Biden might be good for the left
It seems like forever since Bernie Sanders dropped out of the primaries. The intervening months have brought an endless parade of op-eds and open letters from prominent leftists— Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, those ex-SDS Boomers, etc. — pleading for their comrades to suck it up and vote for Joe Biden. These aren’t really worth dwelling upon in any detail since they all can be boiled down to: Biden is bad but Trump is worse.
I’m not going to give you the same spiel about harm reduction or whatever nor am I going to spout a bunch of clichés about how Donald J. Trump is an “existential threat to the Republic.” Unlike a certain liberal historian with a large Twitter following, I won’t feed you a bunch of balderdash about how Biden hews to the center of the party, and as the party base moves left, so will he (he won’t).
Biden is not a good man and he won’t be a good president.
However, his presidency will be good for the left. And by that I don’t mean he’ll be a vehicle for the left’s agenda. He won’t pass even watered-down versions of those policies that the left holds dear, such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Aside from (maybe) forestalling the total rightwing takeover of the federal judiciary for a few more years, Biden won’t get much done in office.
But in the long run, that will be good for the left.
There’s a fringe position on the left that goes something like this: Trump is preferable to a moderate Democrat because he’ll speed up the disintegration of political institutions, creating the opportunity for a genuinely revolutionary moment.
But if we’re going the “accelerationist” route, then Joe Biden is our guy, jack.
We don’t want all political institutions to decay at an accelerated rate — just the Democratic Party.
Within a two-party system, the only way for the left to exercise any power in the government is by either supplanting the Democratic Party or taking it over.
It’s still too weak to do either.
This is a zero-sum game. The left has to wax as the center-right wanes. The Democratic Party must grow weaker while the progressive and socialist left must simultaneously grow stronger.
Biden is the perfect instrument for that process. Just as Trump is the embodiment of Republican cruelty and corruption in its most distilled form, Biden personifies the utter hollowness of American liberalism.
In order for a left alternative to become viable, the people of this country need to lose any remaining illusions that the Democrats can be a force for change.
Biden provides an object lesson.
Biden is the shambling corpse of New Democrat-style politics based on triangulation with the right. He personally symbolizes an approach that has failed to bring meaningful progress to the vast majority of Americans for the past two decades.
Politically, he’s not much different from the president he served under, but unlike Barack Obama, Biden doesn’t have the halo of being the first Black president. What’s more, he has neither the charisma nor the political talent to convincingly present ineffectual centrist policies to the leftward-shifting American public as if they were progressive.
In every conceivable way, Biden is not equal to the task put before him. The manifold crises the country now faces — COVID-19, climate change, economic collapse — demand radical action. Biden offers, instead, tepid incrementalism.
The left is undoubtedly better off having Biden in office but not because he can be “pushed left.” In addition to the obvious damage Trump can do with executive power, court picks, etc., he also is a source of strength and legitimacy for the Democratic Party.
With no greater evil to stand in juxtaposition to, Biden — and the political program he represents — will have to be judged on his own merits. He has none.
And now for a truly controversial take: A Biden presidency might be better for the left than a Sanders administration (at least in these particular circumstances).
Now, the reader might be confused since I, just a few paragraphs ago, pointed out that leftwing policies of the type that Bernie champions precisely what is needed to address the present crises. They are.
Let me explain. Last year, during the early days of the primary, I had a nagging fear. Capitalist economies run in cycles that are about a decade long. Trump entered on an upswing, so we were about due for a recession even without COVID-19.
I worried: What if Bernie wins and the economy tanks shortly after he takes office? Much of the work he had done rehabilitating the idea of socialism in a historically anti-communist country might be undone in an instant.
Many Bernie supporters get so hung up in the idea of him becoming president and what that would mean for the left that they ignore the potential downside risk.
Sure, his election would be a huge boon for the left’s political project. Also, he does have the appropriate vision and policy prescriptions needed in this moment. But at the same time, he would face strident opposition from the right and moderates in his own party, which would potentially lead back to the same gridlock that has plagued US government for more than a decade now.
And in a time of crisis, that paralysis would be used to lend credence to the criticism of leftwing politics as impractical, idealistic, etc.
Now, Biden and the Democrats are going to bite that bullet. And while they continue to decline in credibility, the left will be building under increasingly favorable conditions.
Demographics are laying the foundation for the tide to turn. Having now lived through two major wars, two financial crises and one pandemic, millennials are increasingly disillusioned with capitalism, and Generation Z is right there alongside them. Both of the younger generations are about as, if not more, likely to view socialism more positively than capitalism.
Millennials already outnumber the more conservative Baby Boomers, who came of age at the height of the Cold War, and with more members of Generation Z reaching voting age daily, the stage is being set for a generational shift.
If these younger, more radical, cohorts can overtake their elders in the electorate as well (and that’s a big “if”), then we might finally start seeing a left swing in policy to match that in public consciousness.
Still, at the moment, there’s no one entity that’s poised to be the successor to the Democrats. There are 44 million registered Democrats. The Green Party has about 250,000. Though it punches well above its weight, the Democratic Socialists of America has yet to surpass 100,000.
However, the appetite for leftwing policy is much larger. About 9.6 million voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. While that’s less than one-quarter of registered Democrats, it’s a solid base on which to build an alternative. After the COVID-19 outbreak, support for Medicare for All reached an all-time high, with a solid majority of all Americans now favoring single-payer healthcare.
And the ballot box is only one part of the equation. The uprisings that followed the murder of George Floyd have radicalized many, and the victories in the movement to defund police have raised public confidence in the ability of mass grassroots politics and direct action to achieve real results.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once wrote: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born. In the interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
The left shouldn’t get too caught up with the “morbid symptoms” that Joe Biden represents. Let’s keep our focus on the cure.