The challenges of global politics and difficulties within the Democratic party could add fuel to Trumpism in next year’s midterms.
The United States kicked off 2021 against a backdrop of grave concerns and high hopes. The attack on the Capitol on 6 January, fomented by the former president, Donald Trump, who refused (and is still refusing) to accept his electoral defeat, acted as a tonic for the newly elected Democratic president, Joe Biden, who started life as a weak candidate, but gained strength as time went by: first because of the weakness of his opponents in the party primaries, and later because of the risk of a coup. Trump’s lurch towards populism, which came hazardously close to the dictatorial, helped make the Biden administration’s first three months in office look less moderate. Right from the start, the new administration’s project drew inspiration and support from the left wing of the coalition, led by Bernie Sanders, and showed courage, of necessity, in the face of populism, pandemic, severe recession and a health emergency.
From the outset, the Biden administration signalled a possible way out of populism with a bold move that took many observers by surprise, precisely because of the traditionally moderate pedigree of the newly elected president, who is a veteran of the Democratic Party establishment. The move involved a major economic recovery plan with social-democratic rather than free-market foundations. In other words, it was neither Reaganite, nor involved cutting taxes for the rich, in the hope that this would prompt them to invest, thus creating jobs. The 2008 crisis showed even sceptics that “trickle down” does not work with financial capitalism, as it has no intention of investing and producing anyway. Unlike the two public-investment plans implemented by the Trump administration, the plan proposed last March by President Biden contained a strong dose of downward redistribution. As well offering direct cash transfers to the least well-off, the project was built on estimates that the tax credit offered to families with children could, alone, reduce child poverty by 50%. Basic employment aid was forecast to bring unemployment back to pre-pandemic levels over the course of the following year. In the spring, the Biden administration also discussed a further $2 trillion public-investment plan, aimed at greening the economy and renovating the country’s main energy and commercial infrastructures. To finance this spending, the Biden administration proposed a boost to progressive taxation, by raising taxes on multinationals and the super-rich – something that no US administration had dared do since the days of Ronald Reagan. Even on workers’ rights, Biden proved more progressive than expected, as he explicitly sided with the unions in the conflict with Amazon in Alabama. The alarm bell triggered by Trumpism spurred the centrists and Democratic party leadership into an attempt to stop the Trump cavalry and potentially take working-class and lower-middle-class votes away from the Republicans.
All this remained blocked for months, and what had seemed possible in the spring – overcoming the resistance of the Democratic Party mainstream – was looking difficult by the autumn. The situation changed over the summer, when the moderate and Reaganite wing of the Democratic Party showed its hostility to the Biden administration’s proposals, and embarked on the filibuster that would take them down. What did Biden do to overcome the resistance within his own party? Not much, in terms of decision-making power, to get the whole party on his side and try to break the unity of the Republican Party, once he had set off down the route of involving Congress. The weapon in his possession, which he used effectively, was pressure on representatives, either directly or via public opinion. Biden made an important speech at a Town Hall organised by CNN last October, in which he announced the names and surnames of Democrats who were opposed to raising tax rates for the small super-rich minority – this was highly effective, and gave grounds for hope that the media campaign might persuade representatives to drop their opposition to social policies designed to help children and families in difficulty. This was then backed up by the hard work of compromise and mediation, in other words, parliamentary politics. The fierce struggle both within the party and in Congress suggests that few people now believe that the ambitious promises made in March will all be honoured. It is not unlikely that exhausting negotiations will turn this presidency into a melting pot of disappointments, not least because, viewed from the outside, the Democratic administration’s policy looks like nothing other than an endless, downward negotiation. In the meantime, the flow of migrants from Mexico is turning the South into a powder keg that is giving fresh impetus to the Trumpists; while Trump himself has not gone away.
And the biggest risk for Biden and the Democrats is that their polices and parliamentary politics, with its exhausting, but necessary, negotiations, will look unappealing, stir no emotions and fail to take any voters out of Trump’s orbit.