Never Biden? How to resolve the vexing dilemma for many left voters
The U.S. presidential election has so far involved and will undoubtedly continue to involve a clash over voting strategy for the left. A significant array of left commentators, for example, Cornel West, AOC, Angela Davis, and Noam Chomsky have been and will likely continue urging all progressives to vote for Biden at least in swing states, even if they can’t stand his personal history and his stated and implied policies. Another array of left commentators, for example Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald, Krystal Ball, and Howie Hawkins, has been and will likely continue asserting that instead all progressives should vote their true preferences, for example for the Green candidate, or not vote, but in any event not vote for someone they despise, like Joe Biden.
While the two groups often seem too contrary to take each other seriously, they in fact each have a variety of claims they make in support of their favored approach. What are the claims made by each side? How well do they hold up when taken seriously on their own terms? Is the dispute about clashing principles or only about clashing perceptions? Since all involved desire a better future, is there some common ground that can be built upon?
Critics of voting for Biden hold that the United States is essentially a one-party state, the business party, with two factions, Democrats and Republicans. Those who urge voting for Biden in swing states agree that this characterization of the two parties has long been true, but argue that the situation has significantly changed. The Democrats and Republicans still certainly hide their intentions and deny the breadth of their unity. But the differences have nonetheless grown in various respects. The respected political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute describe the modern Republican Party, increasingly since Newt Gingrich in the ’90s, as a “radical insurgency” that has virtually abandoned parliamentary politics. That has become still more evident and extreme under Mitch McConnell, more so in his alliance with Trump. McConnell’s Senate barely pretends to be a deliberative body. His stated goal under Obama was to block everything. Under Trump, the McConnell Senate is largely confined to pouring dollars into the pockets of the very rich and corporate sector, and packing the judiciary, top to bottom, with so many young ultra-right Federalist Society products that all mildly progressive legislation will be obstructed for a generation. In international comparisons, Republicans are ranked among the far-right European parties with neo-fascist origins.
In the current election, one side says we need to defeat Trump, which means we need to elect Biden, which means we need to vote for Biden at least in contested states where the outcome on Election Day is not foreordained—despite acknowledging Biden’s being from one wing of the business party and therefore fully wedded to society’s existing underlying relations. The rationale of this dump-Trump-by-electing-Biden position is that it is essential to defeat Trump for at least the following reasons: Trump is a dangerous authoritarian, if not a fascist, Trump is a white supremacist, Trump will dangerously increase prospects of nuclear war, and Trump will catastrophically escalate global warming.
Those who oppose voting for Biden under any circumstances advance many varied arguments. First, they point out that Biden is no friend of the people. He is, in fact, an agent of elites, as his long record makes clear. They add that to vote for him is to ratify elite rule. It is a slippery slope toward accepting injustice as inevitable.
Defeat Trump advocates reply that yes, Biden is indeed an agent of elites. But to vote for him, or rather against Trump where voting matters in contested states, is a vote against dramatically worse conditions, not a vote for maintaining existing conditions. Nor can it be assumed that Biden is a fixed agent of “elites” (a slippery concept), immune to outside pressures. If, instead, they argue, ongoing political activism can impact Biden (far more than Trump) then the vote that elects Biden is a vote to reduce resistance to change. With no follow-up, the defeat Trump advocates agree with the Biden critics that it is true that voting for Biden may slip-slide into accepting injustice as inevitable. But with follow-up, they note that his election, coupled with ongoing activism, can lead to ongoing gains. Sanders for one holds the latter view. He closed his independent run by saying that the campaign is over, but the movement is not: real politics continues. And since then Sanders and associates have been reshaping the party program, tilting it meaningfully to the left, and urging continued activist pressure—real politics—which will of course need to persist and enlarge. If elected, beat Trump advocates urge, Biden’s feet could be held to the fire by continued pressure but Trump’s feet would not even notice.
The critics of voting for Biden reply that voting for him means giving up on real system change since it seeks to elect an advocate of system maintenance. It draws potential system critics into being system maintainers.
Vote-Biden-to-defeat-Trump advocates agree that for some, voting for Biden will indeed mean they support system maintenance, but not for those who oppose Biden’s views and policies and commit to continuing to challenge Biden after his election. They wonder why anyone would think about themselves or about anyone else that pulling a lever for a few minutes to vote would have such a profound effect on a radicals’ consciousness as to reverse their overall commitments. They add that in any event fundamental system change is not an option in 2020 (no one believes that the Greens are going to win), and wouldn’t be even if Sanders had won the election with a congressional majority that allowed him to pursue his social-democratic program. What’s typically called a “revolution” in the United States, and is conceivable in the near term, is raising the country to the level of comparable nations with universal health care, free higher education, and other social justice measures. All left partisans in the debate over election 2020 tend to agree that beyond those immediate programmatic possibilities, steps toward true system change could and should certainly be pursued, but that such change will require developing a dedicated and informed mass popular base, a result that will require sustained work over the long term. That sustained work will be made easier, defeat Trump advocates argue, if Trump is beaten, and will not be harmed by the few minutes needed to cast a vote.
But voting for Biden, say the advocates of not doing so, is voting out of fear, and champions of justice should not elevate fear to prominence in their motivations. Fear-mongering is not a worthy methodology for constructive strategy.
But being afraid, say those calling for a vote against Trump, makes very good sense. We ought to fear a Trump second term. It often makes total sense to act out of fear: We take vaccines because we fear disease; we wear seatbelts because we fear traffic accidents. In any event, voting against the worst candidate is an act of hope, not fear.
Critics of voting for Biden may acknowledge some of the above, but they go on to assert that Biden will demobilize many potential movement builders and as such, Biden in office would be more of an obstacle to real change than even a Trump reelection. They argue this was Obama’s effect, particularly on anti-war activism.
The Defeat Trump advocates reply, yes, that could conceivably happen. It is a real danger, but only if Biden voters choose to succumb. They add that a Biden presidency, by loosening somewhat the tools of repression and neoliberal dogma, can open space for movement building and come under its influence. Under Trump, there would be rock-solid opposition but activism would be largely a matter of struggles to try to preserve what we have. Under Biden, the struggle would be to make gains. That’s evident day by day, right before our eyes.
But, says the don’t vote Biden group, supporting Biden means not seeking fundamental change, not building movements for fundamental change, even though fundamental change and movements to win it are the only solution to ever-worsening crises.
If we accept that elections are the totality of politics, that is true, reply the Dump Trump advocates. If we forego activism after the election, that is true. But why can’t the left strategy be to take a few minutes from political work to vote against Trump—who, quite literally, poses serious threats to the survival of organized human life on earth and whose project will impose the ultra-reactionary Trump-McConnell program for a generation? After taking a few moments for that necessary act, why can’t we then return to political action, which means trying to bar the worst Trump horrors if he is elected or to pursue the enhanced movement-building and other progressive actions for which a Biden presidency would open a window?
Yes, agree Dump Trump advocates, if a leftist starts to proclaim nonexistent Biden virtues and to see a Biden victory as the ultimate goal, then the don’t vote Biden concern becomes valid. But, they add, why should leftists follow such a path? Couldn’t you hold your nose, vote for Biden, and then release your nose and work to force a Biden administration to do more than it would, itself, desire to do?
The Never Biden group argues that over a period of many years the Democrats have been moving steadily to the right. One reason they do this is that they know they can pick up voters to their right without risking the loss of voters to their left, because for too long the left has been duped into promising the Democrats their votes no matter how awful they are—since there’s always someone worse.
The Defeat Trump group first notes that the Obama administration was not further to the right than Clinton. But, in any event, popular activism since then, sometimes within the Sanders movement, sometimes not, has pressed the arena of discussion and choices in society and in the Democratic Party well to the left of either Clinton or Obama—or their predecessors for a long time. The donor class and the Clinton New Democrats don’t like it, but they have to accommodate it. That again is real politics, not elections, at work.
Never Biden advocates reply that when the Democrats and Biden go out of their way to tell us that they don’t give a damn about us and about our views—opposing the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and defunding police, with Biden saying he will not reverse the decision on the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem (despite having opposed it for years)—confronted with this sort of slap in the face—no one will take the left seriously if it says it’s going to vote for Biden anyway.
Defeat Trump advocates reply, yes, if the left were to vote for Biden to beat Trump and then pack up and go home like there is no more to do, this complaint would be correct. But if that is what we are made of, it would cripple all efforts at change. If the left says we are voting against Trump because he is horrendous, and we find Biden lacking in virtually every conceivable way and starting the minute he is in office we will oppose and challenge him and his administration from the left, then everyone will take the left seriously, and, more important, the left will be able to make serious gains.
Undaunted, the Never Biden group replies that the gains from boycotting the election altogether or from voting for a third-party candidate outweigh the risks of Trump for four more years. The former are greater than acknowledged. The latter are less than feared.
The dump Trump group asks, what benefits? Individual or collective? Individually, why does a leftist benefit from not voting for Biden in a contested state? Pulling the lever for Biden will not magically cause one to lose left inclinations. Nor will it decrease one’s understanding of the system, or of alternatives. And collectively what gain is there from some group not voting for Biden in a contested state? Imagine that a thousand folks who hate Trump, who would love to vote for Sanders, say, or for someone even more to their taste, decide not to vote for Biden. Does this make them more radical, more knowledgeable, more committed? Why can’t they vote for Biden and not become beholden to Biden the same way they can take medicine from pharmaceutical companies, and road repairs from the government, without becoming beholden to either—in fact, while being opposed to each?
And on the other side of this calculus, the dump Trump group asks how is the danger of Trump exaggerated? To mention only the most obvious danger, Trump’s dedicated assault on the environment may lead to irreversible tipping points within four years, and at the very least will make it far more difficult to deal with the huge challenge of environmental catastrophe within the brief period that remains for us to do so. In contrast, a Biden presidency (and Congress) would be susceptible to influence by real politics, organizing, and resistance, which could even lead to the implementation of some form of Green New Deal against Biden’s opposition, a prerequisite for survival. Already activism has been able to press Biden to announce a plan, backed by the Sunrise Movement, to invest $2 trillion in green jobs and infrastructure over the next four years, and to eliminate carbon pollution from the energy sector by 2035, instead of his previous pledge of 2050.
The Never Biden group contends that Trump has no ideology—calling him fascist, for example, misses that he is just a self-seeking fool. Movements can curb his excesses, perhaps easier than they can curb those of more genteel Democrats.
The Dump Trumpers reply: Trump is no fool. He is a skillful con man. He has a simple and clear ideology: amass as much power as possible in his own hands, serve his corporate masters abjectly, and keep control over the popular voting base that he is shafting at every turn, throwing them enough scraps of seeming support to keep them in line. So far, he’s been doing it quite skillfully. It’s certainly true that movements might pose limited barriers to some of his machinations, but it would mostly be defense instead of grasping and exploiting new opportunities as could be possible fighting a Biden administration.
Some who won’t vote Biden answer that while it’s true in many ways that Trump is awful, on some issues the Democrats are worse. Trump is less of a warmonger. He’s less committed to free trade deals.
Dump Trump advocates respond that in fact Trump is one of the most extreme warmongers in recent history. Canceling the Iran deal (the JCPOA) sharply increased the prospects of war in the volatile Middle East region. Tearing the arms control regime to shreds greatly enhances the prospects of nuclear war, along with his drive to develop still more destructive weapons, encouraging others to do the same, while blocking negotiations that may fend off terminal disaster—a matter of no concern to someone like Trump, a sociopath whose concern is to enrich military industry and the corporate sector in which it is embedded. Right now, he is sending an enormous military force to the South China Sea, daring China to respond. That complements his highly provocative actions on the Russian border.
And so-called “free trade deals” (which are not free trade deals) can’t just be waved as a slogan, for or against. The global economic system is not going to go away soon, if ever, and the left should be trying to restructure it in ways that benefit the general population, working people in particular.
Some Never Biden folks note that Trump’s approach has galvanized opposition, so his election will aid movement-building. Look at all the demonstrations. Look at all the activism. And, in any event, the best way to oppose Trump is to work for a Green New Deal, for sensible immigration policies, and against systemic racism, and so on. If we do our activism, then we are doing what is best.
The Dump Trump advocates reply that, yes, Trump will galvanize opposition, but those movements will be fighting for survival and watching their prospects diminish under court stacking, attacks on labor, and the general erosion of such democratic mechanisms as exist. And Dump Trump advocates then also agree on the priority of fighting for gains like the Green New Deal and sensible immigration policies and against atrocities like systemic racism, but add that when it comes time for the election, if there are contested states, then taking ten minutes to vote for Biden in those states will be just another step in that same process, since getting rid of Trump will enhance prospects for activists winning a Green New Deal and sane immigration practices while curbing and reversing racism, whereas Trump winning would further obstruct all such efforts.
But, says the Never Biden camp, oppositional movements do better under right-wing governments. DSA has never been stronger, Black Lives Matter protests have been unprecedented, the biggest anti-war mobilizations came under Nixon, Reagan (Central America), and Bush (Iraq).
Yes, say the Defeat Trumpers, opposition to 40 years of neoliberal savagery is growing all over the world, taking different forms. It’s true that anti-war movements grow under governments that carry out major wars. But by the logic of this argument, the left should be calling for the government to go to war against Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, which would arouse anti-war movements. Better to use a degree of peace to do what must ultimately be done in any event, build anti-war and peace movements that are against military spending, military threatening, military bases, etc., all of which could be better done under Biden than Trump.
The Never Biden advocates argue that Trump is so unpopular, anyone could win against him. He is way behind in the polls. Therefore, the dire predictions of what will follow from a Trump victory are just scare tactics, claiming that the sky is falling.
Dump Trump advocates reply that the polls are in fact, highly uncertain, and quite volatile, and Republicans—a minority party—are hard at work purging voters and developing other means to block voting by “the wrong people.” When the sky is falling—as it is—to acknowledge the danger is better than to join the far right and pretend nothing is happening.
Some Never Biden folks add that Trump is so unpopular, anyone could win against him. If Biden loses, it’s his and the Democrats’ fault.
Sure, dump Trump advocates reply, Biden should win regardless of abstentions by leftists refusing to vote for Biden in contested states. So what? If the Democrats have run poorly or otherwise been insufficiently aggressive, or industrious, or creative, or whatever, to win without left votes in contested states, then those votes become urgent, perhaps decisive. If the Democrats do well enough to win easily, no problem, there will be few if any contested states and in any event no loss from voting for him.
Those who reject voting for Biden claim that the impact of the left offering its few votes for an election that the Democrats should win easily will be small. But the impact of the left pushing the Green Party over the 5 percent mark needed for receiving matching funds, or for securing a ballot line, can make an actual difference.
The Dump Trump folks reply that the impact of the left offering its few votes to Biden could instead be decisive, again, as it could have been last election, in 2016. Has the Green Party having done better on the presidential vote than if its supporters had cast ballots for Clinton in contested states benefited Greens enough, since then, to have offset the grim effects of the wild reactionary policies of Trump on Black, Latinx, LGBTQ people, women, those dead from preventable COVID-19, and on and on? For that matter, did their votes for Stein instead of Clinton in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania benefit the Greens at all? To answer, suggests Dump Trump, consider the much greater growth of DSA in the period.
Never Biden advocates often suggest that every election people like Chomsky tell us that this is the most critical election in history, the future of the human race depends on the outcome. And guess what? We survive.
Actually, as “people like Chomsky” can testify, they have never said anything of the sort until now—when it happens to be true, have often not bothered to vote or have voted for third parties, and have sometimes chosen to vote against a major candidate for another during the brief period taken off from political work. And, yes, it’s a fact that we’ve survived, by a virtual miracle, as anyone who takes the trouble to look at the history of the nuclear era is well aware—and that threat is growing under Trump. Every year since Trump has been in office, the Doomsday Clock has been moved closer to midnight. Last January, the analysts abandoned minutes and moved to seconds: 100 seconds to midnight. Since January, Trump has escalated the threat of terminal nuclear war. But whether you think a Trump second term is apocalyptic or just wildly reactionary, in either case, casting a ballot against him for a few minutes—is that really going to derail one’s mind from critical thinking, is it really going to interrupt radical activism? Furthermore, the dire warnings are valid. Apart from far-right Republicans, the world is now becoming aware of the very severe and growing threat of environmental catastrophe. Trump is proudly taking the lead in racing to the abyss while virtually everyone else, apart from Trump clones like President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, is doing at least something to stave off disaster. The line “guess what, we’ve survived,” is borrowed from a happy gentleman who jumps off the roof of a skyscraper and waves cheerily to a friend on the 50th floor. Better to not jump.
So, having recounted various views of Never Biden partisans and various Defeat Trump replies we come to the hard part of this exercise. Is there a way forward that can unify the two positions?
Isn’t it to recognize that voting for Biden in a contested state to dump Trump doesn’t have to indicate or lead to aligning with Biden, or with elites at all, but can and should only say that Biden in office will be vastly better for diverse constituencies and for progressive and left agendas than a second term for Trump?
And, if so, isn’t the way to avoid the serious pitfalls and problems the Never Biden people rightly identify to steadfastly and clearly enunciate those pitfalls, and, far more so, to commit to joining in struggles against a Biden administration and in pursuit of a better world?
Maybe the two camps can come together behind a new slogan, “Dump Trump, then Combat Biden?” where the Never Biden camp acknowledges the need to take the ten minutes to vote for Biden in contested states and the Defeat Trump camp acknowledges the need to realize that a lesser evil is still evil.
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.