Now that Bernie Sanders has suspended his presidential campaign, his supporters are faced with an important question: how to best move forward given bad (Joe Biden) and worse (Donald Trump) options for president. Our goal? Helping millions of people in need through implementation of the platform that Sanders continues to fight for and Biden opposes: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, wealth taxes on the billionaire class, decarceration, peaceful foreign policy, inclusive immigration policy, and more.
Whether or not these policies become reality is dependent on much more than presidential politics. Congressional elections will have an important impact, as will state and local elections. Building the strength of the labor movement is a must. So is the growth of independent alternatives to corporate media. Social justice advocates must continue to organize, wage effective issue campaigns, re-envision Democratic institutions, and increase the membership of promising grassroots organizations that have begun to wield power, including the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement.
But presidential politics still matter, and while no progressive-minded person would consider voting for Trump, there are three distinct presidential election strategies social justice advocates may embrace. Those strategies, along with their pros and cons, are summarized below.
No matter how we weigh any individual strategy’s tradeoffs, it is essential to understand its rationale and stand in solidarity with social justice advocates who pursue it. Attacking each other over strategic disagreements only undermines our common agenda; there is much more that unites people who supported Sanders (or Elizabeth Warren, for that matter) in the primary than that divides us.
Vote Blue No Matter Who
This strategy, embraced by Sanders himself, centers the threat posed by a potential second term for Trump. Sanders, like many of his supporters, maintained since he entered the race that he would ultimately support any Democratic nominee – no matter who it was – because of the importance of defeating the man he believes to be “the most dangerous president in the modern history of our country.”
It’s not hard to understand the rationale for this strategy: Trump, beyond his bigoted rhetoric, disgusting personal conduct, and disregard for political norms, has pursued the standard GOP policy playbook while in office. His administration has worked to gut labor laws, oppress immigrants, roll back environmental regulations, and chip away at the Affordable Care Act. He has appointed a plethora of privilege-defending judges to the federal bench, including two on the Supreme Court. Trump has also flouted the emoluments clause of the Constitution, using his presidency to personally enrich himself and his family, and seriously bungled America’s response to the coronavirus.
Social-justice-minded proponents of this strategy acknowledge that Biden has a long history of condoning millions of people’s oppression. They don’t deny that, over the course of his career, Biden has stymied school integration, helped engineer mass incarceration, worked to deregulate the financial industry, spread racist stereotypes used to deprive poor people of cash assistance, voted against LGBTQ equality, championed the Iraq War, fought reproductive rights, enabled abuses of immigrants, and fomented deficit panic. They recognize that Biden frequently lies, has been accused of sexual assault, and vehemently opposes urgently needed policy, like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, that would threaten the profits of his corporate donors. But while that may be true, vote-blue-no-matter-who proponents point out, Biden would surely appoint Supreme Court justices better than Brett Kavanaugh. He also surely wouldn’t use a pandemic as cover for helping employers bust unions. In the short run, social justice advocates will undoubtedly have a better chance of successfully pushing their agenda – and preventing as much of the serious harm a president can cause as possible – with Biden than with Trump in the White House.
Still, there is a clear downside to pledging unconditional support for the eventual Democratic nominee: it deprives social justice advocates of considerable long-term power. If Democratic party leaders and their allies in the media know you will support a Democrat in the end no matter who that Democrat is, what incentive do they have to cover and push the issues and candidates you care about? Isn’t it perfectly logical for party elites to ignore you and the millions of people their policies hurt and cater instead to groups whose support is conditional upon the pursuit of their interests, like corporate America and affluent White suburbanites? The Democratic Party has for decades done just that, relying on social justice advocates’ fears of Republicans instead of actively trying to court social-justice-minded voters.
Refuse to Support Corporate Democrats
The social justice voting bloc is big enough that the Democratic Party cannot beat Republicans without it. If that voting bloc were to uniformly and credibly pledge to withhold support from corporate Democrats like Biden in general elections, less social-justice-oriented Democrats who want to win general elections above all else would have no choice but to support candidates social justice advocates support – like Sanders – in primaries. This strategy is about destroying the electability argument that won Biden and Hillary Clinton the last two Democratic nominations.
To be clear, corporate Democrats’ electability arguments have lacked evidence for years. But they have nonetheless convinced Democratic primary voters, in no small part because their logic makes a certain sense. If the only swing voters are moderates, people who want to win general elections against Republicans would naturally maximize their chances to do so by nominating candidates who appeal to this narrow swing constituency. Social justice advocates who refuse to support corporate Democrats increase their leverage by becoming a swing constituency themselves.
The goal of refusing to support corporate Democrats, in the long run, is to achieve one of two outcomes: pulling the Democratic Party in a social justice direction or creating the conditions for the emergence of a viable third-party alternative to the Democratic Party. For the millions of people who are incarcerated, bombed, deported, and/or mired in poverty due to policies corporate Democrats support when they’re in power, it is crucial that one of these outcomes occurs as quickly as possible. The likelihood of that happening through the strategy of withholding support from corporate Democrats is uncertain, but what is certain is that, all else equal, it is much higher than the likelihood of achieving these long-run objectives through the vote-blue-no-matter-who strategy.
In the short run, withholding support from corporate Democrats does not have the same impact as supporting Republicans; that’s a basic mathematical fact. It does have a real short-term downside, however. Relative to supporting a Democratic nominee, it makes a Republican win – and the four years of increased damage that would come along with it – more likely.
The Wait-and-See Approach
Some Democratic voters have yet to declare whether they will support or refuse to support Biden in November. These voters do not hold as much power to influence Democratic primaries as those who vow never to support corporate Democrats, but when a corporate nominee like Biden emerges from a primary victorious, they are well-positioned to influence that nominee’s agenda.
The successful execution of the wait-and-see strategy involves outlining concessions that Biden must make to earn your support. Perhaps what you ultimately decide will hinge on Biden’s vice presidential choice; maybe it will be based on who he commits to put in his cabinet or his shortlist for potential Supreme Court nominees. Anything you care about is potentially on the table.
There are tradeoffs involved in figuring out how to approach this negotiation. Ask for rhetorical overtures without staffing commitments and you’re essentially deciding to vote blue no matter who. Insist on Nina Turner as Vice President, Naomi Klein as Energy Secretary, and Rashida Tlaib as Secretary of State and you’re effectively refusing to vote for Biden. Demand Pedro Noguera as Education Secretary, Lori Wallach as Trade Representative, and Matthew Desmond as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and maybe you have a shot at getting it.
Because the wait-and-see approach can apply to fundraising, voter outreach, and other forms of activity in addition to votes, it is not mutually exclusive to voting blue no matter who or refusing to support corporate Democrats. Someone who has already committed to voting for Biden may only donate or phonebank under certain conditions. Likewise, the frequency and intensity with which Biden is critiqued by people refusing to vote for him may change in response to who he selects as his vice president or promises to appoint to key positions. In addition, these strategies complement each other. People who refuse to vote for corporate Democrats stretch the Overton Window, making other social justice advocates seem less radical in comparison. The potential to bring other social justice advocates along is the carrot that vote-blue-no-matter-who proponents offer the Democratic Party in internal negotiations, while the potential to pull other social justice advocates away is the external stick wielded by those who refuse to pledge unconditional support to the party’s corporate Establishment.
Debate the Strategies, Unite Around Goals
Vigorous debate about how to weigh the pros and cons of each of the above strategies and when to engage which strategy is healthy; joining corporate Democrats in pillorying Sanders supporters who adopt different general election strategies is not. If we are to be successful in achieving the Sanders movement’s central aim – improving millions of people’s lives through the social justice policies a majority of Americans support – we must remember who our allies are. And no matter who is ultimately elected president, we must continue the down-ballot work, movement building, and on-the-ground activism essential to advancing our shared vision.
6 responses to “Anyone but Trump? Weighing Three Approaches for Social Justice Advocates in 2020”
Thanks so much for this article, Ben! It reminds me that I’m not alone in feeling completely conflicted about the choices ahead. I’m leaning toward the “wait and see” approach (Dr. Noguera for ed secretary!), but in all honesty, it seems like all of these approaches end up leading toward “vote blue, no matter who” after having seen a Trump term.
You bet – so glad you liked it!
Trump has signaled that he will challenge the credibility of the elections. The only way to get him out is to vote in large enough numbers to ensure an utterly decisive victory. In this situation, not voting for Biden IS voting for Trump. I am not a fan of Biden or Harris, but strategy #1 is the only responsible strategy at this moment in time. Some of you may be privileged enough to survive four more years of Trump, but please consider the many people who are not, before you — literally — risk their lives.
You are ignoring Roberts supreme fundamentalist “citizens united”, phony “decision”, based NOT on legal case-legislation cited; rather, upon “headnotes” or “preamble” of Santa Clara railroad tax case. It is the domination of billionaires-monetary domination that has created U.S. failed state, though pandemic, “China”, “Iran”, “Venezuela” are to be MIC scapegoats in continuing only “power” remaining, U.S., internationally. Expect also, end of dollar as basis of international monetary system to expedite or complete failure. At this point both U.S. primary political parties operate in opposition to “the people’s” representative democratic process. Blame financial sector; your “pragmatics” having failed, going back to bush-cheney; failure expanded under obama-biden continuation of, having been hired to “change”. 2020 cycle is repeat failure. Meanwhile no time remains as transitions (see A.I.-competition, China), energy, planetary emergency, new tech, new Ed, new health provision, new jobs have been rejected by DNC corporate dems + GOP-libertarians.
Ben, would love an update to this post now that Biden is filling some of these seats. Obviously we are waiting to see what happens in Georgia, and have already heard about the ways that Biden’s cabinet picks might be blocked if not acceptable to the other side, but what do you make of an administration that is more diverse, but still fairly left of center? What are your hopes for education secretary? Still Pedro Noguera? Would Linda Darling-Hammond fit the bill? What does movement building look like in a Biden era?
Whenever you get a chance… 🙂
So sorry for my delayed response to this question! Data for Progress, an organization whose founder supported Warren in the primary and does some good progressive polling work, published a list over the summer of progressive recommendations for Biden’s Cabinet. I didn’t agree with all of them, as I thought some weren’t super progressive, but some were pretty good, and as Carl Beijer has argued (https://www.carlbeijer.com/p/the-data-for-progress-cabinet-tracker), their original list gives us a potential way to evaluate whether progressives who adopted the Vote Blue No Matter Who strategy have been successful in lobbying the Biden administration. Of 22 of Biden’s highest-level appointments thus far, only 1 (Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior) was included in their original list. A couple other Biden appointments weren’t bad (Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services, for example), and I’d call at least one very good (my former boss Jared Bernstein as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers), but I don’t think it’s a great-looking group overall, especially given some of Biden’s recent comments about executive authority and working with Republicans.
I’ll be interested to see how Miguel Cardona is as Education Secretary. I hadn’t heard of him before this year and my understanding from what I’ve read about him (https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/biden-education-secretary/2020/12/21/a1681e36-43d0-11eb-a277-49a6d1f9dff1_story.html) is that he is likely to be better than Arne Duncan but decidedly less progressive than one of the other finalists for the position (Leslie Fenwick). Do you have any thoughts on him?