Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of the provocative and popular socialist Jacobin magazine, tweeted last week that he intends to vote for Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins in November. And yes, it matters. Jacobin has a considerable reach. It claims to have a paid print circulation of 50,000, while its website draws over 2 million visitors a month. Jacobin is particularly influential among young leftists, with more-radical-than-thou tendencies that reflect the idealism of recent recruits to left-wing ideas. It was near-messianic in its devotion to Bernie Sanders’s candidacy.
I’m going to vote for @HowieHawkins
But I’m not a believer in building the Green Party. No matter what your individual choice is in November, the political act is to organize on issues like Medicare for All, build orgs, and back downballot candidates supporting the Bernie agenda
—Bhaskar Sunkara (@sunraysunray) April 22, 2020
The danger here is obvious. It only takes a small number of votes in key swing states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia, Iowa, and Florida—where the margin of victory could be a few thousand or a few hundred votes, to hand Donald Trump a victory, as we saw in 2016. In Wisconsin, Trump’s margin over Clinton was 22,748 votes, while Green Party candidate Jill Stein won 31,072 votes. In Michigan, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 10,704 votes, while Stein got 51,463 votes.
In his 2019 book, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, Sunkara expressed concern that American socialists had “isolated ourselves in sectarian irrelevance.” Instead, he wrote, socialists need to create “an electoral strategy that can represent the distinct interests of working people, but without demanding that voters start immediately supporting unviable third-party candidacies.”
Hawkins, this year’s Stein, is about as unviable as one can imagine. A perennial Green Party candidate, since 2008 he’s run for the Senate, the House, governor of New York, and Syracuse mayor, city council, and auditor—never garnering more than a handful of votes.
Sunkara lives in New York, a blue state where Joe Biden is in no danger of losing to Trump. But Sunkara didn’t condition his support for Hawkins. If just enough people in swing states follow Sunkara’s example and vote for Hawkins rather than Biden, it could help reelect a fascist-wannabe president.
The Covid-19 crisis and the economic collapse have exposed Trump’s ignorance, mendacity, and incompetence for the world to see. He’s demonstrated no compassion or concern for the 50,000 people who have already died. He has used the crisis as an opportunity to promote his reelection, further his agenda of putting profits over people, and scapegoat immigrants, the media, China, the World Health Organization, and Democrats to divert attention from his own failures.
You don’t have to love Biden to understand that Trump unleashed for a second term will be much worse than his first term. Trump will use every means at his disposal (the FBI, the Justice Department, Supreme Court and other judicial nominations, and the post office) to repress progressive movements and restrict the right to protest. After four more years of Trump, our democracy will be on life support, in need of hard-to-find ventilators.
Biden is certainly no socialist. In the past he’s taken some positions that made him look like a corporate shill. In 2005, for example, he supported an overhaul of bankruptcy law that favored banks and credit card companies over consumers. At the time, Elizabeth Warren, then a Harvard law professor and bankruptcy expert, attacked Biden’s vote. Now, Biden has embraced Warren’s plan to roll back the 2005 law and make it easier for people to go through the bankruptcy process, including allowing student loans to be treated like other debts. Thanks in part to Sanders, and the Democratic Party’s leftward shift, Biden has adopted other progressive stances on key issues—the minimum wage, health care, workers’ rights, abortion, climate change, and college debt—and could be pushed further left during the campaign and after he takes office. Last week, for example, Biden said that the next round of coronavirus stimulus needs to be “a hell of a lot bigger” than last month’s $2 trillion CARES Act, including massive aid to states and cities to maintain essential services and avoid having to lay off teachers, cops, firefighters, and other public employees—and without the handouts to corporate America .
The question for progressives isn’t whether they can fall in love with Joe Biden. It is about changing the political playing field to increase the odds of winning fights for reforms that improve people’s lives. Michael Harrington, the founder of Democratic Socialists of America, described that as pursuing the “left wing of the possible.”
For progressives, the question boils down to this: Who is more likely to respond to pressure to move us closer to Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and an end to student debt: Biden or Trump? This is not a theoretical question. Every vote for Hawkins in key swing states is, in reality, a vote for Trump. Sunkara is a smart guy. He can do the math.
In the past decade, after starting his magazine in 2010 while an undergraduate history major at George Washington University, Sunkara has become a prominent presence on the left. He’s written for The Guardian, Foreign Policy, The Nation, and other publications. The 30-year-old has been profiled in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Columbia Journalism Review, and is frequently quoted in the media as a representative of millennial and Generation Z leftists. He was a vice chair of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) until the organization eliminated that position three years ago.
Jacobin represents a young left that has enough adherents to help reelect Trump if they follow Sunkara’s example. It occupies a similar political space in the left-wing media as The Young Turks and Chapo Trap House, appealing to young people radicalized after the Great Recession by the Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Dreamers, #Metoo, and Sunrise movements.
Among young radicals, Jacobin and DSA are two of the most prominent sources of ideas and activism. DSA has grown from 6,000 to 60,000 members in the past four years and has a much wider following. A 2019 Gallup Poll found that 43 percent of Americans, including 70 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of 18–34-year-olds, believe that socialism would be a good thing for the country. About 40 DSA members now serve in public office, including two members of Congress (Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York) and six members of the Chicago City Council.
In 2016, and again this year, DSA members worked hard for Sanders. Once he withdrew, the group’s leaders announced that they were not officially endorsing Biden, a move that stirred considerable controversy among its own ranks—and among older leftists, including over 80 former members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the 1960s radical group, who published an open letter to DSAers urging them to support, if not totally embrace, Biden. Jacobin quickly posted a rejoinder by Daniel Finn, one of its editors, titled “An Open Letter from SDS Veterans Haranguing Young Socialists to Back Biden Was a Bad Idea.”
But DSA’s non-endorsement of Biden is strategically different from affirmative support for Hawkins. In fact, DSA insiders believe that most of the group’s members will vote for Biden. Moreover, DSA chapters are working for progressive (non-socialist) Democrats for Congress, governors’ seats, and state legislative campaigns. So at least they’re getting out the Democratic vote, which in the end will help Biden defeat Trump.
In contrast, Sunkara’s stance is self-indulgent—an individual act of virtue signaling rather than part of a collective movement for justice. At its worst, it is a reflection of what one can only view as indifference to real human suffering.
In a second term, Trump will double down on his fascist instincts and foment increasingly overt white supremacist violence, xenophobia, nativism, and anti-Semitism. He’ll seek to dismantle unions and workers’ rights, slash the already-torn safety net, eviscerate voting rights and civil liberties, and hand over more public funds and government services (such as prisons, the post office, health care, national parks, and schools) to big corporations. Trump will try to starve cities and states by denying federal funding for key services, as Mitch McConnell proposed in a memo leaked to the press last week. McConnell’s plan is designed to punish Democratic cities and states and bust public-sector unions, who are leading the fight against Trump and the Republicans.
Trump will further populate the federal courts with reactionaries and likely get to appoint at least two more Kavanaugh-like right-wingers to the Supreme Court (to replace Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer), solidifying the court’s Republican supermajority.
As a result, progressives will spend the next four years fighting defensive battles, simply trying to stop things from getting much worse. Any hope for moving a progressive agenda forward will be lost.
After withdrawing from the presidential contest, Sanders quickly endorsed Biden and said that not voting for the Democratic nominee against Trump is “irresponsible.” If Trump wins, thanks to enough people like Sunkara voting Green, he will no doubt deny any responsibility for the tens of millions of Americans who will lose their jobs, housing, health care, food stamps, clean air, safe workplaces, unions, civil rights, voting rights, right to abortion, and right to same-sex marriage, who will see their pay and pensions cut, or who will be deported.
What’s important is not the intent but the consequences of one’s actions. Sunkara may be a young radical, but he’s old enough to know better.