With the US election beckoning, the presidential challenger must now pander to the shilly-shallying whims of the swing voter, we are told by the media, since the swing voter is the true decider of elections. Candidates may make (insincere) ideological pronunciations during the primary process. But what follows is not policy fireworks or even ersatz utopianism, but campaign discipline—the dreary repetition of empty phrases intended to appeal to the largest audience possible.
As far as suffocatingly scripted election processes go, Joe Biden is a pro. He’s made it clear that, to win, he will have to appeal to so-called moderate Republicans—those individuals who’d like to return to the old days when the president would heave the children of Mexican illegals into cages, without calling them murderers or rapists on live television. Yet while catering to the center is a familiar strategy, the dynamics of this US election are unusual. On one hand, Trump’s refusal to court moderate voters, coupled with his mishandling of COVID-19, means that there may be more disaffected Republicans on offer. And on the other, the surprise collapse of Sanders’ campaign due to the rallying of DNC centrists has produced a lot of disconsolate democratic socialists, who may not vote for Biden.
In assessing which of these demographics to pitch to, Biden has done the smart thing and sided with the faction whose ballots might otherwise find a home with Trump (and who reliably vote). But as Biden boasts that he “beat the socialist[s]” and proudly proclaims his support for cops, it is unclear that enough of the sizable far left will show up for him to insure victory. Fortunately for Biden, however, a number of American socialists themselves have spent the past few weeks informing their comrades that they must vote for Biden. Exhibit A is a piece in this magazine by two of the English-speaking left’s most formidable thinkers, Ben Burgis and Matthew McManus, entitled “Why the Socialist Left Should Vote for Biden.”
McManus and Burgis concede that Biden’s failure to commit to Medicare for All means that his attempts to tackle COVID will be “grossly insufficient,” but they argue that his greater overall “technocratic competency” will partially mitigate this. They also argue that Trump’s changes to the National Labor Relations Board have made life harder for unions trying to “negotiate better working conditions,” as well as for “workers trying to organize new unions.”
How do these claims hold up? Only eight countries, most of them outside the first world, have done worse than the US in COVID-19 deaths per million. For Burgis and McManus, this demonstrates Trump’s mismanagement. This is uncontroversial: we’re talking about a politician who once suggested Americans try injecting “disinfectant” as a homebrew remedy. However, a closer examination of the statistics suggests a more complex narrative. While the ten nations with the highest COVID deaths per capita include the deeply poor Bolivia, they also include five countries (Belgium, Spain, Chile, the US and the UK) classified by the World Bank as “high-income.” If one believes these statistics, affluent nations have fared worse than third-world nations. From this, one can derive two conclusions. First, the countries most adversely affected may lack the medical capacity to do extensive testing. And second, as Spain’s plight demonstrates, being a first-world nation with a centre-left leader does not guarantee success in containing COVID.
For the liberal left, the problem of COVID containment is a problem of right-wing populism—in Brazil, COVID has spread far and wide due to Bolsanaro, in America because of Trump, and so on. While there is a kernel of truth to this, America isn’t just Trump. It’s a nation with all the structural liabilities of any contemporary capitalist economy—underfunded health services, turnover times that have been reduced to close to zero, etc.—albeit more so. A milquetoast Democratic administration might have handled the outbreak better. But there is no evidence that Biden’s “technocratic competency” will automatically result in a better COVID situation.
Burgis and McManus’ second argument is that Trump’s Labor Relations Board has reversed Obama-era decisions that were advantageous to unions and workers. But Biden’s relationship to organized labour—for all his boasts of his blue collar bona fides—is mostly minstrelsy. His policy record—which includes a refusal to endorse American unions in their 1977–78 push for labour law reform, and support for Nafta and the Trans-Pacific Partnership—is not broadly pro-labour.
Burgis and McManus are correct that Biden’s record with organized labour is better than Trump’s dismal one. But Trump’s grotesque presidency has succeeded in rousing the left from its slumbers. More workers went on strike in America in 2018 than in any year since 1986. And progressive causes from feminism (#MeToo) to civil rights (Black Lives Matter) and electoral socialism (the Sanders Revolution) have all benefited from the heightened radicalization of the American populace. For Burgis and McManus, it would be better for the socialist left to spend the next four years combatting a “tepid neoliberal defender of the status quo” than a “postmodern conservative” like Trump. But if Biden’s tepidity deprives the left of the radical energies it requires to change the conditions that created Trump in the first place, this doesn’t hold. Nor is Burgis’ and McManus’ argument strengthened by their selective citations from Marx. For one can just as easily cherry-pick quotations that suggest socialists should not vote for Biden. Take Marx’s 1850 address to the Central Committee of the Communist League, in which he proclaims that the progress the workers will make by operating independently is “infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”
None of this is tantamount to the claim that one should vote for Trump. Nor that one shouldn’t vote at all: one can cast one’s ballot for Howie Hawkins, and support down-ballot progressive Democrats in crucial races. The point is that, as Néstor de Buen has observed, the Democratic party will only have an incentive to realign in the short-term if its unwillingness to appeal to socialists results in the loss of the presidency. In 2016, the DNC undermined Sanders’ primary campaign. But American socialists still held their noses and—with only a few exceptions—voted for Hilary en masse. The Democratic establishment thus had no qualms about marshaling their forces against Sanders again in 2020 (no candidate in modern Democratic Party history has dropped out prior to Super Tuesday with the same level of support Pete Buttigieg had). That American socialists circa 2020 have the collective strength to deprive the Democrats of victory is apparent every time Trump attempts to goad Biden into denouncing them in debates. And since Biden is so fond of channeling Republican talking points, here’s one from George W. Bush: there’s no point building up political capital if you’re not going to spend it.
If you’re a socialist in America, people are going to try to guilt you into voting for Biden. They’ll tell you that you’re betraying black and brown people if you refuse—as if Obama’s bombing of Syria helped them! They’ll tell you, against all evidence, that the socialist left will be able to inveigle Biden into pursuing a radical agenda. Don’t believe them. If Biden can’t be bothered to campaign for your vote, he doesn’t deserve it. And if you do decide to give it to him, the message you’re sending to the Democratic establishment will be crystal clear: there’s no point incorporating the demands of socialist voters, since those suckers will vote for us no matter what.