Georgia Senate Runoffs – Democrats Win Both

by Marcus Otono

The “long, strange trip” that has been the 2020 elections in the USA finally ended on January 5, 2021 with the state of Georgia’s Senatorial runoff elections. These elections provided a fitting coda to an electoral season that was more unusual than any in recent memory and, maybe, ever. Almost as an afterthought, the races also provided the final party-line makeup of the US Senate for the next two years.

In an outcome that would have been totally unexpected even a few months before, the Democratic candidates pulled off a double upset and won both races. Rafael Warnock, a Black pastor at the famed Ebeneezer Baptist church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached, beat incumbent and appointed Senator Kelly Loeffler by roughly 2 percentage points (51%-49%), thus becoming the first Black US Senator from Georgia. Jon Ossoff beat Senator David Perdue by an even smaller margin of 50.6% to 49.4%. These results give the Democrats 50 Senators in the new Congress, making a 50/50 split between Democrats and Republicans in the upper chamber. Since VP Kamala Harris will provide, if necessary, the deciding vote to break any ties, the Senate now, effectively, has a Democratic majority.

Leftward Movement in the Populace?

Marxists – at least revolutionary ones- have always argued that elections alone cannot transfer power from one class (the capitalists) to another, the working class. This is doubly obvious when both parties are totally committed to defending capitalism come what may. There have been long periods in US History when it has been difficult to tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats, especially during the long reign of neoliberalism from Reagan to Obama.

But over the last ten years or so the two parties have moved apart with the GOP becoming openly racist populists, playing to the white supremacists around the Trump movement. Meanwhile the two primary campaigns of Bernie Sanders and the election of city, federal and state representatives and senators who call themselves democratic socialists has seen a former neo-liberal, and even neo-con, like Joe Biden, move to adopt a neo-Keynesian program to address the severity of the covid-19 crisis.

But we can safely say the results of these elections in Georgia show that, at least in this formerly Republican bastion in the deep south and along with Biden’s overall victory, the voting public is trending left. This is probably in reaction to the offensively racist nature of the Trump administration provoking a higher-than-usual voter turnout rather than in any deep shift or rise in consciousness, but the trend is indicated, regardless.

Of course, the closeness of all the elections held during this election season also show that the populace is very polarized. Trump has been a polarizing figure during the entirety of his term and now has gathered around himself supporters, mostly white and affluent, who have also shown a willingness to throw out political convention and even democracy itself to keep Trump in office in spite of his losing the election.

This polarization of the population is not shown simply because of the Biden victory or even the closeness of the vote. After all, despite the fevered rhetoric of the far-right, Joe Biden isn’t some militant socialist. In truth, his election was merely because he was the only realistic choice on the ballot that was not Trump. Exit polling conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool and published in the New York Times provides clear support for this view of the electoral choices. 71% of the overall votes from both Republicans and Democrats voted for their particular candidate based on support of that candidate. 24% voted so as to vote against the opposing candidate. However, when it’s broken down into votes for the individuals, the numbers clearly show that Biden voters, by a majority of 68%, voted not so much for Biden but against Trump. Trump voters in contrast voted for Trump by 53% as opposed to only 30% who were voting against Biden. This shows that Biden’s win was not a result of Biden himself and his policies, but because his opponent was so very odious to left leaning voters.

What this means for the future is that the far-right, nationalist forces energized by the Trump win in 2016 will not go away with the new administration. Biden has much less of a leash with his voters than Trump would have had with his had he won. Trump voters, though a minority, are much more likely to continue to support Trump and, more importantly, his xenophobic and far-right stands on issues than they are to switch to Biden, no matter what the results of Biden’s policies. At present, it really is a cult of personality with a spearhead of violent right-wingers and outright fascists that will bully and potentially kill for their candidate and their white supremacist policies. But it is also an independent political force that has grown in the last four years to the point that it can and will exist on its own within American politics even without Trump to lead it or the Republican Party to enable it.

Democratic Control and Biden’s Policies

So even though the numbers are slim, the Democrats now do have control over two of the three branches of the US government, the executive with Biden and both houses of Congress. Considering that Biden’s platform called for sweeping changes with the Build Back Better programs for the USA, it would be logical to think that BBB would be that much closer to adoption.

This, however, is not the case. Because the margins in both the House of Representatives and the Senate are so close and because the political makeup of both houses are so polarized, it is very unlikely that major parts of the BBB will be enacted in this next Congress, even with nominal Democratic control. Republicans are already calling for “unity” from Democrats, but a unity built around not rolling back any of the sweeping right-wing decisions that the Trump administration took in the last four years. In other words, a “unity” that keeps Trump policies without the Trump drama.

How the Democrats will react to this call will be something to note. The centrist Democrats who are now in office and still in control of the Party are usually subject to easily succumbing to these siren calls from losing Republicans, but the more left-wing Democrats also won in 2020. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s famous “Squad” increased by another 3 members and are in a more argumentative mood. As it seems is the Democratic Party base, especially after the “insurrection” of January 6 in Washington D.C showed the visciousness of some in the Republican base.

However, the main thing that will keep any significant left populist platform from being adopted is the filibuster and that is not going to go away, at least not for major legislation. The filibuster is a requirement for a super-majority of 60 Senators for the passage of any key legislation.

The Senate is a grossly undemocratic body because each state, no matter the size of its population, is represented by an equal number of senators. Thus California’s 39 million people get the same as Wyoming’s 578,000 people and Vermont’s with 626,000 people.  In 2013, the New York Times pointed out that six senators from California, Texas, and New York represented the same number of people as the 62 senators from the smallest 31 states.

A few things can be done with just a simple majority vote, mostly having to do with financial and budgetary bills, but real legislation will still need the super-majority that will be highly unlikely in the next Senate. At one point in the campaign, ending the filibuster was floated as an idea to break the Senate logjam on legislation, but Joe Manchin the Democratic Senator from West Virginia quickly made it known that he will not support it. So, assuming lock step Republican support for keeping the filibuster, that means there is already 51 votes against ending it. And without ending the filibuster in the Senate, majority rule by the Democrats will not really mean that much when it comes to legislation.

What the Democrats Can Do

However, even with keeping the filibuster, this does not mean that nothing can be done with this Democratic control. True, most major pieces of legislation will not advance, but financial and some budgetary bills can be advanced through a Senatorial procedural process called “reconciliation” that only requires a simple majority. So “reconciliation” means that there probably won’t be as much drama over temporary and short-term budgetary bills that, since at least 2012, have been threatened with a governmental shutdown almost every time these bills have come up in the Senate.

Biden should also be able to get his Cabinet picks through Senate confirmation without too many problems, although the aforementioned Senator Manchin will probably have the final say over some that might be more threatening to the right. In other words, if Biden decided to nominate AOC to the Attorney General post and Bernie Sanders to head up the Department of Labor (and no that is not something that Biden would do anyway), he wouldn’t be able to get that through Manchin’s veto. But most center-right and even a few center-left nominees should be able to be confirmed easily.

Also, since the Republicans have already set the precedent when it comes to federal judges, only a simple majority will probably be required. It will not do much for the Supreme Court, with three Trump justices already in place, but it should allow for any new appointees in the next two years to be confirmed without too much of a problem. The Supreme Court is not the only place where federal judges are needed, as there is also a backlog of appointees needed at the district and appellate level, along with a rash of recent resignations and retirements from judges who were just hanging on for a “non-Trump” president to be inaugurated. A simple majority should be enough to get slightly more left-leaning judges appointed and confirmed in these areas.

The rest of the advantages of a Democratic majority will mostly be politically cosmetic. Mitch McConnell during his 8-year term as Senate majority leader was able to stall bills passed by the House of Representatives from even coming up for a vote in the Senate, thus sparing his Republican colleagues from having to face embarrassing votes on left populist types of bills that would show them up to their constituents back home. With Chuck Schumer as Senate majority leader, those votes will now be taken, and the Republican side will have to explain their reasoning for voting against bills that are wildly popular with the people, but not so popular with the owners.

Of course, this does not mean that these bills will actually be enacted into law because of the filibuster. So just because there is a majority of Senators in favor of, say Medicare for All single payer healthcare, that doesn’t mean any will become law. However, even being able to schedule the votes on popular legislation and force the Republicans to filibuster will be a win for the Democrats without angering their own patrons in the ruling class.

Of course, we can expect bi-partisan support for the murderous US foreign policies that have resulted in perpetual war for decades and the deaths of millions. In this one area Biden might even wind up more belligerent than Trump. For all his bluster, Trump seemed to be hesitant to commit troops to foreign shores whereas Biden, in his long history in government, hasn’t been hesitant at all to support the adventurism of US imperialism.

The Conclusion? Not Much Will Change…Unless We Force It

We should expect action from Biden on the COVID-19 crisis and its economic fallout because that will be a focus for the first year of the administration and because many Republicans will likely be too afraid to vote against it. Even their own segment of the bourgeoisie wants the economy restarted and needs the virus brought under control in order to do so. After the governmental inaction and incompetence of the Trump administration, doing something about the virus, rather than doing nothing while saying you are, should catch everyone’s attention and will probably lead to action on this front, even with the whisper thin majority in the Senate.

Likewise with the infrastructure and environmental expenditures which will mean big profits for US companies by using the Buy American measures. Republicans will want to obstruct these measures like they did with anything Obama proposed, but the pressure from the ruling class for the opportunity to profit over this infrastructure spending will be immense, even on Republican Senators. In addition the pressure for enacting these measures through reconciliation will also be immense on the Democratic Party. So there is a likelihood that we could see action on some of the infrastructure initiatives.

However, all of the other stressors that have been overshadowed by the COVID-19 crisis are still there bubbling under the surface. The massive inequality that is worse than before the French Revolution. The lay-offs and casual cruelty of the bosses and the capitalist system that leaves workers feeling impotent and undervalued. The racist police terror that’s murdered people of color for centuries under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The looming threats of a revaluation of the overpriced assets reflected in the stock market, including zombie companies that can barely pay their financial costs, much less make a profit. The concurrent recession and lay-offs that are just waiting for that revaluation to occur. And the factories of the Rust Belt are still closed and the jobs that are available pay much less than the ones did before those factories closed. In short, all the conditions that led to the rise of Trump and Trumpism in 2016 are still there and have gotten worse in the last four years.

It is not a stretch to think that since Biden and the Democrats will not be able to improve those conditions during this late stage of senile capitalism, the mid-term elections in 2022 and the presidential and congressional elections of 2024 could easily lead to the rise of another “Trump”, perhaps one not as disorganized, not as cartoonish, and thus, much more dangerous.

This threat is not one that the Democratic Party is equipped to handle. The Democrats won’t “fight” against fascism because “fighting” a menace like fascism, or really any version of far-right populism, isn’t in their makeup. Their job as the bourgeois “left” is to compromise with those types of political elements, not fight them.

But this does not means we have to reconcile ourselves to no change during the Biden years providing that is we reject appeals by the Democrats and their numerous agents in labor and social movements to give Joe a chance.

We will need to campaign hard, including by mass mobilizations and direct action for a major expansion of free healthcare for all, union organizing rights, women’s reproductive rights, a living wage and income for the unemployed, and for major infrastructure and environmental projects under workers control. We need to build united fronts at local level to fight for these and to keep up the fightback against the neo-liberal, as well as the fascist far-right.

As long as the Democratic Party is considered the “left” in the United States, there won’t be any consistent voice that really fights against the far right, much less shows an alternative path to solving any of the above problems. They speak for the owners no less than the Republicans do, they just use different talking points. And the election of Warnock and Ossoff giving the Democrats control of Congress does not change that dynamic one iota. What we need is a workers party that wages the class struggle on all fronts and not just the “faux-left” of the Democrats.