What Does it Mean to be Progressive in 2020?
tags: Democratic Party,progressives,Joe Biden,Bernie Sanders
After suffering mightily from conservative disdain, for us and for any political principles except sticking it to us, Progressives now sense vindication. On the points that Progressives have advocated over the past few decades, events, meaning reality, have shown us to be right. Everyone but Republicans and fossil fuel companies has gone beyond talking about global warming to planning their responses. The majority of Americans like Obamacare, and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 56% favor Medicare for All. Racism and sexism are recognized more than ever as deeply embedded flaws in our society, which require systemic change to eliminate. Policing must be made safer for Black lives and for other lives, because of racism and sexism, as well as a culture of impunity from the people police should serve.
It took a cartoon version of conservative ideas to wake up the 20% to 30% of Americans in the middle to the speciousness of Republican political ideology. Progressive causes are becoming American causes.
I worry now that the greatest danger to the political success of progressivism is self-destruction. As soon as Biden pulled ahead in the primaries, David Siders and Holly Otterbein wrote for Politico about a “Never Biden” movement among Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Disappointed revolutionaries are seeking to break off a chunk of progressive support and ensure the victory of Trump and forces of the right. Their motives are as fuzzy as their thinking.
Here’s what I mean. Ted Rall says “Progressives Should Boycott the Democratic Party”. David Swanson tells us “Why You Should Never Vote for Joe Biden”. Victoria Freire says “Joe Biden doesn’t deserve our vote”.
Joe Biden is far from the ideal candidate for Progressives. Biden has personified the corporate wing of the Democratic Party for decades. He has a long history of moderate, even conservative positions as a centrist Democrat, which these articles detail as one of their major arguments. On the burning issues of the day, it is easy to find Biden statements and votes which anger Progressives: opposition to Medicare for All, endorsement of President Obama’s anti-immigrant policies, silencing of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, support for military aggression in the Middle East.
Next to these legitimate criticisms, however, anti-Biden voices sink to less honest arguments against him. The least honest is the claim that he is mentally unfit. Rall says, “He is clearly suffering from dementia” and is “senile”, citing as evidence only a poll that shows that many Republicans think he is not fully there. Jeremy Scahill says, “Biden’s cognitive health and mental acuity is, to say the least, questionable”. The senility argument is a Trump talking point, and is just as dishonest when employed by leftists.
As someone who has talked in front of audiences all my life, I can confidently say that Biden shows no signs of dementia. His critics ignore how difficult it is to talk publicly, especially in front of cameras, even for those who have done it a thousand times. I constantly hear college graduates, even college professors, fumble for words, interrupt their sentences, insert “like” and “you know” everywhere, and make those flubs for which Biden is criticized, often using videos from another century.
Somewhat less dishonest, but just as misleading, is the dredging up of every past Biden statement that puts him squarely in the moderate Democratic camp as proof about his policy ideas today. Biden’s centrism has moved leftwards during his career, just as the Democratic electorate has shifted. He is no Bernie Sanders and has not endorsed Medicare for All. But he openly advocates a version of the Green New Deal, a much more radical environmental policy than that of any presidential candidate before this year. He has argued against defunding the police, a purely negative idea which ought not be a progressive litmus test until it has been much more thoroughly discussed. But his current approach to the twin scourges of sexism and racism is far from his previous stands and squarely in the middle of progressive politics.
Anti-Biden leftists ignore the policies that Biden and the Democratic Party are promoting now. Waleed Shahid, of the leftist Justice Democrats, said that Biden’s proposals represent “the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in the modern history of the party”.
I believe that Progressives, especially now in the face of Republican anti-democratic politics, should always emphasize the necessity of listening to the voters. But a central part of the anti-Biden clamor is the delegitimization of the will of Democratic voters.
Krystal Ball, former MSNBC host, already in March told millions of viewers of “The Young Turks”, “if they always can say, 'Look, you've got to vote for us no matter what, you've got no other choice,' then they're always going to treat us like this.” Victoria Freire argues this way: “Start by asking why the DNC would choose such a weak candidate for Democrats to consolidate behind. The answer? Corporatist democratic leaders would rather have a fascist in the White House over a democratic socialist.”
A different form of condescension comes from David Swanson, who asserts that those who would pick Biden over Trump are “lesser-evil voters” who become evil-doers themselves: “People, with very few exceptions it seems, cannot do lesser-evil voting on a single day without having it take over their identity and influence their behavior.” He cites his own made-up facts: “the nearly universal practice of those who advocate less-evil voting of becoming cheerleaders for evil for periods of four years”.
A conspiratorial view of American politics is not limited to the right. Many disgruntled Bernie supporters in 2016 attributed his loss to the secret machinations of some Democratic elite. Democratic voters were duped then and are being duped now by people nearly as bad, or maybe worse, than the far right.
American political campaigns are certainly tarnished by deliberate deception, and Trump’s campaign thus far brings the worst form of public lying to the presidential campaign. Voter manipulation is a feature of American politics. But the assertion that a corporate Democratic cabal, a wealthy corporate war-mongering racist and sexist elite, has successfully manipulated Democratic voters to vote for “their” safe candidate is insulting to us voters. That much is obvious.
Less obvious are its racial assumptions. The “Black vote”, the convenient political label for how millions of Black Americans make their political choices, was a central media talking point during the primaries. The collective choices of those voters gave moderate Joe the victory over more progressive Bernie. Were they all duped? Did they throw away their votes out of ignorance or malice?
The political conspiracy theories of the right assume that Democratic voters actively support evil. The conspiracy theories of the “Never Biden” element of the left assume that we are just dumb.
I was frustrated by Bernie’s defeat in 2016 and 2020, and wished that certain Democratic politicians and media personalities had not nudged those elections toward the center. But there is no evidence that the nudging created Hillary’s victory over Bernie by 12% or Joe’s victory this year by 22%.
To assume that Black voters, or Democratic voters in general, have made poor choices, that they don’t understand what they should want and how to get there in today’s political climate, is not progressive. That kind of thinking has led left movements towards dictatorship. Letting Trump win by convincing Americans on the left to vote against Biden will be good for nobody, especially for anyone who supports positions further to the left.
July 28, 2020
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