Can Biden Go Left?

Can Biden Go Left?

The Sanders movement won’t be won over with empty gestures.


Basketball was never Joe Biden’s sport. His football prowess helped get him elected president of his high school class. It also gave him the confidence to overcome the stutter that plagued him throughout his childhood. But to win in November, he’ll need to answer a question more often asked on the basketball court: Can he go to his left?

His endorsement by Bernie Sanders ended a roller coaster primary campaign. Remember, this was the candidate who, after dominating the national polls for months, finished fourth in Iowa and, after placing fifth in New Hampshire, was reduced to pleading “It ain’t over.” Who staked his future on “overwhelming support from black and brown” voters, only to find in Nevada that Latinx voters preferred Sanders. Yet Biden’s faith in his African American base was more than justified on Super Tuesday, when black voters delivered the kind of comeback usually associated with a defibrillator.

Faithful readers will know The Nation preferred another nominee. That puts us in the company of many others—particularly voters under 45—whose support is going to be needed to defeat Donald Trump, a president whose reelection would be a catastrophic blow to all of the causes we value. Denying Trump the chance to appoint even one more justice to the Supreme Court should be reason enough to get out of bed on November 3. But if the composition of the court were a sufficient motivator, Trump wouldn’t have been elected in the first place.

Like Hillary Clinton, Biden won the nomination while losing the battle of ideas. Like her, he has already indicated he’ll allow his rival significant influence over the party’s platform. This time, though, it needs to be more than a series of empty promises.

Biden’s letter assuring Sanders supporters they “are more than welcome. [They’re] needed” was a step in the right direction. So, too, was the tone of the livestream announcing Sanders’s endorsement—as was the news that Sanders and Biden staffers would work together to hammer out policy on the economy, education, immigration, health care, criminal justice, and climate change.

But these task forces must be more than an exercise. They need to reflect the recognition that, as Sanders demonstrated beyond all doubt, the future of the Democratic Party is on the left. If the great achievement of his 2016 campaign was to shift the center ground of American politics, in 2020 Sanders went further, building a truly diverse coalition of young people of all races, working-class voters, Latinx voters, and progressives. Without the support of every element of that movement, a Democratic victory in November will remain out of reach.

Conventional wisdom says Democratic nominees must pivot to the center to win in November. Given the stakes, that wouldn’t just be foolish. It would be criminally negligent.

Biden has demonstrated a willingness to reverse course, adopting Elizabeth Warren’s position on bankruptcy reform in March. When he announced his proposals to lower the age for Medicare eligibility to 60 and to forgive student loans for low-income and middle-class students who attended public or historically black colleges and universities, he credited Sanders.

But it will take more than gestures to win over the Sanders movement. On immigration and incarceration, Biden has amends to make, particularly to Latinx communities terrorized by deportation. Likewise on Social Security: He needs to disown his past as a politician more concerned with balanced budgets than with human suffering. Biden needs to show he understands that returning to the past—whether in our politics or our broken health care system—is simply no longer an option.

The current pandemic and the economic collapse it has triggered provide perfect cover for such a rethink. Sanders may have endorsed Biden, but as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor recently argued in The New Yorker, “reality has endorsed” Sanders. The question is how far Biden will go in taking his cue from reality.

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