vision 2020

Joe Biden Is a Tool (But Progressives Can Use Him)

If the political revolution is dead, nothing is possible? Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

On days like this, it is hard not to feel that the arc of history bends toward nothing grander than the Sun swallowing the Earth.

The coronavirus is revealing that our government — which presides over the wealthiest society in human history, and can borrow money at near-zero interest rates — is incapable of meeting its most basic obligations to its constituents. A new U.N. report is warning (once again) that the world is “way off track [for] meeting either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for.” The world’s largest democracy is descending into a kind of fascism, while the world’s most populous nation is condemning its Muslim minority to forced labor and internment camps. In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, a xenophobic, authoritartian regime is seamlessly integrating climate crisis into its blood-and-soil nationalism. And all across the West, the labor movements that once delivered egalitarian alternatives to ethno-nationalism are declining, while gross wealth inequalities annually compound the capacity of billionaires to dominate putatively democratic societies and governments.

For many on the American left, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign has been not merely a vehicle for advancing concrete reforms, but also a shield against despair. The challenges of our time appear to demand nothing less than a “political revolution” and economic transformation. So long as there was a viable candidate for the U.S. presidency promising both, leftists had a means of transmuting existential terror into civic purpose.

Now they don’t. 

Over the past ten days, Democratic voters have not just spurned the socialist senator, but endorsed the closest thing the 2020 primary field offered to his antithesis. When Sanders and his ideological kin stood athwart Reaganism yelling stop, Joe Biden led the Democratic Party’s march over and past them. Over his decades-long career in the Senate, Biden spearheaded the Democrats’ retreat from desegregation, non-carceral approaches to combating urban crime, and financial regulation. He was a lead author of the student debt crisis and a champion of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Two years ago, he said that he has “no empathy” for the “ younger generation” when it tells him “how tough things are.” Last November, when an immigration activist politely asked him to order an end to all deportations, he did not respond by empathetically by explaining that a moratorium on deporting violent criminals would be so unpopular as to jeopardize his election — but rather, by telling the activist, “You should vote for Trump.”

Biden may comfort older Democrats with promises to restore an imagined past. But the younger voters who have overwhelmingly backed Bernie Sanders demand a road map to a better future. And the one they thought they had now lies in tatters.

It is therefore understandable that the left corners of social media have turned fatalistic over the past 12 hours, with many Sanders supporters disavowing the Democratic Party (if not electoral politics, if not the human race). For much of Wednesday morning, #WriteInBernie was one of the platform’s top trends. And yet, if this despair about the prospects for advancing justice through the Democratic Party is understandable, it is nevertheless unjustified.

Over the past four years, through engagement in Democratic Party politics, socialists and progressives have secured myriad concrete gains for the constituencies they aim to represent. In 2016, moderate Democrats derided the concept of a $15 minimum wage as an economically illiterate absurdity. Now, it has been implemented in multiple blue states and cities, while Nancy Pelosi’s caucus — which is heavily dependent on moderates representing historically Republican districts — has legislation that would (gradually) establish a $15 federal minimum wage through the House. After progressives successfully primaried several moderate Democrats in the New York State Senate in 2018, Andrew Cuomo presided over a historically fruitful legislative session that saw the passage of measures to restrict the use of cash bail, close the gender wage gap, aid Dreamers, reform campaign-finance laws, provide undocumented New York residents with drivers licenses, and increase tenant protections in defiance of landlord and developer lobbies. Oh, and the Empire State also enacted the most ambitious climate legislation in the U.S. to date.

All of this came after the left’s champion, Cynthia Nixon, lost New York’s gubernatorial primary to Cuomo in a rout.

As the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie notes, a similar story has been playing out in Virginia this year:

In 2017, Virginia Democrats faced a difficult choice about the future of the party.

Would they nominate a forceful, dynamic left-wing politician who stood against “establishment” politics and called for structural political change? Or would they fall behind a party stalwart with conservative instincts and an unremarkable record in office?

The progressive candidate, Tom Perriello, ran a vigorous campaign for the nomination. But the stalwart, Ralph Northam, won the race, cruising to victory with heavy support from African-Americans and moderate suburbanites … Northam is still governor and most of the caucus is either moderate or conservative. But for the first time, progressives have a major say in policy, and they have used it to push an unabashedly liberal agenda through the Legislature, raising the minimum wage, legalizing collective bargaining for public employees and expanding the right to vote. Just last week, Virginia lawmakers — led by Lee Carter of Manassas, a member of Democratic Socialists of America — passed one of the nation’s lowest caps on the price of insulin.

For the bulk of his political life, Joe Biden has occupied ideological ground well to the right of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But there is no question that his campaign platform — which includes a drastic expansion of public health insurance, a $15 minimum wage, a ban on state-level right-to-work laws (along with myriad other pro-worker labor-law reforms), and a $1.7 trillion climate plan — is the most progressive in the Democratic Party’s modern history. This reality is easy to belittle. After all, campaign website promises are a weak currency in a world where Joe Manchin will have a veto on the next Democratic president’s legislative agenda in the best-case scenario. But the fact that state-level Democratic parties are genuinely enacting governing agendas well to the left of any they entertained in the Clinton or Obama eras suggests Biden’s platform is indicative of a genuine ideological shift. This isn’t (yet) Bernie Sanders’s Democratic Party. But it demonstrably is not the Democratic Leadership Council’s anymore either.

Progressives and socialists would be wise to build their own independent institutions and cultivate their own mass base of support. But they should also recognize that they do, in fact, have a profound stake in seeing Joe Biden prevail over Donald Trump this November. For low-income people in Louisiana and Kentucky, the stakes of elections between moderate Democrats and far-right Republicans can be life and death. There is no party in U.S. politics right now that is committed to achieving truly universal health care as quickly as logistically possible. But there is one party that is demonstrably committed to expanding public health insurance, and one that is similarly committed to shrinking it. The tens of thousands of Americans who’ve secured Medicaid as a result of Democrats beating Republicans in elections are worth fighting for; as are the Virginians who will no longer have to ration their insulin because Ralph Northam beat Ed Gillespie; as are the undocumented New Yorkers who can now drive legally because Andrew Cuomo beat Marc Molinaro. To abstain from two-party competition in the contemporary United States is to forfeit ripe opportunities to improve the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable people.

Of course, the fact that it is possible to win incremental gains through engagement with the Democratic Party does not mean it is possible to affect the kind of rapid, radical change necessary to avert a two-degree warming of the planet. Even when viewed in the most charitable light, Joe Biden’s political project is clearly inadequate to the ecological crisis we face.

But we know that Sandersism, as it actually exists, cannot to do so either, at least for now. The Vermont senator’s theory of change hinged on his capacity to foment a mass mobilization that could bend (at least) 51 U.S. senators to its will. But there is no evidence that he has that capacity. Our revolution proved itself largely impotent in 2018 Democratic primaries. In both 2016 and 2020, Sanders failed to drastically expand the Democratic primary electorate. The senator’s ostensible strength in blue America’s erstwhile white working-class strongholds now looks (at least in part) like a mirage born of anti-Hillary sentiment. With executive power and the bully pulpit, Sanders could have fostered more sweeping reforms than Biden wishes to entertain. But there is no more reason to believe that he could have gotten his $16 trillion Green New Deal through the Senate than to think Biden can persuade Chuck Schumer’s caucus to revolutionize American labor law. Finally, although the U.S. government has a great deal of power to shape the emissions trajectories of developing countries, it remains the case that the fate of the climate will ultimately be decided in Beijing, New Delhi, and other foreign capitals. To reject modes of political engagement that have proven effective for improving people’s lives because they have not yet proven effective for averting ecological devastation is a stance that, if applied universally and rigorously, would lead to nihilism.

Regardless, the costs of abstention from two-party competition aren’t measured solely in forfeited short-term incremental gains. For the left, projecting indifference to the Democratic Party’s fate also strikes me as antithetical to building a mass social base for progressive causes and institutions. Throughout the 2020 primary, exit polls have consistently shown that Democratic voters are sympathetic to most of Bernie Sanders’s policy goals. But those voters also manifestly believe that they have a profound stake in seeing Democrats defeat Republicans, and their position is grounded in both historical and contemporary experience. I don’t see how you can win their hearts and minds by “writing in Bernie,” nor how you can build a majority coalition for democratic socialism in the United States that does not include African-Americans who reliably turn out for elections and support Medicare for All.

We are all going to die. The obliteration of all human beings — and everything we’ve ever loved — is not a matter of if, but when. It has always been the case that the most our species could ever hope for was to make our ephemeral existence as rich in love, joy, and duration, and as bereft of needless suffering, as the universe will allow. There is little reason to presume that the most harrowing climatic and political trends will continue unabated in the coming decades. But even if one assumes the worst about where we will be in 2050, minimizing the number of people who lose their uninsured mothers (or fathers, or kids, or friends) to treatable illnesses in 2021 would still be worthwhile. Joe Biden’s election would make a marginally better world possible. And once that world is won, a radically better one just might become possible too.

Joe Biden Is a Tool (But Progressives Can Use Him)