Voting Trump Out Is Not Enough

Monday, Nov 9, 2020

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.

During this pandemic, the toll of disease and death has been greatest on those who can least afford it. Job losses have overwhelmingly affected low-wage, minority workers. Since May, as many as eight million people have been pushed into poverty, with Black families overrepresented among them. Whereas white workers have recovered more than half the jobs they lost to the downturn, Black workers have recovered just over a third of them, leaving Black unemployment at more than twelve percent. But the most provocative measure of the failure of our response to the pandemic can be found in the growth of hunger. In June, around twenty-nine per cent of American households with children were experiencing “food insecurity,” meaning that they were either unable to get enough food to meet their nutritional needs or they were uncertain of where their next meal would come from. They were hungry.

Where there is hunger, housing insecurity is not far behind. Thousands of people have already been evicted during this crisis, and nearly one out of six renters have fallen behind on their rent. Nearly one in four renters who live with children report that they are not up-to-date with the rent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s unprecedented moratorium on evictions was too good to be true: the Trump Administration recently signalled to landlords that it would allow them to challenge the eligibility of tenants. This leaves the viability of the C.D.C. moratorium up to the discretion of individual judges, who may or may not honor it. Local organizers and activists have tried to fill the gap created by federal neglect with relentless mutual-aid organizing, but it is hardly sufficient.

In Philadelphia, which, ignobly, has among the highest proportion of poor residents of any big city in the country, thousands stand on the cusp of eviction. Twenty-two per cent of households in the city are severely cost-burdened, meaning that they are spending half or more of their income on housing costs, which is well above the national average. Before this downturn, sixty-one per cent of households headed by Black women in Philadelphia were spending at least thirty per cent of their income on rent, compared with fifty-three per cent of households headed by white women and forty-four per cent of households headed by white men. Black mothers and their children “are most likely to be evicted,” according to a 2020 report produced by researchers at PolicyLink, and Black residents in general are “most likely to become homeless.” Philadelphia’s moratorium on evictions has not been extended beyond its November deadline because landlord advocates and the Philadelphia City Council could not reach an agreement. Instead, the courts have agreed to “pause” evictions until the new year, while still making exceptions for landlords who ask for an exemption. Even this concession roused the ire of the landlord class, which is poised and ready to evict. As Paul Cohen, a lawyer for the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia said, “As a society, we recognize you can’t steal food from the grocery store or clothes from a department store, so why is it O.K. to steal the rent?” An estimated fifteen per cent of Pennsylvania renters will face eviction in January, when the C.D.C. moratorium expires. The disaster is being forestalled, but winter is coming.

Philadelphia served as an outpost for Joe Biden’s campaign, in part because of its proximity to his home in Delaware, but also because the Democratic Party loved the backdrop of the “cradle of American Democracy,” in contrast to the affront to it that pulses at the heart of the Trump Administration. Barack Obama delivered his speech for the Democratic National Convention, this past summer, at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution; more recently, he returned to Philadelphia to stump for Biden in the final weeks of the campaign. Biden made repeated trips to the city for town-hall meetings and to make public addresses. Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell were not only pointed backdrops to political attacks on Donald Trump; they were also poignant symbols of the country’s founding contradiction: freedom and democracy bound to racism and inequality.

The pressing question for the new President-elect is, what will he do in this fragile moment of popular radicalization and despair? It is true that Biden’s plans became more ambitious after the Democratic Party primaries, when he was to the right of most of his opponents, including Kamala Harris. His campaign melded together a fractious coalition of Democrats, folding in those to his left in order to quiet his critics. This was largely done through a “unity task force,” which brought together Bernie Sanders’s supporters with Biden’s campaign, and created a more than one-hundred-page document that was used to revise the Democratic Party platform. Much of the platform now reads like a wish list for the liberal left, hardly reflecting the centrism that has defined Biden’s career. It proposes “a new social and economic contract with the American people—a contract that invests in the people and promotes shared prosperity, not one that benefits only big corporations and the wealthiest few.” That contract describes housing as “a right and not a privilege,” and promises “good-paying jobs,” cash infusions to cities and states, and “fundamental reforms” to address “structural and systemic racism” and “entrenched” income inequality.

Winning the White House may have been the ultimate prize, but the uncertainty over control of the Senate and the Democrats’ losses in the House have already imperiled the lofty plans of the unity caucus. The pressure among Democrats to close ranks in order to defeat Trump and win the Senate had dissolved even before the final tally of votes was taken. On a conference call for members of the Democratic House caucus last Thursday, moderate Democrats blamed the Democratic left for the loss of House seats. “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ again,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, of Virginia, said, according to the Washington Post. “If we are classifying Tuesday as a success . . . we will get fucking torn apart in 2022.” This is a conflict that cannot so easily be muted, because the liberal left and moderate factions of the party represent different demands and different constituencies. The Sanders faction—organized around Medicare for All, police reform, and the Green New Deal, among other progressive causes—cannot be quietly stuffed in a box until the Party leadership calls on the left again to gin up the base and get out the vote. They are fighting to transform the direction of the Party.

It is also no small thing that, during his campaign, Biden insisted on unity with Republicans regardless of the composition of Congress, underlining his intentions to work just as hard for those who voted against him as for those who voted for him. In his victory speech on Saturday night, he said, “To those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of elections myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance.” Cindy McCain, the wife of the late Senator John McCain, prominently defected from the Republican camp to endorse Biden. According to McCain, Biden will not merely reach out to Republicans as a gesture toward unity. She said, “I’ve had this very discussion with him and he’s absolutely going to not only work with Republicans but bring them into the Administration.”

[Originally published on November 9, 2020 via The New Yorker]

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