Sen. Bernie Sanders
suspended his presidential campaign and endorsed
former Vice President Joe Biden, making it all but certain Biden will be the Democratic nominee. For the left, this is not just a replay of 2016 – it’s even worse. Now the choice for the left is a candidate with more
political baggage than the previous Democratic nominee, but without even the ersatz virtue of an identitarian digestif.
The laundry list of leftist objections to Biden is exceptionally long. Just to highlight some of the most egregious: Biden’s career in the Senate, from the beginning, has been marked by repeated partnerships with the most noxious racist politicians on both sides of the aisle, including the outspoken segregationists James Eastland, Jesse Helms, and Strom Thurmond — Biden even delivered a eulogy at Thurmond’s funeral. Biden was the architect of mass incarceration in the US, not only authoring the notorious Crime Bill of 1994, but a chief sponsor of even worse bills in the 1980s and early 1990s (again partnering with folks like Helms).
Biden has been one of the most vocal proponents of cuts to social spending especially Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits, housing, and food assistance. His advocacy for this goes back to the 1980s, when he championed cuts beyond those embraced by the Reagan administration. He later played a chief role as a sponsoring Senator of welfare reform in the Clinton years, and then as Vice President intervened in budget negotiations with Mitch McConnell to push chained CPI for Social Security. He was a chief proponent for every disastrous free trade agreement that outsourced jobs and ensured globalized supply chains, from NAFTA and PNTR with China to CAFTA and TPP. He enthusiastically embraced the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (the Depression-era rule separating banking and speculative trading) and wrote the Senate bankruptcy reform bill that led to the 2008 economic meltdown and the student loan debt peonage that exists to this day.
Biden not only voted for the Iraq war but pushed military aggression against Iraq long before 9/11, and later helped to build the massive surveillance state with the Patriot Act (itself based on a previous Biden bill). Since we will hear a lot about the Supreme Court in the coming months, it is worth adding to this already enormous list Biden’s role in the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas: as the chair of the Judiciary committee in the Senate, Biden controlled the hearings and it was his decision to disallow corroborating witnesses for Anita Hill to testify, all the while permitting his Republican colleagues to pursue ugly and humiliating lines of questions. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising given that Biden now has an active sexual assault criminal complaint filed against him and a long history of creepy interactions with women and young girls. (For a much more in depth look at these issues and more, see Nathan J. Robinson’s Current Affairs article and Branko Marcetic’s book, Yesterday’s Man).
Leftists will now be browbeaten into setting all of this aside and voting for Joe (as Dr Jill Biden advised) because, after all, that is The Only Way to Defeat Trump™. Despite that very playbook failing last time (the entire pitch in the general election in 2016 was predicated on this), it is once again the sole strategy of the Democratic Party — now against an incumbent president in the midst of an intertwined global economic and public health crisis. Refusal to acknowledge and account for the staggering list of items above that are now unmentionable — we can’t criticize the nominee lest we be perceived to be helping Trump — is not just distasteful, but nihilistic and strategically inane. The combination of an overly crowded field in the early stages of the primary (which exceeded even the ridiculous 2016 GOP field) and abject failure of the US media allowed most, if not all, of these issues to go unchecked throughout the entire primary campaign.
Mainstream news media failed to cover any of these items, even superficially — at the last candidate debate between Sanders and Biden, it was left to Sanders to compel viewers to go to ‘the YouTube’ to fact check Biden’s denials about his advocacy of Social Security freezes/cuts (The moderators, even after Sanders pushed on that, neither confirmed nor challenged the candidates’ statements). As in the 2016 election, there is no doubt that Trump will not only weaponize these issues, even where he has gigantic flaws of his own on the very same points (in fact, he has already begun that assault), but he will also, again, manage to flank left of the Democratic candidate. Last time, Trump pummeled Clinton over trade; in 2020, he will hit Biden on trade again, but also Social Security and Medicare. Trump has already managed to get to the left of Biden on the latter, announcing that the federal government will enact at least a temporary form of Medicare for All during the pandemic (on the same day that Biden rejected for the third time single-payer health care).
What Democrats and the media fail to understand, as they did in 2016, is that it does not matter if Trump is lying or blustering: when a circus show politician like Trump can outflank the candidate who is supposed to be the most polished, credentialed, electable, “normal,” etc., there is a galactic flaw in the strategy and politics on offer. In the current situation, this strategy is even more vulnerable given the lack of innocence on even the most basic moral level between the two candidates: they both have a substantially long track record of racism, misogyny, and lying.
Courting the Left Without Moving Left
Liberals and some progressives expect that Biden will ‘move left’ to garner support from progressives. For example, although Sanders has suspended his campaign, he is staying on the ballot for the remainder of the primaries in the hopes of collecting enough delegates to exert leverage in the writing of the platform at the August Democratic convention. (Michael Brooks, host of The Michael Brooks Show, makes a good point, though, that the platform is inconsequential at best — even in 2016, when Sanders had a stronger showing, the Sanders delegation was outmaneuvered constantly, and this time the DNC has stacked many of the platform rules committees to mitigate any progressive sway). It should be said that the Biden campaign has made some token gestures that might seem to suggest that they are going to court the left. After the announcement of Sanders’s exit, Biden released a statement directed to Bernie voters that he would work to earn the vote of progressives. Most recently, Biden’s campaign released two policy revisions supposedly designed to curry favor with the left: one on health care, and one on education. And, Sanders and Biden have announced that they will form joint policy taskforces.
But, what do the new policy proposals reveal? First, Biden proposed to drop Medicare eligibility from the current level of eligibility at 65 years old to 60. This is designed to be a sop to voters and activists who have been working for universal, single-payer health care. While this might appear on the surface to be a compromise, especially by a candidate who has advocated for cutting Medicare and spent the entire primary rejecting single-payer health care, it is not even as generous a compromise as Clinton offered to Sanders voters last time. In 2016, after a fierce primary fight, Clinton adopted an expansion of Medicare that lowered eligibility to 55 years old. So, in four years, we’ve lost five years on health care expansion? And this comes at a time when we are facing a global health crisis in which our healthcare system is under severe pressure and tens of millions of people have lost employment.
The latter is especially important given that Biden, and most of the other Democratic candidates, staked their anti-single-payer argument on employment-based private insurance. In less than one month in 2020, the US has experienced a greater rate of unemployment than the four years of the Great Depression (wiping out not only jobs but health care benefits), and the olive branch around health care extended to leftists, especially the young voters that constitute Sanders’s voting base, is half of what was even offered last time? (It should also be noted here that as of mid-April, 50% of voters under the age of 45 have either lost their job, been furloughed, or had hours/pay cut — all of whom wouldn’t benefit from this policy).
Second, Biden suggested student loan debt forgiveness for lower and middle income earners. This seems like a good change, especially given Biden’s role in the bankruptcy reform legislation that specifically eliminated the possibility of discharging student loan debt. Yet, even this is a means-tested program that would leave out large swaths of people. There are enormous loopholes in the proposal that would keep millions of young- and middle-aged voters engulfed in debt that they cannot repay — many of whom are now without jobs, without health care, and without means to meet basic obligations. We’ve seen a version of this experiment already in the failures with the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid coverage.
There are now three generations of voters — Gen-X, Millennials, and Z — that have been railroaded by neoliberalism, globalization, privatization, economic crises, bailouts, endless wars: what we have seen is that there is always money — and political deference — for corporations, the rich, and the elite; even when we’ve ‘played by the rules,’ we get the shaft. Now, in a nearly unprecedented crisis that combines the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1917, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the massive engineered upward redistribution of the bailouts of 2008/9, we’re offered not just a less palatable candidate than four years ago, but even more measly terms to swallow with that choice?
Reckoning with Progressive Demands
One possibility remains for Biden. As Michael Moore has recently noted, Biden has to win voters under the age of 50, especially voters 45 and under. In the last election, Democrats lost that demographic, most importantly non-white voters in that age group. Bernie Sanders, in both 2016 and 2020, won overwhelmingly among all voters in those age brackets. To that end, a coterie of youth organizations and activist groups have released a joint letter to Biden outlining a series of policy demands requisite to securing the support of this constituency. The list is substantial, substantive, and weighty. It includes eliminating money in the political system, universal/single-payer health care, supporting the Green Deal, comprehensive immigration reform, free public higher education (and free tuition for HBCUs), a wealth tax, gun control, an end to mass surveillance and the security state, and serious reform of US foreign policy.
Echoing Michael Brooks, I would also add that staffing is critical: it is decisively important that cabinet and administration nominees not just be sympathetic but active advocates for these issues. For the generations that have come of age under the massive failures of the politics of the last several administrations, these are not revolutionary demands, but common sense proposals. At the same time, for these same generations that face an adulthood arrested by repeated economic collapses, raising children who will live to see ecological collapse, and diminishing — if any — safety nets for retirement, old age, or adequate health care, these are less than maximal demands: they are what is required to ensure that a minimally adequate livelihood is left for their lives and their families.
To not meet these demands is a strategic and systemic failure by the nominee and the party. To leave this group of voters — very soon to be the largest voting bloc in history — in the cold would be not only a catastrophic blunder, but also a myopic abdication of responsibility. This election may be about a ‘caretaker’ term in office (it is nearly inconceivable that should Biden win in 2020 that he would serve two terms given his age and condition), but to alienate — twice over — three generations of voters is to ensure a permanent status as a minority party: the losses at the state and national level throughout the 2010s will pale in comparison.
Thus, the onus is now on Biden and his campaign to make choices that reckon with these demands. The left will, rightfully, focus its energy, resources, and organizing power at local, state, and regional levels — where it has already made significant strides. Even more, the left ought to be at work building an alternate, viable third party — something that should have been done over the past four years. In national electoral politics, the left has dealt with defeat for a long time (the long defeat, per Tolkien).
The present moment represents an inflection point. On the one hand, in the face of multiple interconnected and embedded crises, the slate of policies that Sanders and the left have been pushing for the last several years (inspired by Sanders decades-long progressive message) are now the modest, rational, and sensible set of proposals that might adequately address the profound situation we face (though in reality they are not even as bold as the array of initiatives that made up the New Deal). On the other hand, the failures of both the current administration and the opposition party are painfully manifest to a large swathe of the electorate who are witness to an oligarchic political system unwilling to take bold, visionary action to help them — but quite willing to mobilize in the blink of an eye to conjure up trillions of dollars to shore up the donor class.
If turnout for this election is historically low, there should be no question as to why that is. The Democratic establishment won its victory in the primary (however dubious the means) and now faces the task of securing the ratification of that choice from the populace. There’s a very narrow path that both achieves victory in the 2020 election and establishes a base of power for the near future, ensuring that there is a party ready to aggressively tackle the profound political and economic challenges ahead and offer adequate, lasting hope. If it loses in 2020, that will be the failure of the party and the nominee, not voters and non-voters.
Michael Gibson the contributing editor for film, literature and arts for The Bias Magazine. He is senior editor at Lexington Books, the academic imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, and the author of a forthcoming volume on film director Stanley Kubrick.
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