US global influence over the next decade on climate and biodiversity crises, and the kind of societies that emerge, is an existential issue for humanity. For a socialist environmentalist like me, what happens in American politics is not only fascinating but more crucial than ever.
On 4 March an electric crackle of excitement was discharged, unlikely as it may sound, from Washington D.C. In a packed hall near the Capitol, the author and campaigner Marianne Williamson officially launched her challenge to Joe Biden for the 2024 Democratic Party presidential nomination.
I first became aware of Williamson in 2020, when she was a minor player in a packed field of candidates for the Democratic nomination, though in that contest my attention was mainly focused on Bernie Sanders. In the years since, she has stood out as a strong advocate for Julian Assange and for the environmental lawyer Steven Donziger.
Daring to challenge the President
Given recent defeats of progressive political insurgencies in both the US and UK, Williamson’s bold and inspirational launch speech was like a monsoon flooding a parched desert.
Predictably, mainstream media was incensed that she dared challenge an incumbent president, and greeted her campaign with supercilious scoffing and derision, parroting remarkably similar headlines describing her as a ‘long-shot’ not to be taken seriously. Thus, in an excellent illustration of ‘manufacturing consent,’ the media whose role is supposed to hold power to account instead protects the establishment against democratic scrutiny.
Recent presidents and their records
Measuring against a low bar, Biden has arguably been the best US president of my lifetime. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, while botched and messy (including some war crimes on the way out), was nevertheless a courageous step towards rejecting American imperialism and perpetual warfare, which is on its own an improvement over his three predecessors.
Regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US should have made greater efforts towards a negotiated peace, but Biden has done a reasonable job of finding the delicate balance between supporting Ukraine without feeding into dangerous escalation.
He has achieved a measure of domestic success too: forgiving a significant proportion of student loan debt, reinvigorating US semiconductor chip manufacturing, and the omnibus ‘Inflation Reduction Act’ passed last Autumn, which includes help with childcare and housing costs, a 15 per cent minimum corporate tax rate and significant climate-related investment, among other things.
While Biden pays lip service to the climate crisis, and wasted no time in re-joining the Paris Agreement after Donald Trump withdrew from the treaty, the Biden administration approved more oil and gas drilling permits in its first 2 years than did Trump. The Inflation Reduction Act, widely praised for its climate investment, includes provisions mandating that at least 62 million acres of US public land and offshore waters be offered up for oil and gas leasing each year for a decade, as a prerequisite for new solar or wind developments. Thus, Biden is susceptible to much of the hypocrisy and capitulation that came to define the Obama presidency.
That is crucial, because Obama’s failure to deliver on the ‘hope and change’ rhetoric of his 2008 campaign was a betrayal that cemented the resentment and despair on which a demagogue like Trump could capitalise.
What does Marianne Williamson offer?
Marianne Williamson, by contrast, seeks not to perpetuate what she calls ‘a sociopathic economic system’ but to fundamentally disrupt it in the interests of working people. Aside from a long career as an author, Williamson has worked with non-profits, including organisations she helped found to provide free meals to sick patients at the height of the AIDS pandemic.
While she has never held elected office, her position as an outsider could actually help her to present a populist challenge to the political establishment – part of the appeal that made Trump successful in 2016. She rejects the notion that ‘only those whose careers have been entrenched in the system that drove us into a ditch should possibly be considered qualified to lead us out of that ditch.’
Broad and ambitious policies
Her policy platform so far is broad and ambitious, affirming her commitments to single-payer universal healthcare and tuition free public college and trade school, and to a mobilisation effort on the scale of the Second World War to decarbonise the energy system by 2035. She plans to remove restrictions from organised labour and impose penalties on companies engaged in union busting or strike breaking.
Williamson’s 2020 presidential campaign, while understandably overshadowed by Bernie Sanders, brought the issue of reparations for the descendants of the enslaved into focus, and this remains a feature of her new and seemingly improved campaign.
These ideas are popular and necessary; forcing Biden to confront them can only pressure him in a positive direction, even if Williamson ultimately loses the race – and that’s far from a foregone conclusion, given that there’s unlikely to be much other competition.
Williamson – unlike Biden – is rising to meet the moment. Only a positive vision for change on this scale can confidently ward off the ongoing far-Right threat, safeguard American democracy and indeed the future habitability of the planet. So long as the US remains a world leader, the world needs leadership in the direction represented by Williamson.
She’s an underdog, but …
She may be an underdog but, apparently unlike the Democratic Party leadership or media, I value democracy; Biden isn’t automatically entitled to the nomination, and Williamson’s campaign should be given a fair hearing. Moreover, if one is committed to the principles of a liveable planet, the right to education and healthcare, and a fair economy for all, not only has Biden, in my view, clearly fallen short, but Williamson’s platform is far superior. And I, for one, am hoping for the miracle of her victory.
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