Like tens of millions of Americans, I voted to end the miserable reign of Donald J. Trump, but we cannot perpetuate the election-year fiction that the deep and bewildering problems facing millions of people in this country will simply end with the Trump Administration. They are embedded in “the system,” in systemic racism, and the other social inequities that are the focus of continued activism and budding social movements. Viewing the solution to these problems as simply electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both underestimates the depth of the problems and trivializes the remedies necessary to undo the damage. That view may also confuse popular support for fundamental change, as evidenced by Trump’s one-term Presidency, with what the Democratic Party is willing or even able to deliver.
Today, in Philadelphia, where I live, there is not a single aspect of life that the pandemic has not upended, from work and school to housing and health care, pulling poor and working-class African-Americans, in particular, deeper into debt and despair. The uncertainty of the moment, let alone the future, feeds fear, frustration, hopelessness, and dread. In Philadelphia, shootings are on the rise, and the murder rate is growing. With two months left in the year, there have been four hundred and sixteen homicides in the city, compared with just over three hundred and fifty for all of 2019, which was already the highest number of killings in Philadelphia in more than a decade. African-Americans make up eighty-five per cent of the city’s shooting victims. Even before the pandemic, drug overdoses in Black Philadelphia were on the rise. In the first three months of shelter-in-place orders, a hundred and forty-seven Black residents died by accidental drug overdose, forty-seven per cent of drug deaths in the city. When, last month, police killed a twenty-seven-year-old Black man named Walter Wallace, Jr., in the streets of West Philadelphia, while he was in the midst of a mental-health crisis, the frustration of many Black Philadelphians spilled into the streets, just as it did last summer. And now, like then, Pennsylvania’s governor mobilized the National Guard to corral demonstrators, to restore one kind of order while leaving palpable social disorder intact. Trump stumbled on some truth when he said, “Bad things happen in Philadelphia.”
The dark side of the pandemic in Philadelphia exists in cities across the country, as we cross the threshold of more than a hundred thousand daily diagnoses of coronavirus cases. It is not a Trumpian slur to observe that many of the cities where Black suffering takes place are also governed by proud members of the Democratic Party. Instead, it illuminates the depth of the bipartisan failure to address the tangled roots of racism, poverty, and inequality. It can also help us understand why Trump captured more votes from Black men and women in this year’s election than he did in 2016. Of course, the overwhelming majority of Black voters backed Biden, but the fact is that millions of African-Americans experience the daily failures of Democratic officials to respond to the poor conditions of their public schools, the lack of affordable housing, rampant police harassment and brutality, and usurious loans. The answer to these legitimate grievances can’t simply be to say that they are Republican talking points.
When seen alongside the popular outpouring for Black Lives Matter protests and the support for progressive policies, these electoral successes for the right point to increasing polarization, rather than singular growth on either side. But though the right has effectively used the Republican Party to express its ideas, molding public opinion and transforming public policy, the left has had no such vehicle. Instead, the Democratic Party remains hobbled by cautious and careful messaging intended to hold its fractious factions together in an effort to capture an imagined political center. Not wanting to offend the millions of people who went to the streets to rise up against police brutality, and likewise seduced by the idea that there were Republican suburban women voters repelled by Trump, Biden focused on civility, restoring the “soul of the nation,” and other vague and canned political promises. When Party leaders talk of winning portions of the Republican base, they intend to do so by reflecting their conservative politics, rather than challenging them. In the end, an airtight ninety-three percent of those who usually think of themselves as Republicans voted for Trump, with white women increasing their support for Trump from 2016.
More pointedly, the radical demands that emerged from the protests of the summer and the breakthrough of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” brought the simmering tensions within the Party to the surface. Whereas few elected officials supported the activist slogan to “defund the police,” rising support for Medicare for All as well as calls to cancel the rent and student-loan debt have put the cautious Democratic Party leadership on the defensive. Government-backed health care is a radical idea, as is canceling debt and other popular causes supported by tens of millions of people. There is no more radical idea in the United States than seeking to eliminate institutional racism, but although the Democratic Party is willing to wield it as a talking point, it has produced not a single substantive policy or initiative to actually do so. These divisions within the Party muddle its messaging, making it an ineffective tool for influencing public debates, not to mention actually convincing those outside of the Party’s milieu to see the world differently than they currently do. How else will the Democrats stop the bleeding of white workers from their ranks into the Republican Party? As Ocasio-Cortez said in a recent interview, assessing the Democrats’ performance in the election, “We need to do a lot of anti-racist, deep canvassing in this country. Because if we keep losing white shares and just allowing Facebook to radicalize more and more elements of white voters and the white electorate, there’s no amount of people of color and young people that you can turn out to offset that.”