Since Bernie Sanders’ defeat in the Democratic primaries, there has been a feisty debate here on the socialist left about what we should do next. Some of us tried very hard to stop Joe Biden from being nominated. But now that he has been nominated, our choices are to hold our noses and vote for him (at least in swing states) or to follow the Bartleby politics of Slavoj Zizek and say I prefer not to to both candidates.
A recent letter in New Politics argues that we should reject the “call to vote for Biden as the lesser evil,” claiming that the former vice president has caused “great harm” and would constitute a return to the “Obama-era status quo in which millions of migrants were deported, people of color were at the mercy of the police, the prisons were full to bursting, economic inequality grew to immense proportions, and the globe was hurtling toward climate catastrophe.” On the Bad Faith Podcast, Briahna Joy Gray and Virgil Texas debated Noam Chomsky on this point, contending that, if progressives simply line up to support the Democratic party no matter what, they are forfeiting their leverage on the policies of the future Biden administration. One could also point to the long history of Democrats talking a big game on progressive reform only to back off once in power. As philosopher George W. Bush once put it, “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.” To paraphrase Roger Daltrey, should we let ourselves be fooled again?
We understand all these reservations. Joe Biden is very much a creature of the establishment. While he might have a bit more of a down-to-earth appeal than Hilary Clinton had in 2016, Biden has supported similarly atrocious policies during his long career in politics. Even Donald Trump was willing to take pot shots at his record on race relations: particularly 1994’s infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Biden’s proposed health reforms are paragons of limited ambition, tweaking the edges of an inegalitarian and extremely inefficient private system that deserved a place on the ash heap of history decades ago. Finally, it is deeply disappointing that Biden didn’t offer a better olive branch to the left, by appointing Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren as his VP pick. Nathan Robinson is absolutely right that, in the event that Biden wins this November (which we hope he does), progressives will need to cut the celebrations over Trump’s downfall short and begin the hard work of building support for more substantial changes.
Nevertheless, progressive voters in swing states should vote for Biden to deny Trump a second term.
In the context of the COVID pandemic, the harm reduction part of our case pretty much makes itself. The left spends a lot of time rightly emphasizing that centrists are wrong to act as if elections were technocratic job interviews, rather than confrontations between clashing ideologies and economic interests. But this is a context where technocratic competence goes a long way. We aren’t holding our breaths for Biden to convert to Medicare for All, and that certainly means that his response to the pandemic will be grotesquely insufficient, but “grotesquely insufficient” still comes in degrees. Trump’s America doesn’t quite lead the world in COVID deaths per million. Out of 150 nations whose deaths are tracked here, only eight have done worse. Most of them aren’t in the first world. Even a more competent conservative probably wouldn’t be exercising quite such a monstrous level of neglect.
Another issue, less cataclysmic in terms of short-term harm reduction but absolutely vital to long-term left strategy, is the National Labor Relations Board. Trump’s NLRB has reversed a whole series of precedents set by the board during the Obama administration. In every case, the effect has been to make life more difficult for existing labor unions trying to negotiate better working conditions and for workers trying to organize new unions.
This issue overlaps in some deeply disturbing ways with the COVID question. Trump’s NLRB has ruled, for example, that workers have no legal right to speak out publicly against their companies’ inadequate safety precautions during the pandemic. Taking a page from the coup-plotters in Bolivia, who repeatedly used COVID as a pretext to delay the election that ultimately drove them from power, the Board even used COVID as an excuse to halt all union elections—even though it would be easy to hold such elections online or through the mail.
The NLRB issue has real consequences for the terrain on which workers fight for better wages and working conditions and more of a say on the job. These issues are central to the telos of the socialist left.
Some radical leftists might think that telling swing state voters to hold their noses and vote for a deeply unappealing establishment candidate to protect labor unions that often aren’t nearly as militant as we’d wish, amounts to tinkering around the edges of a fundamentally unjust system. But many past radicals have seen things differently. In his Inaugural Address to the First International, Karl Marx hailed the passage of legislation mandating a 10-hour day in Britain as a “great practical success,” a “victory in principle” and a triumph for “the political economy of the working class” over the “political economy of the middle class.” The parliament that passed the 10 Hours Act was dominated by men many miles to the right of a neoliberal Democrat like Biden, but Marx knew a victory when he saw one. He didn’t live long enough to see America’s two-party system consolidate itself, much less the political realignments of the twentieth century that lurk behind political dilemmas like Biden vs. Trump and it would be foolish to pretend to know what he would have advised his American comrades to do in such situations, but the spirit of his point is clear. Concrete victories for workers matter even within a rotten system. They make real people’s lives better in the here and now and help movements for change build the confidence to push for bigger wins in the future. And any possible leftist project relies on having a strong labor movement at its base.
Hundreds of thousands of working-class Americans are dead and hundreds of thousands more could die if the Trump administration’s criminally incompetent management of the COVID crisis continues. After four years of Trump, some of the rules of the road for labor organizers are more unfavorable to workers than they’ve been since the Great Depression. In the states where the margins could be tight enough for the votes of disenchanted leftists to make a difference, holding our noses to vote for Biden strikes us an easy call. In principle, it’s pretty much the same call made by socialists and communists in France who sometimes have to vote for conservative candidates in the second round of French elections to keep out neo-fascists like Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen.
Part of the reason it may be so difficult for some American leftists to make the parallel strategic calculation may have to do with an issue at the center of Ben’s new book, Cancelling Comedians While the World Burns: the need to move away from seeing the role of the left as purely oppositional. We don’t (or shouldn’t) just want to protest the monstrous injustices built into the status quo. We also want to change things for the better.
We’re under no illusion that Biden himself is an agent of that positive change. In many ways, he’s an enemy of the political agenda that we’re dedicated to promoting. But we can and should make rational choices about which enemy we want to spend the next four years fighting. Do we want to fight purely defensive battles against an energized and emboldened right led by Donald Trump—the perfect embodiment of the disturbing trends in postmodern conservatism that Matt has extensively described—or do we want to fight against the tepid neoliberal defenders of the status quo as we push for desperately needed reforms?
A movement that sees itself as a permanently marginal opposition, incapable of playing a real role in events, will chafe at the idea of getting its hands dirty by making strategic decisions about which president we want to represent the system we hate. The part of the left that resents being told not to cast a protest vote even in swing states is so resigned to our dismal circumstances that it believes that making a protest is all we can do. It’s not. We have a world to win.
The COVID epidemic has already killed more Americans than the First World War and the Vietnam War combined. For the second time in little more than a decade, the global economy has fallen apart. Millions of people risk falling into poverty or worse. Throughout all this, the barely coherent reality TV host in the White House has careened between denying or minimizing the scope of the crisis and indulging in racist rhetoric about “the China virus” that dangerously escalates superpower tensions. Trump’s rambling stream-of-consciousness diatribes remain must-see TV even as the death toll mounts. All of this feeds the worst, most exhausting aspects of America’s endless culture wars, while draining political attention and energy that could be better spent fighting about healthcare, climate change and the rest. As Matt Taibbi has put it, the Trump presidency is like an endless version of the O. J. Simpson trial, in which O. J. is testifying every day. Meanwhile, the bodies of COVID victims continue to fill morgues around the country. Trump’s postmodern circus is well past its prime. Time to give it the chop.