We need to build a strike-capable mass movement that unites diverse groups behind powerful demands for system change. This is the only way to reverse course on climate destruction and intertwined crises. There is no time to waste.
This means we need to:
- Devote time, energy and money to building that movement, and
- Think through how our actions shape people’s understandings and their willingness to join such a movement.
On both these fronts, urging people to vote for Joe Biden and the Democrats undermines the work we need to be doing.
Urging People to Vote for Biden Diverts Resources Away From Vital Work
Some argue that getting out the vote for Democrats builds the movement we need, but that’s nonsense. We need in-depth discussions about collective labor as the source of our power, how to coalesce around core demands, strike funding, strategic timelines for strikes and other resistance, and much more. We need solidarity with workers rising up in diverse workplaces. Electioneering is a different ballgame altogether.
Efforts to whip up support for Biden will not translate into vast numbers of people working together to “hold elected officials’ feet to the fire” if Democrats regain the White House. This alluring outcome hasn’t materialized the last several times it was promised. If anything, militant and non-militant engagement decline when Democrats hold power. As immigrant rights activist Maru Mora Villalpando aptly put it with regard to the struggle for immigrant rights earlier this year, “If a Democrat gets elected, people are going to forget about this issue.” (See also Black Agenda Report’s article “Feet to the Fire and Other Lies.”)
Those urging votes for Biden maintain that electoral work can be done swiftly, with most attention still being applied instead to building the movement we need. But that’s not how it works. Not in real life.
Massive amounts of energy, time, and money have already gone into persuading people to vote for Biden and other Democrats. Joining the Vote-Biden chorus reinforces the messages left-leaning Americans are getting from all sides to drop everything and get out the vote for Biden. They throw themselves into electoral work rather than connecting with efforts to build a movement that actually empowers them.
Urging People to Vote for Biden Fosters Confusion and Undermines the Movement We Need
- Telling people to vote for Biden furthers the deadly misperception of Democrats as our friends.
Some vote-Biden proponents insist that they spread only accurate perceptions of who the Democrats are. “When we tell people to vote for Biden, we also tell them that he and the Democrats are awful,” they explain.
Asking people to vote for someone inherently undermines the message that he or she is bad. But that’s only part of the problem
A lot of people claiming to have to hold their noses to vote for Biden, don’t understand how bad he and the Democrats actually are. They have a shallow understanding at best of what happened during years in which Democrats held power. The message they deliver is that Biden and the Dems have been “disappointing.” They “haven’t done enough.” This message implies that the Party is basically on our side, albeit ineffectively
But Biden and the Democratic Party haven’t just been too weak to stand up to our opponents. They have aggressively fought against our interests on most important issues of our day. On climate, for example, as an article of mine lays out, Obama, Biden and the Dems massively and intentionally expanded fossil fuel extraction, production, exports and use. This happened during perhaps the most important decade in human history and may well have sealed our fate as a species, locking us into extinction-threatening ecological feedback loops. On immigration, as another article and a report of mine detail, Obama/Biden and the Dems implemented a vast and cruel immigrant incarceration, demonization, child separation, and deportation scheme. They put in place laws and infrastructures that enabled Trump to continue and expand those atrocities.
On all sorts of issues, the Democrats have literally led the charge in the wrong direction. See, Black Agenda Report articles on this topic, such as “Biden Offers Nothing But More War, Austerity and White Supremacy – Without Trump” and this one on Obama’s economic policies.
Sure, a few mavericks are allowed to bustle about within the Democratic party. But we know what happens if they threaten the agenda of the 1%. Denis Kucinich gets visited by President Obama, abandons his life-long commitment to actual health care, and is still drummed out of the Party. Bernie Sanders faces a barrage of actions from Party leaders to ensure he has no chance of winning the nomination. Whenever a maverick’s vote will make a difference on something important, he or she is corralled and silenced. The chances of something like a real Green New Deal being passed are zero even if Democrats control both Houses of Congress and the White House.
A few vote-Biden proponents do more fully acknowledge just how bad the Democrats are. But the fine line they try to draw gets lost as their voices blend into the broader cacophony of voices urging votes for the Democrats. It is naïve to believe that their nuanced message will do anything but bolster the Democrats-are-on-our-side narrative.
If we focus on comparing the Trump and Biden agendas to assess which is less bad, we draw attention away from a very important fact. Both parties are thoroughly unacceptable and must be rejected. The threat to human survival is so imminent, and the commitment of both parties to policies that doom us is so strong, that we must be clear about this.
Biden and his Party are not our friends. They are our mortal enemies. They will never accept, let alone champion, the major changes we need to survive. The cosmetic reforms they advance will be an impediment, not a steppingstone, to progress. Obscuring this reality is deadly.
- Telling people to vote Biden pushes both the Democrats and the Republicans further to the right.
Many of us have been pointing out for several decades that Lesser Evilism is suicidal. We predicted that voting for lousy Democratic candidates because Republican candidates seemed worse would empower the oligarchs who call the shots. It would push both parties further and further away from the public interest. It would ensure that each election features front-runners even more loathsome than those of prior years. All of our predictions have come true.
On the Democratic side of the ledger, the Party clearly understands that they don’t have to deliver anything of substance when in office. And they can run literally anyone for President, no matter how atrocious. The Dems have taken those who say they would vote for a cardboard box to get Trump out of office at their word, putting forth a candidate with horrible positions who has trouble stringing words together in coherent sentences.
Years ago, Obama acknowledged that in prior decades he would have been considered a moderate Republican. Biden stands to the right of Obama.
In fact, the Democratic Party doesn’t even try to hide its disdain for progressives anymore. In an era of Black Lives Matters protests it nominates Mr. Crime Bill and Top Cop. As the four horsemen of the Climate Apocalypse gallop across the land, it refuses to add meaningful climate reforms to the party platform —a document that gets ignored by elected Democrats anyway. Joe Biden goes around openly assuring everyone that he won’t ban fracking, he’ll veto Medicare for All, he’ll expand the bloated U.S. military budget, and he won’t upset Wall Street’s apple cart.
As for the Republicans, each campaign has seen someone even more despicable than the last, as the Presidential nominee. How else can the Party distinguish itself from the Democrats?
And let’s not forget that the Democrats have done everything they can to directly ensure that the Republicans lift up the most outrageously inappropriate candidates possible. The DNC explicitly identified Donald Trump as someone they would love to run against. Behind the scenes, they encouraged the news media to cover Trump so as to increase the chances of him being their opponent. They literally set a goal of moving the Republicans further to the right. (See this memo’s attachments. )
It’s common for liberals to blame the ascendence of Trump on those of us who refused to vote for dreadful candidates in past elections. If we had only listened to them, they say, the world would be a much better place today. But the opposite analysis makes a lot more sense. By falling in line election after election, obediently voting for ever more unacceptable Democratic candidates and denouncing principled voters, it is Lesser Evil proponents who have led us to this precipice. At this terrifying point in human history, it is they who should change course, helping us all at last break free from the oligarchs’ game, so we can birth the movement we need.
- Urging votes for Biden alienates people we need to have in our movement.
Instead of looking inward to review what it had done to warrant defeat, the Democratic Party and its supporters have spent the last four years blaming everyone else. It’s the Russians, they said, engaging in a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that provides ample fodder for opponents. It’s the “deplorables”, they maintained.
Meanwhile, anyone talking with nonvoters and with those who voted for Obama and then Trump, would have learned a lot. They would have heard the stories of people who lost ground economically under Obama and are struggling to keep their heads above water, including people who endured medical bankruptcies despite having ObamaCare plans. They would have gotten a sense of widespread disgust with the corporate stranglehold on both parties that leaves Americans with fewer civil liberties, more debt, and less economic security.
They would have seen lots of people who fought really hard for justice, only to be kicked in the teeth time and again by the Obama/Biden Administration. People who futilely begged that Administration to not deport their father or mother. People who spent long years wrongly incarcerated for petty crimes. People whose loved ones came back damaged and broken from Democrat-backed wars, and those whose loved ones never came back. People who fought to stave off ecological disaster and witnessed the unforgiveable handing over of our children’s futures to the petrochemical corporations.
Less than a third of Americans identify as Democrats, and the largest cohort in most elections is not a candidate, but rather “Did Not Vote”. The time is ripe for a tectonic shift. Feverishly trying to persuade people who have seen the Democrats for what they are, to disregard their experiences and vote Democrat, is not a good strategy.
Part of Trump’s appeal has been the fact that he shoots from the hip, while others stick to pre-approved talking points derived from focus groups and PR consultants. Desperate for authenticity, people perceive him as telling the truth, whether or not he is, and they like that. They’re sick and tired of mealy-mouthed politicians who lie about how things really are.
Vast numbers of Americans understand that the Democrats don’t stand for working people’s interests. When we hold that party up as the way forward, we are seen as apologists for a corrupt system. When we talk at length about this or that perceived advantage of Democrats over Republicans, without recognizing people’s real-life experiences and their justified conclusions from those, we raise questions in people’s minds as to whether we can be trusted. They come to see us as either duplicitous or ignorant. If we sound like the unprincipled deceitful politicians most people loathe, they’re not going to want to ally with us.
Shaming people for supporting candidates they actually agree with is a particularly bad strategy. People don’t take kindly to being chastised for voting their consciences. It’s also hard to be persuasive as a champion of democracy if you insist that people vote for candidates they dislike, and you ignore things like the Democrats keeping third parties off the ballot and out of the debates.
Some argue that working to elect Biden is the only way to build a movement because lots of people—people we want as allies—are deeply invested in ensuring he wins. Supposedly the only way to strengthen relationships with them is to endorse Biden and pressure others to do the same.
But we can and should engage with those people in the context of preparing for massive effective mobilizations no matter who wins, without endorsing Biden. Those mobilizations and the movement that will make them possible are needed to take on climate change, systemic degradation of black lives, wealth inequality, grinding poverty, and more. They are needed to defeat attempts to rig the election or disregard the results.
Groups that don’t recognize the need to do that kind of organizing work are not likely to take it up post-election, particularly if Biden wins. Allying with them electorally is of limited long-term value.
Moreover, a substantial number of Biden supporters are very uncomfortable with supporting him in light of his positions and record. They’re not going to impose an endorse-Biden litmus test for would-be allies. And, of course, don’t forget that there are a whole lot of people, including dedicated life-long fighters for justice, who are specifically refusing to urge a vote for Biden. We want to include them in our coalitions.
- Telling people to vote for Biden creates confusion as to where our power lies.
We are constantly admonished to “Vote for the Climate!” and to “Save the Environment. Vote!” One deadly misperception fostered by these directives, as discussed above, is that Biden and Democrats protect the environment, when they actually destroy it.
But there’s another misperception that’s just as deadly. The vote-Biden-to-save-us message teaches people that our power lies in voting. In truth, it lies in our ability to bring society to a standstill by with-holding our labor and engaging in connected acts of resistance. The only way forward entails being able to carry off widespread solidarity-infused strikes and related actions leading as swiftly as possible to system change.
Will it be hard to build a movement capable of such action? Absolutely. I can lay out all sorts of reasons—discouraging statistics regarding labor union membership, for example—that make building the movement we need a daunting task.
But as difficult as it is to rise up together, aware of and using our actual power, this monumental task is nothing compared to enacting the policies we need……without doing that. There is no way in hell that the big changes we need will be enacted without us being organized as working people, unleashed and empowered.
Implying otherwise miseducates people. And it fosters despair. People can see that past electoral work and subsequent lobbying efforts have failed abysmally.
But this time is different!
As has happened in every election for decades, arguments against voting Blue, are met with loud protests that “this time it’s different.” This time it’s really really really bad. Not voting for Biden ensures a totalitarian state. Trump is Hitler.
I detest Donald Trump. I am terrified by the threats he poses.
But once again most Vote-Biden proponents seem to be not fully aware of the realities of the Democratic Party’s positions and legacy. They’re glossing over things like the sweeps that ended Occupy Wall Street, the evisceration of habeas corpus and due process through actions like weekly Presidential assassination orders. They’re glossing over the vast expansion of the surveillance state under Obama revealed by Edward Snowden. And over the treatment of Edward Snowden himself, as well as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and other whistleblowers and journalists. They’re glossing over the obscene infrastructure established to incarcerate immigrants. And much more. Progressives make less of a fuss over these and other descents into authoritarianism under Democrats than they do under Republicans, and that’s part of the problem. Then, they solidify the losses we’ve experienced, by rewarding Democrats with endorsements.
Simply put, the risk of further loss of liberty and damage to our democracy is very real regardless of whether Ds or Rs win.
The best defense against deepening authoritarianism is the same movement we need to build in order to fight for environmental sanity, economic democracy, peace and racial justice. Our agenda must include being ready for November, and the frightening possibility of Trump refusing to leave office. It must include challenging all encroachments on democracy ranging from Republican-sponsored voter suppression to the Democratic Party keeping third parties off the ballot and out of the debates.
The way forward
We have to make huge changes right now to prevent complete ecological disaster. A UN climate report in 2018 gave us only 12 years to complete massive transformations in all sectors of society. That timeline may have been overly optimistic.
Will a Democratic sweep in November make it more possible for us to make the changes we so desperately need? No. The oligarchs who control the Republicans control the Democrats as well. They have no intention of giving up the profits they garner from climate-destroying industries. Nor will they give up their profits from mass incarceration, pesticide sales, selling health insurance policies, and other obscene money-making activities.
If the Democrats win, they will give us merely the illusion of progress. This is arguably a more dangerous situation than Republican control. Buoyed by having used the much-lauded power of voting to put supposed friends in office, people will see little reason to join a radical movement bent on system change. They’ll rally behind the inadequate steps Democrats take and celebrate these as great victories. But anything short of transformative change at this do-or-die point in human history, is abject failure. It spells doom.
To secure the changes we need, we must build a mass movement capable of strikes and other actions that can bring society to a standstill. Only such a movement can counter the Big Money forces destroying our world.
Fomenting a major leap forward in consciousness regarding what we need to do, and the power we have to do it, is the most important task we have before us. Urging people to vote for Biden undermines our ability to carry out that task. No matter how carefully we frame it, when we endorse Biden, we fuel illusions in the Democrats and in voting as the source of our power. We move both the Democrats and the Republicans further to the right. We alienate people who should be our allies. And we divert attention and resources from the vital work we should be doing. That’s why I and countless others deeply committed to justice and to protecting our environment aren’t joining the Vote-Biden chorus.
There is no way to save ourselves from ecological devastation, authoritarianism, endless war, a widening gap between rich and poor, and other nightmares……regardless of who wins in November….unless we rise up together in a powerful movement like none seen before. We need to acknowledge this reality and act accordingly.
Carol Dansereau is a member of System Change Not Climate Change, and the author of What It Will Take: Rejecting Dead Ends and False Friends in the Fight for the Earth. (www.caroldansereau.com) For an additional perspective challenging those who urge a vote for Biden, she recommends this article.