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What could be socialist about supporting Biden?
The left must embrace defending liberal democracy or fail
In my first newsletter, I made the case that socialists should support Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders in the primary. The core of my argument was that this election is a referendum on authoritarianism and that Biden was the candidate most focused on that and most likely to be able to defeat Trump in the general election to do that. I argued that Sander’s campaign was weak on that and on the closely linked issue of racism:
Bernie’s running the same campaign from 2016 — or really the same campaign he’s always been running. One which also leads him to downplay problems such as the rise of Trumpism, racism, and other forms of oppression, pivoting immediately to economic inequality every time. This is the same approach that led him to say of “segregation forever” George Wallace: “at least he is sensitive to what people feel they need.”
After I wrote the piece, Sanders canceled his trip to Mississippi, promised to speak on racism in Michigan but didn’t follow through, and finally, it came out then he never even talked to Rep. Jim Clyburn because he was sure he couldn’t get an endorsement. Maybe, but maybe you still reach out because you might learn something or build a relationship despite disagreement.
In response to the Trump campaign clearly relishing the opportunity to run against Sanders, some Bernie supporters would say, “Well they’ll just attack Biden as a radical leftist too.”
And they’re right.
Trump is attacking Biden as a radical socialist.
But it’s not working precisely because it’s Biden and not Sanders, and more than that, it shows just how limited their arsenal against Biden is, in that they’re confined to running the playbook they had prepared for Sanders. Their other play against Biden was to pressure another government to make something up, which led to Trump’s impeachment and failed to coerce the Ukrainian government.
As I wrote in a follow-up piece, the Biden coalition is on its way to victory. To Sanders’s credit, he is a part of that and his speech to the convention was exactly what he needed to say. At the same time, forces he empowered — such as his former press secretary — are literally indistinguishable from Trump’s war room (and I do mean literally literally — look up charges of Biden being “senile” for a sad record of such collaboration). Any full evaluation of Sen. Sanders will have to take all of that into account.
Back to the matter at hand, the main reaction I saw from DSA circles to my argument was: How could supporting Biden possibly be socialist?
If people had argued that this election wasn’t about authoritarianism that would be one thing (and some — to justify sitting on their hands — are still trying to make the case that democracy isn’t at least potentially at stake in this election), but that wasn’t the general argument, just an assumption or assertion that it wasn’t properly socialist to care about the fate of democracy.
I’m working on a more in-depth history and theory of the relationship of Marxism to liberal democracy, but at the risk of simplifying, how do they expect socialists to be able to organize without the right to assemble and to speak and to write? What efforts to improve the conditions of the working class and poor do they expect to be successful if Trump is able to blast through the remaining rules and norms that are hindering his outspoken desire to lock up and carry out violence against anyone who disagrees with him?
There’s an attitude on the left that “democracy” is just a lie, that it’s not cool to stand up for the defense of it. This attitude can — ironically, tragically — only have been cultivated in a democratic society, in which we’ve been able to take certain things for granted. The Egyptian revolution won the right to assemble and protest in 2011 — in conjunction with a revived working-class movement. That cleared the way for it to organize independent unions. Sisi, through massacres, mass arrests, and repression, was able to roll most of that back within six months.
Democratic rights can be achieved, but they can also be lost. Point to all the limitations of American democracy you like — and recognize that if Trump stays in the White House, those limitations and failures will become the norm, rather than the exception.
Thinking that it’s impossible to imagine a socialist case for Biden in this election means refusing to consider the centrality of democratic rights to the socialist project. It also requires reducing it to economics and to ideology. Richard Crossman once wrote against the fallacy that ”that economics are the determinant factors in social change and that, if we achieve economic justice, we automatically secure human freedom.” (This may burn the ears of some that think they’re Marxists, but while the materialist conception of history looks for the ultimate cause in the mode of production, it is not economic reductionist.)
To claim that a socialist must have supported Bernie, who sometimes says the word, is to make it a team sport, or at best, to reduce it to a kind of pure ideological struggle, in which it matters more to you that people agree with you than that you actually advance the conditions for a movement that can improve society.
In 2016, Bernie saw economic anxiety, but the boring liberals of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Tim Kaine saw the specter of fascism. Because Bernie’s ideology that tends toward economic reductionist limited his ability to accept that, he undermined the struggle to stop Trump from taking power in 2016 — and in 2020 ran a divisive campaign that empowered some who, as already noted, are effectively working for Trump’s reelection. Sanders himself pulled back from the brink, but the ideas about what leftists should do and what socialism should be that undergirded his earlier errors are still pervasive — a part of the “common sense” of the left — and I hope to address that more in future articles. But for now, I’ll close by echoing Biden:
We cannot move forward if we do not remove Trump and his enablers from office with the largest possible vote in November.
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