The sole reason to vote for Joe Biden’s campaign (not support, as “support” would imply a level of agreement and enthusiasm that we as leftists don’t have for Biden’s zombie neoliberalism or the prospect of supporting a probable rapist) is very simple. It won’t be easy to win the kinds of reforms we need under any administration. It’s obvious based on the last five years—and the DNC’s backsliding on fundamental platform planks like banning fracking—that we will have to do a lot of pushing if we want to move the Biden administration leftwards in any meaningful sense whatsoever. However, it’s equally obvious that if we get another four years of Trump, genuine leftism on a federal level is dead in the water until 2024. Under a Biden/Democratic administration, we would at least have a tactical opening. Accelerationists who are OK with Trump winning again err in ignoring the importance of state power and assuming that conditions for radical organizing automatically improve when things get worse—it’s quite possible Trump and his friends would be emboldened to forcibly suppress left-wing movements, especially given Trump’s consistently violent rhetoric and the severity of the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.
I am extraordinarily frustrated and sad that the Democratic Party establishment suffocated Bernie’s campaign for the second time in an attempt to squelch the realization that their corruption and faux progressivism need not be tolerated. It’s incredibly painful to recognize that Bernie and the massive grassroots movement that he has helped organize would likely have taken the nomination this time around if things had gone slightly differently—not to speak of in 2016. I am concerned that the Democrats will lose in November. There is no doubt that the planet will pay an unspeakably steep price for this second squandered opportunity, as it already has due to the DNC’s 2016 perfidy. Given the exponentially increasing cost of inaction on global warming, I can’t help but think that the 2020 election was our last chance to avoid calamity. It’s natural to mourn this dreadful misfortune, and we should acknowledge the emotional toll on the people who worked so hard and gave so much of themselves to Bernie’s campaign. It is also natural to deplore the truly abominable choice this election is forcing down our throats.
But in a country like the United States, with a system so thoroughly stacked against us, we leftists can’t afford the luxury of being emotional when it comes to strategy. We must be cold and dispassionate. Sociologist Doug McAdam identifies four political opportunity structures which influence the probability of political change: (1) the level of openness of political institutions, (2) the stability (or lack thereof) of elites, (3) the presence (or absence) of sympathetic elites, and (4) the state’s ability and willingness to repress a movement. Elsewhere, he outlines four political opportunities for social movements: (1) an event which reveals a contradiction between a given cultural value and a given social norm, (2) “suddenly imposed grievances,” (3) events that serve as “dramatizations of a system’s vulnerability or illegitimacy,” and (4) inheriting an innovative ‘master frame’” from a previous social movement. We can use these criteria to evaluate the situation which we find ourselves in now. When we do, I think it becomes clear that leftists in any state that isn’t safely Democratic or Republican should vote for Biden and that we should all hope for a Biden victory.
"I think it becomes clear that leftists in any state that isn’t safely Democratic or Republican should vote for Biden and that we should all hope for a Biden victory." The state’s willingness to forcibly suppress a social movement would drop drastically under a Biden administration. Political institutions would be more open to change under a Biden administration than under Trump’s second term, and Democratic elites are slightly more sympathetic to social change than Republican elites. Elite stability would be roughly constant in either case. In terms of McAdam’s four political opportunities for social movement organizing, we are in a moment that is ripe. We suffered through a calamitous financial crisis in 2008 and are living through three simultaneous crises right now: the coronavirus pandemic, its concomitant economic and racial justice crisis, and all the fallout from the laughably inadequate government response to the pandemic and the economic collapse, and the climate change crisis. It’s almost impossible to think of a more perfect example of “suddenly imposed grievances” and “dramatizations of a system’s vulnerability or illegitimacy” than the toxic mix of coronavirus and capitalism that the world is reeling from today. And Occupy Wall Street’s organizing and the 2016 and 2020 Bernie campaigns, along with the organizing done by #BlackLivesMatter and movements for criminal justice reform and racial justice, have given us a powerful “master frame” to present the case for democratic socialism.
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Another piece of cold comfort from the past is that FDR wasn’t especially progressive at first. In the 1912 election, he supported Woodrow Wilson over the more progressive candidate, his own cousin Teddy Roosevelt. He believed in balancing the federal budget, ran on a promise to do in 1932, and tried cutting veterans’ benefits in 1934 to accomplish this balancing. Over time, pressure from socialists, communists, the labor movement, citizens’ groups, the civil rights movement, and progressive advisors brought Roosevelt further left and secured his place in our collective memory as one of the most progressive presidents in American history. But the New Deal was largely a function of grassroots mobilization—strikes, protests, lobbying, and sustained activism—plus dire circumstances which demanded radical action to prevent system collapse. To regard it as anything else is to sentimentalize FDR and succumb to the great man theory of history.
It doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility that Biden could be a Rooseveltesque figure. He isn’t a progressive. Neither are his advisors. But the effect of a public radicalized by the coronavirus crisis; increased labor agitation; a mobilized, vocal, and growing socialist presence; and the terrifying economic circumstances we find ourselves in may conspire to convert him into one, even against his own instincts and the desires of the corporate interests bankrolling his campaign.
None of this is an argument that we should let neoliberals off the hook. Establishment Democrats must pay a heavy electoral price. The reason we haven’t been able to break the pattern of the Democrats moving further and further right and touting a “lesser of two evils” approach is that they haven’t suffered any electoral consequences for their actions other than depressed voter turnout, and it’s difficult to demonstrate conclusively that depressed voter turnout is the product of neoliberal candidates. The Left should turn its focus to congressional races and field primary challengers against as many establishment candidates as possible. If Biden wins the presidency, we will need to pursue an “inside” and an “outside” strategy, mobilizing the grassroots to organize and push the Democratic establishment leftwards and working electorally to wrest control of the Democratic Party apparatus out of the liver-spotted hands of the ancien régime. And then in 2024, we can field a presidential candidate from the new younger crop of democratic socialists and defeat the Democratic establishment decisively.