“We almost had them, Joe”: On the Fallacy of Bipartisanship
By Alyx Goodwin
The Next Decade of Abolition is LEFT OUT’s monthly column that explores our hopes, dreams, and challenges for Black people’s liberated and abolitionist futures.
On January 25, 2011 President Obama gave a State of the Union Address for the moment. He emphasized bipartisanship, and the three things needed to “win the future”: American innovation with a focus on clean, renewable energy; meaningful public school education reform; and rebuilding America with a strong infrastructure plan. Now, a decade later, Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, and as many of us recognize, we’ve actually gone backwards: 45 didn’t believe in climate change and pulled the US out of the Paris climate agreement, the Dept. of Education Secretary rolled back protections for trans students and students of color, the proposed trillion dollar infrastructure plan never came to be.
Now, at the height of social movement history in the US, we will be faced with the same campaign promises and the same demands for bipartisanship that fed the need for these movements in the first place. How do we break out of this cycle? With machines of this size, how do we break them?
Welcome to The Next Decade of Abolition, a new LEFT OUT column where we will attempt to answer some of these questions as we use this space to learn from our wins and challenges of the past, and prepare for and highlight the wins and challenges of the future. We are closer now to the abolition of police, prisons, and capitalism than we have ever been. We should celebrate, and we should buckle down to build the systems we want to live with.
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On January 8, 2011 US Representative Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) and 18 others, including a 9 year old, a chief judge, and a staffer for Giffords were wounded or killed in a mass shooting at an event for constituents in Arizona. This happened amid concerns of highly partisan rhetoric on both sides of the aisle. The shooter, Jared Lee Loughner who was 22 at the time, was reportedly obsessed with Representative Giffords and had somehow passed a background check for a gun despite having posted ominous messages on social media and folks around him witnessing a change in his mental health (this is highly simplified for the sake of not having to relive this news cycle).
Who knew that in the years that followed, conservative and far-right racist, xenophobic, and sexist rhetoric would escalate to the point of insurrectionists storming the Capitol a decade later? we knew. Black people knew. Indigenous communities knew. Latinx communities knew. We knew.
We’ve known and we vocalize this every time we demand to defund the police, or abolish prisons, or tax the rich, or pass a Green New Deal, or cancel student debt. Transformative and abolitionist demands are not baseless. They are rooted in the known history of imperialism, colonization, and destruction. Yet rather than address these demands, US Presidencies and their Administrations and their Establishments call for “unity” and “bipartisanship”, a performative gesture harmful to the wins we truly need. Bipartisanship in the US requires compromise between two corporate-backed political machines. Compromise between these two parties that will always come with a cost. Bipartisan compromise also doesn’t bring long lasting protection for our wins.
The morning of the Inauguration, during a scene of Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell in a church service, a person on CNN said of the moment, “the symbolism is important,” but in actuality, the symbolism is the problem.
The “problem” being: incomplete truths, legislation and policy agendas that symbolically protect all people in the US but are unequally applied across the board; the symbolism of the American Dream and the “great” US Economy when in actuality there are millions in poverty; millions without jobs; and these things currently compounded with millions of coronavirus cases due in part to people’s inability to stay home from work.
Symbolic unity and bipartisanship creates reform not revolution. In 2018, it brought us #Cut50 and The First Step Act (founded by Van Jones and defended by Van Jones, respectively, two things that really helped catapult him further into the public eye). This legislation was able to release thousands from US prisons by reexamining their sentences, however it doesn’t discourage the use of prison, address the millions of people incarcerated at the state level, or deliver strong – or even explicit – blows to the systemic racism and classism that supports incarceration at its root.
What we get with Democrat and Republican unity is always something, but never enough. At least never enough for working class communities of color. Bipartisanship keeps corporations in power and provides comfort to the wealthy elite.
The symbolism of bipartisanship is important because it upholds the US’s legacy of racism, capitalism, and imperialism under the facade of democracy and freedom for oppressed people around the world. In true capitalist fashion, bipartisanship has created the problem and a faux solution; a medicine that only works half as good as it should, so that you have to keep buying it.
Biden’s Inauguration speech honored the presidents that came before him, declared the day a moment of “renewal and resolve”, and declared unity a necessary but elusive piece of democracy. Biden said of unity, “For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.
No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.”
Unity around what? There have been periods in US history where there is unity around the perceived need for Black slaves or need for segregated housing and schools. We are in a time now where there is unity against stimulus checks in a pandemic. United against human rights as a means of upholding power and white supremacy. The notion that bitterness and fury are because there is no unity or progress is a falsehood. It’s less about the lack of unity and more about where the power lies.
“And, I believe America is better than this,” Biden continued in his speech. Another fallacy. The power in America lies in the Establishment’s ability to gaslight the public.
Presidential speeches like the one Biden gave at the Inauguration and the many Obama has given in the last decade assume that lending sugar to your neighbors will fight off racism and sexism and xenophobia in our communities. That if we as individuals take more responsibility for ourselves, then those in the federal government can get their jobs done. Abolition knows better.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes abolition as “everything-ist”, which I interpret to mean the abolition of policing and prisons has to also mean the abolition of borders and the abolition of sexism and classism and ableism… and at the root of all of these, the abolition of capitalism. These calls for unity and bipartisanship are just not realistic when there are white supremacists that want to kill us.
One of the challenges, that I will name but also table for later, is knowing that there are white supremacists that also don’t believe in unity and are willing to violently preserve this separatism. Because of that, I do think that when we argue against the kind of unity being prescribed by Biden and politicians, we do so in a way that pushes back on traditions of bipartisanship and that we unify under tenets of things such as anti-racism and anti-capitalism.
The presidency and US government operate under this false dilemma — that this way of living and governing is the only way — when in reality there’s a range of options. We see it every day in our organizing spaces that are practicing shared leadership and creating structures that push back on hierarchy; not for fun, but because we are practicing governing structures we’d want to see in the world.
America is in its 3rd season of The Crown, where it must wrestle with traditionalism and the traditions and practices of imperialism, such as these speeches that call for unity and working across the aisle, ignoring that we have to actually get rid of the aisle. Times are changing and if we want to have a real chance at living and the preservation of our people, the answer isn’t adapting to the newest or bi-partisan version of capitalism.