What to do About Joe?

William Hogarth, “An Election Entertainment” from Four Prints of an Election, 1758, Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain).

Hobson’s choice

You may have heard there’s a presidential election coming up. After this week’s Georgia primary, it’s now possible to state that barring death or Armageddon, the election in November will be between President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump. Approximately 15% -20% of the electorate – MAGA voters who adore the former president and believe the 2020 election was stolen — are doing cartwheels. They may also be cleaning and loading their pistols and long guns because, according to polls, they “strongly, or very strongly” agree that the coming years will bring Civil War. Another 60% of Republicans are at the least sanguine about Trump’s re-nomination and possible election. They are dry cleaning their American flags and buying stock in anticipation of a bull market after November 5. A small minority of Republicans are unhappy with the prospect of another Trump presidency but even unhappier about Biden; they could vote for either one, a third-party candidate, or stay home on Election Day.

Few Democratic voters are popping champaign corks after Biden cinched the nomination. They’d prefer Michele Obama, Taylor Swift, AOC, or almost anybody else than the current geriatric in chief. (The latter two women are 34 but will reach the constitutionally required age of 35 by the time of inauguration.) Despite dissatisfaction, the mass of Democrats will vote for Biden in November, but not for certain. The allegiance of Black, Latino, Asian, women, young and progressive voters – in other words, the core of the Democratic party — is up for grabs. It’s to them especially that I direct this column.

Discussions these days among informed Democratic voters sound something like this:

Voter One: “Ugh, I’m so worried! Biden is consistently behind in the polls. And I don’t see how he is going to turn it around!”

Voter Two: “Yeah, I’m worried too, but not about Biden. What’s happening in Gaza is a genocide. And the Biden is Netanyahu’s chief accomplice. No way I’m voting for Genocide Joe.”

Voter Three: “And what about all those promises to eliminate student debt? I’m still paying through the nose. And why didn’t Biden get Congress to protect abortion rights when he had majorities in both houses of Congress?”

Voter One (replying to both): “I agree. Biden failed to protect Gazan civilians from Israel’s murderous fury after the October 7 attacks. Worse, he facilitated it by providing the country with bombs and vetoing UN calls for a ceasefire. And yes, Biden’s student debt program is a shadow of what was promised, and his protection of abortion rights is a joke. On top of all that, he has permitted more new oil and gas leases on public lands than Trump, at a time when we should be shutting it all down!”

“Yet despite his failures and half measures, Biden has done more for social and environmental progress than any president since Lyndon Johnson. But here’s the best reason to vote for Biden: Donald Trump. When fascism arrives, all hope’s lost.”

[Voters Two and Three shake their heads. They are unconvinced.]

How did it come down to a Hobson’s choice?

Structural failures of U.S. capitalist democracy

There are many reasons we are facing such bleak, electoral prospects, some “structural” and some “contingent.” By structural I mean basic to the American political system, and by contingent, I refer to the parties and candidates that happen to win close elections.

The scope of U.S. democracy has always been limited to elections and the public sphere, not workplaces or homes. Criticize your boss? Pack your cardboard box and get escorted to the door. Want to start a union? Better have years of patience and lots of lawyers; even then the odds are against you. Women in heterosexual marriages still do the bulk of child rearing and housework. Their labor is essential for reproducing the capitalist work force but is unpaid. Children in school have few legal rights. In many states, they can still be beaten as punishment.

Even in the political arena, democracy in America is constrained, and has been since the nation’s founding. To protect plantation slavery in the South (seedbed of U.S. capitalism), states with small free populations were afforded nearly as much political power as Northern states with large populations. The means to ensure this were the Electoral College (Article 2, Sec. 1, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution) and an undemocratic, upper house of Congress, the Senate. The former awards electoral votes – and thus the presidency — based on the total number of senators and representatives in a state, and every state has two U.S. senators, regardless of population. Another anti-democratic instrument is gerrymandering, which after every census allows state legislators and party leaders to create electoral districts in which some groups (wealthy and white) are overrepresented while others (Black, Latino, and Native American) are underrepresented. In theory, both parties are equally able to game the system; in practice, Republicans have been more ruthless and successful in doing so, especially in recent years after the Republican dominated Supreme Court relaxed enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

Political speech is also circumscribed. If you own a social media or broadcast network, you have tons of freedom of speech. If you run a large corporation, you can contribute however much money you want to a candidate of your choice because your donation is considered a form of protected speech, according to rulings by a Republican U.S. Supreme Court.  But if you are just an average person, the power of your speech is limited by the size of the campaign contributions you can muster. People can demonstrate in public, but politicians and corporate heads are mostly inured to protests, and sometimes even benefit from them. (The sad legacy of the Black Lives Matter movement is a case in point.)  And some Republican-led states, like Florida, are passing bills to restrict public assembly, protest, and petition. In federal courts, environmental protesters can now be charged with terrorism.

Decisions about war and peace in the U.S. are made almost entirely by U.S. presidents; indeed, they have the power to destroy the whole world by virtue of their control over the nuclear arsenal. Presidents are typically counseled by a coterie of unelected foreign policy experts who are in fact, little more than adjuncts to the arms, aerospace, and fossil fuel industries and their pet think tanks. Finally, democracy is America is structurally limited by a pervasive fear of violence.  Guns kill nearly 50,000 people every year (2,500 of whom are children). This is largely a consequence of the failure of politicians to ban or even limit private gun ownership. The gun lobby, the political far right and a conservative Supreme Court (them again!) have conspired to prevent gun control. When you are afraid of getting killed, it is hard to focus on democratic, political participation. All this means that authoritarian tendencies are hardwired into the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Despite all that, capitalist democracy managed, by the mid 1960s, to expand far beyond what the nation’s founders imagined. Not only had slavery and de jure segregation been ended, but states were compelled by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to clear away any restrictions to voting by racial, ethnic, or linguistic minorities. The Act even went so far as to require most Southern states to obtain federal clearance before undertaking any initiative that could potentially impact access to voting. (That’s the provision recently struck down by SCOTUS.) And other forces of democratization were also at work in the 1960s and 70s. The feminist, gay, and disability rights movements eventually secured guarantees of equal pay, and equal access to public accommodations. Women gained access to effective contraception and the right to abortion. Workplace discrimination against the elderly was banned. Child protection laws were strengthened, and free speech was interpreted by courts to permit unconventional erotic as well as political speech. Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, William Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice were by the 1970s freely available in almost any American library or bookstore.

According to capitalist ideology and practice, economy, and society (“culture” in its broadest sense) are separate and autonomous domains. The former goes where it wants, based upon the laws of supply and demand, and the latter according to its own, internal dynamics. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, the American corporate and political elite, as we have seen, confronted with growing protest, relaxed its policing of social and political life, and acceded to demands by women and ethnic or gender minorities for more power. There was no likelihood, they reasoned, that greater democracy in the political or domestic sphere would impact corporate bottom lines. Economy and society, after all, are distinct, and women, Blacks, Latinos and Queers are just as easily exploited or co-opted as any other population of workers.

But the energy crisis of 1973 and the global recession that began the same year – combined with a “wage explosion” and a significant (if temporary) fall in profits — severely strained corporate confidence. So did the forced resignation of Republican President Nixon in 1974 and the final U.S. defeat in Vietnam the following year. That’s when existing and emergent anti-systemic movements – student, feminist, Black, Queer, Indigenous, and environmental – began to seem a real threat to profits and power. Any solidarity they might forge with the white working-class could undermine ruling-class hegemony. Democratic gains might indeed result in capitalist loss.

By the late 1970s therefore, U.S. and global leaders began to fashion a strategy to suppress the rising tide of economic, political, and social democracy.  Presidents, prime ministers, legislatures, and judiciaries in capitalist democracies instituted a series of checks: unions were busted, voting rights were challenged, and political movements were infiltrated and undermined.  Investments in health and social welfare were reduced, sometimes cut to the bone. Racial, ethnic or gender minorities and immigrants were ostracized. (The most familiar names associated with this period of counter-revolution are President Ronald Reagan in the U.S., and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K.) Most large media organizations – themselves controlled by powerful corporations – rode the rising tide of retrenchment and castigation. Even American liberal Democrats went along, enacting laws to end welfare and strengthen penalties for drug offenses, thereby increasing poverty rates, and enabling a new regime of mass incarceration.

Recently, Republican politicians — long comfortable with hate — have re-deployed the well-used rhetoric of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-communism, xenophobia, and anti-environmentalism. In an earlier era, such rhetoric encouraged working class whites to distinguish themselves from Blacks and Latinos, to whom they felt superior. The result was a divided working class that posed little challenge to capital. Today, it’s being used to advance a nakedly fascist, Republican-supported platform of election interference, Christian Nationalism, suppression of free expression, far-right violence, anti-trans legislation, misogyny, fake science, anti-vax, and climate change denialism that is indistinguishable from a death cult.  Calling this regression “fascist” is no longer minority opinion. Even establish bastions of official ideology – The New York Times, CNN, CBS, and NPR — now acknowledge and report the seriousness of the current threat to capitalist democracy. But they don’t do it enough, and rarely deploy the f–word.

The significance of historical contingency

The structural weakness of U.S. capitalist democracy is a necessary but not sufficient explanation for the current predicament: a sclerotic Democratic Party struggling against an equally rigid Republican Party that is in addition, fascist to its core. What got us here is a set of historical contingencies that were perhaps likely under the structural conditions described above, but by no means preordained.

The power of contingency is underappreciated by historians. While strong forces like class struggle and social revolution, war, expropriation, colonization, nationalism, pandemic, drought, and demographic collapse are correctly understood as primary historical determinants, weaker ones too play a role. Sometimes small events or single personages cause momentous change. Here’s two examples, drawn from recent American presidential campaigns.

Nixon v. Humphrey.

The 1968 presidential election was a roller coaster that began with the declared candidacy of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy.  Little-known outside his home state and with an undistinguished legislative record, he nevertheless challenged the incumbent, President Lyndon Johnson on a platform of ending the war in Vietnam. To almost everyone’s surprise, he came in a close second in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary.  Two weeks later, on March 31, 1968, Johnson withdrew from the contest, leaving the field wide open.

Soon, Robert Kennedy decided to run, but just minutes after achieving victory in the pivotal California primary in June, he was assassinated by a lone gunman, Sirhan Sirhan. The Democratic Party nominating convention that soon followed has gone down in history for chaos on the floor and police mayhem outside. Vice-president Hubert Humphrey was awarded the nomination, despite not running in a single state primary, and McCarthy offered only a tepid endorsement. Nixon won the election in November by less than a percentage point though by a solid electoral vote majority.

Had the Vietnamese army not undertaken the Tet Offensive when it did (souring Americans on the war), had McCarthy chosen not to run, (or run, but later campaigned for Humphrey), had Robert Kennedy not been assassinated, had Alabama Democratic Governor George Wallace not run as an Independent Party candidate, had the Yippies decided not to lay siege to the nominating convention, had Dan Rather not been accosted on TV by convention hall security, etc, it’s possible Humphrey would have won in November. If that had happened, the Vietnam war might have been halted early, Nixon’s Southern Strategy (which ended Democratic party control in the South) might have been stillborn, the Mideast oil crisis and subsequent recession might have been averted, and the capitalist counter-revolution of the 1970s forestalled. There is no way to prove a counterfactual, of course, but nothing in the structure of democratic capitalism ordained Nixon’s victory and subsequent developments.

Bush v. Gore

Few electoral events in U.S. history were more consequential than the 2000 election of George W. Bush, and few more determined by contingent circumstances. The campaigns were more or less routine affairs, with emphases on economic issues (including phony concern about the budget deficit), gun control and foreign policy, especially recent adventures in the Balkans and Somalia where 18 American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu and their bodies dragged through the streets during the “Black Hawk Down” incident.

What was most remarkable about the election, of course, was its immediate aftermath. Though Gore won the national, popular vote by more than 500,000, the number of electoral votes was almost tied at the end of counting, with results still uncertain in Florida. Following almost a month of counts, recounts and court battles, the Supreme Court (with a conservative majority) decided on dubious grounds Bush was the winner by about 500 votes, thereby awarding him the presidency.

If Al Gore had won, would everything have been different? To be sure, the former Tennessee senator and vice-president was no radical. He was a card-carrying member of the centrist, Democratic Leadership Council. His greatest accomplishment as veep was his wife Tipper’s crusade to put warning labels on vinyl records with salacious content. Nevertheless Gore, unlike Bush, was not an idiot. There is good reason to suppose he would have understood the importance of all those CIA briefings about Osama Bin-Laden and pilot training, and prevented 9/11. Even if he did not, he’s unlikely to have declared a geographically unlimited and chronologically unending “global war on terror” that was responsible, directly or indirectly, for nearly five million deaths. He may not have established a global archipelago of “black sites” where Muslim men and women captured on the fictive battlefield, were held and tortured.

Just as significant, Gore was an environmentalist. As a young House Representative in 1976, he held a hearing on global warming. In the late 1990s, Gore supported passage of the Kyoto Protocols calling for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It’s entirely possible, that if he was elected president, the U.S. might not have been so severely delayed in its response to the climate crisis. It might indeed have been a leader in the struggle for a stable climate.

It’s important to acknowledge that Capitalism has great recuperative powers, or, as the historian Ellen Meiskins Wood once wrote: “capitalism has a remarkable capacity to distance democratic politics from the decisive centers of social power and to insulate the power of appropriation and exploitation from democratic struggles.” In other words, lots can happen at the level of quotidian politics without ever threatening the basic balance of social and economic forces. Contingent events – including elections — can only get you so far; structural change is still essential for the achievement of genuine economic and political democracy. But chance events can offer opportunities for democratic forces to gather strength and gain the impetus to effect major political change. Nobody knows, except in retrospect, was causes a revolution, or when it arrives, how it will turn out. The British designer, poet and socialist William Morris argued much the same, when he wrote in his novel, A Dream of John Ball (1888) “that men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” Big victories may prove pyric, and small ones decisive.

Voting for the lesser of two evils

There are admittedly lots of good reasons for rejecting Biden. 1) His failure to take the steps necessary to prevent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 2022, and afterwards, to accept a deal to end it. Even today, thousands are dying even though the contours of the eventual peace agreement are clear: Russia will maintain control of conquered territory in Crimea and the Donbas, and Ukraine will receive a security guarantee and fast admittance to the E.U. 2) The Gaza debacle mentioned earlier. Rather than embrace Netanyahu during his visit to Israel in late October 2023, Biden should have throttled him, first for empowering Hamas, second for failing to prevent the October 7 invasion (despite warnings), and third for planning (and then executing) a large-scale bombardment and invasion of one of the most densely populated territories on Earth. 3) Inability to take affective actions to counter Republican neo-fascism when he had majorities in both houses of Congress, for example, by ending the filibuster and enacting voting rights protection, expanding (or term limiting) the Supreme Court, restoring abortion rights, and proposing more significant environmental legislation to speed the transition to sustainable energy. Biden’s re-nomination should have been challenged, and it’s a stain on the Democratic Party and capitalist democracy that it was not.

Still, Biden is the most progressive president since Johnson and possibly Roosevelt. His proposed American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan totaled more than $4 trillion and would have been bigger and more consequential than the New Deal. The legislation included money for childcare and pre-kindergarten education, paid family leave, free tuition to community colleges, greatly expanded medical coverage under Obamacare, a massive increase in spending to limit climate change and higher taxes on the rich and corporations. After failed negotiations with a pair of corrupt Democratic senators from Arizona and West Virginia, the much reduced “Infrastructure Bill” and “Inflation Reduction Act” were signed into law. They are significant achievements, though Biden undermined some of his climate change agenda by allowing oil and gas exploration to proceed at a record clip.

There is lots to criticize about Biden’s record. But what is certain is that the alternative is worse. Trump is anti-worker, anti-woman, anti-queer, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and anti-science, as well as being a cheat, liar, thief, insurrectionist and convicted sex offender. His climate change policy consists of deny, deny, deny, and drill, drill, drill. What’s just as important is that he will for the duration of his presidency and perhaps much longer, foreclose even the possibility of structural change by undermining rights to free speech and assembly. That’s what he has promised, and what his team of legal and think-tank flunkies aim to deliver. Capitalist democracy, however limited, is preferable to fascism; without the freedom to organize, criticize, protest and petition, structural change is nearly impossible. My personal preference is for Biden to step down as the Democratic Party nominee for president; the only alternative is to elect him. But who can say what contingent factors may determine the election outcome in November and its aftermath?


Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. His next book with the artist Sue Coe The Young Person’s Illustrated Guide to American Fascism‘will be published late this summer by OR Books. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu