the coasts largely blue ( Democratic) and the center and southeast red ( Republican), reveals that Trump’s electoral base was not as shaken as the Biden campaign had hoped — despite the “fire and brimstone” that has characterized the Trump administration, Covid-19’s ravaging of health and the economy, and the incumbent’s incendiary response to the anti-racist mobilizations and police violence that swept through the country in past months. Whatever ground he lost in part of his electorate (such as among white voters) he comfortably made up for with gains in sectors of the Latinx vote and elsewhere, in an election that reached record participation levels of 66 percent of the voting-eligible population. That’s the highest since 1900, when it was 73.7 percent. 

In a country where voting is not mandatory, more than 20 million new voters cast ballots this year. The idea that higher turnout would exclusively favor Democrats was crushed. In the national vote count, Biden at this writing has 4 million more votes than Trump, but the president got 10 million more votes this year than he did in 2016.

“Even if Joe Biden wins, he will govern in Trump’s America,” Time magazine wrote. The day after the election, political scientist Ernesto Calvo used the metaphor “dig in your heels” to describe the support Trump had held onto — “the act of burying the heels of your shoes in the ground to prevent you from being moved from the position you are in.”1Ernesto Calvo, “Dig in your heels,” Agenda Publica, El País, November 4, 2020. He added that the combination of “four years of having a negative image and not getting fewer votes” is possible only “if there is at least a non-trivial fraction of voters who prefer Trump as president while also having a negative image of him.” This election confirmed that 2016 was not an anomaly: “The voters who elected Trump in 2016 did so because he was their preferred candidate. There is no deception or misinterpretation, no confusion or complacency.”

The choice was between the tycoon whose nationalism is embodied in fiery rhetoric but few tangible results and the promises of Democratic candidate Joe Biden, who beyond a speech focused on ending gridlock offered nothing but a return to the neoliberalism of Clinton and Obama. As historian Vijay Prashad commented, “Neoliberalism, social democracy, whatever you call it, it’s totally exhausted. There’s no agenda. The Democratic Party in the United States can only come up with the basic electoral slogan of ‘I’m not as bad as that guy’.”2Seminar in Contemporary Marxist Theory, “U.S. Election Roundtable: In the Shadow of Trump,” Online, November 5, 2020.

In fact, there is an agenda. It is the agenda of big capital, combined with some moderately progressive policies — that is, one of the two expressions of what Tariq Ali defines as the “extreme center”3Tariq Ali, The Extreme Centre: A Warning (London: Verso Books, 2015. that for decades has alternated in the United States (between Democrats and Republicans, until Trump’s arrival) and in the European Union, carrying out the policies of neoliberalism. The crisis of this extreme center explains both Trump and the gravitation of part of the Democratic camp to Bernie Sanders. It explains Brexit in Britain, and it explains the growth — ailing today — of  “neo-reformist” formations such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish State. Throughout his campaign, Biden continually sought to show that he had nothing to do with the more progressive proposals other candidates had made in the Democratic primaries and that he would be reliable for capital — even promising the oil business that fracking would continue. His platform could hardly be the basis for pulling in a large electoral majority. The results, therefore, are no surprise, since each candidate got more votes because of the rejection of his opponent than because of his own policies.

The months leading up to Election Day were marked by massive mobilizations across the country against racism and police violence. It appears that many of the youth who had mobilized, a considerable percentage of whom were supporters of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primaries, did not go along with the decision of Sanders and some of his supporters to endorse Biden. But the races for legislatures did show a trend to the left among youth and oppressed minorities: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley were all reelected; Cori Bush, a young nurse and member of the Black Lives Matter movement, won a seat, as did Jamaal Bowman, endorsed by the DSA in New York City; and Sarah McBride became the first trans person to win election to a state senate, garnering 86 percent of the votes in her Delaware race.

Given the narrow margin in the presidential vote, Trump since Tuesday has been deploying the efforts he had telegraphed months ago and that would have been more difficult to carry out had the results shown a more comfortable Biden lead. There is nothing to indicate that Trump will acknowledge defeat regardless of the official vote count. Political tensions could escalate in the coming weeks if Trump refuses to concede.

Making America Paralyzed Again

“Gridlock” is a term often used these days to describe the scenario promised by this close election result.4From a “progressive” perspective, this is expressed by The Nation in Edward Burmila, “The Election Nobody Won,” November 5, 2020. Unless Democrats win both runoffs in the Georgia senatorial elections, scheduled for next January, Republicans will hold onto the Senate, leaving a Biden government with only control of the House of Representatives. No president since George H.W. Bush in 1988 has begun his first term without a majority in both houses of Congress. Biden will, from the start, find himself in the same situation Clinton and Obama faced in the third years of their administrations.

With all his obfuscating screaming about fraud, Trump is setting the stage for Republican hostility to the incoming government that could block any legislative change. But it is still uncertain whether “Trumpism” will continue without Trump as president. Much of the political analysis predicts a certain unilateralism that will continue as a political movement that could even go beyond the GOP. But the truth is that Republican obstructionism when in the legislative majority with a Democrat in the White House predates Trump by a couple of decades.

Without a doubt, a president has tools with which to try to break an iron-clad oppositional alignment. He can try to break away a Republican senator from the majority. But there are also incentives to the contrary. Edward Luce argues in the Financial Times that “Trump may have lost. But Republicans as a whole gained nationally” and, given his sway with the electorate, “nor is there much prospect that Republicans will treat Mr. Trump as an aberration.”5Edward Luce, “US election gridlock: ‘Biden will have one hand tied behind his back from the start’,” Financial Times, November 7, 2020.

Legislative paralysis is what’s expected, with the threat of a government shutdown — the suspension of nearly all public administrative activity for upwards of weeks — returning every year because of disagreements over budgets and the debt ceiling (that always end up being resolved with a “consensus” achieved by cutting spending on healthcare, infrastructure, education, and so on). That is what happened repeatedly during Obama’s second term.

In Luce’s opinion, “Perhaps the best for which Democrats can hope is a kind of Bill Clinton-era triangulation in which Mr. Biden manages to attach modest Democratic priorities to big Republican bills. That’s how “Clinton passed a draconian welfare reform bill, a three-strikes-and-you’re-out crime bill, and embraced fiscal rectitude during the 1990s.” He adds that “his party’s left was rarely included in the conversation.”6Luce, “US election gridlock. Not surprisingly, with such a perspective now quite likely, Wall Street has been on a steady rise since Election Day.

This paralysis and the balance of power in Congress will be used as the excuse for Biden not carrying out the “progressive” agenda for which he has no enthusiasm. As Juan Cruz Ferre explains, we cannot even exclude that the Democrats will actually promote parts of the progressive agenda knowing they will end up being blocked in Congress. “There are great expectations in a Biden presidency. And while he did not offer concessions on issues such as education and healthcare, the Democrats will probably make proposals to give their base what they’re expecting but that the Republicans will ultimately reject. This is commonplace in American history.”

The problem for Biden and for the entire political regime is that the left wing of the Democratic Party that supported Sanders in the primaries did well in its own local elections. This is a somewhat distorted expression of the notable political turnaround that has been taking place within broad sectors of the youth, and that was made clear in the massive mobilizations of recent months. Many of those youth did not vote in these elections, and their rejection of the two-party system will continue to deepen with pro-business agreements aimed at sustaining governability.

Postcards of Decadence

Between the polarization that the election re-expressed and the likely institutional paralysis, a Biden administration will be absorbed almost entirely by the domestic agenda. Anyone expecting the “indispensable nation” to return to focus triumphantly on the most critical issues of global capitalism — from the effects of the economic crisis that continues, as even the optimists admit, to the battle against the coronavirus — with an aggressive agenda to revalidate its leadership and curb the aspirations of China and other countries will surely be disappointed.

What some scholars define as the U.S. “informal empire,” bolstered through of the various multilateral institutions the United States founded and has dominated since their creation — the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, NATO military alliance, World Trade Organization, the G7, and the G20 — has always depended on the roles played by the U.S. Departments of State and the Treasury, through which U.S. imperialism has long articulated the initiatives aimed at achieving its goals. This governance has always been focused on defending the interests of the most transnationalized capital of both the United States as well as the rest of the world, while at the same time ensuring the perpetuation of U.S. leadership. Under Trump, it has been relegated to policies of pressure and direct, bilateral negotiations with other countries. Beyond his personal disdain for the alliances on which the United States has relied since the end of World War II to give its dominance a hegemonic face, that turnaround responded in substance to a fundamental fact — the evidence of the setback American power has been suffering for a long time.

The United States continues to be the main imperialist power, but with power that is increasingly challenged, bogged down in the Middle East since Bush’s incursions and unable to stop China. Biden intends to confront these challenges by appealing once again to a “multilateral” agenda. But absorbed as he will be by internal disputes, he will hardly be able to change the course of the retreat. The political impasse may partially limit the reorientation of foreign policy to be more in line with what it was until 2016, but Biden may want to demonstrate major symbolic differences from Trump.

[Biden] could rejoin the Paris accord on climate change. But he cannot force a Republican Senate to fund alternative energy. He could rejoin the World Health Organization, but he would need Mr. McConnell to authorize US funding for the body. He could bring America back into the Iran nuclear deal, but any changes would have to be approved by the US Senate.7Luce, “US election gridlock.”

It was with perplexity — and a good dose of rejoicing — that allies and adversaries alike of what is still the main imperialist power watched the country that for decades “exported” its democracy could not declare an official winner of its own elections until four days after the vote, while the current president shows no signs of abiding by an outcome not in his favor. The conditions for U.S. leadership have been deteriorating for some time now, for objective reasons, setbacks in imperialist policy, and then Trump’s turn in the White House. These circumstances make any return to the normalcy sought by the most preeminent U.S. geopolitical strategists seem out of reach despite Biden coming to power.

The scenes of confusion and division among the U.S. ruling class are a clear and major sign of the decline of the main guarantor and defender of capitalist oppression around the world. The oppressed peoples of the world should take notice.

First published in Spanish on November 8, 2020 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by Scott Cooper


1 Ernesto Calvo, “Dig in your heels,” Agenda Publica, El País, November 4, 2020.
2 Seminar in Contemporary Marxist Theory, “U.S. Election Roundtable: In the Shadow of Trump,” Online, November 5, 2020.
3 Tariq Ali, The Extreme Centre: A Warning (London: Verso Books, 2015.
4 From a “progressive” perspective, this is expressed by The Nation in Edward Burmila, “The Election Nobody Won,” November 5, 2020.
5 Edward Luce, “US election gridlock: ‘Biden will have one hand tied behind his back from the start’,” Financial Times, November 7, 2020.
6 Luce, “US election gridlock.
7 Luce, “US election gridlock.”
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Esteban Mercatante

Esteban is an economist from Buenos Aires and a member of the PTS.

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