What Do The Election Results Mean For The American Left?

Guest post by Jason Brownlee

Image from AP: Rebecca Blackwell

Americans are celebrating Biden’s win but this is looking like a pretty terrible election for the American Left, especially for any hopes that Democrats could advance an agenda tackling historic inequality or the climate crisis.

Overall, this was the narrowest of rejections of Trump specifically, but pretty much an endorsement of Republican politics and an implicit repudiation of the Democrats’ non-class appeals. Most importantly, a massive increase in turnout was almost as likely to benefit Trump as Biden. So far Trump has gotten 6 million more votes than he did last time (which adds up to 70 million some votes, more than Obama ever got).  

An extensive poll from AP captures what the polling projections did such a bad job of: Trump improved his vote share among pretty much all demographic groups (LGBTQ, Blacks, Latinos, women, etc.).

Image from the AP poll linked to above.

In addition, Nate Silver (whose prognostication business may never recover from the polling errors that projected a Democratic sweep of Congress) has a fine piece analyzing the actual vote patterns that have come in, i.e., not predicting but looking at actual votes. The map at the bottom, with arrows, shows where Trump did better than last time, including among Mexican-Americans in south Texas.

Image from the Silver article linked to above.

Long story short, Dems have long been selling the story that Americans, through demographic changes, will inexorably deliver their party national power. No such thing is happening, Instead, in a very Kang-vs-Kodos way Americans were left to choose between two anti-socialist parties. They rejected Kang this time, but they have endorsed his minions.

The Question of Trump and Authoritarianism

My scholarship these days is engaging the people warning of authoritarianism. Turkey is very much at the center of that debate and I appreciated Zeynep’s analysis. That literature, not necessarily Zeynep, has a tendency to be – unintentionally but ironically – pretty anti-democratic in the way it handles mass opinion and working class voters. See for example the political psychology studies on how millions of Americans who support Trump “are authoritarians.” 

As academics whose vocation is to cultivate critical thinking I generally get uncomfortable when large numbers of people become deferential to political leaders. But it’s also inappropriate, and elitist, to dismiss voters for Trump, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro etc. as stooges and stormtroopers. After all, we tend not to do that for supporters of leftist populists.   

Turkey, like Venezuela, has crossed the line into heavy amounts of state coercion. But elsewhere – India, Poland, US, Brazil – one needs to reckon with the basically free choice of mass constituencies to repeatedly vest state power in nativist, patriarchal (etc.) politicians. That challenge is very much present right now, not just in 2024 under Trump again or a Trump 2.0 figure.

And what I think that means is we need more serious political economy work explaining how the abandonment of material left policies by parties like the Democratic Party contributes to a rise in support for the so-called rightwing populists. Calling the other side “authoritarian” is a mystification, not an explanation.

Final thing: the “f word” has come up on Progressive Podcast Australia a few times. A few weeks ago Vox asked me and some other scholars whether Trump should be called a fascist: ‘Is Trump a fascist? 8 experts weigh in’.