How should the left think about rallying behind Biden?

This is an essay from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

In the wake of Bernie Sanders dropping out of the race, there’s been considerable commotion over whether or not Biden should be endorsed, supported, or voted for among leftist commentators and activists.

Strikingly, Sanders’s campaign press secretary Briahna Joy Gray said she could not bring herself to personally endorse Biden, putting her at odds with her former boss. A number of leftie pundits have made it clear that it should not be taken as a given that Sanders supporters will consolidate behind Biden come Election Day, and that they still must be won over. The trending of #NeverBiden on Twitter may have helped inspire The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan to interview Noam Chomsky, who argued that declining to vote for Biden is a vote for Trump — which in turn incensed some activists on the far left. (Note that Chomsky has historically always backed the idea of voting for a Democrat over a Republican in presidential elections.)

Is there a serious chance of Sander supporters abstaining from voting in the general election en masse? I’d wager no. Some liberals love to bash Sanders for the Dems’ 2016 loss, but Sanders campaigned for Clinton and in 2016, his supporters stayed at home, voted third party or voted for the Republican candidate at a lower rate than Hillary Clinton supporters did in 2008 after Obama won the nomination. Those Sanders supporters who defected to the GOP were primarily offbeat moderates, not diehard, ideologically coherent progressives. And this time around, the crisis of Trump and a global pandemic should further counteract some of the temptation to shun the Democrat. It’s also worth noting that many of the most vocal #NeverBiden folks might be people who don’t generally vote and don’t actually represent the threat of people leaving the party in droves.

Still, the ethics of presidential voting is a perennial debate on the left, and it’s not a trivial one. The US has appallingly low voter participation rates, and presidential contests skew extra competitive in this era due to the lovely anti-democratic cocktail of party polarization and the electoral college, so it’s worth making an affirmative case for why even the most disenchanted lefties and Sanders supporters — even those who completely despise the Democratic Party — should vote for Biden. In my opinion, it’s a no-brainer.

The leftist political analyst and activist Michael Kinnucan wrote a great short post on Facebook the other day that helped clarify my thinking on the matter. The reality is that many of the lefties who say they personally won’t vote for Biden or publicly hem and haw about the prospect of it do in fact quietly hope that Trump loses. The reasons for this are obvious: as reactionary and vacuous as Biden’s political career has been, he’s less reactionary and vacuous than Trump: he will likely cause less harm to the world by many metrics, is more likely to stabilize the economy amidst a global pandemic, and is likely to make some incremental reforms in a progressive direction.

Kinnucan suggests that the lefties who prefer Trump to lose but say they can’t personally bring themselves to vote for Trump hold a sub-political position, because “your individual vote only matters as part of a collective action.”

More than any group the left should be attuned to conceptualizing citizen action as most meaningful when it is collective. And yet somehow when it comes to presidential voting the language tends to become strikingly individualistic. People say things like “I’m only speaking for myself” or “I can’t bring myself to vote Biden personally.” After Sanders dropped out, the leftist commentator Krystal Ball said, “I for one won’t be judging or shaming them about how [Sanders supporters] weigh those options [of voting]. And they’ll be by the way making those choices for themselves.”

Ostensibly this sounds like respect for the democratic will of the left. But it’s a strange straddling of the line between advocacy and personal expression. For those leftists who in their heart prefer a Trump loss but tell people they personally won’t vote for Biden, it’s a clever formulation that allows them to claim a moral high ground while putting the burden of strategic collective action on other people — and yet also dodge accusations of being the worst kind of spoiler since they didn’t tell others to join them, and there’s a good chance the person saying this doesn’t live in a swing state. It’s also odd because the follow-your-heart rhetoric seems to imply that there are many different paths one could take in the voting booth, but in reality when you’re talking about a presidential election in the US, there are only two. And it’s especially strange to see this coming from professional advocates who in all other cases seem to have strong opinions on every political issue under the sun — and see it as their responsibility to encourage massive mobilizations around those opinions.

But just because voting takes place in a private booth doesn’t mean it’s not a kind of collective action; votes only matter in the aggregate. Looked at through that lens, talking about not voting for Biden but hoping that Trump doesn’t win another term is really an aesthetic position, not a political one. (Let us define political as meaningfully engaged with the pursuit of power.) You get to condemn awful people but do not have to reckon with the consequences of your position if adopted widely. I think the term “virtue-signaling” is often misused, but I think it applies here, especially when used on social media where belligerent posturing toward the DNC is a guarantor of clicks and engagement.

If we hew to Kinnucan’s framework of understanding positions on voting as meeting the threshold for political only when they are embedded in collective action, then there are effectively only three positions: arguing for the left to not vote for Biden, arguing for the left to vote for Biden, or arguing that the left should vote for Biden based on specific conditions.

What are the leftist arguments against voting for Biden? I will engage with a few of the main ones only very briefly:

1) “Vote third party.” There is no compelling evidence that this can ever work in a presidential election in our two-party system. But even if it could, it definitely can’t work spontaneously.

2) “It’s endorsing a corrupt system.” This is also essentially an aesthetic position, in my opinion. As I wrote in 2018 in response to the argument that voting is inherently an endorsement of a morally reprehensible system: “All of our lives involve countless daily compromises and acts of complicity with unjust systems — wearing clothes made in sweatshops, eating food made in slaughterhouses, buying medicines from companies with avaricious patent practices, shopping at stores that pay non-living wages, using carbon-emitting transportation, working jobs for companies that exploit workers and fail to deliver on our ideals. Of course one should strive to change all these things, but the point is that unless you live on some kind of self-sustaining commune on some isolated plot of land, chances are you probably helped give “approval” to several screwed up institutions by lunch time every day. It’s a near-universal part of lived experience in modern society. I would say it’s best to view voting as just one heavily flawed tool for helping change those screwed up institutions. It’s not an endorsement of everything that a politician you voted for does, just like no other individual act comprehensively summarizes your intentions in the world.”

3) “Only by making things worse will we create fertile soil for a revolution.” I find the accelerationist argument morally repugnant — I cannot imagine cosigning a political program that would cause mass suffering on the basis that it might cause people to consider more radical alternatives that might bear fruit at some point in the future. Advocates for this idea rarely consider that suffering and alienation in brutal totalitarian regimes around the world past and present have often been so extreme that they foreclosed the possibility of mass mobilization for generations.

The argument for voting for Biden comes down to a very simple principle, distilled beautifully by Josie Duffy Rice, president of The Appeal, earlier during the Democratic primary: “Vote for the enemy you want.”

When Trump is in office, the left must spend its time firefighting alongside the liberals that they’d be fighting against if a Democrat were in office. It means having to constantly play defense against a yearslong resurgence of nationalism, bigotry, militarism, and plutocracy instead of playing offense against a milder version of it. It means years organizing against emergencies instead of lobbying for ideas to a government that could adopt some of its positions. It means begging for scraps from the government instead of pushing for a wholesale expansion of the welfare state during a pandemic. It means participating in protests that will largely be perceived as calling for the restoration of the neoliberal status quo rather than a call for moving beyond it. The emerging radical left has very limited resources — it’s best to spend them on charting a bold path forward.

The question isn’t whether or not you like the person you have to vote for, it’s deciding what kind of terrain you want to be fighting on and using to build momentum for longer-term projects. (This is to say nothing of the ethical obligations citizens have to harm reduction, protecting the right to vote, and so on; I’m focused on those who are skeptics and see nothing to like about the party.)

The third option is advocating for voting for Biden based on conditions. Based on how disorganized and demoralized the left is in the wake of Sanders’s loss, and the still-nascent nature of its policy and activist infrastructure, I don’t know if this can be pulled off. But if it’s to be pursued these efforts should be tightly organized — for example, 20-left wing organizations should rally around 3 policy proposals and a few guarantees of cabinet picks (I think VP is sort of a lost cause, personally). I suspect some of the lefties I’ve critiqued might fit into this category, but it should be clear that posturing about how as an individual you just can’t bring yourself to vote for a guy you find abhorrent strikes me as the opposite of this kind of collective action.

This is an essay from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

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