Former Vice President Joe Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate landed in social media with curious effect. Longtime Democrats, centrist liberals, and that fuzzy sliver of moderates who occupy the narrow space between the Democratic Party’s right and the Republican Party’s left, welcomed the decision enthusiastically. One friend, a retired naval officer with liberal inclinations who lives on an estate in horsey Northern Virginia, put his opinion in uncharacteristically laconic terms: “I like his choice.”
Presidential candidates have almost always chosen their running mates primarily for strategic reasons. Abraham Lincoln ran with Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson in 1864 to demonstrate to the rebellious south (or at least to the southern Unionists who existed in his imagination) that the Civil War could be concluded with “Malice toward none, and charity for all.” Franklin Roosevelt unceremoniously dumped the incumbent vice president John Nance Garner (who had nonetheless opposed him for the nomination) in 1940 in favor of Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, whose progressive credentials would shore-up support for a continuation of the New Deal. John F. Kennedy did not add Lyndon Baines Johnson to the 1960 ticket because he liked or respected the Texas senator (Kennedy loathed the ground Johnson stood upon), but because he needed a southerner to calm the nerves of southern segregationists in his party.
(It didn’t hurt that Johnson, the Senate’s biggest and most unprincipled wheeler-dealer, also knew where all the bodies were buried.)
For the Biden campaign and the DNC, Senator Harris checks-off all of the boxes in their quest to appeal to specific constituencies – African Americans, women, and middle-class moderates worried about crime and social unrest – with little of the progressive baggage that would alienate the mythical “White Working Class” swing voter whom they still believe is essential to victory. While Senator Harris’s race might be an issue to this imaginary voter, the Biden campaign is betting that her appeal would outweigh potential aversion. It is a calculus, and once the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis made Amy Klobuchar a non-starter, Senator Harris’s place on the ticket was nigh inevitable.
Members of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and the left generally, reacted to the news with much less enthusiasm. “It is as if Joe Biden is saying ‘I hear you,’” one Black Lives Matter activist posted in social media, “’… but I don’t care.’” A woman who worked on the Warren campaign put it as concisely as the North Virginia retired naval officer: “This is a betrayal.”
For many voters who had begun to make their peace with the prospect of voting for the former vice president – a lifelong centrist neoliberal who, throughout his career, collaborated with white supremacists to impede desegregation, steadfastly opposed reproductive justice until it he found it inopportune to continue doing so, and who was one of the main architects of the racialized carceral state – Senator Harris’s selection was a humiliating slap in the face.
After a summer of demonstrations against police brutality, and the increasing traction of calls to defund the police, appointing a hardline, law and order former district attorney infamous for leading a crackdown on minor drug offenses in San Francisco seemed more than a little tone-deaf. The former vice president isn’t even trying to sing in tune. Promoting the idea that Senator Harris will be the first Black woman to run on a major American party’s presidential ticket has the faint whiff tokenism. “If the DNC wanted a Black woman so badly, someone should tell them there are other black women in the Democratic Party,” one longtime activist said in an email. “It’s pretty clear that who that Black woman is doesn’t matter as long as it’s a Black woman. Hell, if I knew the bar was so low, I would have given Joe a call.”
The problem for many Democratic progressives is that, after months of gesturing toward the left, and promising “the most progressive administration since Franklin Roosevelt,” his choice of running mate sends a contradictory message. The gestures seem empty and the rhetoric too convenient. This weekend, former Vice President Biden appealed to the Democratic Party’s left, praising “the climate activists,” “the caregivers,” and public healthcare activists, but stopped short of endorsing any of their causes. “We can do these things, but only if we defeat Donald Trump,” he said.
There is some truth to that, of course – a truth on par with “water is wet” and “winter is cold” – but it is the kind of noncommittal statement that Biden has used throughout his career. Certainly, none of this will happen with President Trump in the White House, but the former vice president didn’t actually say that it would happen with a President Biden in the White House, either. And progressives and the left have heard these amorphous non-promises many times before. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me over, and over, and over again, and what does that say about any of us?
Universal healthcare, police reform, immigration reform, and the future of all life on earth are not trivial issues that progressives are willing to wait to address, and former Vice President Biden is saying “just wait, you can trust me,” without showing any interest in actually earning that trust. There are few really compelling political reasons – that is, policy goals – for many progressives to line up behind a Biden/Harris ticket. On its own merits, a Biden presidency does not look that appealing from the perspective of the left. If these goals are to be deferred yet again, then there seems to be little point in playing along.
It is, however, a great privilege to be able to think about riding out four more years of the Trump regime in order to punish the Democratic Party for its failure to take the left seriously, and to pursue policies like universal healthcare without compromise. In my own case, for example – a white, middle-aged, middle-class, straight, cisgendered intellectual – the violence of the last three-and-a-half years has been primarily spiritual, and the injuries have been mostly emotional. These years of constant outrage, disgust, and disappointment have left me embittered, exasperated, and enervated; I look forward to the possibility of four more years of this with little relish. Yet, I know that I will still be here four years hence, enduring hardships no greater than anyone else in America as I hold out for the left’s millennial promise.
I cannot say the same for undocumented immigrants, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and members of other marginalized groups. Their suffering over the last three and a half years has not been merely emotional, the violence they have endured has not only been spiritual; they have been real, material, and physical and, as the months of this plague year have shown, it is getting worse. I have an ethical obligation to relieve suffering when I see it, a responsibility that goes far beyond the commandments of faith and culture, to the very interconnected strands of our existence. The suffering is all around us and to comply, either by active collaboration or passive abstention, is to be complicit.
It is doubtful that a Biden administration will advance any of the political goals for which I have advocated throughout my life; there is no guarantee, moreover, that it will substantially roll back the Trump regime’s oppressive police, immigration, economic, and social policies – but it is absolutely certain that President Trump won’t. And if any possibility exists to relieve the pain of the powerless, immigrant families, transgender people, and so many others, our choice is to seize it or knowingly allow that pain to continue. The revolutionary’s retort that “we will never have change or achieve our goals without sacrifice” is true, of course. But we must also note who is willing to sacrifice whom.
As distasteful as the prospect of voting Democrat in November might be, the ethical case for it is overwhelming. Yet, the ethical is a calculus, and not an objective, immutable code of right and wrong handed down by providence. It recognizes complexity, contingency, and change, and requires that we interrogate our subjective positions with regard to others, and their positions with regard to us. The ethical does not come easily because it demands that we decenter ourselves and consider our neighbors as beings as important as ourselves, and it recognizes that there can never be a final verdict. That does not come easily to us and we need to acknowledge the struggle.
Sadly, now that the ticket has been set and the virtual Democratic Convention is upon us, so many Democrats are unwilling to acknowledge the struggle. Senator Harris is a wildly popular choice in the party – as it was meant to be – and many Democrats are demanding that everyone toe the line. That, certainly was the message contained in former Vice President Biden’s comments to the party’s progressive wing this weekend: essentially “you’ve had your say; now get in line.” And I get it – we are all tired of this and, even if we have greater ambitions than the periodic change of administrations, we all just want President Trump to go away. The problem is that the 2020 election isn’t over; it hasn’t even begun. And failing to acknowledge the real struggle that many progressive and left-wing voters face when they even contemplate pulling the lever for Biden/Harris is both deeply insulting and disastrously counterproductive.
Many of the progressive and left-wing voters who are struggling with their election choice have been in the fight since long before the 2017 Women’s March brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into America’s streets. These are people who marched with Black Lives Matter in Ferguson, and stood with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation even before Donald Trump was elected president. They organized local resistance collectives, picketed migrant detention facilities, and choked on pepper spray and tear gas in the streets all summer long while the Democratic Party was nowhere to be seen and its leaders expressed little more than noncommittal pieties. To deny the legitimacy of their struggle and suggest that, by working it through and declining to line up at this minute like good little soldiers, they are “helping Trump” goes far beyond insult. It elides the sacrifices that they have already made to resist the darkness and it erases their hard-won political identities. There is no better way, in fact, to ensure that they do not vote at all.
That would be disastrous because, despite what centrist Democrats seem to believe, there is much more to American politics – indeed to this very election – than the question of who will live in the White House for the next four years. On November 3, Americans will vote for a whole range of public officials, most importantly every member of the House of Representatives and 35 senators. You can badger progressives into staying home so they won’t vote for the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins, but they won’t be voting for Cori Bush, or against Mitch McConnell, either. The strongest political argument for a Biden presidency is that the president elected this fall will appoint the replacements for Associate Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. It is difficult not to recognize the awesome implications. But what chance would a President Biden have to appoint even a remotely-liberal justice unless voters pry control of the Senate from the gnarly hands of McConnell’s Republican gang? The prospect of progressive abstentions or third-party votes on the presidential ballot might not be ideal, but their down-ballot votes are absolutely essential.
Even then, few progressive and left-wing voters are contemplating either abstention or Howie Hawkins. They are considering the issues deeply, and working through the ethical calculus for themselves. They recognize that American politics is not merely a question of a single binary choice that comes up once every four years. “Get real,” the journalist and former deputy literary editor of The Nation Miriam Markowitz posted today on Facebook. “Almost all of us, myself included, plan to do what you [Democrats] consider the right thing. I still want to know what you plan to do to hold this ticket accountable. So far I’m hearing crickets.” A vote for the president is not a blank check – not should it be. Voters like Markowitz might well have made peace with the unpalatable option that lies before them, and we must respect their need to look before they leap.
Despite the Democratic Party’s glossy disingenuousness that promises, in effect, “just vote for Joe and everything will be okay!” no one should labor under the illusion that a Biden presidency will put an end to the totalitarian movement that has coalesced around President Trump, or that it will return us to the utopian “normalcy” of the Obama years. It is absolutely certain that former Vice President Biden will serve one term – he would be 82 years old at the start of his second term – and it is equally certain that we are going to have to fight the totalitarian tide again in the 2022 midterms and again in 2024. Nor should we delude ourselves that either the totalitarian leaders or their millions of white, heavily-armed foot soldiers are just going to accept defeat and march obediently into the dustbin of history. They are playing a long game for nothing less than the abolition of the state, law, and rights in pursuit of naked power, and they will be back with a different Trump, Tom Cotton or Tucker Carlson at their head. A Biden victory will only give us a pause, a breathing space when we can regroup, re-arm, and re-commit ourselves to the fight ahead. Consequently, Markowitz’s question of how we hold a Biden administration accountable and, more importantly, remain in the fight in two years, in four years and every election thereafter, is absolutely critical.
Those apostles of “political realism” in the Democratic Party who harass progressives about their imagined “ideological purity” need to look closely at themselves. The reality is that democratic choices are hard because they carry such weighty implications, and demanding immediate, unthinking obedience denies that reality. The official election campaign begins this week and continues until November 3. It is during this time that we must do the work of politics, of making the case for party and candidate, and of persuading voters who might be struggling with the choice ahead of them. Anyone who has worked in politics knows that this is hard, exhausting work, and that bullying and vote-shaming are not an easy shortcut. You cannot browbeat someone into agreeing with you; you can only browbeat them into staying home on election day.
And that is something that none of us can afford.