Class Notes / March 19, 2024

Why I’m Voting for the Enemy

The left needs to challenge Biden, especially on US involvement in Gaza. But to do that, we need to keep him in office.

Adolph Reed Jr.
Donald Trump Rally with Joe Biden video
Donald Trump watches a video of President Joe Biden during a rally for Senator Marco Rubio at the Miami-Dade Country Fair and Exposition in November 2022. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

For decades now, electoral politics has captured too much of the political imagination of the American left—or, at least, of those occupying the cultural space that a left would if there were one in this country. In the mid-1990s, it seemed as though someone had surreptitiously changed the ground rules for what being on the left meant, and suddenly it was all about running people for public office. Nearly every four years since then, I’ve argued that by the time leftists begin to notice that the mainstream Democratic options on offer are less than desirable, it’s already too late to generate any better ones. The reason this happens with such regularity is that so much of the nominal left has lost sight of the limits of the electoral realm as an arena for the pursuit of left political agendas. Electoral politics is usually a domain for institutionally consolidating the victories won on the plane of social-movement organizing—turning them, that is, into laws and policies and programs. A serious left movement would be driven by concerted strategic action aimed at eventually changing the terms of debate to produce electoral majorities capable of securing popular interventions—for example, eliminating our obscene, profit-driven healthcare system. It’s a marker of neoliberal triumph that so many have retreated to a leftoid sensibility that approaches politics as largely performative, a theater for the expression of righteousness, or bearing witness for justice and against injustice.

Senator Bernie Sanders’s two campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination were the exception. Sanders, while seriously pursuing the nomination, also sought to kick-start a broad political movement that could build and mobilize popular constituencies for his campaign’s alternative vision, one of policy and politics centered on meeting working people’s needs and concerns. But in both 2016 and 2020, once he’d failed to secure the nomination, Sanders was emphatic that he and his supporters should vote for the centrist Democratic nominee in November. Why? Because he understood the grave nature of the threat posed by the only alternative to Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden being elected president. In 2020, that threat was greater than it was in 2016, and in 2024, it is demonstrably greater still. Dangerous reactionaries are deeply embedded in Congress and throughout the federal judiciary; they are ensconced in state governments all over the country and in armed bands of more or less organized thugs and psychopaths fantasizing about going into action against their demonized enemies. Last week, in a meeting with comrades in Toronto, I realized that those outside the United States don’t necessarily have a clear view of how broadly and deeply those ultra-reactionary tendencies permeate American society now. But for us, there’s no excuse not to know, or to take the danger seriously.

As I’ve done in the past, I want to make clear that I do not argue that we must always vote for the Democrat on principle, no matter what. Indeed, Michelle Goldberg accused me a decade ago in these pages of “electoral nihilism” for having had the temerity to argue that the boundaries of a thinkable left cannot be limited by what’s acceptable within a neoliberal Democratic Party—and, God forbid, having voted for Ralph Nader in 2000.

I won’t rehearse my entire voting history in presidential elections here, but I do want to argue the following points as strongly as possible. First, that it’s necessary to approach the electoral domain instrumentally, not as a moment for moral declaration. Second, that despite Biden’s great limitations (and there’s no question they are great), this is truly an instance in which the pathetic mantra that the Democrats have offered us for three decades—“the other guys are worse”—is true. And they are nightmarishly worse. We could be facing the destruction of whatever democratic institutions exist in American society, along with labor rights, civil rights, environmental protections, popularly accountable government, social wage policies, and public goods and services across the board, not to mention the imposition of a brutishly draconian and punitive regime.

Many of us were already appalled, but hardly surprised, at Biden’s continuation of the murderous imperialist adventurism that has characterized US foreign policy for as long as nearly all of us have been alive, and which has only gotten more routinely bloodthirsty and hypocritical in the post–Cold War era. I know this is a controversial view within the nominal left, but some of us were also outraged at Biden’s adventurist bellicosity in Eastern Europe and his resort to Reagan-like medieval rhetoric to stoke hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. The war that ineluctably ensued, which the administration seems hell-bent on fighting to the last Ukrainian, threatens to destabilize the entire region, perhaps to the extent of nuclear conflagration.

For many, the final straw has been the terror that Israel has unleashed on Gaza, and less flamboyantly in the West Bank, with Biden’s unflinching support. Only politically dishonest sophistry seeking to change the subject can question whether the horrors being inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza deserve the label “genocide.” That sophistry is particularly galling as it comes from liberal humanitarian imperialists (and, sadly, they’re not all named Samantha Power) who heretofore have tossed the charge around promiscuously when it comported with US foreign-policy interests. Moreover, Biden’s wan feints at reining in Benjamin Netanyahu are laid bare as the insulting cool-out gestures that they are every moment he continues to funnel arms and matériel to the Israeli government.

Nevertheless, as hideous as the Biden administration has been in supporting Israel’s destruction and ethnic cleansing of Gaza, the fact is that a Republican administration would be even worse. We know this because they’ve told us that it would. This is not idle rhetoric; it’s who they are. The terrible reality is that these are our choices for November. If the Democrats remain in power, we may not be able to win much, but we’ll at least be able to challenge them and take advantage of the institutional space thus made available to begin to organize a possible political counterweight, one that will confront both Democratic neoliberalism and the reactionary, authoritarian force that won’t simply go away on January 20, 2025.

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Adolph Reed Jr.

Adolph Reed Jr. is a columnist for The Nation and most recently co-author with Walter Benn Michaels of No Politics but Class Politics (Eris Press, 2023). He appears on the Class Matters podcast.

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