Watching liberal political commentators talk about the 2020 presidential election, one starts to wonder whether the world will even continue to exist should Democrats lose. Trump’s victory four years ago was already hailed by European populists as an “apocalypse” for the centrist-liberal political mainstream; this time, headlines cry that four more years of Trump may just be apocalyptic, period. How exactly the world might end doesn’t seem to matter. It could come from tensions with Iran erupting into a nuclear war, from the accelerating climate crisis or (less plausibly) from the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Each picture of the slippery slope to doom guides us toward the same conclusion: The left needs to win, badly. Nothing matters more than getting our candidate into office. But if the left wants to actually address very serious crises such as climate change and escalating inequality, we need to move beyond this short-term perspective.
This victory imperative manifests itself differently in different parts of the left — most obviously in the leftist Twitterverse. On the one hand, the 2020 Twitter news cycle is more preoccupied than ever with electability politics. Each camp argues that its candidate stands the only chance of winning against Trump in a general election. Of course, a Democratic president will not be very useful if they cannot accomplish anything in office, so all sides argue over this point as well. Those further left claim that any president from the right or left other than Bernie Sanders will fail to fix the underlying and ultimately existential crises that Trump has so gleefully exacerbated. Sanders himself recently sparred with the New York Times editorial staff over whether his political movement could overcome Mitch McConnell’s opposition in the Senate, and the news reported days later that he was derided by Hillary Clinton in a documentary as an unlikable and rigid ideologue. Clinton’s comments were met with further hand-wringing about party unity and electability.
Media experts seem unified in believing that horse race coverage is wiping our democratic process of all substance, even as most newspapers and TV channels continue engaging in it. They are at least partly right, although a Politico writer had a point when he wrote in a rejoinder to horse race critics that, without such coverage, election news “would come to resemble an endless series of policy white papers that nobody reads.” But the problems with our current panicked electability obsession run deeper than this.
The first problem with this season’s electability politics is that the televised, tweeted, forecasted election bears little resemblance to the real election — the one where actual people with real lives, who spend more time working or looking at cat memes than weighing poll forecasts, submit their real-life votes. Not only will online discussions likely have little direct bearing on voting outcomes, the polling statistics that feature centrally in those discussions offer notoriously poor predictions.
More importantly, differences between the candidates on issues ranging from foreign affairs to bipartisanship to grouchiness will probably matter to precious few voters. That’s because most people, being by far more rational than I am, spend little time worrying about national politics. Why spend time thinking about a process whose outcome you’re so phenomenally unlikely to affect? Large chunks of the electorate know next-to-nothing about the Federal Government, much less those vying for leadership over it. (Only 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government according to a 2017 survey.)
One of the few reliable predictors of a presidential election (other than candidates’ height) is the economy. Historically, incumbent presidents tend to lose votes during economic downturns, and they are rewarded for upswings, especially in the few months before an election — and this often holds regardless of who is responsible for those changing fortunes and how the benefits of growth are distributed. In the words of a potential swing voter from Michigan: Voters “might say there are these other things, but once the curtain closes and they have to vote, then it’s the economy.”
This brings me to the first major reason that political writers, organizers and leaders on the left need to broaden their focus beyond the 2020 election: There’s a real chance that despite our best efforts, Trump will win. That’s because Trump benefits from a strong economy, and he, or his advisors, clearly understand this — notwithstanding that the benefits of recent growth have accrued mostly to the upper class. Not only did he just sign a trade deal with China, softening the impacts of the trade war just in time for election season, but he has also been putting constant pressure on the Federal Reserve to boost growth. Combined with other recent maneuvers such as the dangerous but largely politically beneficial strike against Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, Trump looks to be in a strong position going into November. Strategic thinking on the left entails having a plan for the possibility that Trump wins four more years in office, and yet barely anyone is talking about it.
A Trump victory is not inevitable. Some Democratic contenders still lead him in the polls, unreliable as those polls are. And four more years of Trump would certainly be catastrophic — not only for the thousands of people enduring systematic oppression at the Mexican border, or the indigenous people facing further expropriation and pollution of their land, but also for all young people. Trump’s entire administration is essentially one long yard sale of the natural world to massive corporations, whether it be his dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency or his Department of Justice teaming up with oil companies to stave off lawsuits. Add to this the Republican strategies that deepen inequality and undermine democratic institutions and norms, and our generation and those after us are not facing rosy futures.
These threats personally terrify me. But the second reason we should focus beyond the 2020 election is that, while getting Trump out of office may be a necessary condition for dealing with these crises in the near future, it is certainly not the only necessary condition. Even if the Democratic candidate wins in November, they will almost certainly lack the broad and deep grassroots support necessary to successfully undertake the economic and infrastructural transformations needed to deal with inequality and climate change. Firstly, passing moderate legislation will be about as hard as passing more ambitious acts, even under the most optimistic assumptions about Senate and House electoral outcomes. That, paired with the fact that we are in a climate emergency, gives good reason to focus on transformational efforts like the Green New Deal. But, as Assistant Professor of Environment and Society Myles Lennon wrote last April in Jacobin, passing ambitious legislation is not a “silver bullet.” Policies on the scale of recent Green New Deal proposals will not be implemented without widespread support from both elites and everyday people.
Building the necessary coalitions is a long-term project that will involve organizing on every level, from rebuilding unions, to countering the apparatus of conservative academic departments and think tanks, to ending the budding relationships between tech behemoths and right-wing climate deniers. Sympathetic officials need to be elected and appointed at all levels of government. This project to undo and reverse right-wing gains made over decades of strategic campaigning will become even more important if Trump wins re-election, but it is necessary either way.
Yes, everyone who can should contribute time or money to the Democratic nominee. (This goes especially for the two billionaires spending tens of millions of dollars on their own useless primary attempts.) But beyond that, we should consider how we can play an active role regardless of that campaign’s outcome. Short-term engagement in electoral politics will not address our long-term problems. The real work will go on no matter the presidential outcome, and it will require all of us to engage in changing the structures we occupy throughout society.
Galen Hall '20 can be reached at
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