An anti-populist election for a populist moment

Distaste for Trump’s handling of the pandemic may nudge Biden into the White House, but the Democrats are unprepared to meet America’s social and political upheavals.
October 15, 2020

Cartoon of Trump and Biden in free fall

Illustration by Remie Geoffroi

Even before the ravages of a global pandemic, America’s body politic looked dangerously ill. On this sentiment, at least, there is probably still widespread agreement. But, as with any diagnosis, the devil is in the details. 

The United States boasts levels of extreme poverty and wealth concentration that set it apart from most industrialized nations. Even by the standards of neoliberal capitalism, U.S. workers are chronically underpaid, exploited and overworked. The country’s health care system, unique among affluent liberal democracies, is essentially a giant Ponzi scheme whose main function is guaranteeing the profits of corporate insurance conglomerates while tens of millionsof people go without even basic coverage. 

Thanks to robber baron campaign finance laws, big money interests dominate both the legislative and electoral process to such an extent that the country’s official status as a “democracy” is now very much a question for philosophical debate. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak political landscape) pointed out last year, lawmakers regularly legislate around the very industries that fund them, making it difficult to discern where organized wealth ends and whatever remains of democratic politics begins. 

All this was evident before COVID-19 exposed the frayed nature of America’s social bonds or the brutal police murder of Minnesotan George Floyd underscored its persistent racism. With crisis piled upon catastrophe, perhaps no moment in U.S. history since the Civil War has made such a strong case for sweeping political upheaval. 

And yet, November’s 2020 presidential election will ultimately pit the incumbent right-wing menace against a conservative Democrat whose basic message is that little beyond the current occupant of the White House is in need of revision. In short: an anti-populist election in a moment more primed for popular insurgency than any other in decades. 

How exactly did it come to this? 


Though little about politics feels certain anymore, 2020 was always going to be a referendum on Donald Trump. In a sense, of course, the same can be said about every election featuring an incumbent president. But Trump’s 2016 rise so resoundingly shattered our collective sense of political reality that virtually every development since has seemed epiphenomenal. With impeachment dead on arrival, thanks to a Republican-controlled Senate, and Trump poised to run again, the answer to one very important question would inevitably define the contours of the 2020 election cycle: namely, what would the alternative look like? 

The necessity of unseating Trump being a given, plenty of constituent questions remained for U.S. liberals. Who would the Democratic presidential nominee be, and would he or she embrace a radical or a centrist agenda? What coalition of voters would Democrats try to assemble? Why exactly had Hillary Clinton lost what was probably the most winnable election in modern history? Though answers to questions like these have largely broken along predictable left/right lines since 2016, Trump’s omnipresence in the American political imagination meant that, like virtually everything else in 2020, even they would necessarily revolve around how exactly one explained him

Every liberal in America seemed to agree that the country’s body politic was ill. But was Trump the disease or a mere symptom? 

In the mainstream liberal account, Donald Trump’s 2016 election represented the sudden and violent rupture of America’s political reality—a break from all precedent so unexpected it defied rational explanation. In this telling, mainstream conservatism and, by extension, the country’s electoral process itself were hijacked by something sinister and foreign. “This is not conservatism as we have known it,” said Clinton in August 2016. “This is not Republicanism as we have known it.” Plenty of people find this story of the past four years persuasive, which is a major reason it has dominated network television and much of print journalism since then. 

The problem with this rendering of things has always been straightforward. When Trump and Trumpism are passed off as something alien to American politics, the culture complicit in their rise is let off the hook and the conditions that enabled them to flourish can be too easily ignored. 

This means, among other things, ignoring or minimizing the storied history of Republican appeals to racism going back to the days of Reagan’s “Chicago welfare queen” and long before (Democratic politicians are hardly exempt). It similarly means exonerating the previous Democratic administration for its negligent handling of the 2009 financial crisis, which precipitated the greatest destruction of middle class wealth since the Great Depression. 

America’s two political parties have had a shared commitment to austerity, neoliberal globalization, and increasing corporate encroachment on both politics and daily life since the 1980s. Though no single event or cultural development is to blame for the Trump phenomenon, disastrous decisions big and small, by Democrats and Republicans alike, undoubtedly contributed to the climate of democratic atrophy and demoralization in which it was able to take root.


Beginning in early 2019, the Democratic presidential primaries effectively pit the mainstream theory of Donald Trump’s rise against a broader and more sweeping critique of America’s political status quo. 

Coming closer to winning the Democratic nomination in 2016 than even many supporters had believed was possible, Bernie Sanders was always bound to be a formidable candidate in 2020. But as the race heated up, he seemed more and more a kind of centrifugal force around which almost everything, explicitly or not, was revolving. The reason for his centrality in the contest was simple, though the ultimately successful effort to stop him would take a dizzyingly convoluted route to its final destination. 

As an outspoken critic of the Democratic mainstream (and the class of corporate donors with which it is closely interwoven), Sanders attracted particularly fierce ideological opposition from centrist liberals. His signature policies, notably his unapologetic campaign for universal health care, represented a threat to American capital and its political surrogates more serious than either had faced in decades. Between his radical agenda and willingness to openly antagonize the extremely rich, Sanders’s candidacy plainly sought to overturn years of conventional wisdom about what was and is politically possible.

His critique of America’s political status quo also extended itself far beyond the errors of 2016 or the personality of Donald Trump. Strikingly, when Sanders was asked to account for the Trump era, he invariably blamed its worst aspects on the leaderships of both major parties and the conditions they have allowed to fester: 

“How did Trump become president? [The fact is] tens and tens of millions of Americans feel that the political establishment, Republican and Democrat, have failed them. What you have is that people are, in many cases in this country, working longer hours for low wages. You are aware of the fact that in an unprecedented way life expectancy has actually gone down in America because of diseases of despair. People have lost hope and they are drinking. They’re doing drugs. They’re committing suicide. They are worried about their kids.” 

Though under no illusions about disabusing the Republican base of prejudice, Sanders calculated that a radical and popular agenda could win back working class votes lost by Democrats since the Reagan era, while activating youth and low income voters, even non-voters, who are typically ignored by establishment liberals and conservatives alike. Securing victory on this basis, Sanders hoped to mobilize this same coalition to overcome the obstructionist nature of America’s political institutions and pass a program more transformative than anything the country has seen since the New Deal. 

Confronted with a second Sanders insurgency, centrist Democrats faced something of a dilemma. Whatever hostility he elicited from the professional political class, the only socialist in the United States Senate was also its most popularmember. More to the point, key parts of Sanders’s agenda, like Medicare For All, commanded considerable support. The primary race was thus punctuated by a series of increasingly strained and sometimes pathetic attempts to capture Sanders’s dynamism while stripping it of anything politically ambitious or radical. 

In candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, Democratic strategists hoped to engineer a kind of brand relaunch in which the vague idea of “youth” would stand in for a popular agenda. Others, like Kamala Harris (since appointed Democratic nominee for vice-president) tried to borrow Sanders’s language around issues like Medicare For All while touting an agenda that pandered to the usual caste of special interests and corporate donors. A handful, like little known former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, attempted an explicitly anti-populist formula, though this, too, seemed to fall flat. 

The only real exception was Elizabeth Warren. Though significantly less radical than Sanders, the senator was at least comfortable antagonizing the nation’s billionaires and pitching policies like a wealth tax that grated against the prevailing consensus. By January, however, Warren had joined other candidates in the field in turning her guns against Sanders—a maneuver that failed to reinvigorate her candidacy but arguably aided the campaign’s sudden turn roughly eight weeks later. 

Joe Biden, despite being the race’s ostensible frontrunner, had performed terribly in early contests, coming fourth in the Iowa caucuses, fifth in the New Hampshire primary and a distant second in Nevada. The former vice president’s campaign apparently flailing ahead of the critical votes on Super Tuesday, anti-Sanders forces made another desperate feint toward Michael Bloomberg, hoping that the former Republican billionaire might capture enough delegates to play kingmaker and deny a victorious Sanders the nomination. 

With the months-long effort to stop Sanders in disarray and the available alternatives losing steam, it briefly appeared that something extraordinary was about to happen and that the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nominee would be an open socialist pitching a radical critique of America’s political status quo. What happened next must therefore rank as one of the swiftest and most punishing turns in the history of primary politics. A sudden consolidation behind Biden succeeded in restoring his frontrunner status just as Sanders was poised to win, while Warren, the only remaining candidate who might have endorsed the Vermont Senator, refused to do so. 

In one account that soon trended among pundits, Biden had merely united the majority of Democratic voters who preferred his moderate agenda to the one being championed by his left-wing opponent. Though casual observers might easily conclude the same, this explanation of the outcome doesn’t square with what we know about the actual preferences of Democratic primary voters, who favoured, and continue to favour, marquee Sanders policies like a Green New Deal and Medicare For All. Even in South Carolina, the state that gave Biden his first primary victory, a majority of voters reportedly favoured a “complete overhaul” of the U.S. economic system. 

Sanders had gambled that these preferences could be turned into a winning coalition. Though his slew of early primary and caucus victories had seemed to bear this out, the race ultimately swung on something more abstract: the question of who liberal voters believed was the safest bet against Donald Trump. As the more recognized face and the candidate with the backing of most party grandees and luminaries, not to mention overwhelming media support, Biden—a candidate who once pledged that “nothing fundamentally would change” should he win—ultimately secured the allegiance of a primary electorate whose fear of the current president overrode its ideological preferences. 

The key question of the 2020 election cycle had thus been decided. Trump was disease rather than symptom, and defeating him with a progressive agenda would take a backseat to putting the old and familiar in his place. 


If the current polls are borne out and Joe Biden is elected president in November, it will be in spite of his campaign rather than because of it. Notwithstanding his already disastrous presidency, Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has been so incompetent that his re-election would be something of a miracle. Nonetheless, as the candidate who ostensibly represented the safe choice, Biden appeared determined, well into September, to repeat many of the same strategic errors that doomed Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Having similarly witnessed a populist revolt within the Democratic base, the former vice-president has similarly put all his chips on winning the votes of affluent suburbanites and the tiny sliver of Republicans who oppose the current president. Between a Wall Streetfriendly campaign and a tough-on-crime pivot amidst national reckoning with racial injustice, liberal America’s standard-bearer is promising conservative restoration in a moment demanding radical change.

Out-of-touch though it may be, the widespread and well-deserved hatred much of the U.S. electorate has for Donald Trump may well be enough to carry Joe Biden to victory on November 3. But make no mistake: even if Trump goes down to defeat, America’s body politic will remain as dangerously ill as it was when he first emerged—and the new Democratic president, having diagnosed the Trump era as disease rather than symptom, will be poorly equipped to offer a cure. 

Luke Savage is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine whose writing has also appeared in The Guardian (U.K.), New StatesmanCurrent Affairs, the Globe and Mail and elsewhere. He co-hosts a weekly podcast, Michael and Us, about current events and agitprop cinema.