It is time for progressives to take the Democratic Party. Ava DeSantis writes a strategic case against settling for Biden.
More than two months after George Floyd was murdered in police custody, Black Lives Matter protests continue to occur in many American cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boise, Denver, Los Gatos, Louisville, Roseville, and Saginaw.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a call to Defund the Police. The organization believes, “we know that the police don’t keep us safe - and as long as we continue to pump money into our corrupt criminal justice system at the expense of housing, health, and education investments - we will never be truly safe.” The DC Chapter of Black Lives Matter made the distinction between their movement and calls for moderate police reform most clearly, painting, “Defund the Police” next to Mayor Bowser’s new “Black Lives Matter” mural.
Meanwhile, Biden said, unequivocally, “no, I don’t support defunding the police,” while in Houston to meet with the family of George Floyd. Biden’s campaign clarified that not only does the Vice President want to keep police departments intact, he wants to increase their funding. In mid-August, Biden selected Kamala Harris as his running mate.
Harris is a former prosecutor, whose record is filled with failures to check police power and support of policies which devalued Black and Brown lives through incarceration and excessive punishment.
In 2010, Harris withheld information about a police laboratory technician, who sabotaged work and stole drugs from her lab, from defense attorneys. The corrupt technician handled 600 cases. She was condemned by a judge, who called this indifference to the systemic violation of defendants’ constitutional rights. Harris argued for legislation which allows parents of children who are chronically truant to be prosecuted, a policy which disproportionately affected people of color. In 2014, Harris appealed a federal court ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional. Later that year, she declined to support a ballot initiative which reduced some low-level felony charges to misdemeanors. She was not a leader on marijuana legalization, against its decriminalization until 2018. In 2015, she opposed a bill which would have required her prosecutors to investigate police shootings, and refused to mandate police officers wear body cameras.
Harris took a personal interest in keeping obvious victims of wrongful convictions incarcerated. One victim of Harris’ prosecution, George Gage, remains incarcerated today. Gage was accused of sexual abuse by his stepdaughter. The prosecutor in Gage’s case unlawfully held back exculpatory evidence, including medical reports which indicated that she was untruthful in multiple police reports. Her mother described her as a “pathological liar” who “lives her lies.” Gage continues to serve his 70-year sentence.
Many progressives responded with confusion at this pick. While Harris expressed her regret at some of these choices, her statements have been lukewarm at best. The Biden campaign cannot have believed Harris’ statements would be enough to regain progressive trust. Comments like “are you people TRYING to lose?” and “this has to be a joke, or they literally want to lose” and “it’s like the democrats want to lose” appeared on Twitter almost immediately.
Biden, whose main primary challenger was Sanders from the left, could have chosen a true leftist to appeal to Sanders’ base.
Briahna Joy Gray, former National Press Secretary for Sanders, labeled the pick as evidence of Biden’s contempt for progressives. “We are in the midst of the largest protest movement in American history, the subject of which is excessive policing, and the Democratic Party chose a ‘top cop’ and the author of the Joe Biden crime bill to save us from Trump,” Gray tweeted. “The contempt for the base is, wow.”
On Democracy Now, Gray elaborated on this point. “We are in the midst of the largest protest movement in American history. And it’s a protest movement that’s all about finding nonpunitive, noncarceral solutions to the kinds of economic problems that are plaguing disproportionately Black and Brown communities, but all Americans, especially right now in the middle of this additionally historic global pandemic,” she said. “And so there’s this great deal of frustration that there is this choice not only to nominate a candidate who is known as the author of what is actually called the Joe Biden crime bill, but that he’s gone and selected a running mate who is known for being the top cop from California, the state that has the second-highest number of incarcerated people in America.”
I do not believe Biden’s campaign is incompetent, “trying to lose,” nor am I surprised by his selection of Harris as a running mate. I do not even believe moderate Democrats necessarily have “contempt” for progressives in their base. I do believe politicians are strategic, and Democrats are not aiming to please progressives.
Biden’s campaign knew progressives would be outraged at their VP selection, but also knew they do not have to care what progressives think.
Progressives will always have the strongest ideological objection to conservatives, and the most knowledge of and concern for marginalized groups. Knowledge of how conservative politicians will materially impact the lives of working class people, and other marginalized groups makes us the most worried about the prospect of Republican victory in any election.
The two-party system leaves progressives feeling they have no alternative but to support the Democratic candidate, to prevent the Republican from winning, because Trump will always be worse than Biden; as Trump was worse than Clinton and as Romney was worse than Obama.
As progressives continue to allow Republicans to hold them hostage, Democrats will not be influenced by the progressive wing of their party. This is why the singular goal of the largest protest movement in American history, Black Lives Matter, was openly rejected by the Democratic nominee.
Democrats have an incentive to pander to moderate Republicans, the wealthy, and the political and media elite. Moderates, unlike progressives, can find a home in the Republican Party if they are unsatisfied with the Democratic platform. Moderates need to hear that nothing, fundamentally, will change. Biden promised just that at a fundraiser for his campaign on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. At this same event, Biden pledged not to demonize the wealthy, admitting openly that he “needs” them.
Biden’s platform is an advertisement to moderates, and his fundraisers court the wealthy. While the most moderate progressives created a campaign urging fellow leftists to “settle for Biden,” donors are excited about his candidacy and his VP pick. Biden raised $26 million in one day after he announced Harris as his VP. A top Democratic fundraiser from California, Harris’ home state, said, “she is the safest pick for the donor community… She is the pick that they will be happiest with.” In this way, his campaign was very successful, despite the disdain progressives have for him.
To make Democrats care about the views and activism of the progressive wing of the party, we need to give them an incentive. If we do not draw a line, beyond which a candidate will lose our support, Democrats can stray almost as far right as Republicans, and we are powerless. If we do not draw a line, progressives have no power in two-party politics.
If we can agree to this premise, that a line must be drawn, why is Biden not over the line? A politician with a disappointing platform, who blatantly disregards progressive activism, with a history in violation of every progressive value.
The political litmus test oftentimes comes alongside a holier-than-thou attitude of moral purity, the idea that people who refuse to compromise are morally unscathed by ugly political realities. This argument falls flat when real, human lives are at risk. This is, instead, a strategic case against voting for Joe Biden.
We should refuse to settle, not because we want to be faultless for the mistakes a Biden administration would undoubtedly make, but because we must provide an incentive for Democrats to listen to progressives and prioritize lives at home and abroad.
While we will undoubtedly hear that Trump is worse than Biden, and even that he is a unique danger to the American people and American democracy, we have heard these things before and will hear them again. In 2001, the American Prospect ran a series of competing op-eds on whether voting for Nader, then Green Party nominee, even in a safe blue state, was too dangerous, given the unique threat Bush posed to marginalized communities.
Progressive activist and writer Robert L. Borosage wrote, in his response, voting for Nader is, “ignoring the concerns of unions, environmentalists, minorities and women who say that a Bush victory is too large a price to pay.” It is difficult to buy the idea that a threat is ‘unique,’ when we hear it almost every election cycle, how unique can each Republican be?
Progressives must demand fundamental change from political leadership.
We must demand leaders who do not court powerful interests at odds with our own, but challenge them. Biden says explicitly, with his record and the donations he accepts, he will not provide it.
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