How progressives should navigate their Biden conundrum
If current polling is accurate, former Vice President Joe Biden could cruise to a crushing victory over President Donald Trump on Election Day, November 3. Much can change between now and then. As the world learned in 2016, nothing is certain. But barring a significant reversal of Trump’s fortunes or interference with the electoral process, America will likely inaugurate a new president in 2021.
For many of the country’s liberals, that’s the endgame. Especially after the numerous catastrophes and close calls of 2020, they want to relax, be rid of Trump, and breathe a sigh of relief. But as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez warned, “There’s no going back to brunch. We have a whole new world to build. We cannot accept going back to the way things were, & that includes the Dem party. We must deliver transformative, material change.”
Ocasio-Cortez hinted at a significant divide between the Democratic Party establishment and its left-wing base. The Biden/Harris ticket is viewed as too moderate, even right-wing, by progressives in the party. Some prominent left-wingers, including Senator Bernie Sanders’s former press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, and podcaster Ryan Knight, aren’t convinced they owe Biden their vote at all.
In a recent conversation with Noam Chomsky on her podcast, Gray pressed the leftist intellectual on the liberal philosophy of “blue no matter who,” meaning support the Democratic candidate no matter who it is. Biden is a right-wing Democrat, the architect of the 1994 crime bill that devastated black communities, and a longtime ally of Wall Street. Harris, as a prosecutor and attorney general in California, was famously harsh on low-level crime committed by poor people and lax on white-collar crime committed by executives.
Gray’s argument is that leftists of good conscience cannot support such a ticket. She, Knight, and others want to teach the Democratic Party not to take their votes for granted. A Democratic loss in November, they argue, could force the party to make more concessions to progressives in the future.
Chomsky’s counterargument is that after four more years of Trump, there may not be much of a future to look forward to. Trump is unhinged. Just in the last month, he called for the arrest of his opponent, threatened to throw away mail-in ballots, signaled to white supremacist gangs that they should be ready to fight for him, facilitated coronavirus super-spreader events in his White House, and further downplayed the disease after catching it. He calls climate change a hoax and insists that the US should not only do nothing to mitigate it, but should knowingly accelerate it.
Leftists like Knight and Gray are aware of the danger Trump poses. But they see Biden as a palliative, a placebo who will ease the anxiety of liberals without bringing about any badly needed, structural changes. Knight and Gray are fed up with the cycle of neofascist Republicans running against right-wing corporate Democrats, and have decided they can no longer support it.
The question of whether to support Biden at the ballot has led to a great deal of leftist infighting. On Twitter, leftists like Knight complain of being “vote-shamed” — attacked by liberals who accuse him of willfully harming the country without fully acknowledging his legitimate grievances with Biden. Knight argues that vote-shaming is unproductive, forcing people to concede to politicians instead of vice-versa and turning away people the left needs to mobilize.
Both sides, to some extent, overstate the importance of the vote itself. Liberals who criticize nonvoters often give the impression that voting is the ultimate form of political action and civic duty. Nonvoting progressives seem to regard their vote as a reflection on themselves, and worry about selling out by giving Biden their approval at the poll. But a vote is not a sacred pact. It is merely one tactic of many.
Everyone on the left should strive to both minimize harm and facilitate as much good as possible. The next president will either be Joe Biden or Donald Trump, and even his most aggressive critics on the left almost all concede Biden is the lesser evil. It’s true that Biden’s platform doesn’t go far enough in giving working people the relief they need after decades of abandonment by the political and corporate class. But voting is, ultimately, a small piece of a much larger progressive project that needs to take place.
It’s important for people who all want the same thing, whose hearts are in the right place, to stick together, even if they disagree on strategy. Progressive nonvoters may be miscalculating when it comes to harm reduction, but they must still be part of the political movement. They can be invaluable assets to grassroots campaigns, attend and help with rallies, knock on doors, make phone calls, distribute literature, support strikes, and donate. If their conscience won’t let them vote for Biden, they can still support down-ballot progressives, as Knight does.
A formal split between the party’s establishment and progressive wings is likely at some point, but the infrastructure isn’t there yet. In the meantime, a Biden presidency may relieve certain pressures, especially for people hurt by the COVID economy. Democratic presidents are more susceptible to pressure from the left, from President Obama at Standing Rock to Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act. There’s no telling what a President Biden will do. But putting out the neofascist fires of Donald Trump may foster a more favorable landscape for real progressives to build and continue their movement.