As the presidential election draws nearer, Democrats are working hard to unite voters behind Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee. The combined crisis of the coronavirus and the economy, as well as the national uprising against police brutality, have laid bare the disaster of the Trump presidency and the need for change, and Democrats see November as their opportunity to turn the tide. Even Sanders supporters and some leftists have fallen in line behind the Democratic Party establishment, and are frantically trying to convince the rest of us to “settle” for Biden.
The answer to the current crisis is not another vote for a lesser-evil Democratic candidate — leftists cannot coalesce around Biden and continue to prop up the Democratic Party. From billionaire bailouts to sending the National Guard to repress protesters, the Democrats have shown over the past several months that they are not “on our side.” Nevertheless, some people are still on the fence about this: Isn’t Joe Biden the lesser evil, or even progressive, compared to Trump? Don’t we need to save the Supreme Court? Isn’t Trump uniquely bigoted? Isn’t it easier for us to exert political pressure on a Democrat than a Republican? These are some of the most common arguments we face when discussing the elections. It is worth examining each one to see why Biden simply represents a different side of the same imperialist, capitalist coin, and why mobilizing to support him is not only misguided, but actively undermines the work we need to do to build socialism and an independent party.
“Biden is the lesser evil”
The argument: Biden isn’t perfect, but he is the lesser of two evils. We need to support him for the sake of harm reduction.
There is a long history of Democrats giving up on progressive — or even harm-reducing — demands. However, Biden and the Democratic Party to which he is beholden blatantly oppose many harm-reducing policies, instead supporting legislation that harms working people. Biden’s record on criminal justice is particularly illuminating. Until recently he often boasted of his tough-on-crime stances, and he was a major architect of the 1994 Crime Bill signed under Bill Clinton that helped usher in an era of mass incarceration. He was also a fierce supporter of the War on Drugs which has devastated communities in the U.S. and abroad, and sowed the seeds for the current opioid epidemic. Most recently, echoing Trump’s rhetoric, Biden said that protesters such as anarchists should be arrested. Biden is not alone in his love of punishment and repression: Democratic heads of state and city governments have violently repressed protesters in the uprisings against George Floyd’s murder.
Further, Joe Biden has made it abundantly clear throughout his campaign that under his presidency, the U.S. will continue to implement a violent, imperialist foreign policy. The U.S. will impose deadly sanctions, deport millions of people, and provide “ironclad” support for Israel. It will also continue to promote damaging trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and engage in financial imperialism through its dominance in international financial institutions. As part of one of the most powerful capitalist parties in the world, any Democratic president will first and foremost reaffirm the supremacy of capital: The party bailed out Wall Street after the Great Recession, and the revolving door between the White House and lobbyists is bipartisan. Indeed, under capitalism, the very purpose of the state is to uphold these oppressive laws and institutions. And lest we think the current economy will soften Joe Biden towards helping working people, remember that he famously championed a bill which made it harder for people to declare bankruptcy, and when an interviewer pointed out to him that millennials face a number of economic burdens, he famously quipped: “Give me a break!”
Far from supporting harm-reducing measures — let alone progressive policies like Medicare for All or marijuana legalization — Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have consistently inflicted harm on people in the U.S. and abroad. Although the mainstream media portray the U.S. as uniquely divided and politics as viciously partisan, there is much more that unites the Democratic and Republican parties than divides them. When we proclaim that Joe Biden is the lesser of two evils, it is therefore worth asking: the lesser evil for whom? Biden is no less evil for millions of people in the U.S. and across the world, and he is an active impediment to the work we need to do in mobilizing the working class and building an independent party.
“Biden will be a progressive president — he has been working on policy recommendations with Bernie Sanders”
The argument: Many of Biden’s policies are progressive. His “unity” task force with Bernie Sanders released recommendations like $15 minimum wage and carbon neutrality by 2035. We need to vote for Biden to make sure that these policies get enacted.”
The unity task force policy recommendations, released in early July, included some progressive measures such as a $15 minimum wage, the creation of a postal banking system, a repeal of “right to work” laws, and paid family and sick leave. Although Bernie Sanders touted the recommendations as a win, the document excluded most of his policies. For example, there is no mention of a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or marijuana legalization, even though these policies are extremely popular in the U.S. and were cornerstones of Sanders’s campaign. Many other Sanders policies, such as student debt cancellation and free public college, were substantially watered down. The document is also undergoing further revisions by a business-friendly platform-drafting committee in preparation for the Democratic National Convention. Therefore, not only are the policy recommendations very moderate, but they are likely to shift farther right before their adoption into the party platform. A financial advisory firm confirmed as much when it recently told its clients that Biden is only paying lip service to progressive ideas.
The task force’s climate policy recommendations in particular have received praise from progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others who called the new plan, “a Green New Deal in all but name.” The proposals include emission-free energy by 2035 and other measures as part of a $2 trillion investment into climate change mitigation. However, these proposals fall “well short” of what is required of the present moment. For example, they do not include plans to phase out fossil fuel extraction or ban fracking, nor do they address other causes of the U.S.’s carbon emissions such as driving and flying — Biden instead advocates subsidies for electric cars, ignoring the carbon-intensive processes used to extract the materials necessary for these vehicles. Perhaps most importantly, the policy recommendations do not address international sources of carbon emission.
Therefore, while the climate proposals are more aggressive than those that Biden presented during the Democratic primaries, policies like emission-free electricity by 2035 are arguably too little, too late. Biden’s climate plans should be judged by “how well they meet the challenge at hand,” rather than by how they compare to previous plans or administrations. His policies fall far short of the radical policies required in the present moment.
Lastly, we need to separate voting for a person from voting on an issue. Put differently, a vote for Joe Biden is not a vote for a $15 minimum wage or for climate change action, in the same way that a vote for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not a vote for Medicare for All. In November, U.S. citizens are electing political representatives — they are not participating in referendums on particular policies.
This is important to keep in mind because the history of so-called progressive reformist Democrats is paved with empty promises. With Joe Biden as his vice president, Barack Obama — the “hope and change” president — left behind a legacy that was merely a continuation of the U.S.’s capitalist, imperialist past and set the foundation for Trump’s policies. For example, despite a majority in both chambers in 2009-2010, the Obama administration implemented a business-friendly, market-based healthcare system, rather than a single-payer system. Recently, Democrats in the House and Senate have also allied with imperialist, capitalist interests by voting down a measure to defund the Pentagon by 10%, voting for stimulus acts that benefit corporations, and failing to oppose Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. Bernie Sanders, for his part, has abandoned his progressive rhetoric, and is shoring up support for the Democratic Party instead of advancing working class demands.
We have seen, over and over again, that the way to achieve social progress and get progressive policies enacted is not by working within the Democratic party which is beholden to capitalist interests. Instead of obsessively focusing on the dead-end, Sisyphean task of rolling a leftist boulder up a capitalist hill, we must build an independent political organization of the working class.
“But what about the Supreme Court?”
The argument: At least one justice — Ruth Bader Ginsburg (87) and Stephen Breyer (81) — is old and will not stay through one more administration. We need a Democratic president who will put a progressive judge on the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is an undemocratic institution that we should strive to abolish. Its nine unelected justices — appointed for life — have unequaled power to strike rulings which affect every person in the U.S. and even abroad. The Supreme Court’s purpose is to uphold the racist, capitalist system on which the U.S. is founded — it has never, and will never, play a progressive political role. Since its inception, it has impeded progress and released reactionary decisions. Notably, many of these harmful rulings have been supported by progressives on the court, most recently cases involving immigration, religious schools and discrimination, and criminal justice, among other issues. This pattern will continue under a justice nominated by a Democratic president.
Furthermore, Joe Biden is highly unlikely to nominate a left-leaning justice. The Obama administration’s final Supreme Court nominee was Merrick Garland, a moderate, Republican-sympathetic judge who was more conservative on criminal justice issues than Antonin Scalia. On top of that, Biden proudly supports “reaching across the aisle” to accommodate Republicans on virtually all issues. If elected and given the opportunity to replace a Supreme Court justice, he will almost certainly nominate a moderate centrist who appeals to establishment Democrats and is palatable to Republicans.
We must also recall that Republicans blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland, and shortly before the 2016 elections they said that they would continue to block the nomination of a 9th justice if Hilary Clinton won the presidency. Republicans are likely to continue this effort, especially if he moves to nominate a more progressive justice. They have indicated that even if he wins the election, they will push through a Trump-nominee during the lame-duck months until January. Voting for Biden is not a vote to fill a seat on the Supreme Court, just as it is not a vote for a particular policy.
Far from ushering in progress, the Supreme Court — whether dominated by Republican or Democratic justices — consistently lags behind popular opinion. We saw in the recent LGBTQ work discrimination case that the court responds to social movements and public pressure. Our task is not to continue supporting this undemocratic institution, or to place our hopes for liberation into the hands of out-of-touch octogenarians. We need to build power and pressure outside of SCOTUS, and fight towards its abolition.
“Donald Trump is a bigot! He’s racist, sexist, and homophobic”
The argument: Trump is a uniquely disgusting person. He is racist, sexist, and homophobic!
Donald Trump is undoubtedly more vulgar and more explicit in his bigotry than many other American politicians. He famously announced his presidential candidacy with a speech calling Mexicans criminals, refers to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” and uses racist nicknames for the coronavirus. His rhetoric has emboldened the far-right, and broadened the realm of acceptable discourse rightward. This mainstreaming of bigotry is dangerous, and we cannot ignore the harm that it has caused.
However, Donald Trump is not an anomaly: He is a product of the many crises that the U.S. is facing. His election would not have been possible without the deterioration of living and labor conditions for millions, the rise of neoliberalism, or the decline of U.S. imperialism. He was elected because of his anti-establishment façade, even though ultimately he does not break with the status quo. Joe Biden, like Hilary Clinton, represents a politically correct continuity with the circumstances that caused these crises and set the stage for Trump’s ascent.
We must also acknowledge that Trump’s bigotry is often a difference in tone, rather than substance. When he called Mexicans rapists in 2015, the U.S. was implementing a Clinton-era Border Patrol policy called “Prevention through Deterrence,” forcing refugees through the desert and leading to the death of up to tens of thousands. Trump routinely makes racist comments about Native Americans, but the violent repression against the Dakota Access Pipeline protests occurred under Barack Obama, who oversaw the enormous expansion of fracking and pipelines. On anti-Chinese rhetoric, there is not even a difference in tone: Biden, in his campaign ads, tries to out-do Trump in anti-Chinese chauvinism.
When we look beyond Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, we see that Democrats and Republicans alike have implemented policies that have actively harmed marginalized groups. Joe Biden in particular has a lifelong record of racism, sexism, and homophobia. He has had a hand in creating the aforementioned criminal justice issues which he now purports to solve. Like Trump, Biden has also been accused of sexual assault, and has a documented history of inappropriately touching women. And while the Democratic party has co-opted the language of social justice and learned how to pay lip service to issues such as trans rights, Biden voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell under President Clinton. Yes, Donald Trump is racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ — but so is Joe Biden. Neither a Democratic nor a Republican administration will improve the material conditions for these marginalized people.
“It’s easier for leftists to pressure a Democratic president than a Republican one”
The argument: Republicans won’t bend to progressive pressure; they will block anything put forward by a Democratic politician. Only a Democratic president will be susceptible to progressive influence.
The Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, ultimately serves establishment and capitalist interests — it is much more likely to fight attempts at progressive reforms than embrace them. We saw this clearly during the George Floyd protests: Fully Democratic-run cities and states brutally repressed demonstrations and did not submit to pressure to defund or even reign in the police. Democrats have ignored leftist pressure on countless issues, from implementing austerity budgets, to dismissing the Green New Deal, to voting through Trump’s budgets while rejecting proposals to reduce military funding. Capitalist politicians, whether Democratic or Republican, bend to pressure from mass movements, and to threats against the sources of their wealth and hegemony.
It is also worth examining who Biden is currently building a base with. He selected Kamala Harris as his running mate, a choice which even the Wall Street Journal said is a slap in the face to progressives. Additionally, Biden has been courting donors from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the pharmaceutical industry — sectors whose profits depend on him upholding the harmful policies which he has helped create. These wealthy benefactors openly acknowledge that Biden will take a moderate path and not rock the capitalist boat. Republicans like John Kasich and national security experts will speak at the Democratic National Convention in a bid to reach out to Never-Trump Republicans, and Michael Bloomberg will receive a longer speaking slot than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These actions are in line with Biden’s own statements: He has told rich donors that, “Nothing will fundamentally change” if he is elected president, and has said, “Compromise is not a dirty word,” in reference to his willingness to work with Republicans. In other words, Biden is making overtures to wealthy donors, the Democratic establishment, and even Republicans, rather than to leftists. Why would a Biden presidency be any different?
Progressives have also already overwhelmingly fallen in line behind Biden. Bernie Sanders has supported Biden’s candidacy from the day he dropped out of the presidential race, and has given the campaign his socialist stamp of approval. Progressives applauded the joint task force recommendations, and New York representative Jamaal Bowman said that he’s “in alignment” with Biden. Former supporters of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have also united to form a group called “Settle for Biden,” seeking to rally support for his candidacy. Far from mobilizing the working class, self-proclaimed progressive forces working within the Democratic Party are trying to restrain it and convince us that we are powerless.
Importantly, we must also acknowledge the immense resources which we expend by supporting lesser-evil Democrats in order to pressure them later. When we throw our support behind Biden, and when leftist organizations and public figures like Bernie Sanders work to mobilize voters, this is an obstacle to the important work that we need to be doing to build an independent working-class party. Our efforts to prop up the Democratic party, get out the vote for capitalist candidates, and organize efforts to pressure Biden from the left are a diversion from the goal of building socialism.
“Ok, so you’re saying we should sit back and do nothing?”
Republicans and Democrats try to limit our imagination by encouraging us to view politics only through the lens of these two parties. From this perspective, we must channel all of our energy into the U.S.’s ossified duopoly, forever voting for the lesser evil, gaining little to nothing. The Democrats have been particularly successful at driving social movements out of the streets and into the voting booth. However, this path does not get us closer to socialism — it upholds capitalism and the violent elements which prop it up.
Instead, we need to fight for socialism. This means fighting against both Democrats and Republicans who represent two sides of the same imperialist, capitalist coin. Left Voice has written extensively about the need for a working class party, independent of capital. Such a party would unite the working class around a revolutionary program, and coordinate protests in the streets and strikes in our workplaces.
Just as we have seen, time and time again, that working within the Democratic party leads to dead ends and betrayal, we have also seen the radical power of organizing to achieve social change. Last year, Puerto Ricans successfully organized to oust Governor Roselló after 12 days of unprecedented mobilizations. On Juneteenth, port workers shut down 29 ports on the West Coast in solidarity with the movement against police brutality. Last month, tens of thousands of people went on strike for Black lives. Actions such as these demonstrate the power of the working class and its strategic position to hit capitalists where it hurts: their profits.
However, these isolated actions are not sufficient to present a threat to the two capitalist parties: We also need a party that is rooted in the working class and fights for socialism. Such a party
could tap into the power of the working class and impose its will. This means not only winning universal health care or a path to citizenship for all immigrants through mass mobilization, strikes and other workers’ actions. It also means building a national force that can really wrest power from the claws of Wall Street, a political force that can build and coordinate, for example, a general strike to topple a government that sends us to die of Covid-19 for the sake of restoring capitalist profits.
The current crises are increasingly exposing the disaster of capitalism, and the inability of bourgeois political parties to rise to the occasion. Socialism is becoming steadily popular and increasingly necessary— it’s time for us to build an organization that fights for it.