You don't owe Joe Biden anything: Shaming the left is immoral — and bad politics

Should leftists shut up and toe the line, for fear of Trump? That's an unacceptable surrender of political power

By Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla
May 9, 2020 4:00PM (UTC)
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Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Salon)

Hours after Bernie Sanders' exit from the Democratic primary race, an insidious new narrative emerged: If you do anything other than vote for Joe Biden in November — vote third party, write in Bernie or abstain, you're a Trump supporter. For those waiting to be won over, "it's time to get in line" seems to be the order of the day. 

What is driving this now, before the general election campaign has even begun? Who is the target of this admonishment? In general, it is Sanders supporters, and among them non-voters and skeptics of the two-party system. It's crucial to notice here that historically, those who choose not to vote out of dissatisfaction with the choices on offer come from marginalized communities. 

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"Non-voters are not," Glenn Greenwald writes, "white trust fund leftists whose wealth, status, and privilege immunize them from the consequences of abstention." To the contrary, in 2016, "almost half [of non-voters] were nonwhite and earned less than $30,000 a year." Young voters on both sides of the aisle, in a series of interviews by the New York Times, resented "what they saw as a choice by leaders in both parties not to prioritize the issues they cared about." Dubbed the "lost generation," they are the worst hit in the current moment — more than half of those under the age of 45 have had their paycheck affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — and are still recovering from entering the job market during the 2008 crisis.

This reveals a certain snobbery among political elites who adopt this tactic of shaming. They frame voting Trump out of office as a life-and-death question, often arguing on behalf of precisely those communities that have the most to lose in either a Trump or Biden administration. "Children are languishing in cages," the argument might begin. Yet when those same communities express skepticism about Joe Biden — and justifiably so, given that Barack Obama's administration ushered in today's deportation regime — they are shamed and the discourse is deemed divisive. In other instances, they are patronized as too young or too idealistic to appreciate how politics "really" works.

The idea that citizens "owe" their vote to any political party or candidate warrants closer examination. Two questions emerge. First, a moral one: Do progressive voters owe their vote to Biden or, indeed, to anyone who might be nominated to  run against Trump? In other words, #VoteBlueNoMatterWho? Second, a question of strategy: What does shaming achieve? Should either camp, the Democratic establishment or the progressive left, be so eager to embrace it?

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To the Democratic establishment

Biden's primary campaign was based on "electability," a nebulous quality played up by a chorus of media outlets and enhanced by his "moderate" Democratic challengers' abrupt withdrawal from the race just before Super Tuesday. Biden won not necessarily because people agreed with him, but because they believed he could "beat Trump." Exit polls in states where Biden beat Sanders demonstrate this clearly: Medicare for All, Bernie's signature policy, received overwhelming support: 57 percent in Michigan, 59 percent in Missouri and 60 percent in Mississippi. As John Nichols suggested, "the ideas that Sanders has popularized were running better than Sanders himself." 

Notional electability worked in the primaries, but is no guarantee against Trump, who proved himself electable in 2016 against all odds. Recent polling shows historically low enthusiasm for Joe Biden — only 24% of his backers are "very" enthusiastic about supporting him, compared to Trump's 53%. By contrast, even Hillary Clinton scored 32% in this index four years ago. The implication? Team Biden needs to motivate voters to turn up on Election Day. The solution is certainly not contempt. When most voters enter the voting booth, they do so knowing that their vote remains anonymous; ultimately, they will vote free from the pressures of social desirability. Without a vision they actually support, all it takes is a little rainfall on Election Day to make the marginal voter stay home. 

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A solution is at the ready: Not just to tolerate debate over Biden's agenda, but welcome it. This is not easy. For many who fear a Trump re-election, criticizing Biden in a bid to gain progressive concessions only wounds him and helps Trump. Yet what if it made the former stronger? Consider the evidence: Among Democrats, 77% of voters now say they support Medicare for All. Eighty-four percent support a $15 minimum wage, 76% support tuition-free college, 79% support student-loan forgiveness and 94% support paid family leave, to name a few. Among U.S. voters at large, well over half support free college and around two-thirds support both a wealth tax and a $15 minimum wage

These trends are hardly new. As early as 2018, Data for Progress polled the "Left Agenda" to find that progressive policies enjoy widespread support. For example, creating generic versions of life-saving drugs was more popular among rural voters than among urban and suburban voters, and was even popular with Trump supporters. A common counter is that voters tend to withdraw support for policies once they learn the costs associated with them. However, consider a recent study of 42 swing House districts in which only 36 percent of voters opposed the Green New Deal, even after being told it would include "a large amount of government spending."

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Whoever ends up the Democratic nominee, 54% of Democratic voters have indicated "they should run on a platform of advancing a more progressive agenda than under President Barack Obama," rather than simply on returning to the pre-Trump state of affairs. This makes one thing clear: As things stand, Biden's centrism has little to offer. His other purported virtues, "civility" and "decency," now look  tenuous in light of an increasingly credible sexual assault allegation by former Senate aide Tara Reade, which threatens to derail his presidential campaign completely.

In this context, stifling criticism can only reinforce the right's attack on liberal elitism. Clinton's failure in 2016 is instructive; as Jake Johnson remarked, "corporate centrism failed to defeat even the most incompetent figurehead of the nativist right." Of course, there are many reasons for Trumpism and its appeal, and racist backlash is surely among them. Nevertheless, it is critical that the party reflect on why Clinton lost with white voters in the places where Obama had been strongest. Technocratic neoliberalism of the Clinton-Obama era has been the bedrock of the party's economic policies for some time now. To a significant extent, that paved the way for Trump — who is a symptom of a larger problem, not an isolated cause. 

The Democratic Party has yet to acknowledge voters' rejection of the neoliberal approach. Instead, we hear a lazy repudiation of "Bernie Bros" for being ideologically rigid. As Connor Kilpatrick argues in Jacobin, "It's not exactly a mystery as to what Sanders voters are after —if Biden did the unthinkable and suddenly embraced Medicare for All — a considerably less wild idea amid a pandemic and a $2 trillion spending package — he might even get them out into swing-states knocking on doors." 

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An appeal to the left 

For some time now, the U.S. left has ceded the idea of change to the right. As David Graeber wrote about the world of the Washington Consensus — meaning the bipartisan and trans-Atlantic agreement on free trade and fiscal austerity — "The Left had largely abandoned utopianism (and the more it did so, the more it shriveled and collapsed), and even as they did so, the Right picked it up." If the populist left gives up on offering an alternative to the status quo, Graeber argues, the far right will continue to thrive.

To provide that alternative in U.S. politics, as Bernie Sanders has done, remains the priority for the months and years ahead. Consider Sanders' campaign in 2016: Arguably, the point was not to win, but rather to transform the contours of the debate. Well after it was clear that Biden had won the 2020 nomination, progressive outlets continued to urge Sanders to stay in the race for this reason: He could leverage delegates and his voters to ensure that Biden adopted, at the very least, elements of the progressive platform. Unfortunately, Sanders ultimately endorsed Biden without extracting any concessions, presumably because of the transformed context of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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For many of Bernie's followers, however, capitulation is not an option. The current moment, in particular, not only lends itself to a complete rethinking of U.S. society but virtually demands it. If Biden becomes president, consider the position he is likely to face, as Thomas Wright and Kurt M. Campbell explain: "The country will probably be in the end stages of a brutal pandemic and faced with the worst economy since the Great Depression … For Biden, his post-pandemic agenda cannot be an exercise in restoration." As the authors emphasize, "it will have to be a master class in redesign," one that needs to be in preparation beginning today. As Franklin D. Roosevelt accomplished with the New Deal, the challenge is to animate the country with a vision — one that builds safe and meaningful jobs, makes education equitable and justice accessible, and repairs the havoc unleashed by the pandemic onto frontline communities. 

Voters withholding their vote, or at least threatening to do so, is a way to push Biden and the Democratic Party toward providing such a vision. Progressive youth groups released an open letter to Biden in early April, urging him to "earn the trust of the vast majority of the #youthvote." The letter detailed policy demands such as a $10 trillion Green New Deal stimulus package and commitments to reject current or former Wall Street executives or corporate lobbyists. 

Biden has not responded. In fact, his most recent "concession" was to lower the Medicare age to the insulting figure of 60. Hillary Clinton proposed lowering it to 50 in 2016. Biden continues to be advised by the notorious Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary and Harvard president. At the same time, we saw in Biden's one-on-one debate with Sanders in March that Biden has at least partially adopted Bernie's education policy, vowing to make college free for families earning up to $125,000 annually. 

That space for negotiation is exactly what needs to be preserved and kept open, especially this many months ahead of November. Yet the suggestion from some corners seems to be that all a Democratic candidate has to do is be slightly better than whatever right-winger the GOP puts up (or, in terms of international belligerence, to outdo them, as Biden's China-hawk ad would indicate). Any surrender to this idea threatens to render the progressive left irrelevant. 

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Moral obligation? To uphold the vote as an inalienable right

There is nothing new about disenchanted voters — especially on the left — being told they have a supposed moral obligation to vote for a candidate. The justification always remains the same: However valid their disagreements may be, now is not the time. The moment is declared exceptional, the way defeating Donald Trump is now.

At what cost? Trump's existence does not mean we should accept a world where Biden can hold a women's town hall and not be questioned about the sexual assault allegations against him. As Branko Marcetic has observed, "If a Martian were to look at the contrasting responses to candidates' alleged sexual misconduct" — meaning to Trump's in 2016 and Biden's in 2020, and "try to guess which party was the one that claimed to 'believe women' and which party espoused consistent hostility to sexual assault survivors, it would likely get the answers mixed up."  

To this point, no prominent Democrats have condemned Biden, while many Republicans in 2016 went so far as to ask Trump to step down, even if their reasons were cynical. If being marginally better than Trump replaces all other considerations, things will only get worse, with the GOP putting up ever more Trumpian candidates each election cycle and Democrats lowering the bar for theirs. 

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This brings me back to the first question: Do progressive voters owe their vote to anybody that runs against Trump? I want to dispute the very manner in which I initially framed this question. Voting is a right that citizens hold, not a duty they discharge. Elections can be moments in which power inverts — times when large swathes of populations, heretofore invisible, are cast into voting blocs that politicians take seriously. To ask voters to pledge their vote before being won over takes away this bargaining power — and in turn, radically changes the electoral game. It is the candidates' job to win voters over, not voters'  to submit to a choice between two evils. So if you feel like shaming someone into voting for a candidate who actively disregards their demands, consider who you're really asking and what's really at stake: Of all the unwanted jobs shouldered by marginalized communities in this country, this should not be one of them.


Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla

Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla is a gender justice advocate in New York and a public policy graduate of Princeton University.

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