This is one of two articles that we’re publishing on the 2020 presidential election. The other is here. They reflect different perspectives in DSA’s Bread & Roses caucus, inspired by a debate about DSA’s “Bernie or Bust” position. Although no vote was taken, a majority of those who contributed to the debate spoke in favor of the “Bernie or Bust” position.
While Trump is an especially dangerous and deranged right-wing president, socialists should neither campaign for nor endorse Joe Biden. It’s not just that Biden is personally abominable: arguments that he is the “lesser evil” overstate the case that a Biden presidency is our only hope to avoid fascism, while ignoring the big strategic setback for socialists that supporting Biden would entail.
Instead, socialists today should focus on building the political independence and self-confidence of the embryonic class-conscious tendency in the working class. Without this tendency, the left will be unable to fight a Biden administration from the left, let alone build a strong labor movement and ultimately the mass workers’ party needed to fight for and win socialism in the future. Without a strong left alternative, the far right will grow even more virulent as neoliberal Democrats do nothing to address the social crises that have fed reactionary extremism and support for Trump.
In October 2004, less than a week before George W. Bush’s reelection victory over John Kerry, an episode of South Park featured a school mascot election contest between Giant Douche and Turd Sandwich. The main arguments for each candidate amounted to arguments against the other: “My opponent is a Turd Sandwich,” and “People would have to be crazy to vote for a Giant Douche.”
In general, we shouldn’t look to South Park for political insight. But this episode captured a feeling that millions find relatable. In fact, in every presidential election, the people who don’t vote vastly outnumber those who vote for either candidate. Joe Biden’s campaign recently shared a graph showing that, while about 66 million and 63 million voted for Clinton and Trump respectively in 2016, 100 million disproportionately working-class people didn’t vote at all. Biden sharing this is ironically unself-aware: the rise of right-wing neoliberal Democrats like Clinton and Biden is a big reason why working and oppressed people feel that neither party represents their interests — and that voting is therefore pointless.
Over the last year, a growing number of socialists have argued that DSA should support Joe Biden, 2020’s own Giant Douche. In April a cadre of old New Left-ers wrote a letter criticizing DSA’s non-endorsement of Biden. More recently an open letter signed by DSA leaders implicitly called for DSAers to volunteer for Biden. These arguments are explicit or implicit challenges to DSA’s “Bernie or Bust” position adopted at the 2019 National Convention: “Whereas, Sanders is the sole candidate in the Democratic Party primary who has positioned themselves against neoliberal capitalism and austerity…the Democratic Socialists of America will not endorse another Democratic Party presidential candidate should Bernie Sanders not prevail.”
Contrary to some supporters of the Bernie or Bust position, I argue that DSA members and leaders have every right to challenge a position adopted at a prior convention. When there is a change in conditions — such as a pandemic, an economic collapse, or what some fear is the new potential for authoritarianism — it is reasonable for DSA to change course between conventions. This is why we elect a national leadership who meets more often than our biennial convention. Of course, if the leadership challenged a convention position, they would have to go the extra mile to carry out such a change in a transparent and inclusive way, allowing for member input (for instance, hosting member debates on the issue or holding an online member referendum).
What Socialists Lose by Supporting Joe Biden
But in this case, I am against changing our position. I am against DSA endorsing Biden, or campaigning for him, even if that support is “critical” of Biden. I agree with Chicago DSA member Sean Duffy who argues that such support would “only amount to a symbolic gesture that helps neither Biden nor DSA but acts only as an appeasement to liberals who insist that a lack of organizational support for Biden is tantamount to support for Trump.”
It’s clear that Turd Sandwich Trump is the greater evil. If I lived in a swing state I personally would vote for Biden. But socialist politics is about collective action, not personal choices. Since DSA fights for socialism, something that will take decades or more to achieve, our political action today must be part of a long-term strategy — not solely a reaction to immediate circumstances. Our strategies should be based on the potentially revolutionary power of a class-conscious and organized working class. While we’ve seen indications that US workers are waking up from a long slumber since the neoliberal assault on unions and the Left began a half century ago, we have very, very far to go. We must support the revival of the union movement, one where rank-and-file workers control democratic and militant organizations. We must help construct a mass workers’ party independent of both major capitalist parties, so that a new workers’ movement can fight for itself in the political realm. And we must win over a fighting working class to the insight that only international democratic socialism can ensure dignity, security, health, and peace — that no compromise with a “nicer” capitalism can guarantee equality, or even democracy.
Just building a workers’ movement that can fight for socialism at a national level — to say nothing of actually winning socialism — could be a 50-year process. Our strategies should focus on building the forces necessary to sustain this process. In the near term, that means carrying out the rank-and-file strategy and organizing strikes and other actions which teach workers who participate and observe that when they fight for themselves, they can win real changes in their lives. It means bringing this class-struggle attitude to elections: socialist politicians can use campaigns and elected office to help workers build their own organizations, bringing worker organizations into the political process in the fight for reforms, while heightening conflict between workers and the two-party capitalist political establishment.
Nick French and I argued in a previous article that while Bernie Sanders’s five-year campaign for the presidential nomination helped advance this process, we need to fight hard to keep alive the flame of working-class political independence which the Sanders movement sparked. Precisely because there is no mass workers’ party, Sanders has been reduced to incorporating himself into the Biden campaign. This is not a condition we should accept as permanent and natural: if we are not going to be stuck with choosing between a Turd Sandwich and a Giant Douche every four years, we must set ourselves to building a viable alternative.
DSA’s refusal to support Biden is still correct. For one thing, Biden is a uniquely terrible Democrat — he represents everything that is pro-capitalist, anti-worker, and racist about the neoliberalized Democratic Party of the last 50 years. The list is familiar to all of us but is worth repeating in brief.
First of all, Biden is probably a rapist. Remember the “pussy” hats? They were a liberal feminist protest symbol against Trump, who claimed he liked to grab women “by the pussy” — the exact thing Biden is now credibly accused of doing. Those hats are suspiciously absent this fall.
Biden also supported the Clinton- and Bush-era policies of welfare reform, mass incarceration, financial deregulation, NAFTA, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and the Defense of Marriage Act. Biden has denounced socialism while promising he will not sign Medicare for All or ban fracking. And Biden reportedly has more billionaire donors than Trump. Nothing about Biden the candidate, Biden’s 2020 campaign, or the Democratic Party of Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer implies that Biden could be, as Sanders has unfortunately claimed, “the most progressive president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
Secondly, DSA has established itself as a unique institution in US politics: we have enough social weight that people care about us (though far from enough yet to make a huge impact on society or even on this particular election), but we still affirm our independence and our refusal to be bullied into subservience to the Democrats.
Such an organization is essential if we are going to eventually build the socialist movement we need over the rest of our lives. Millions of radicalizing workers and students who supported Bernie and are disgusted with Biden and the Democrats need to know that there is a left alternative, and that the fight against injustice doesn’t begin and end with the Democrats, nor with the NGOs or union leaders who are attached to the Democratic Party. (Most of these radicalizing people will vote for Biden anyway, without our endorsement.)
It’s all the more important because the implication — Biden is still our enemy, as are the two mainstream capitalist parties, and we can’t support him — helps drive home the message that socialists are critics not just of Trumpism but even more so of capitalism.
The only serious political issue that gained DSA a lot of press after the 2019 DSA convention was the “Bernie or Bust” resolution. How many thousands of people first realized that they don’t have to be satisfied with neoliberal Democrats, or even satisfied with capitalism, after learning about DSA’s strident independence?
In deciding whether to support Biden, we must weigh the costs and benefits. Below I’ll look at the purported benefits of supporting Biden. But the costs should now be clear: we would sacrifice the political independence of the nascent socialist movement. This is not something we can afford to lose at this fragile stage. US history is filled with examples of relatively strong labor movements and movements for civil rights foundering on the rocks of Democratic Party incorporation. To start down this path now would amount to smothering the socialist movement in the crib.
We have worked hard to educate DSA members that they are socialists, not progressives, and that this makes a huge difference in everything we do. Making a U-turn to support a capitalist candidate in deference to calls for lesser-evilism would undo much of this work, sowing confusion about what DSA is and what we stand for. As Jane Slaughter argued regarding socialist labor organizing and the vision of an independent workers’ party, our longer-term goals inform our near-term tactics and strategy. When those are in conflict, what’s closest to us — what we’re doing today — takes up more space and begins to look like the norm. This is especially true since lesser-evilism is the default politics of the liberal-left, always available to explain what we do and what we should do, and aggressively promoted by the multi-billion dollar Democratic establishment, from MSNBC to Nancy Pelosi, from union leaders to liberal celebrities to NGOs.
While socialists can point to historical examples of far-left parties giving a Marxist rationale for joining liberal-capitalist coalitions or governments, these comparisons miss an important difference about those parties and DSA in 2020. Historically, groups like the Bolsheviks in the 1900s and Communists in the 1930s were far more consolidated than DSA is today: they had built strong independent organizations and identities; they adopted robust revolutionary programs after years of debate; they had mass media outlets from which millions of people got their news and political ideas; and they had the loyalty of significant sections of militant industrial workers who could follow the party through necessary compromises and come out the other side still committed to revolutionary socialism and working-class political independence. Whether or not those socialist parties were right to collaborate with capitalists is irrelevant, given that DSA today has none of these assets. Until we develop them, we will be at constant risk of absorption or dissolution into the mainstream liberal swamp. (Needless to say, fears of fascism in the 1930s were understandably far greater than today.)
What’s more, if Biden wins, we should expect that it will be hard for the labor movement and the left to oppose him. The right will be in all-out attack mode on the president, and everything left of center will be expected to fall in line to support him. This is precisely the moment when socialists need to help build labor and the left’s confidence in themselves — their political independence — so that they can be critical of Democrats, and organize independently in workplaces and the streets to fight for unions and reforms like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, which Democrats like Biden openly oppose.
Most importantly, the socialist call to support Biden undermines a belief that we need to become prevalent in the working class: that workers themselves are the keys to their own liberation. The lesser-evil mentality reinforces the dominant mainstream ideology which says that electing better leaders is the way to protect or advance workers’ interests, and workers just have to show up to the polls every four years. While those calling for DSAers to campaign for Biden are right that there is no immediate, near-term alternative for national left politics this year, they are wrong that this implies we must support Biden. On the contrary, campaigning for Biden not only doesn’t help build a left alternative, but undermines our ability to do so in the future.
Will Electing Biden Stop Fascism or Authoritarianism?
Socialists arguing we should support the lesser-evil candidate are fond of saying that this “tactical” move is “not a matter of principle.” By this they could mean that there is not a universal principle of socialist politics that says, “Socialists may never compromise, they must always be pure, and may only vote for socialists.” I agree that this would be a useless principle, since politics will always involve compromises and exceptional cases. The trick is figuring out which situations merit compromise.
But I would not agree if the claim means that “principles” in general have no relevance to such an important event as the presidential election. The question is just which principles we should apply, and how we apply them. I argued above for the central importance of two closely-related strategic principles: working-class political independence, and working-class self-activity. This confidence and power was clearly on display in many of the mass teacher strikes in 2019 and 2020 — for example, when West Virginia rank-and-file organizers refused to follow union leaders’ calls to avoid a strike by following the lead of elected Democrats. By striking anyway, West Virginia teachers won more in two weeks than any number of cycles of electing Democrats could have. In the process they learned about the incredible but usually latent power of the working class. Marx expressed the importance of political independence and self-activity when he wrote that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”
But there could be another principle that might sometimes supersede those other two: socialists must do whatever they can to ward off fascism or authoritarianism. In that case it would be reasonable to argue that we must sacrifice political independence in order to stop the rise of fascism. Since fascism implies the elimination of basic civil liberties, right-wing political terrorism, or even genocide, it is hard to imagine a 50-year process of the growth of a new socialist workers movement described above continuing under conditions even half as bad as Nazi Germany. This is because without the ability to carry out strikes, spread propaganda, canvass for candidates, or even organize meetings or post articles critical of the government on social media — all of which could lead to jail, exile, torture, or death for activists under a truly authoritarian regime — then mass socialist politics is all but impossible.
So in order to evaluate the purported benefits of supporting Biden, we must ask: will Trump winning a second term lead to authoritarianism, where a Biden victory will not? If the answer is yes, I could be convinced to organize canvasses in Ohio for Biden. But I am not convinced that this is the case.
Coups and Civil Liberties
Some people say we need to elect Biden because Trump will undermine democratic freedoms, possibly even trying to steal the election thanks to Republican-appointed courts. This would be horrible. But we’ve been through this before, and it doesn’t suggest that we should be supporting the Democrats.
Most obviously, when Bush flagrantly stole the election in 2000, it did not lead to fascism. Unions and leftists were still able to organize meetings and rallies and publish their criticisms of the government. More fundamentally, Bush’s ability to steal the election has less to do with evil Republicans and more to do with our outlandishly undemocratic constitution, which Democrats and Republicans alike uphold.
However Bush did lead the US’s response to 9/11, including launching two wars in the Middle East which have led to over 1 million deaths and incalculable devastation. Bush also passed the Patriot Act, one of the most authoritarian measures in recent US history. But Biden and most congressional Democrats supported those wars and the Patriot Act — not to mention the regime of extradition and torture that followed — and it’s not at all clear that the same things wouldn’t have happened under a Gore adminstration. The Obama-Biden administration actually continued most of these policies, and even expanded the surveillance, the attacks on whistleblowers, immigrant deportations, and drone strikes (including killing the families of terrorists, something Democrats attacked Trump for merely saying he would do).
Therefore, it remains unclear how our democracy is uniquely undermined if and only if Trump wins, or why we must sacrifice DSA’s precious independence in order to ensure that a slightly less authoritarian capitalist candidate wins.
The Far-Right is Here to Stay
Next is the issue of right-wing militias.
The rise of far-right groups under the Trump administration, many of them armed and violent, is a terrifying development. It’s chilling to watch the president dog-whistle praise or explicitly encourage these groups. The fact that far-right groups have a toe-hold or worse in police departments across the country is even more worrying. No one can deny the danger that the far right poses.
Some have argued that socialists therefore need to support Biden because only by defeating Trump can we delegitimize the far right and slow or reverse its rise. This is a plausible argument.
But the opposite argument is equally plausible. The armed far-right cat is out of the bag, and the militia movements aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. If Trump loses, these groups could get even worse, especially if Biden wins alongside a Democrat-controlled Senate and proceeds to do nothing to address the major economic and social crises that Democrats and Republicans have fostered. Without a left alternative to the bipartisan neoliberal status quo, young workers with little faith in their society are easier to recruit to right-wing ideology that explains their plight by racist and sexist scapegoating.
Indeed, it was under the neoliberal Obama administration that the rise of far-right groups really took off. A black Democratic president fueled the all-important racist, right-wing victim complex, and even minor impositions like taxes and higher fuel-emissions standards gave the far right grievances around which to recruit. This is why one of socialists’ key tasks is to provide the alternative narrative which explains that workers’ plight is the fault of both capitalist parties and that only a united, multiracial workers’ movement can fight back. The best way to fight the right wing is to build an independent left that can challenge neoliberalism.
We should expect the next Democratic administration to enforce a national mask mandate and frequent COVID testing, while marginally increasing taxes on business and ending the worst of Trump’s inhumane immigration practices (like family separation). Imagine how enraged and emboldened the far-right nuts will be then. Anyway, Trump will still be around: we should expect him to continue whipping his loyal base into a lunatic rage once he is “unfairly” evicted from the White House.
In the near term the militias will grow whoever is in power. This means that the difference between a Biden versus a Trump win on this front is uncertain at best. So when calculating costs and benefits, the far-right threat also fails as an argument for why socialists should sacrifice their political independence to support Biden. In fact, this threat is exactly why the world needs an independent and left-wing workers’ movement that can offer a credible alternative to centrist Democrats and Republicans while vigorously opposing authoritarian ideas and policies in the workplaces, in the streets, and at the ballot box.
Democrats Gave Us Trump
Finally, we must understand how we got Trump in the first place if we want to fight Trumpism in the future. Democrats like Biden have battered millions of lives through policies that supported deindustrialization in the Midwest, decline of unions, privatized healthcare and education, mass incarceration, war, deportations, and environmental devastation. These policies helped Trump win in 2016.
It’s important to remember that not only did Trump lose the national popular vote, but the election was really decided by a handful of votes in a few key states. As Mike Davis showed in 2017, many of the decisive Rust Belt counties that flipped from Obama to Trump had relatively recent factory closures followed by major Trump rallies. Trump’s major “outsider” message in these counties was to attack the Clintons for NAFTA, which helped kill good industrial jobs across the Midwest. Meanwhile Clinton’s campaign, like the Democratic Party generally these days, focused on metropolitan professionals at the expense of Midwestern workers — and that’s why she didn’t even campaign in the crucial state of Wisconsin.
More fundamentally, decades of deindustrialization and the successful neoliberal assault on unions have gutted the economic and political life of Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. This process was key to Trump’s electoral victory. In his 2017 article “The Revolt of the Rust Belt,” sociologist Michael McQuarrie showed how mid-20th century Rust Belt-unionism played a key role in turning these states out for Democratic candidates by knitting together workers with unions, and unions with the Democratic Party. Economic devastation, deindustrialization, the decline of unions, and the loss of good union jobs together inspired an electoral revolt against the Democrats by both white and Black workers, who either flipped from Obama to Trump or didn’t vote at all.
The rise of Trumpism is due to the decimation of American labor in its industrial heartland — and the Democrats and Republicans alike who have aided and abetted it. It also doesn’t help that US union leaders, completely dependent on the billionaire-controlled Democratic Party, failed to create an independent political alternative like those that have existed in virtually every other developed country. The unions’ gamble on sycophantic lesser-evilism did not pay off.
Another neoliberal Democrat will not undo these trends. If anything, a Biden presidency could inspire an even more powerful electoral revolt in 2024, with a Trump 2.0 wiping out whatever harm-reduction we might get in the intervening four years.
Socialists Should Lead, Not Follow
There is another argument supporting the call for socialists to campaign for Biden that does not rely on claims that Trump is exceptional. This argument starts from the correct premise that most of the progressive sections of the working class, including those who supported Bernie and social movement and union activists, will be supporting Biden in order to get rid of Trump. (The argument ignores the substantial minority of politically conscious workers who will vote Green Party or not vote at all. There are far more of these people than there are DSA members.) And it also correctly says that socialists should be oriented to progressive workers, in order to implant ourselves in this “vanguard” layer: workers who are already in motion fighting for justice.
But the argument fails when it concludes that this requires us to tail these workers’ support for Biden by campaigning for him ourselves. If we don’t support Biden, it claims, we fatally alienate ourselves from the important social base we need in the fight for socialism.
The first problem is that the same could have been said for Gore, Obama, or Clinton, whom progressive workers supported against Republicans. The Republican candidate is always worse. Therefore it is an argument for lesser-evilism in general: socialists who argue we should campaign for Biden on these grounds should therefore also say that socialists should have supported every prior Democratic presidential candidate in recent memory, and that we should support every future one as well.
I’ve already argued against the lesser-evil position. Suffice it to say, every four years we are forced into this position, while both Democrats and Republicans keep moving rightward and the labor movement gets smaller and weaker. Lesser-evilism both dissolves independent left politics while reinforcing centrist and far-right ideologies by sending the message that there is no alternative to the left of Joe Biden. Lesser evilism is a tactic of despair: nothing can be done. Socialists’ task is to send a message of empowerment: we are critical of the Democratic Party because we know that more is possible. If we are unhappy that there is no alternative, it’s our job to help build one, not throw up our hands and accept the world as it is.
Second, this is a tailist strategy: wherever these workers go, we have to follow them.
Of course, we shouldn’t be too many steps ahead of workers or operating outside of their experience. It would be sectarian to denounce AOC because she didn’t call for the abolition of private property, or to refuse to participate in a strike because some of the workers have reactionary views on gender.
But tailism goes too far in the opposite direction. For example, if an important union activist denounces Black Lives Matter protests in racist rhetoric, no socialist would think it reasonable to follow suit. We’d have to figure out how to win them over to anti-racism, or, failing that, to neutralize the influence of their anti-BLM sentiments among the other workers. If polls showed that most voters in a district where a DSA-backed candidate is running for Congress didn’t support Medicare for All, we wouldn’t tell the candidate to drop the demand from their platform. We’d use the election as an opportunity to win workers over to the socialist perspective. If winning the race requires us abandoning support for Medicare for All, what was the point of winning? Elections are opportunities to organize workers to our position, even if that means we don’t win the first time. Bernie lost both his presidential runs, but in the process he helped rebuild a mass left-wing consciousness that has made enormous advances for socialist politics possible.
Why do so many workers support Biden? Because they do not yet believe an alternative is possible, and because all the forces in our political universe left of the GOP pull towards the liberal-capitalist center of gravity, the Democratic Party. Instead of celebrating our weak movement’s servile orbit around the Democrats, we should be working to create a new center of gravity, a new common sense, that breaks workers from their resigned reliance on Democrats. After all, most workers are not convinced of the need for a break with capitalism — but that doesn’t mean socialists should renounce socialism.
Socialists’ Tasks in 2020 and Beyond
The arguments for supporting Biden both overstate the benefits and downplay the costs. It’s at best uncertain whether electing Biden will help us avoid the worst aspects of authoritarianism that lesser-evilists rightly decry. But we know we have much to lose by campaigning for Biden, most importantly throwing away socialists’ political independence while reinforcing toxic ideas of working-class dependence on corporate Democrats.
So what should we do instead?
We all recognize that DSA has little power to change the outcome of the election either way, even in small-margin swing states. Most DSA members and supporters in swing states are likely already voting for Biden. That being said, we should support voter protection efforts and down-ballot campaigns in swing states — activities that are valuable in their own right and could make a marginal difference in the election outcome without requiring socialists to convince workers to vote for arch-anti-socialist and Giant Douche Joe Biden.
Everyone on the left is in agreement that socialists should help build mass protests against a possible Trump electoral coup — something we know we can’t rely on Democrats to do, as they discouraged protests and conceded the election to Bush in 2000.
But a secure Biden win is seeming more and more likely. So we need to be preparing for what comes after that: unions, NGOs, and even left-wing politicians giving partial or total allegiance to Biden in order to defend him from Senate Republicans and Fox News, while the far right mobilizes more than ever against what they view as an illegitimate election. DSA should therefore continue to be loud critics of the Democratic Party, while helping build movements fighting for the left-wing agenda we’ve fought for for years.
In any event, socialist strategy must prioritize the long term: laying the groundwork for a strong socialist movement of the future by rebuilding a democratic, fighting labor movement and winning ever more workers to a vision of independent politics. Without these assets, it will be impossible to build a national workers’ party that can contest for power. And without a powerful and politically independent workers’ movement, not only will we be stuck choosing between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich every four years, but the far right will continue to gain working-class support at the expense of the discredited and increasingly elite-oriented liberal center.
In the short term, this means telling no lies. While DSA isn’t strong enough to influence the outcome of this election, we do have a significant following of thousands of radicalized and radicalizing workers and students. DSA members are active in protest movements, in workplace organizing, in campus campaigns for tuition relief. Our social media can reach even more people who are furious that the Democrats have once again nominated racist Tweedle-Dum, who are looking for an alternative narrative that explains why everything is going to hell and for an exciting political project to take part in. Thanks to DSA’s refusal to give in to centrist ideological terrorism that blames the left for Democrats’ failures, we have the potential to begin building a powerful working-class socialist movement that, in fifty years, will look back on 2020 as the beginning of the end of left-wing lesser-evilism.
Put simply, DSA should reclaim its slogan from when I and thousands of others joined after the 2016 election: Trump is the symptom, capitalism is the disease, and socialism is the cure.