Objection! / November 25, 2023

Biden Supporters Still Don’t Get That He’s Sinking Because of Gaza

The president’s full-throated support of Israel’s war in Gaza continues to hurt him with young voters and voters of color—and the threat that Trump would be worse isn’t resonating.

Elie Mystal
Protesters stand in front of the White House holding a sign calling on President Joe Biden to negotiate a cease-fire in the Israel-Gaza War, Wednesday, November 15, 2023.
Protesters stand in front of the White House holding a sign calling on President Joe Biden to negotiate a cease-fire in the Israel-Gaza War, Wednesday, November 15, 2023. (Andrew Harnik / AP Photo)

The 2024 presidential election is less than a year away, and polls continue to show President Joe Biden tied with or losing to future federal felon Donald Trump. While I don’t put much stock in polls taken a year before the election (at this point in 2011, Barack Obama would have lost the 2012 race to a plumber), Biden’s falling approval numbers with young voters and voters of color is frightening. In particular, Biden’s full-throated support of Israel in its war in Gaza, and the low value he and his administration seem to place on the lives of Palestinians, appear to be hurting him with Arab American voters and young voters of all backgrounds.

Plenty of Americans think Biden is doing the right thing in the Middle East. If you are one of those people, you should vote for Biden next November. Even the conservative Fox News commentator Brit Hume praised Biden’s leadership during this international crisis, so hopefully Biden can count on his vote. Best of luck with that.

But there are other Americans—people no less important to Biden’s coalition, and more reliable as Democratic voters than Fox pundits—who view his foreign policy as aiding and abetting war crimes against the Palestinian people. Some Arab Americans have declared they simply will not vote for Biden (a recent poll found that just 17 percent of Arab Americans plan to vote for the president next year, sharply down from the 59 percent who supported him in 2020), and social media is awash with young people saying they will not vote for him either.

The response to these voters from other, more establishment Democrats—particularly to the Arab American voters, both on social media and in most cable news coverage—has been vicious. Biden supporters on social media seem to relish pointing out that Trump would “have you deported,” adding that they’ll deserve what they get if Trump wins. Older voters call the young ones petulant and ill-informed if they try to hold Biden accountable for the role America plays in the civilian deaths in Gaza. And always, there is the suggestion that these voters are antisemitic, as if opposing the slaughter of Jews and opposing the slaughter of Palestinians are mutually exclusive positions.

I will be voting for Joe Biden. I am a single-issue voter—that single issue is the Supreme Court—and being a single-issue voter allows me to put on ethical blinders to just about everything else. But even if I weren’t, “Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos” is something I need to be able to say in whatever work camp a second Trump term would land me in. But my vote is not the one I’m worried about. I do not think establishment Democrats and hard-core Biden supporters appreciate how useless the “Trump would be worse” argument is to young voters, and how insulting it is to throw Trump out there as the boogeyman that is supposed to ensure Arab American complicity in another war in the Middle East.

Every single Arab American or Muslim voter I know is well aware of Trump’s disastrous and racist policies. Telling a Muslim about the “Muslim ban” is like telling a fat person like me about Weight Watchers: Yes, I’ve heard of it! I am aware of calories, yet clearly have made different choices regardless of that knowledge. What Arab Americans and especially Palestinian Americans are saying is not that Trump would be a better president for their community, but that Biden’s decision not to do anything to stop the bombardment and killing of their families and friends means that the differences between the two hardly matter.

For most young voters and non-Arab voters of color, the pain of war is not as immediate. Still, for many, the distinction between Trump and Biden on war is not nearly as clear as most Democrats think it is or should be. Both Trump and Biden support Israel’s war. Trump is a racist, bilious, incompetent supporter. Biden is an avuncular, Beltway, competent support. As far as young voters are concerned, the end results are similar: billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Israel, with either more or less unhinged racism to go along with the cash.

The astute reader will note that I’ve been comparing Trump to Biden as if this will be the choice facing American voters next fall. But this is a false choice—a false binary that I subscribe to, but that many young voters do not. I’m not actually worried that a majority of Arab American or young voters will vote for Trump; I’m worried that they’ll stay home and not vote at all. The ultimate weakness in the “Trump would be worse” argument is that many voters will see two candidates they don’t like and simply avoid the polls or cast protest votes for a third-party candidate running for president.

Remember, there are a lot of young voters who don’t want to vote for Biden anyway, for a variety of reasons. Many young people felt pressured into voting for him in 2020 because of the unique threat to democratic self-government posed by Trump. That threat is no less real in 2024, but this time around, Biden’s foreign policy is giving young voters a moral stance to pin their dissatisfaction to. And many voters of color who already viewed voting for Biden as merely a harm-mitigation strategy are wondering how the guy who ran against white supremacy now lets his team smear protesters who call for peace as equivalent to the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

Responding to these valid moral criticisms with “Well, I hope you like it when Trump deports your family and takes away your voting rights” might feel like a cutting retort, but it’s actually a schoolyard bully’s threat masquerading as a political position. It’s an attempt at coercion, and unless you’re going to double down and show up to people’s houses with a baseball bat and a van on Election Day, it’s not a winning get-out-the-vote strategy.

If you come across a young person or a person of color who voted for Biden in 2020 but is determined not to do so in 2024, you can try to ignore them and hope their anger will dissipate closer to the election. You can scream at them and stomp your feet and blame them for risking democracy. But just know that your use of Trump as a threat is not convincing them. The people saying they won’t vote for Biden know that Trump would be worse. They’re saying Biden should be better.

Elie Mystal

Elie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent and the host of its legal podcast, Contempt of Court. He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. His first book is the New York Times bestseller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution, published by The New Press. Elie can be followed @ElieNYC.

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