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Will a Biden victory give the Left room to breathe?

by Edward Knudsen

Joe Biden and Barack Obama. Photo: Pete Souza for The Official White House Photostream. This file is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain.

With frustrating regularity, progressives and leftists find themselves in an unenviable position whenever a US Presidential election approaches. As the contest inevitably pits a centrist Democrat against a far-right Republican, those who are unhappy with both candidates are told to think of “harm reduction,” the “lesser of two evils” or “pushing the Democratic candidate left.”

As Adolph Reed Jr. has described it, “each election becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection.” Given such a bleak situation, and the infuriating nature of these tired arguments, it is understandable to leave the presidential choice blank or to support a third party. Such a decision, however may only serve to strengthen the center in the future. With such a grotesque occupant of the White House, centrists can continue to claim the mantle of anti-Trumpism without offering the policies to change structural conditions in the US or abandon American imperialism.

Instead, a Biden presidency offers the chance to truly show the flaws of our current system and display the utter inadequacy of the Democratic establishment and incrementalist politics. Indeed, the best hope for the left may be a failed Biden presidency. This could provide an opportunity for the left to distinguish itself from the anti-Trump center and offer a clear governing vision.

Unconvincing reasons to vote for Biden There are, of course, the typical policy arguments of the “vote blue no matter who” contingent. Biden won’t destroy the environment, mistreat immigrants, or violate laws to the same extent Trump has, or so the argument goes. While there may be a slight element of truth to this, voting for someone who has refused to ban fracking, joined Barack Obama in the administration’s inhumane immigration policies, and has supported reckless military interventions is hardly a compelling prospect.

The Supreme Court, typically a centerpiece of the browbeating that the center deploys against the left every four years, is almost entirely irrelevant this year. With Amy Coney Barrett’s recent confirmation to the court, creating a 6-3 conservative majority, the Democrats have clearly already lost this struggle. The only way to alleviate the Supreme Court’s reactionary influence on the US is to pack it or reduce its power, leaving the standard Democratic argument much less convincing this year.

Drawing a contrast The best case for voting for Biden is that it may allow the left to distinguish itself as a real alternative to the neoliberal hegemony of the Democratic Party. The US status quo is deeply flawed—from endless wars to its cruel healthcare system to blatant corruption. Biden’s explicit promise not to “fundamentally change” any of these unjust fixtures of American life will allow them to fester, revealing the utter inadequacy of existing policies and political strategies.

Under, Trump, the left has been unable to set itself from the center-left and even center-right. Any criticism of the structural problems in the US is seen as “repeating a Trump argument”. Indeed, MSNBC types have been able to claim that they’re more anti-Trump than leftists, when in fact they only shout louder, without offering real solutions. The bizarre situation in which we find ourselves, with Bill Kristol, Rachel Maddow, and Bernie Sanders all echoing similar lines about the president, has severely hampered progressive momentum.

In a 2017 essay, Perry Anderson presciently analyzed this dynamic. He observed that “liberal opposition to the Republican regime has already reached such a pitch of intensity that it potentially renders all but invisible any demarcation from it by a left that has only just emerged into daylight as a modest critical mass.” A centrist Biden presidency gives the chance to highlight that the problems in America that aren’t just the fault of Trump and the GOP—and to further build upon that critical mass.

During the Democratic primary, excessive focus on Trump doomed the Sanders campaign. As Benjamin Kunkel pointed out, “Trump himself became the national emergency, rather than the stagnation, inequality, and perceived decline” that made his rise possible. Although Sanders’ policy proposals were broadly shared by Democratic voters, the overwhelming priority of removing Trump from office drowned out other interests. In various polls taken throughout the primary season roughly two thirds of Democrats said that beating Trump was their top concern, compared to only one third who said agreement on policy issues was the most important. Not coincidentally, these figures roughly paralleled the breakdown of vote share between Biden and Sanders.

The tenuous coalition behind Biden is unlikely to hold. As Alan McIntrye predicts, “once the overriding objective of removing Trump is accomplished, the divergent policy agendas of [the] various factions will reassert themselves.” While Democratic voters are not likely to abandon their “lesser of two evils” approach to elections any time soon, moving past the imperative of removing Trump from the White House may allow policy differences to come to the fore. This may be best hope that the left has for the future.

It’s not 2008 anymore

The obvious retort to this theory is: what about Obama? Did we not already experience a centrist, neoliberal Democrat under which progressive forces were constantly sidelined and demoralized? Why would it be any different under Biden?

Although Obama’s policy prescriptions do differ little from Biden’s, several critical factors differ from Obama’s first term, when it was made clear that the progressive energy that swept him to power would have little influence in government.

First, Obama was uniquely gifted at co-opting popular energy and using it to pursue centrist policies. In 2008, Obama had much of the media and political class (not to mention millions of voters) fooled into thinking that he would lead a new economic populist movement. Comparisons to FDR and proclamations of an impending “New New Deal” were widespread across virtually all major publications.

Of course, his bold campaign proclamations that “the American Dream is slipping away” and that he would be a “fighter for the underdog” amounted to little. His stimulus package was tragically small and his administration bailed out banks, not struggling homeowners. In 2012, long after it was clear that Obama had no major redistributive goals in mind, he still deployed just enough populist rhetoric—criticizing Romney and other “millionaires and billionaires” for not paying enough taxes—to win reelection by a comfortable margin.

In addition to soaring rhetoric, Obama was able to deploy his personal narrative to feign progressivism. As Aziz Rana described it, Obama “infused an exhausted American centrism with new energy and attractiveness, coating a familiar brand of American liberalism with the sanctity and power of his own personal biography.” The racist attacks and blatant obstructionism from the Republicans also made progressive forces hesitant to attack Obama. Biden, as an elderly white man with a long history of support for neoliberal and militaristic policies—combined with his proudly middle-of-the road campaigning approach—will not be able to pull off the same sleight of hand that Obama managed.

The American left is also much more formidable than it was during the Obama era. Under his presidency, the disorganized Occupy Wall Street protests seemed like bright spot, while faux-progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren passed for a leftwing firebrand. The left is not so easily fooled in 2020. What might have been mistaken as a nascent left during the optimistic 2008 campaign was simply not mature enough to exert influence, and as a result was sorely let down by Obama.

As a result, “perhaps Obama’s most important legacy will be one of productive disappointment: energizing a multiracial coalition of young voters whose subsequent disaffections with Obamaism and inclinations toward socialism are today remaking the left,” as Corey Robin described it. That coalition was not powerful enough to win in 2016 or 2020, but a Biden Presidency could give it the boost it needs to prevail in 2024 and beyond.

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