Bittersweet November: An Opponent, An Opportunity

By Kelsey McLendon

 Medium1.jpgPhoto by Carlos Esteves on Unsplash

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been asked to weigh in as a young progressive voice on the polarizing effect of the presumed Joe Biden Democratic nomination. My attempt here is to represent my own thought process for the current and future challenges Democrats face, while fully acknowledging that I do not speak for any sort of progressive monolith. I’m writing in hopes of addressing a wide swath of Democrat or Democrat-leaning voters after having had many conversations, done extensive reading, and most importantly, spent a lot of time listening. My hope is that this article reframes questions about voting for Biden in a way that helps us see a more complete picture of the choice we’re making in November.

Choosing Our Opponent

On May 13, the Biden campaign confirmed that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will co-chair its climate change panel along with former Secretary of State John Kerry. Before this announcement, other offerings that the Biden campaign had made to the progressive cause had done little to persuade those on the far left that he’s serious about earning their votes. Many have seen AOC’s position in the Biden campaign as a step in the right direction, while others remain skeptical. For those in the Biden camp or otherwise not fully immersed in progressive communities, I’d like to take a minute to unpack some of this skepticism.

Over the past few decades, the Democratic Party has become measurably cozier with corporations, beholden to donors, accessible only to insiders, and concerned with reactive policymaking motivated more by fears of Republican scorn and accusations of “softness” than with actually protecting the people who historically make up the Democratic voting base. (Here’s a great podcast that provides a condensed history of the Party.) Progressive activists have repeatedly called attention to these problems and have worked to elect officials who are more representative of the typical Democratic voter and who are willing to demand that the Party does some critical self-reflecting and adapting. Progressivism centers itself around the question “what and how can we do better?” As with any growth, this process is often uncomfortable.

The people and organizations pushing for the Party to adapt are doing so from a place of care and commitment. If they were not concerned with the survival and success of the Democratic Party, they wouldn’t bother to stay engaged with it. However, this work often results in progressive activists being painted as “divisive.” People on the far left are experiencing pressure from other Democratic allies to fall in line behind Biden, and those who continue to voice their concerns are often met with brow-beating messages about obligation. And while some of the points made about our obligations this election year are very fair, that framing doesn’t make room for necessary disagreement as we unite behind a common purpose.

Attempts to silence or scold progressive voters expressing their disappointment and anger with the outcome of this year’s primary tells an essential faction of young, energetic voters that their inclusion is contingent upon polite fealty. And to those reading this thinking, “Forget your feelings, people are dying! We must get rid of Trump.” You’re right. I hear you. Bear with me.

To many, Bernie Sanders’s campaign in 2016 and the wide variety of primary candidates in 2020 signaled that the Party was listening and invested in evolving to meet the needs of its voters. It was a gut punch to realize that, once again, not only were the progressive candidates not going to win the nomination after such a promising start, but the candidate who most embodies establishment politics would become our presumptive nominee. Our anger isn’t about not getting exactly what we wanted, it’s about getting a presumptive nominee who is an elderly, white, politics-as-usual man who has not adopted the policy initiatives that the majority of Americans support despite the massive shift in Party discourse as a result of 2016. Progressives are feeling grief and disillusionment, and a democratic organization committed to building diverse, inclusive communities should make room for those experiences.

And to be clear, though reasonable criticisms can be made for how the media and Party leaders influenced the primary race, voters overwhelmingly chose Biden. I find it neither democratic nor progressive to discredit voters by suggesting that they were swindled into doing so. We can be frustrated with that outcome and explore data on primary voters’ decision making, but we must accept the reality of it if we are to move forward.

Democrats already on the Biden bandwagon probably keep asking whether progressives will “vote blue no matter who” because, well, millions of eligible voters did not vote or voted third party in 2016, most of whom 
cited dislike of the candidates as their reason for staying home. The framing of the question and its underlying attempt to shame dissatisfied voters into participating deserve pushback, but the fear that otherwise democratic voters will opt out of the 2020 election is not unjustified.

Former National Press Secretary for the Sanders campaign Briahna Joy Gray has stated, “My vote in the fall is contingent on whether Joe Biden supports Medicare for All, canceling student-loan debt, canceling medical debt, having a wealth tax.” To Gray and so many others on the left, agreeing to vote for Biden despite his opposition to these popular policies is to lose their integrity. I agree that these issues are existential ones and should be fought for as such — but we must position ourselves for that fight. Gray argues for withholding her vote as leverage to get Biden to move left, but if she and millions of voters rigidly stick to that principle, they likely will not vote in November.

So, my questions to Gray, to myself, and to our leftist allies are: are the communities we’ve been working to protect and empower, our communities, served by a refusal to elect the Democratic candidate? Will withholding our votes from Biden get us closer to those policies?

Politics is a game of strategy. As Christina Cauterucci wrote for Slate, the 2020 presidential election is “not about accepting a lesser of two evils. It’s about choosing an opponent.”

Medium2.jpgPhoto by Josh Johnson on Unsplash

Tara Reade, Uncertainty, and Feminism in Practice

Ever since Tara Reade’s accusation of sexual assault became public earlier this spring, the Democratic Party has been wrestling with how to support women who tell their stories and avoid self-destruction. I was disappointed that the initial reaction by many prominent Party leaders was to support, even endorse, Biden before an investigation was conducted. Furthermore, it’s incredibly problematic that several female leaders and campaign surrogates were asked to answer for Biden for weeks rather than demanding that he respond directly to the accusation himself. Our society and the Democratic Party far too often remain complicit in sexist double-standards, and this is an obvious place where we can and must do better.

I appreciate the recent calls by the Biden campaign for a thorough, independent investigation, but I wish the allegations had been taken seriously sooner. Because Biden is the likely Democratic presidential candidate, the onus is on the Party to prove itself as the “party of women” by supporting and cooperating with an investigation rather than simply dismissing the claims. Democrats cannot champion the voices of the #MeToo movement and then wave off allegations made against our candidate and maintain any sense of integrity.

While we lack a definitive answer to Reade’s accusation, we do know that Biden has had a habit of making women uncomfortable by invading their personal space. My expectation is that any man accused of that sort of behavior listens to the complaint, reflects on the impact he has had (rather than deflecting with arguments of “good intentions” or “changing social norms”), takes responsibility for that impact (i.e. a clear apology), and then shows us that he has learned and transformed as a person by committing to hold himself accountable in his present and future.

So far, Biden’s response to complaints of invading personal space has not yet met my expectations — that clear apology has been missing. Tarana Burke, a founder of the #MeToo movement, said on Twitter that “the defense of Joe Biden shouldn’t rest on whether or not he’s a ‘good guy’ or ‘our only hope.’ Instead, he could demonstrate what it looks like to be both accountable and electable. Meaning, at minimum, acknowledging that his demonstrated learning curve around boundaries with women, at the very least, left him open to the plausibility of these claims.” It is not only possible but imperative that we continue the march toward November while also ensuring that the person we’re putting forward to represent us is being held to the standards of conduct that we, ourselves, have set.

As so many have pointed out with regard to Reade’s allegation, it is highly unlikely that definitive evidence will be found that is either exonerating or condemning. Megan Garber writes in her essential article about uncertainty, “In the weeks and months to come, the Democratic Party — as well as news editors and commentators and archivists and investigators and, of course, voters — will need to find some kind of resolution in the chaos. The process will be disorderly. But if we made more space for uncertainty in our approaches to a messy world, it wouldn’t feel quite so jarring, quite so extreme. Quite so sad.” We are very bad at dealing with uncertainty, but that is exactly what we must do in order to move on.

I remain uncertain as to what happened in or related to Biden’s Senate office in 1993, and given the amount of time that has passed since then as well as the obstacles preventing any existing relevant documents from surfacing, it’s likely I will carry that uncertainty to the ballot box in November. What is rather certain, though, is that there are two realistic outcomes of the November election: Donald Trump wins or Joe Biden wins.

With all of this in mind, the question I’m asking myself with regard to the Reade allegation is much the same as my earlier questions: are my feminist ideals furthered by withholding my vote from the Democratic candidate?

Onward

Working to get Joe Biden elected in November does not mean that you like him or are fully satisfied with his vision for the country; it means you recognize that putting Biden in the White House makes other progressive moves possible. If we fail to elect the Democratic candidate in November, we will be fighting to survive another four years of daily chaos and destruction rather than duking out policy initiatives. I understand that some activists on the far left will argue that progressives must leverage their support in order to move the Party left. Maybe. But I’m not willing to bet the lives of kids in cages, the safety of women’s reproductive rights, the future of the planet, our basic democracy on that game of chicken. As Cauterucci puts it, choosing Biden as our opponent ensures “a more favorable setting for a set of ongoing fights.”

The progressive movement that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have built did not end with their campaigns. As the authors in this Jacobin analysis conclude, “The political tide is still at our backs to organize for desperately needed measures like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and a rejection of American militarism.” There is important work to be done, and we are in a better position to do it if the Democratic Party controls the White House.

One last note from Cauterucci, “In her Biden endorsement video, Warren fondly recalls what Biden told her as he swore her into the Senate in 2013: ‘You gave me hell, and you’re gonna do a great job,’ he said. Therein lies the key to keeping progressives motivated for the 2020 election: Get them excited to give Joe Biden hell.”

I will vote for Joe Biden because of what we protect and make possible by putting a Democrat in the White House. I respect and agree with many of the concerns about his candidacy, but ultimately, I don’t see working to replace Trump with Biden as an abdication of progressive feminist activism, but rather a means to continue it.

Once we put Biden in the White House, I intend to give him hell. I hope you’ll join me.

Originally published in Medium

Kelsey McLendon is a resident of Germany who will soon be returning to her voting state of Michigan. She's an academic, an activist, a shameless cat lady, and a staunch progressive. When she's not running local DA chapter events and getting out the vote, she's reading books, hiking mountains, and watching Bon Appétit videos on YouTube pretending she knows something about gourmet cooking.