I didn’t volunteer for a political campaign until I was 16, when I decided that Bernie Sanders and I had a lot in common. He was the first politician I had ever heard who acknowledged that the poverty in places like Mississippi, my home state, might be caused by historical systemic inequalities. Ever since then, I’ve been staunchly in favor of progressive policies that, at their core, seek to ensure equitable housing, healthcare, and human rights for all Americans, regardless of their income, race, gender, or sexuality.
That’s why I supported Senator Sanders in 2020. Now that he’s almost certainly not going to appear on the general election ballot, I’m a progressive in a predicament, wondering, “Who should I vote for?”
When I’ve asked my friends and family why they support Joe Biden, I haven’t heard the same emphatic stories. Instead, they often respond, “Because I want to beat Trump.” But from a political perspective, beating Trump is not a campaign platform; beating your opponent is the one inherent rule of running for office in a two-party system. This “platform” tells us nothing about either Joe Biden’s beliefs or the beliefs of those who support him.
If the only thing that holds our party together is the desire to beat Donald Trump, that’s not a political party, nor is it an ideological commitment. That’s a fragile coalition, and it’s destined to fracture.
The more that I research Biden, the more I believe there’s a reason that he does not have a coherent campaign strategy apart from being somewhat better than Donald Trump. His record has flip-flopped so often that it tells us little about his core commitments. He was among the first senators to introduce a climate-change bill, but he has since spoken in favor of fracking and welcomed natural gas employees into his policy team. He supported abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade, but then remarked, “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” He campaigned in Delaware as an integrationist, but reneged on his stance and authored an anti-busing amendment that the NAACP described as “an anti-black amendment”—not to mention his later praise of segregationists, including Senator Strom Thurmond. He championed the Violence Against Women Act but has since been criticized for his treatment of Anita Hill and his own female colleagues.
If his policy agenda gives us little information about his convictions, his campaign gives us less. So, the only other way to learn about Biden is from his public persona.
Over the course of the 2020 primaries, Joe Biden’s personality has been captured through the medium of “gaffe” compilation videos on YouTube. They go something like this: One moment Joe Biden is spouting off malarkey-isms, and the next moment his wife’s finger is in his mouth.
So, media outlets continue to label Biden the “gaffe” candidate, a diminutive which ignores that these repetitive behaviors have serious ramifications. When a presidential candidate claims that “poor kids are just as bright and talented as white kids” and otherwise publicly stereotypes racial minority groups, we shouldn’t brush it off as a gaffe. Nor should we ignore it when a candidate repeatedly touches women in places and ways that make them feel violated. Over the course of several decades, Biden has demonstrated his profound ability to belittle American minority groups and women and progressive policy agendas, only for his sustained ineptitude to be cast as a series of “gaffes.” Perhaps, given the dearth of information otherwise, these behaviors are opportunities for us to understand where Biden’s actual priorities lie.
In fact, Biden has been accused of unwanted touching by eight women and of sexual assault by one staffer. For some candidates, Biden’s history of humiliating women would be the end of the discussion—but not for him. These accusations are indicative of the “gaffe” problem. They should remind us that touching women inappropriately is not just a blunder—it’s a serious indicator of someone’s attitude towards women.
Behind his flip-flopping and malarkey-ing, Joe Biden has hidden an insidious legislative agenda. He was rarely the most explicitly regressive person in the room, but this positioning has enabled him to pass harmful legislation under a progressive seal of approval. He wrote the script for mass incarceration and planted the seeds of a partisan debate against Social Security. After regressive Republican anti-busing amendments failed while he was in Congress, he managed to pass an identical bill for the sole reason that he was a Democrat.
Anita Hill estimates that Joe Biden’s actions as the senate judiciary chairman “set the stage” for the hateful rhetoric with which Christine Blasey Ford was attacked. Not only did Joe Biden succumb to Republican pressure and fail to call two supporting witnesses, but he privileged the testimony of Clarence Thomas over Hill’s. And when he voted against Thomas, Biden praised his character. Again, his wasn’t the most explicitly regressive position in Congress, but it embodies how Biden, by adopting the bare minimum shield of progressivism as a “Democrat,” has enabled a regressive agenda.
For those of us whose core moral beliefs center around preserving the housing, healthcare, and dignity of underserved Americans, it is fair to say that Joe Biden does not align. So, the question is not only “Why vote for Joe Biden?” but “Is this man really emblematic of the Democratic party?”
Progressive voters, trying to position themselves against this established moderate rhetoric, have attempted to ascertain Biden’s record. But he has lied about it. He’s lied about his support for the Iraq War. He’s lied about his record corralling bi-partisan support. He’s lied about the cost of Medicare for All.
When a politician lies about their own record, I tend to find it insulting to voters. Lying to this extent suggests that Biden is merely waiting out the Politifact reviews until he becomes the inevitable nominee. Perhaps Biden’s nomination was always inevitable, but no politician is entitled to your vote.
Yet, throughout the 2020 campaign, Biden’s camp has apparently felt entitled to the progressive vote. When his campaign says that he’s the only option to defeat Trump, they are often urging Democrats to appeal to the “moderate” voter. Embedded in this order is the presumption that progressives will fall in line behind a party’s agenda, despite the failure of the party’s agenda to address progressive concerns. Not only that, but it presumes that moderate voters will not be upbraided if they fail to fall in line. Rather, the party understands that moderates are so deeply committed to their own beliefs that the party must earn their support. Conversely, the party does not have to earn the support of progressives but expects it, suggesting that the progressives who risk the most by rallying behind a moderate will then be upbraided when they do not vote in Biden’s favor. That is a double standard upon which no party can faithfully hope to preserve a majority voting base.
While Sanders endorsed Biden just a few days ago, a simple endorsement for the party’s only remaining figurehead is likely not going to be enough to placate the progressive voters who have donated time, money, and joy to Sanders’ campaign. The voters who were independent or apolitical before Sanders threw his hat into the ring are likely not going to be swayed by Biden’s pleas for party loyalty, and others who were invigorated by Sanders’ campaign for revolutionary social equality will probably feel dispassionate about the lukewarm Biden camp in contrast. The progressive group, much like the greater Democratic party, is not monolithic, meaning that the impact of Sanders’ endorsement is still up for debate.
So, progressive voters find themselves in a sticky situation. Those of us who can’t align ourselves with Biden’s public persona or voting record are met with criticisms: “Do you want four more years of Trump?” [Of course not.] But when progressive voters subsist as a sect within the Democratic party, despite our differing values, we are acceding to their agenda—and to voter suppression in the form of primary elections amid an international pandemic? To vote for a politician funded in large part by billionaire venture capitalists and real estate moguls would support the corporate cronyism that progressives stand staunchly against. The question many progressives face now is: Do we really owe the Democratic party our vote? In a country where our vote could be our only impact upon the established political agenda, shouldn’t we vote our conscience?
Progressives have been given an impossible decision: A) Acquiesce to the entitled position of the institutional base which expects us to fall in line behind a candidate we disagree with politically and morally or B) vote outside of the Democratic party and face pejoratives for splitting the party. Just like 2016, those of us who decided to advocate for our most deeply held progressive beliefs, who chose to rally behind a candidate even when it wasn’t politically popular, who spent hours convincing our family members that Democratic Socialism is not Communism—we are the ones who will face judgement if Trump wins again.
When I spoke to my mother about this, she thought what many of her peers likely agree that I’m a stubborn Sanders supporter who won’t compromise. But that’s just not true. When Sanders lost in 2016, I immediately began volunteering for Hillary, and I campaigned so emphatically that when she lost I was booed in the hallway. (My classmates were not Democrats). That still didn’t make a difference in the way many Democrats viewed me and my progressive peers. Hillary subsequently maligned progressives for causing Trump’s reelection.
Perhaps Hillary, feeling entitled to the votes of progressives, presumed that her appeal to the moderate voting base would allow her to ride to victory despite her campaign’s abundant shortcomings. From what I’ve seen so far, I fear Biden feels the same.
While I am afraid—about Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and the future of our political parties—I am also somewhat excited to find out how other progressive voters plan to utilize this election to advantage the movement. Progressive voters may face a dilemma, but we also find ourselves in a powerful position: The Democratic party must appeal to us, must acknowledge our issues, or risk a potentially fracturing loss.
So, if you consider voting for Biden, use the pressure of your vote as an advantage.
That isn’t to say it would be easy. If you vote for Biden, do so knowing about his immense shortcomings as a person and a candidate. Do so knowing that he played a large part in supporting the Iraq War, which claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian lives. Do so knowing that he is not apt to treat women with dignity and respect. Do so knowing that “choosing the lesser of two evils” and “voting Blue no matter who” are both patronizing and un-Democratic. Voters who call ourselves progressives ought not to take these attributes lightly.
While the progressive vote wouldn’t win him the presidency, if he doesn’t get it he may not even have a shot. Given Biden’s record of being swayed toward whatever issue was politically popular in a given decade, a growing progressive discontent just might give us the power to redesign his presidential platform. Maybe. But, if you want to vote for Biden, don’t be surprised if people ask you why you did it.
For others who cannot stomach the idea, Sanders remains on the primary ballots and stands to win delegates despite bowing out of the primary. It’s possible that a significant delegate apportionment could result in policy concessions at the National Convention when the Democratic platform is announced. In November, when you see Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, on the ballot, remember that 5% of the national vote will procure the Party increased funding and third-party presence in more local elections.
More importantly, don’t be disheartened that our shared progressive beliefs haven’t reached the presidential platform in recent years. Institutional politics have rarely been successful incubators of progressive change, anyway. This election is not representative of the progress being made at the local level across this country, and, even if our president were progressive, they would not ameliorate the social crises occurring now.
There is a lot more progress to celebrate and to make, and federal level voting is only one way to do it. If this election makes you mad, then use that energy to lobby your local politicians, to debate with your neighbors, to write letters and make phone calls. In an era where politicians perpetuate harmful behaviors and neglect human rights in their public policy, yet still feel entitled to your vote, these small acts of community organizing serve as a reminder that your vote is only one form of civic engagement. For progressives, there are other, albeit more difficult, avenues to make our voices heard from here on out.
Virginia Sciolino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.