Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: The U.S. Presidential Election

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On this episode of David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, Prof, Harvey presents his analysis of the 2020 U.S. elections.

Transcript has been edited for clarity.

This is David Harvey, and you're listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work.

So this is the time where we're thinking about the consequences of the election we've just been through. And, of course, it is a time of year when all kinds of things are changing. So I'm having to wear a sweater because it's getting cold. The light is going. And I'm going to do what all of the commentators do on the main channels: I'm going to sort of sit here and talk while paying attention to this book behind here, which has just come out, which is some written versions of the Chronicles that came from time past. So if you're interested, the book comes from Pluto Press.

But I feel obliged to say something about the election and the consequences of the election. And I find something rather terrifying about it. Yes, Biden won, and I, you know, went through a little period of self-loathing because I voted for him. For all sorts of reasons, I don't consider that a very good anti-capitalist vote at all. But on the other hand, it was one of those situations where you had to hold your nose and vote for somebody because the opposite was rather worse.

Which brings me to what really terrifies me about the results of the election. And what terrifies me is that 73.5 million people voted for Donald Trump. He got more votes this time than he did last time. Certain demographic groups in the population were supporting him very strongly. One of the groups which I would alert you to straight off is those earning, those with household incomes of, more than $100,000 a year. It was not true that the mass of his support comes from low-income populations, though, of course, there is a significant number. 

The other point about it was the role of identity politics. Now, identity politics is usually, when people talk about it, they think oh, he's going to talk about women, or he's going to talk about blacks, or he's going to talk about latinx populations. No. The identity in this case — which is absolutely crucial to this whole thing — is, of course, whiteness. The white population voted predominantly for Donald Trump. And a lot of them did so. And the white population is still the largest number of the voters, and that was what brought this population up.

Now, in 2016 you could say, well, people didn't really know what to expect from Donald Trump as a candidate and as a potential president. They were not convinced by Hillary as a sort of standard bearer, a traditional political Democrat. And so they could take a risk. And I think quite a few people could argue to themselves, well, when he becomes president he will start to be presidential. He'll change his behavior; he'll do something different. So it was an excuse in 2016 for a lot of people to maybe take a flier because they were discontent with the situation, they didn't like the Democratic candidate, and just to see what happened.

Well, we now know what has happened. And it is the fact that, you know, 73.5 million people voted for somebody who has a record, as a president, of racism, of bigotry, of instability, of chaos, of dereliction of duty. I always remember he was highly critical of Obama because Obama spent so much time on the golf course. Well, Donald Trump has spent three times as much  time on the golf course. So the big question is, why is it that this population so much voted for somebody who is — wrong to say a fascist, but close enough to fascism  to make one worry. And that, then, kind of says that this election was a marker, of a certain point, of a rightward drift in a large segment of the US population, a large segment that is willing to actually support, and increasingly express its active support for, the politics of somebody like Donald Trump.

Now, the media have immediately sort of rushed in to interpret the Biden election in terms such as, well,  people were looking for somebody who could bring the country together, who could heal the wounds, who would give us a more civilized discourse, would actually chase down some of the more reckless aspects of what Trump had done, reverse some of the obvious problems over climate change, or the Iranian deal, and so on, and give us a much more peaceable, conventional existence. I'm very worried about that, because this election does not signal that it's going to be a return to the status quo before Trump. It does not signal that at all. And it therefore kind of suggests that Biden's election is a repudiation of Trump but not an affirmation of what it is that Biden seems to be standing for. 

Now, the data on the elections have some interesting features. We know that there is a considerable gender gap, but it is still the case that white women still voted in the majority for Donald Trump. It is also the case, as I mentioned, that more affluent populations voted for Donald Trump, because for them, the Trump years had been very positive. And for them, also, the fact that he really didn't take much notice of the coronavirus and did all kinds of things, and played, you know, fast and loose with that didn't bother them because they were working from home. They could organize their lives in certain kinds of ways which were adequate to them. 

So here we have a situation in which there is a profound risk that the Democratic Party at the next election and over the next couple of years will effectively disintegrate, while I think there's going to likely to be a consolidation of those 73.5 million people who voted for Donald Trump. And they are going to continue to support his kind of politics, and him personally, if need be.

So there's the situation. But then it comes back to trying to probe a bit deeper and say why did 73.5 million people vote for Donald Trump, knowing full well what his characteristics are, knowing full well what his politics are about, knowing full well what he's about as a person? 

And this is something that I've been concerned about for a very long time and continue to be concerned about. And I tend to lump it all together in terms of this phenomenon of universal alienation, and the failure of democratic parties — and I use that plural: democratic parties, or political parties — to find a way to address those kinds of questions and to deal with those kinds of questions. That is, capitalism has arrived at a certain point of levels of social inequality, and environmental abuse, and all the rest of it, in which something desperate needs to be done. And there are many people who are kind of pointing this out, but the democratic parties are not able to address it.

There is a division already within the response of the Democratic Party in terms of who it is that has to be responded to as a Biden administration comes to take power. There is the fiction that it's all those people who wanted a return to some sort of civility and who wanted some sort of universal healing. And it is true that for people who wanted that, then predominantly they voted for Biden. But a lot of people were not concerned with that. A lot of people were concerned with the idea of having a strong leader. And if you had a strong-leader kind of tendency, then you voted for Donald Trump. 

Now this is a moment when we might go back to what some people in the Frankfurt School did after World War Ⅱ, when they were trying to figure out how was it that so many people rallied to the cause of fascism in the 1930s. And one of the ideas they came up with was, well, actually, politically, humanity does tend to have within itself what they called a longing for, and an adherence to, what they called an authoritarian personality. That is, somebody who wants somebody to take charge in a very strong, personalized kind of kind of way. And therefore we can go back and look at the whole kind of history of thinking about the authoritarian personality and say, you know, this authoritarian personality has a role to play politically in politics everywhere. And what we see right now is kind of a worldwide turn towards the recognition of an authoritarian personality and what that means politically.

But I don't think that accounts for 73.5 million votes. Maybe it accounts for 40 million votes, but not that many. The other group which is very important in all of this is the group that feels somehow or other they've been dispossessed and they've lost a significant amount in terms of their well-being and their futures. And that group is, of course, white America. And when we talk about this in racial terms, I think it's very explicit that many white people feel that something has been taken away from them, that their country is being taken away. They feel dispossessed. And dispossessed populations tend to look very strongly about who is going to get them back to where they once were. And it's clear that the white population — a large segment of it; not all of them, by any means, but  a large segment of the white population — has actually got itself into a position where it needs to reclaim that which it thinks is rightfully theirs, and that is the United States of America as a political entity. That they as citizens of this country have been dispossessed by immigrants, by black people, by latinx people, and in many respects dispossessed of rather traditional family values. So a lot of this is also anti-feminist.

So there is, if you like, a significant group in the population that is anti-feminist, is anti-black, is anti-immigrant, is anti-latinx, and wants an Anglo-Saxon United States back. And when you add them together with the authoritarian people, that's where, it seems to me, you're going to get your 73.5 million people voting. And that group is not going to go away. It's going to get even sharper in terms of what it is after and what it's about. 

And so the big question mark for the Democrats is what kind of politics and what kind of political strategies they shall evolve which are going to defang, if you like, that coalition which exists there. And clearly, it cannot cater to white racism. What it can do, however, is to cater to those people who are, if you like, turning to authoritarianism and the authoritarian personality. And one of the ways in which it must deal with that is to actually create a politics which is going to meet the needs of the large segment of the population which currently feels that it is being ignored, dispossessed, and the like. And to do that is, I think, the main task.

Right now, most of the mainstream media, and a lot of traditional politicians within the Democratic fold, are kind of saying, well, all we have to do is sort of try to tamp down on the uncivilized kind of rhetoric that is going on. But, of course, Trump is not going to allow that to go on, even after he has left power — if he leaves power. And so they're not going to address what it is that will draw people away from continuing down that path which goes somewhere close to fascism.

Now, it's interesting on this (and I want to be very explicit about this) because the theory that the large segment of the population just wants, you know, a decent discourse, and to bring the country together, and to collaborate across the aisles — collaborate across the aisles with, you know, Mitch McConnell, and all the rest? — that's crazy.  But a lot of the mainstream media are backing that, and a lot of conventional Democrats are wanting that. 

But when you start to look at who won this election for Biden, who was it? When you look at somewhere like Arizona, there was a mass mobilization of the young latinx population. And in many respects, that made all the difference between going to Trump or going to Biden. In Texas there was a similar population, but there was no mass mobilization of that population in favor of Biden, and therefore Texas stayed with Trump. 

Georgia is the one that's most interesting. In Georgia, a very surprising thing, there was one particular person who made all of the difference. And that was Stacey Abrams. Now Stacey Abrams ran for governor a couple of years back. She lost, but she lost because the man who became governor was actually the secretary of state, who ran the election. And in that role, running the election, he managed to suppress the votes of large segments of the black population. So her answer to this was not to sort of rush from one thing to another and sort of say, okay, I'm now going to run for Senate or anything like that. It was to stay in place and organize. Organize the black population in particular, black women even more particularly, and start to actually create a mass vote which was going to challenge even the voter suppression that was there. And in so doing, she was not talking about oh, we need to have somebody who's going to be president who's going to, you know, bring us all together, and negotiate with Mitch McConnell, and all that kind of thing. No. She said we want a president who's going to meet our needs. 

Now, both in Arizona and in Georgia, Biden, if he is going to maintain his position and maintain the position of the Democrats, is going to have to meet the needs of those populations: the youth; and the black populations, particularly black women; and the conditions of labor; and the conditions of living; and the conditions of public service; and all of that with which they're faced. In other words, if Biden wants to do anything, he's going to have to come up with a politics which is much more progressive than that to which he has historically been attached

But here's something interesting: Within the Democratic Party there is a tradition, an interesting tradition, which is much more radical and much more, quote, “socialist,” if you want to call it that, and yet it was mainstream. And I thought it would be very interesting to just give you an example of what that tradition is about. In 1944, Roosevelt gave a State of the Union Address toward the end of the second world war. This was shortly before Roosevelt died; the war was not yet over, but it was getting close to it. And what Roosevelt said in this was as follows. (This is not an anti-capitalist document, and this will also, I think, help explain my response to a question which I'm always being asked, which is how come you can sometimes vote for a conventional Democrat? Why aren't you always taking a radical position? This will, I think, help solve some of that kind of problem.) 

So Roosevelt, in his State of the Union Address, said this: “The Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights.” Now, this idea of inalienable political rights is very strong. And actually, Trump and the Trump supporters are very prone to that kind of rhetoric and that kind of thing. They think it's their inalienable right not to wear a mask, and, you know, and all the rest of it. 

And so Roosevelt says, among these inalienable rights are “the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.” And these are “our rights to life and liberty.” But he then talks about how, as our nation has grown, so things have become rather more complicated. And therefore we have to have “a clear realization of the fact that individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” And he then has a very interesting phrase: “Necessitous men are not free men.” Now, I like that phrase. “Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

“Necessitous men are not free men.” I parallel that with one of Marx's kind of comments, when he talks in Volume Ⅲ of Capital about the way in which the realm of freedom, he says, begins when the realm of necessity is left behind. So Marx is in favor — and I've mentioned this in former podcasts — is a great champion of individual liberty and individual freedom. But it's individual liberty and individual freedom which is based upon a world in which the realm of necessity has been left behind. 

And the big question is, why is it that the realm of necessity has not been left behind? And why is it that the realm of necessity, which Roosevelt saw was critical to deal with in 1944, is still critical for the mass of the US population? And if it has not been dealt with, then freedom doesn't mean anything. If it has not been dealt with, then the country is always going to be in a situation in which dictatorships can be made.

And he says, “In our day, these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted,” he says, “a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station,” (by which I think he means class) “race, or creed. 

“Among these rights are:

“The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.” Is that right realized in our times? We have, I don't know, 30 million unemployed? We're not meeting that criterion at all. 

He then goes on to say, “The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.” Is that the case? Well, we're having a big fight over the minimum wage. Maybe we'll get to $15 an hour or something, but that's nowhere near enough.

The next right: “The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.” Now, in Roosevelt's time, the family farm was still a viable enterprise. It's largely been displaced right now by corporate farming, so in a way this is an old-fashioned right which it would be nice to have, but there we are.

He then says, “The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.” Well, this is why I say this is not an anti-capitalist program. On the other hand, it's a capitalist program which is anti-monopoly power and anti-unfair competition and domination, and that certainly is not the case of contemporary industry and contemporary business at all.

And then comes another right: “The right of every family to a decent home.” Now, you've got to be kidding me if you think that that right has been realized. In fact, that right has become less and less realizable the more time goes on.

“The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” Well, there's a struggle going on over that right, and we'll see what the Supreme Court says about all of that. But this is a right which is an absolute right, and it should not be subject to, you know, market discipline and ability to pay.

“The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.” Well, we do have Social Security, but Social Security is constantly being threatened, threatened by the right. They want to take away that right. 

“The right to a good education.” Okay, but presumably by that we mean a good education which is free, not one which is, you know, regulated by how much you can pay.

And then Roosevelt goes on to say, “All these rights spell security. And after this war is won, we must be prepared to move forward in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.” This is being said in 1944. Why doesn't Biden simply say, oh, you know, Roosevelt had this vision in 1944. Let's take this vision and run with it.

And Roosevelt then goes on to say, “America's own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.” But then he adds something right at the very end. He says this: “One of the great American industrialists of our day — a man who has rendered yeoman's service to his country in this crisis — recently emphasized the grave dangers of ‘rightist reaction’ in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop — if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920s — then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.” 

Now, I'd like to submit that this is a platform for the Democratic Party. And if the Democratic Party took these rights, as spelled out by Roosevelt in 1944, and said, we are going to try and realize this program — well, okay, it's not an anti-capitalist program, but I'd support it. It's a darn sight better than anything we've got. And also, I think, this is the fear that Roosevelt clearly sees, that necessitous people can turn to dictatorships, and dictatorships are often animated by the spirit of fascism. And that is where we sit right now — where the dictatorships are around us, the spirit of fascism is large and abroad in the town and in the world. 

And yet what are we seeing in terms of the kind of programs which are going to counteract that? Roosevelt had an idea of how to do it within the framework of a capitalist society. And you can say, well, it's a bit old-fashioned, and there are some things we would want to include in here, including the ideas about a Green New Deal and all the rest of it. But you could take the Roosevelt tradition. And this is what Biden should do. Because through this — getting an adequate home, in a decent living environment, with adequate health care, and adequate education, for everybody, equally, to enforce these things about freedom from arbitrary arrest, and go back to the inalienable political rights and reaffirm them — these are the things which he should do. 

But I don't see any real move to do it, for one very simple reason: What does Trump do when he looks at this? What does the right wing do? It calls it socialist, and socialists are evil, and communists are evil. But even Obama was being called a socialist. And certainly Roosevelt was highly criticized by many people on the right because he was, quote, far too socialist, and the New Deal is something that the right wing has been trying to undermine for the last, you know, 40 or 50, 60 years. And this is something that we need to address. But there's no consensus emerging within the Democratic Party that this is the sort of thing that we should be doing. 

But the result of this election is, the fascist spirit is alive and well. Necessity is across the land in big time. The danger is obvious. And I think the fact that we are seeing the spirit of fascism re-emerge and that 73.5 million Americans voted in line with the spirit of fascism and dictatorship is something that we should recognize and do everything in our power to repudiate.

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project.

Transcript by Marilou Baughman

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