- Madison Lazenby
Joe Biden is Not a Progressive. Progressives Should Support Him Anyway.
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Wriley Nelson '22, Contributing Editor
Kate Miller '22, Contributing Editor
It is neither difficult nor controversial to say that Joe Biden does not rank among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. As a Senator, he wrote the 1996 Crime Bill that accelerated mass incarceration and helped the Bush Jr. Administration push for the Iraq War. As Vice President, he continually gave in to Mitch McConnell, selling away key planks of the progressive platform for unconscionably low prices. He has spent his entire career counseling the Democratic Party to pull away from the left and pursue centrist and neoliberal policies. Biden has been accused of inappropriate behavior by a number of women and of sexual assault by a former aide. Each passing day reveals further his propensity to alienate his own base with painful and even bigoted gaffes. And yet, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. is now the only thing standing between the United States and four more years of Donald Trump. The choice progressives now face is gut-wrenching. We hope enough of them will realize that the choice is also obvious.
The Trump presidency is increasingly lawless, heartless, feckless, and shameless. Since the impeachment vote that confirmed Republicans’ disinterest in small-'r' republican values if they impede the conservative agenda, Trump has become brazen in his disregard for American laws and lives. He is firing watchdogs, punishing whistleblowers, stealing medical equipment from governors he doesn’t like, and working hard to prevent Americans from voting. His Secretary of Education openly admits she is using the COVID-19 pandemic to promote religious private schools, and his Attorney General’s legal view of the presidency smacks of elective tsardom. Rabid white supremacist Stephen Miller holds the keys to the nation’s immigration policy. Perhaps worst of all, Trump and the Republican Senate continue to pack Federal courts with lifetime-appointment judges who will impede progressive policy for the next half-century. The Framers and generations of lawmakers put a number of safeguards in place to prevent executive tyranny. The only safeguard Trump has yet to run over is the possibility of voting him out in November, and anti-Biden progressives are only making that easier for him.
The vicious battles of this primary cycle have exposed the greatest threat to American leftism: itself. In the long run, this country will almost certainly move to the left as demographic changes reinvigorate Southern Democrats and younger generations who have felt the sting of unbridled capitalism and the existential terror of the climate crisis move into positions of power. However, progress is not guaranteed. Conservatives can and repeatedly have used gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, and vast sums of dark money to gain and hold power in most state governments, Federal judgeships, and in Congress. The only way to break this vicious cycle of conservative power begetting conservative power is with real political power. This will require a larger coalition than progressives can currently muster by themselves. Until the left becomes considerably stronger in this country, it will need to ally with the center to merely survive. The great danger is the increasing trend among young activists to spend more time purging their own ranks and driving away potential allies (i.e., politicians and voters who support some progressive proposals and oppose others) than they spend accumulating enough power to affect real policy change.
This is no feckless Boomer diatribe against “cancel culture”—heightened standards for our celebrities, employers, classmates, and friends are the growing pains of a more mature and humane culture. Since our Constitution does not allow the government to censor opinions, our best tool to limit the spread of ideologies that endanger human rights is social ostracism. Our politicians are perhaps the most fitting target for careful observation and occasional cancellation. We must, however, carefully examine the pros and cons of running otherwise progressive politicians out of town on a rail for insufficient purity on one or two issues. There is no better illustration than the treatment of Elizabeth Warren and her supporters for policy differences that are, from any distance, negligible. The left is in danger of becoming too good at saying no to say yes: to insist so strongly on full measures that no half-measure, the only type of measure capable of passing the Senate and becoming law, can get off the ground. Republicans, as illustrated by their constant attempts to roll back even the modest gains of the ACA, the mother of all half-measures, are only too happy when we on the left aim well beyond what we can realistically hit.
This year’s election field looks an awful lot like another election the Democrats lost, an election that shaped the world we live in more than almost any other. We can’t make the case that “Bernie Bros” (we use the pejorative for simplicity, not accuracy) handed Trump victory in 2016, but we have no such qualms about blaming their forebears for the narrow Bush victory of 2000. Ralph Nader ran a remarkably successful Green Party campaign by thrashing Al Gore as a symbol of a bloodless neoliberal administration with very little interest in advancing progressive goals. Nader, it must be noted, was largely correct. His voters were the most morally upright and conscience-driven voters of the election, but they lacked political realism and perhaps even basic knowledge of the undemocratic American political system. Al Gore lost Florida, and the presidency, by 500 votes. Nader received over 90,000 votes in Florida.
And what a price we have paid for the moral purity of those Nader voters! The Iraq War, withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, massive tax cuts and deregulation that accelerated income inequality and the housing market collapse, two of the five SCOTUS justices who opened the floodgates for corporate money in 2010 and gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2015, and the list goes on. All were unwittingly served on a silver platter by progressive voters with all the principles in the world and no pragmatism. As we write, the ideological descendents of those voters are dusting off that platter for its next use, and probably carving some rose and sunrise emojis into it.
In the words of Hubert Humphrey, a great American progressive kept from the White House by the unenthusiasm of the first generation of college activists, “if there is one thing I have learned in politics, it is never to turn your back on a crumb.” We realize that we are asking our progressive compatriots to violate preference, good taste, and perhaps even conscience—we are promoting compromise to people for whom it is nearly a dirty word—to get the little crumb of a Biden presidency. We would ask them, they who are quite right in believing that voting or volunteering for the Vice President would stain their conscience, only one thing:
On the morning of November fourth, when you turn on your phone and see another four years of DeVos and Barr and Miller and Pompeo, another four years of ignoring inequality and climate change, another four years of eroding the fragile bonds of democracy and of appointing judges, including the inevitable RGB replacement, who will be shaping policy when our grandchildren attend college, how clean will your conscience be then?
Progressives with any informed interest in advancing their cause will grit their teeth and hit the campaign trail. We must acknowledge and feel empathy for the people Biden has hurt, but we cannot callously abandon the marginalized communities that suffer and will continue to suffer the most under Trump. There is, for the limited and all-important purposes of this campaign, truly no difference between abandoning Biden and casting a vote for Trump. If the latter wins re-election, we will not see meaningful progressive legislation in our lifetime.