If you were to think up a nightmare for the socialist left, it would be hard to think of someone more horrifying than President Trump: an authoritarian billionaire who uses the White House to enrich himself and his inner circle while deploying racism to cleave the working class and shunning international cooperation.
And yet in some quarters of the left there are signs of hesitation about voting for Joe Biden.
Briahna Joy Gray, press secretary for Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, caused a stir in a recent debate with Noam Chomsky by questioning the value of voting for Democrats. And even among those who do support voting for Mr. Biden, it is common to see them attach qualifications that narrow that to swing-state voting.
After Mr. Sanders dropped out of the 2020 primaries, Krystal Ball, a left-wing commentator, argued that leftists should decide whether they want to cast “nose holding” votes for Mr. Biden in the general election. And she committed to not “judging or shaming” former Sanders supporters for weighing their options, a choice each one would have to make “for themselves.”
But Ms. Ball’s formulation, ironically, has a whiff of bourgeois liberalism to it. Leftists don’t tell one another to split up and act in isolation; they derive power and meaning from debating and executing collective action, like labor politics and protests and community organizing. And leftists shouldn’t conceive of politics as self-expression: Politics is about the balance of power in society — between capital and labor, between elites and the marginalized.
It’s evident that while socialists detest Mr. Trump’s embodiment of plutocracy, some still feel icky about casting a ballot for a man pledging to restore the status quo and whose prominent surrogates proudly point out that he could not be mistaken for a socialist. But they shouldn’t. Instead, they should mobilize en masse on behalf of Mr. Biden in every state, without apology or embarrassment — and even with some excitement. To do so would not be to renege on their commitment to socialism, but rather to advance its cause.
A social movement that wants to reshape the world seeks out political terrain more conducive to change.
Mr. Trump’s re-election would mean four more years of scrambling to shield the already insufficient Affordable Care Act, but a win by Mr. Biden would allow socialists to go on offense and push for a Medicare-for-all system. Mr. Trump’s re-election would deal irreversible damage to the planet, but there are signs that Mr. Biden could be pressured to adopt the ambition of the Green New Deal. And without Mr. Biden to rebalance the ideological makeup of the courts, most of the policies that the left is pushing on organized labor or the welfare state would be rendered legally impossible.
These policies would not constitute the realization of socialism, but they would help lay the foundation for liberating workers.
Since Americans are far more motivated to enter the voting booth for presidential candidates than for politicians for any other office, encouraging turnout for Mr. Biden could also tip the outcome of competitive down-ballot races: Socialists and their fellow travelers on the left could ride into office in federal, state and local elections on his coattails, pulling the Democratic Party left and enacting policies that protect the poor and communities of color.
Just as important, it could help ensure that Democrats win back control of the Senate. If Mr. Biden slips into the presidency without the Democrats’ taking control of the Senate, Senator Mitch McConnell will filibuster even the most vanilla Democratic bills into oblivion.
The unique threats that Mr. Trump poses to democracy with acts like the politicization of the Justice Department and calls for violent crackdowns on protests should clarify the stakes for the left.
An overwhelming majority of active socialists in the United States today are democratic socialists — they believe that political and economic democracy are both indispensable and interconnected. That means they have a duty and an interest in thwarting the emergence of an authoritarian regime.
Mr. Trump’s efforts to interfere in the elections are yet another reason for a massive left-wing mobilization: Given his attempts at tampering and his questioning the legitimacy of mail-in voting, legal scholars like Lawrence Douglas at Amherst College argue that a huge margin in favor of Mr. Biden may be the country’s best weapon against Mr. Trump trying to steal the election.
A very fringe view on the left holds that the election of reactionaries like Mr. Trump intensifies the crises that will inspire people to turn to socialism and justifies ignoring the polls or voting for third-party candidates. This argument suffers both from ethical and strategic problems.
Subjecting the planet and the most vulnerable people who live on it to suffering on the hope that it prompts people to question capitalism is a cruel gamble at odds with principles of leftist solidarity. Moreover, it’s a reckless wager: Consider that authoritarian regimes that deprive their citizens of rights and prosperity are capable of great longevity, as we’ve seen in countries like Russia and North Korea. No student of history would underestimate the possibility of things to simply get worse.
The left is ultimately investing in its own electoral future by taking voting for Mr. Biden seriously. A great deal of political science literature shows that voting is habitual; lefty organizations should be building get-out-the-vote infrastructure and socializing the left to think about voting as a routine collective action so that they can mobilize more effectively in future races.
While general elections often involve uninspiring choices, the rise of Mr. Sanders and a left-wing bloc in Congress led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have illustrated how Democratic primaries provide critical opportunities for the left to insert itself into American political life. If the left becomes a consistent constituency rather than a periodic threat to potential turnout numbers, it will have more leverage over the party establishment.
A sophisticated and strategic left — a left that strives to win power — knows how to pick its fights and its adversaries. The primaries are over, the party convention is over, and voting has already begun. Change does not begin or end in the voting booth. But voting is one of the simplest and most tangible ways to tilt the playing field and offer some protection to the vulnerable.
Socialists should fight like hell to get Mr. Biden into office — and then fight him like hell the day that he becomes president.
Zeeshan Aleem is a freelance political journalist and publisher of What’s Left.
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