An insidious idea pervading media analysis and public discourse around the 2020 presidential election is that voters looking to defeat President Donald Trump are locked into an ideological battle between pragmatism and idealism. Voters backing former Vice President Joe Biden find him to be “electable” rather than being a candidate whose values they support. But is Biden really the pragmatic choice?
Before Biden announced he was running, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders appeared to be the front-runner, boosting hopes among those who supported him in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. But a new poll found Biden garnering the highest “favorability rating” among the many Democratic contenders. As the 2016 race underscored, polling numbers ought to be taken with a giant grain of salt. But still, Sanders’ lead seems to have evaporated once the more “electable” Democrat announced his bid.
Let’s face it — both Biden and Sanders are older white men. But the demographics of the voters they attract are quite different from one another. Another poll, focused only on Iowa—the state with the earliest primary of the season—showed Biden and Sanders tied at exactly 24%. But 30% of Biden’s support is from those aged 65 and older, compared to only 15% for Sanders. Meanwhile, young Americans aged 18 to 31 prefer Sanders by 41%, compared to only 9% for Biden. One can speculate with a fair amount of confidence that this difference lies in Sanders’ unapologetic progressiveness versus Biden’s centrist waffling and his image as the “safe choice.”
Biden has made it very clear he is the leader who can be counted on to return the nation to its pre-2016 status quo, as if the Trump presidency were an inexplicable hiccup that briefly and horribly set us off course. In fact, he has said at various political rallies that “four years of this presidency will go down in history as an aberration.” Meanwhile, other Democratic contenders have rightly pointed out Trump is a symptom of the rightward political march in the nation, not a temporary setback. Biden appears to be espousing the same disastrous outlook his close ideological kin, Hillary Clinton, held in July 2016 when she responded to Trump’s slogan by retorting, “America is already great. America is already strong.”
On issue after issue, Biden is out of step with those Democrats who have successfully pushed their party to the left since 2016.
Biden believes he is the only one who can take on Trump, reportedly saying, “If you can persuade me there is somebody better who can win, I’m happy not to do it.” He thinks he is the only one who can save the nation from another four years of Trump, just as Clinton felt she was easily poised to beat Trump. Yet on issue after issue, Biden is out of step with those Democrats who have successfully pushed their party to the left since 2016. For example, Biden, who has come under fire for supporting the 1994 crime bill, proudly asserted, “I’m the only guy ever nationally to beat the NRA because when we did the crime bill—everybody talks about the bad things. Let me tell you about the good thing in the crime bill.” In response, acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay fired back, “Wait til you get in front of a crowd that actually knows what you’re doing. Knows the bill. Knows the generational damage. Wait. I hope I’m in the crowd.”
When a report emerged that Biden was taking a “middle-ground” approach to tackling climate change, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also pushed back, slamming him at an event promoting her popular Green New Deal resolution. She said, “I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then are going to try to come back today and say we need to find a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives.”
Influential progressive voices like DuVernay and Ocasio-Cortez will push back on every issue in which Biden chooses the milquetoast center because they know American policies are not working for most Americans and a return to 2016-era policies will doom the nation.
Those who paint Biden’s detractors as being driven by idealistic motivations we cannot afford to espouse are ignoring the fact that Americans are at a breaking point. We do not have the luxury to wait another four or eight years to pick someone who will truly be a climate justice warrior—the planet’s atmosphere is at a breaking point. We do not have the luxury to wait four or eight years for a better candidate to usher in Medicare-for-all at a more practical time far off into the future—Americans are dying today in our broken health care system. We do not have the luxury of allowing millions of Americans to languish in prison cells, or allowing immigrant children to die in Border Patrol custody, or hampering the futures of college graduates burdened by debt. We do not have the luxury to allow our endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen to continue as whole families are obliterated or turned into refugees. And we certainly cannot afford a new war on Iran. Choosing a president who promises a radical departure from the status quo is actually an act of pragmatism.
Trump won the White House by boldly promising change. Call it radical right-wing idealism or call it fascist pragmatism, but Trump’s supporters demanded a complete re-envisioning of American government as a dystopian world in which immigrants are erased, women are shackled and gay rights are turned back. And that is what they seem to be getting under Trump. Meanwhile, Clinton lost by promising the status quo, and that 2016 status quo is exactly what Biden is promising us now. How is this pragmatic? As Michelle Goldberg wrote in The New York Times, “in contemporary politics, the quest to find an electable candidate hasn’t resulted in candidates that actually win. Voters don’t do themselves any favors when they try to think like pundits.”
Indeed, those who choose a candidate like Biden are the idealists in such a scenario. They live in a fantasy world in which the disastrous 2016 election never happened and Clinton never failed in the face of the worst Republican nominee in U.S. history. Behind Biden are all the elite forces who dream of retaining the status quo that preserves their profits. Biden’s corporate backers imagine their planetary pillaging and worker oppression can continue into some endless horizon. Biden’s war backers imagine some fantasy in which bigger and deadlier weapons can fix problems they have not fixed for decades and that such a trajectory is limitless. They have all failed to realize the limits of what we can tolerate.
To be pragmatic in today’s electoral landscape means choosing a radically different path from the one we have been on—the path that gave us Donald Trump. The idealists will seek to convince us their fantastical imaginary world that Biden and Clinton represent is our best hope of survival. They are wrong. Our survival depends on our pragmatism and our courage to demand better than Biden.