The Case for Honesty; or, Why Your Annoying Leftist Friends Won’t Just Shut Up About Biden Until After the Election
Every four years and to a lesser extent during the midterms, leftists like myself piss off liberals, including some quite progressive liberals, by saying things about Democratic candidates which they believe to be, to put it mildly, unhelpful. (By “leftists,” I mean socialists, anarchists, and those with vague tendencies in that direction.)
This liberal frustration is primarily rooted not in the content of what we are saying (though in many cases they may disagree), nor in the language we are using to express it, but rather in the particular time at which we are saying it: that sensitive five-month period during which the Democratic Party nominee has been anointed, and we are supposed to uniformly serve the singular goal of propelling that nominee to an electoral victory over their Republican opponent.
In this piece, I will make the case that it is not just acceptable, but necessary and productive to be forthright in describing the records and positions of all politicians at all times, and that silencing dissent in pursuit of “unity” has profoundly negative consequences that many liberals fail to see.
OK, let’s just get this out of the way: I am encouraging all eligible voters in swing states to vote for the Biden/Harris presidential ticket. I am not a “blue no matter who” person at all, but I am a “blue this specific time for these specific reasons” person.
Another thing I wish to establish at the outset is that I do not view the liberal attitude that we should focus all efforts on defeating Trump with derision or dismissal. I fervently share this short-term goal, but I believe the best method for pursuing it necessitates being honest about how Biden relates to our long-term goals.
In other words, as difficult and personally demoralizing as it may be, those of us who are committed to alleviating as much suffering and oppression as we can are faced with the following challenge: We must make an honest case for why the only realistic and rational outcome to hope for in the 2020 US election is the victory of Joe Biden, a rapist who is thoroughly complicit in war crimes, devastating economic policies, mass incarceration, and the war on drugs, among other horrors.
This piece is primarily devoted to making the case for the left being honest and factual in our discussion of Biden and Harris, not the case for why swing state voters should turn out for them. But since the topics are intertwined, it is necessary to summarize the second case before laying out the first.
Why we should vote Biden in swing states:
I want to convince people to vote for Biden and Harris, two politicians whose records are fundamentally opposed to my beliefs, only because of the supremely dire circumstances we are in. Pundits have erroneously claimed just about every election since the dawn of punditry to be of unprecedented importance; this time, this little kernel of erstwhile bullshit happens to be correct.
It is correct not because we are in a battle for the “soul of the nation,” but because we are in a battle for the survival of organized human life. It is hardly necessary to go through the robust scientific record, but the general picture is captured by these two facts:
- We are rapidly approaching climate change “tipping points” — discrete moments in time at which climate change processes can become literally irreversible. Mass extinctions that cannot be recovered from on human timescales; feedback loops that intensify exponentially and could soon become stronger than any conceivable human effort to undo them; etc. If only one of the many tipping points scientists are concerned about comes to fruition, we would likely be faced with the most catastrophic moment in our history as a species.
- Even if tipping points are avoided and atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases eventually stabilize, there is a range of unprecedented global disasters that can occur along the way — disasters which are already occurring with increasing frequency. It is already likely that within a couple decades we will witness entire island nations essentially fall victim to climate-induced genocide — if they’re lucky, and other states volunteer to take in those whose homelands are underwater, they will suffer cultural rather than outright genocide.
Which brings us to the related matter of the new form of internationally ascendant fascism that Donald Trump represents. It’s true that, as sickening and racist as Trump and leaders of his ilk are, it’s hard to imagine Nazi-style death factories reemerging in the 21st century world. Yet it’s a mistake to assume that the potential atrocities of the new fascism will look just like those of the old fascism.
Imagine a world dominated by racist authoritarian regimes confronted with incessant natural disasters, refugee crises that dwarf today’s, climate change-induced wars and direct popular resistance — inevitably violent resistance—to capitalist exploitation. In such a world, the barbaric technologies of the Nazi Holocaust would not be necessary to produce genocidal outcomes and other atrocities. Masses of people will either perish from natural disasters utterly neglected by the ruling classes whose wealth will insulate them, or directly from state violence justified by all-too-effective propaganda about “preserving order.”
I do not claim the world I have just described is 100% likely to come about if Trump wins the 2020 US election and 0% likely to come about if Biden wins. While climate refugees are already common and natural disasters are on the rise, these trends will probably still be relatively far from peaking by the time of the 2024 election. Rather, the world I have described is a realistic possibility that is made significantly more likely every day that the most powerful position on Earth is occupied by a man dedicated to bringing it about. Unseating and humiliating Trump would deal a significant blow to the international alliance of assorted fascistic and semi-fascistic leaders he is part of—Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi, Orbán, Netanyahu, Duda, and others vying for power.
Biden’s record on the climate is far from impressive. He served in a White House whose efforts to mitigate climate change were a pale imitation of what the situation called for (even taking into account that the Congress from 2011 onwards was controlled by fanatics peddling the pernicious lies of the fossil fuel industry).
Yet the meager advances the Obama administration did make have been systematically torn to shreds under Trump. The gutting of vehicle emissions standards and the Clean Power Plan, the withdrawal from the Paris agreement (when we should be clamoring for a much stronger framework), and the handover of the EPA to fossil fuel profiteers are just the tip of the iceberg; Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law has counted 155 climate deregulation actions taken by this administration. These actions constitute no less than a dedicated race to end human life as we know it.
Even if Biden does literally nothing on the climate — not even reimplementing the Obama policies—simply stopping the cascade of deregulation and opening of new fossil fuel extraction frontiers would be reason enough to persuade a rational swing state voter to take a chunk out of their day on November 3 to tick the box for Biden, or to vote by mail.
It is an illustration of the extremity of our predicament that I have gotten eleven paragraphs into my argument for voting Biden in swing states without even mentioning the 165,000 COVID-19 deaths Trump has presided over — easily on track to reach a quarter million by the end of his term. Nor have I mentioned the massive economic crisis likely to be worsened by coming mass evictions. Nor have I mentioned the continuing threat of a unpredictable egomaniac controlling the world’s largest nuclear stockpile, nor the obscene brutalities of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, nor Trump’s draconian crackdown on the Black Lives Matter uprising, nor the sustained and daily damage of a presidency that quite blatantly treats marginalized populations as subhuman.
I will come to some of those issues later, addressing both the left arguments that Biden would be no better than Trump at fixing those problems (which I think have varying merit, issue by issue) and the assumption by many liberals that Biden would “solve” those problems. First, I want to outline my core argument for why, in this dire situation, an honest and critical engagement with Biden’s past and present continues to be essential, every month of the year.
Why we should keep criticizing Biden, even as we try to oust Trump:
The view that negative statements about candidates on “our side” should be muted and measured if not entirely kept to oneself reliably becomes widespread on social media and cable news at the end of each primary season, and even exists to an extent during the primaries. Recall liberal celebrities George Takei and Alyssa Milano taking the absurd pledge to never say anything negative about any of the Democratic candidates as early as last April:
To their credit, those who argue that criticism should cease only once a given candidate clenches the nomination have a much more plausible argument. Yet both arguments run into at last three of the same problems:
1. Misrepresenting a candidate’s potential to improve people’s lives, whether through lying about them or simply omitting inconvenient facts, sets us up to lose the trust of anyone who paid attention to what we said during the election season.
Part of the disillusionment that Trump exploited to win the 2016 election was due to the exaggeration of Barack Obama’s potential in 2008. Obama came into office promising fundamental economic change and universal healthcare, and disappointed on both fronts: he presided over a gradual economic recovery which left intact the economic incentives that led Wall Street institutions to trigger the crisis, and enacted a market-based healthcare reform (“Romneycare”) that left 28 million Americans uninsured, and left most who were insured still paying obscene amounts for inadequate coverage.
There is little doubt that this underwhelming performance is one important factor that led to about 8 million Obama voters casting their ballots for Trump in 2016. Such failures against the backdrop of Obama’s sensational 2008 campaign give the lie to the empty promises of that administration’s second-in-command. Rather than setting ourselves up for another national disappointment, let’s set ourselves up to elect truly progressive candidates in the future by staying vocal about our goals.
2. Misrepresenting the records of Joe Biden (and Kamala Harris) reinforces false propaganda in a way that cannot simply be undone the morning of November 4.
The implicit assumption behind the desire to save criticism of Biden until after the election is that if he wins, we can simply flip the “think critically about Biden” switch in our brains back on, and resume criticizing him as if we had been doing so the whole time. But is that really how our minds work?
Human memory and belief is malleable and exists in a dialectical relationship to our own words and actions. Research tells us that when we lie to others, we often quickly reconceptualize our lies as the truth. If today you’re persuading yourself that Joe Biden only had a marginal role in passing the 1994 crime bill and he realized it was a mistake as soon as it led to the growth of mass incarceration, then tomorrow you’ll wholeheartedly believe it. And when your pesky leftist friend points out that Biden’s 2008 campaign website called it the “Biden Crime Law,” it’s likely to go in one ear and out the other.
Even if we keep our own critical thinking abilities sharp, spreading false ideas to others has consequences. If Biden does win, how will we convince masses of people to protest the cruelty to migrants he, if history is any indication, will preside over, if just a few months earlier we portrayed him as “pro-immigrant”?
Recall the moment in 2018 when a number of prominent Democrats, including a former Obama administration official, tweeted out photos of caged migrants, including children, denouncing Trump’s barbarism, only to be unceremoniously informed that the photos were taken during Obama’s presidency. Demanding all criticism be reserved for Trump is exactly what allows such cases of historical amnesia to occur.
Obama and Biden’s shameful record on immigration is a perfect example of how the social, political, and economic designation of certain populations as subhuman existed before Trump and would continue to exist under Biden. Don’t get me wrong: it does matter how blatantly the US presidency participates in such designations, and how central to its ethos those designations are. But it also matters that the population stays vigilant with Democrats in office — something liberals utterly failed to do throughout the Obama years.
ICE arrests under Obama peaked at double their highest rate under Trump, yet it took putting an open, vile racist in office to briefly bring the campaign to abolish ICE into the mainstream debate. Most liberals sat idly by for 8 years as their guy deported more people than any president in US history.
Pretending Biden will enact remotely just policies on migration is a recipe for another 4 or 8 years of mass liberal complicity in the deportation and detention machine. Will he refrain from enacting a policy which systematically separates the parents and children of every family apprehended at the border? Almost certainly, and that matters, but it does not merit liberal praise.
3. When trying to persuade voters with a wide range of political attitudes, it is helpful for a wide range of arguments to be disseminated.
A common liberal misconception is that, while Democratic elected officials and their leftist critics have different approaches to politics, we share the same basic goals. Actually, from a left perspective, both major US parties have the goal of maintaining the capitalist-imperialist system their financial backers rely on, and the ostensible gulf between the parties on cultural issues often serves to obscure their all-too-similar neoliberal economic policies and imperialist foreign policies. That’s why, for example, Donald and Ivanka Trump both donated to Kamala Harris’s campaigns for California Attorney General.
So think from the perspective of a leftist who is fundamentally opposed to Biden-style Democrats, even differing substantially in worldview from progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders and AOC, who advocate for smoothing over capitalism’s worst excesses with an expanded welfare state, rather than abolishing it. With such an attitude, would you ever be persuaded to vote for Biden by advocates who refuse to criticize him, or even temper their critiques with constant apologia?
If anything, such arguments would turn you further away from the idea. On the other hand, you might be convinced by someone who earns your trust by fully acknowledging Biden’s monstrous record of supporting endless war and defending ruling-class interests (like those of credit card companies and debt profiteers), but makes the case that the threat of Trump’s fascism and climate change-accelerating policies is so serious that a swing-state voter should vote for the one guy that might beat him.
It’s also true that criticisms of Biden could theoretically lead some people to not vote for him, but it matters what the criticism is and who its audience is. There is a crucial difference between, for example, the left-wing criticism that Biden will fail to enact measures to prevent police brutality, and the right-wing criticism that Biden will let crime run rampant by defunding the police; the first is grounded in reality, and the second in fantasy. The fantastical criticism might convince a “moderate conservative” voter (using the terms in their US context) to pick Trump over Biden, and I would never argue that such a criticism should be repeated. But if a conservative hears the realistic criticism, which is leftist in its orientation, they aren’t likely to be affected by it. Conservatives are not known for taking their cues from the radical left.
There are also voters who might see a Biden criticism, not accompanied by context explaining why we should vote for him in swing states nonetheless, and take it as a reason to stay home. This is perhaps an argument for putting our criticisms in the context of the Biden-Trump election (which is not the same as labored apologia). Yet there’s no escaping this risk. I argue not that the risk isn’t real, but that it is counterbalanced by the harms of deliberate collective self-deception about Biden.
With those three general arguments in mind (1. lying leads to distrust, 2. it reinforces false propaganda that hurts people in the long-term, and 3. a wide variety of arguments are beneficial for convincing a potential voters with a wide variety of attitudes), let’s finish by considering the potential and already-manifesting harms of dishonest discourse about Biden in relation to a few different issues, besides the immigration issue, which was addressed above.
The blatant betrayal of the #MeToo movement, with the blessing of many of its erstwhile proponents:
It was sickening to see the smears leveled against former Biden congressional staffer Tara Reade when she came forward in April with her story of being sexually assaulted by Biden in 1993. People who had enthusiastically shared the #BelieveWomen hashtag copiously in the past were suddenly overcome with a case of extreme skepticism.
Tara Reade, in an interview with Katie Halper, gave a credible and moving account of being sexually assaulted by Joe Biden. Multiple people who knew her at the time have said they remember her telling them about it back then, it’s mentioned in her 1996 divorce documents, and Reade’s recollection that her mother called in to Larry King about it has been confirmed by video.
And it’s not as if Reade’s story should have even been surprising. Six other women had accused Biden of inappropriate touching months before (Reade was the seventh but at the time didn’t feel up to going public on the full-on assault she experienced), and I find it impossible to watch the way this man openly manhandles and borderline gropes girls without concluding he has zero regard for boundaries. (Not to mention Biden’s role in the denigration of Anita Hill, which he has still not taken full responsibility for.)
Yet because the primary already appeared to be a done deal at the point, most Democrats who commented took one of two routes: tarnishing Reade’s reputation with irrelevant bullshit that they would never deploy against someone accusing a Republican, or trotting out a couple stock phrases like “She deserves to be heard” then swiftly letting her story fade into the black hole of the short-term news cycle. When is the last time you heard Reade mentioned on cable news?
This silence and shaming harms people for exactly the reasons the #MeToo movement was supposed to illustrate. When we let one victim be silenced, it reinforces a culture that silences all victims. Evidently one person who understood this at one point was Kamala Harris, who said at the time she believed and supported the seven women who accused Biden of unwanted touching.
You might think that if Tara Reade is telling the truth, the natural conclusion is that voting for Biden should be out of the question. In a just world, nominating Joe Biden in the first place would have been out of the question. But our moral duty is to take the best possible course of action in the situation we are presented with.
Tara Reade has consistently refused to weigh in on whether people should or shouldn’t vote for Biden. Electing Trump, who is obviously a prolific sex predator himself, was not her mission.
I am very sympathetic to the feeling that casting a vote for any rapist is unconscionable. Yet there is no convincing argument that any of the three alternatives—a symbolic third-party vote, abstaining, or voting for Trump—will lead to a better world with less rape and sexual harassment. These are simply not problems that can be remediated through the 2020 presidential election.
So the course of action we are left with, to acknowledge Biden’s rape and try to elect him anyway, is grotesque yet morally necessary.
Black Lives Matter, racism, and mass incarceration:
Candidates respond to popular pressure when it become politically advantageous for them to do so. If there’s one thing the past few months of the Biden campaign have shown, it’s that it needs to be subjected to far more pressure from the left.
As the nationwide Black Lives Matter uprising hit a fever pitch in June, with ideas of defunding and abolishing police entering mainstream US politics for the first time, Joe Biden called for pouring $300 million from the federal budget into police departments that commit to the same weak reforms that have failed to curtail police violence for years.
Yesterday, he illustrated an even more egregious neglect for the BLM movement by picking Kamala Harris as his running mate—a woman whose claims to being a “progressive prosecutor” can only be described as laughable.
What does it say about our ability to sway Biden that, even as opposing mass incarceration and police brutality has become something virtually everyone claims to do, he felt comfortable selecting a running mate who has literally perpetuated prison slavery and protected killer cops as California Attorney General?
Biden also still won’t support legalizing cannabis at the federal level, let alone expunging prior convictions and enacting programs to compensate for the drug war’s devastation of Black American communities.
This behavior indicates Biden feels little vulnerability to left critique, because he knows so many progressives will withhold their criticisms regardless of what he does, all in the name of unseating Trump. Evidently, the only votes Biden thinks he actually has to work for are the same ones Hillary Clinton relentlessly pursued in 2016: the mythical white Republicans and “moderates” in the suburbs who are supposedly one uncouth tweet away from abandoning Trump.
At the same time, ejecting a white nationalist from the White House is without question a vital step in combatting systemic racism: the latter cannot be done to any serious extent without the former. The neoliberal status quo represented by Biden doesn’t negate white supremacy, but also doesn’t center it in its ethos; this is an improvement even if an insufficient one.
There are areas where it is genuinely debatable whether Biden offers improvements over Trump. Look at foreign policy (aside from our role in international climate change mitigation efforts, which was reviewed above): Biden has a long record of perpetuating the American endless war machine—a machine that Trump has not dismantled, but overseen in a haphazard manner, tugged to and fro by a foreign policy team of mixed ideologies.
If they had been elected in 2016, Biden and Harris (an AIPAC favorite, by the way) would have maintained the US government’s traditional hypocritical complicity in Israeli apartheid and ethnic cleansing, while Trump has instead dropped the pretense of equanimity and seems to be clearing the way for outright Israeli annexation. A Biden administration may put this process on pause for a few years, but won’t undo any of the damage that’s been done. Biden has said he won’t reverse the recognition of all of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and won’t condition any aid on Israel’s actions. His campaign even managed to exclude the word “occupation” from this year’s DNC platform.
Anyone who believes Trump’s vague anti-interventionist rhetoric from 2016 holds any water is naive, yet there are a couple encouraging moves: though thwarted by bipartisan congressional opposition, his administration has attempted to initiate a withdrawal from Afghanistan and a drawdown of the anachronistic U.S. military presence in Germany. Biden has been dubious about both ideas.
On issues like the drone assassination campaign, the U.S.-backed atrocities in Yemen, and the growing U.S. military presence in Africa, no discernible differences exist. Where Biden would be an improvement is on Iran—it would be hard to top the stupidity of Trump violating the JCPOA (the nuclear agreement), the most significant step forward in US-Iran relations in decades.
When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the damage is likely to be done by the time Biden takes office. Yet it would be nearly inconceivable for Biden to do a worse job than Trump, whose incompetence has been rivaled only by Bolsonaro’s. While Trump’s actions are invariably dictated by his ego, Biden could be expected to defer more to scientific expertise, which would automatically make for better policies. He hasn’t exactly been a fount of bold ideas for fighting the pandemic and its accompanying economic meltdown, but he will at least put semi-competent technocrats in charge, rather than detestable morons like Jared Kushner, Mike Pence, and, on the economic front, Steve Mnuchin.
Biden seems to have a good chance of winning the presidency, not because of the dogmatic “electability” narrative his advocates put forth during the primary, but because of the public health and economic disasters that have unfolded since March. Yet his victory is far from certain, and as a result it does make sense to fish for votes from every possible sector of the electorate, including leftists and those with vaguely anti-establishment tendencies.
That honest engagement with Biden’s candidacy will continue throughout this process is both inevitable and desirable. Liberals who see Biden’s flaws but wish to bury them for the time being should consider the harms of doing so. Liberals who don’t see Biden’s flaws in the first place should avail themselves of the historical record.
Eligible swing-state voters have the opportunity to vote out the neo-fascist leader of the world’s most powerful state, a state which is responsible for a significantly outsized share of global greenhouse gas emissions and is actively derailing international climate change mitigation efforts. As dangerous as it would be to assume Biden will fix our problems, it’s equally dangerous to pass up the chance to buy ourselves some time.
This is the case we have to make—not some fanciful self-deception about Biden’s covert progressivism or the virtues of a return to the Obama years.