BY Edwin Amenta
It is hard to overstate the importance of the recent election results to campaigns for social justice. The defeat of President Donald Trump by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—plus the Democratic control of Congress—flips the script. Activists who would be hoping at best to delay further negative action from the Trump administration by way of protest may now expect real advances to their causes and missions through governmental action.
Crises and challenger mobilizations often lead to progressive social policy, but it isn’t a given. The Great Depression of the 1930s, which I have studied closely, and the Great Recession starting in 2008 brought reform. During the Depression, however, very little happened in the way of relief and reform for three years, during the regime of President Herbert Hoover, despite extensive mobilizations of the unemployed, workers, and veterans, among others.
And, as we have seen recently, a crisis with a Republican-controlled White House and Senate will not promote social justice—despite massive protests surrounding issues ranging from Black lives to women’s rights, from gun safety to scientific guidance. In 2020, these leaders failed to confront the coronavirus pandemic and then delayed and reduced a needed second round of relief. Also, bidding to overturn the results of a democratic election, President Trump spurred on white supremacists and right-wing terrorists, who trashed the Capitol in a violent and self-defeating riot.
But there are important parallels to the Depression and Recession eras. Unemployment was at record levels in 1933, and poverty was extreme, around 70 percent among the elderly. Today the number of Americans enrolled in unemployment programs is over 18 million, with almost a million filing new unemployment claims last week. As many as 400,000 Americans will have died from Covid-19 by the time Trump is evicted from the White House. The country has also seen waves of resistance mobilization.
Partly as a result of these mobilizations and fumbled crises, Republicans were repudiated at the polls, being displaced by a Democratic regime seeking reform. In 1933, the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was elected to office with a Congress in which northern Democrats almost constituted a majority, providing leverage over policy. Similarly, the Great Recession helped to end Republican control of the White House and elevate President Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress to power in 2008.
The New Deal brought new rights and policies for less powerful groups, including workers, the unemployed, single mothers, and the elderly, among others. The Obama era produced a dramatic upgrade in the country’s backward health care system. But a weak stimulus package, the Republican leadership’s determination to stymie the administration, and the 2010 midterm “shellacking” of the Democrats halted any chances for legislative reform for causes ranging from the environment to labor to civil rights.
Although Biden has only the slimmest of congressional majorities, with Harris the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, the political context is ripe for change, with justice groups are better positioned now than in 2009. Because of previous mobilizations and inroads made in the Democratic party, the 2020 Democratic party platform is chock full of social justice policies. These include proposals for protecting civil, women’s, and LGBTQ rights to achieving racial justice and ending the epidemic of gun violence. By moving the party left, activists have taken Biden with them. Across his long political career, as the party goes, so goes Joe. They have also cracked open some Overton windows. Most notably, activists in the Fight for 15 have turned an idea that seemed outlandish just a few years ago into state action and a new federal proposal, with statehood for the District of Columbia also wrenched out of the realm of fantasy.
The Biden administration can act without Congress in some ways to undo harms caused by the Trump administration and advance key causes. Simply appointing people to run departments and agencies who believe in their missions will be a great leap forward. As for specific actions, they range from reversing Trump administration environmental guidelines on air pollution and poisons and rejoining the Paris climate accord to tightening regulations on Wall Street and monopolies, from forgiving student debt and reinstating DACA to granting blanket pardons for those in federal prison for marijuana offenses.
Also, justice demands the thorough investigation and prosecution of the seditious and violent actions of far-right, white supremacists and paramilitary groups—beyond the trial of Trump—which will produce side benefits. The Republican-led Senate was planning to convert its manufactured election scandal into a second Benghazi-style investigation, a red herring to promote restrictions on voting. But with the victories in Georgia and the Capitol melee, a Democratic Senate committee can investigate the threats to democracy posed by the rioters, along with those who instigated them with false claims of election fraud or provided inside support.
But to make real policy change, the new administration will need to legislate, extensively and quickly. The early signs are good. That Biden has proposed an ambitious $1.9 billion spending program—the America Rescue Plan—is promising. The Democratic platform lays out many of the next steps. Among the legislation called for are the Paycheck Protection Act and the Equality Act, with raising the minimum wage to $15 already part of the rescue plan. Especially key is legislation to increase the power resources of social justice groups, such as the PRO Act, which will restore workers’ rights and unions’ abilities to engage in secondary boycotts. Although women’s marches, marches for science, and similar resistance activities are not currently needed, movement actors should mobilize behind this program and lend urgency to it. That said, police restructuring is something that will need to happen city by city, and to effect it it may take more direct action along the lines of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Action may be called for in non-governmental institutions as well.
Passing such legislation will be difficult, but moving fast is essential. In 1935, the labor movement was aided by the Wagner Act and the elderly and unemployed through the Social Security Act—but only after the Roosevelt administration focused its first two years promoting recovery. The minimum wage, legislated in the Fair Labor Standards Act, did not appear until 1938. The Biden administration likely will not have that luxury. Midterm congressional elections usually mean losses to the president’s party, and Democrats’ margins are thin. President Obama’s agenda was decimated in part because unemployment increased during his first years due to Republican intransigence. But it may be possible for Biden and the Democrats to buck the trend, as did Roosevelt in 1934, if they can reset the economy and end the Covid crisis.
Democrats will need to remain in power to protect gains and advance across its progressive agenda. This will mean attempting to remove restrictions on voting, struggles against gerrymandering, and expanding the type of electoral mobilizations led by Stacy Abrams through Georgia Stand-Up. Statehood for the District of Columbia should be pressed as well.
In an election that Biden and Harris won by seven million votes, it is crazy to think if 100,000 votes went differently (45,000 votes in three states and another 55,000 in a Georgia senate race) that Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell would remain in power. And advocates would be right back in 2017, but worse off, protesting against a regime presiding over an anti-justice agenda.