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18 November 2020

The US election: how the grassroots won for Biden

By Maxine Thomas-Asante

2020 has been a tough year. From Covid-19, to life in lockdown, to global race equality protests, we have faced enough challenges to inspire films for the next decade. However, through all of this, we have been reminded of what is most important: community. Communities have gathered, supported one another and mobilised in order to raise awareness of the issues that really matter. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the outcomes of the American general election.

An online campaign and the role of the grassroots

Elections normally involve rallies, televised debates with large studio audiences, and an incredible amount of cross-country travelling. However, due to scientific advice to limit large gatherings, the 2020 elections – certainly for Joe Biden – looked remarkably different. Jen O’Malley Dillon, the first woman to manage a winning Democratic presidential election campaign, took the bold decision to run the whole show more or less virtually.

Grassroots organisers, who have been mobilizing for years to combat voter suppression, also came into their own. The grassroots were active in supporting people to register, getting people to the voting booths, phoning to encourage turnout. The success of this influence was phenomenal, with 53 per cent of young people (aged 18-29) turning out to vote. This considerably overshadowed the 2016 turnout rate and is the highest youth turnout rate in American history. Young voters overwhelmingly voted for the Biden-Harris ticket.

Georgia – A tension 20 years in the making

Some of the most visible American activists have explored why the turnout was so high. LaTosha Brown, a Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter, argues that people have been politicised by the experiences of 2020. This created a newfound determination due to the concerns around democracy and equality that have been exposed over the past year. Kamala Harris, who will become the first Black-Asian woman Vice President, no doubt helped bring the Black vote out too.

LaTosha is based in Georgia and has used Georgia as an example of a change in attitude that led to Biden’s win. For the last 20 years Georgia has voted exclusively for Republican presidential candidates. However, this year Georgia “turned blue”, voting for the Democrats. She directly attributed this to a decade of “deep organising on the ground”.

When challenged on the high numbers of Latino voters voting for Trump, LaTosha concluded that what was different about this year was that people from all ages, races and political opinions were voting more.

The grassroots divided

Trying to understand the implications of the American presidential election can be challenging, because the scope of the Republicans and the Democrats is so different to the differences of opinion seen in the Conservative and Labour parties.

Even within the Democrat party we have seen vastly different responses to Biden’s win. Many of the most radical activist voices from the Democrat party have been quite muted in their response. Contrastingly, other active Democrat figures deem this an opportunity to launch into very progressive targets.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)

AOC is a Congresswoman for New York. She is Hispanic and was a successful activist before entering partisan politics. Her priority areas include Medicare for all; a Green New Deal; and abolishing the heavy handed US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), all of which are perceived as being very radical for American politics.

In response to the news that Biden had won, she simply tweeted ‘Congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden & Vice President-elect Kamala Harris!’ Soon after, she released an interview concluding  ‘In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party’.

Despite the fact that AOC has worked for previous Bernie Sanders campaigns, Sanders’ response was remarkably different.

Bernie Sanders

Well known for his attempts to run for president in 2016 and 2020, Sanders seems more hopeful about a future under Biden. He went as far as to announce an agenda to the Senate that will cover his desired intentions for the first 100 days of the next session. This included: improving wages; addressing climate change; providing healthcare as a human right; increasing access to college; challenging systemic racism; and easing the process of obtaining citizenship.

A front-foot future

For grassroots organisations fighting for race equality, Biden’s victory is a moment of cautious optimism. While the world breathes a deep sigh of relief over the removal of Trump from office, it is evident from the events of 2020 that there is a lot of work to be done. Biden has an active history of anti-racism advocacy. However, for some younger grassroots activists he is not radical enough.  As 2021 approaches, and with Trump still refusing to concede, we watch attentively from across the Atlantic!