How Progressives Can Get Behind Joe Biden Without Losing Their Credibility

He’s not the lesser of two evils. He’s the opponent the left wants in the White House.

Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images, Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images, and Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Joe Biden racked up the endorsements from his former nemeses last week. Bernie Sanders gave Biden the nod in a highly scripted two-hander on April 13, just a few days after suspending his own campaign. (Yes, that happened just last week.) Elizabeth Warren chimed in on April 15 with a video endorsement that praised Biden’s leadership in times of tragedy and economic uncertainty. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a devoted Sanders surrogate who got her start in politics on his 2016 campaign, came just short of endorsing Biden in an interview with Politico that same day. “I would love to see the vice president clarify and deepen his policy stances on certain issues,” she said. “But aside from that, you know, I think it’s incredibly important that we support the Democratic nominee in November.” As my colleague Jim Newell pointed out, the Democrats, for once, are in array.

It’s a strange phenomenon to watch. To give their party the best chance of ousting Donald Trump in November, progressive political leaders are throwing their support behind one of the most conservative, least inspiring, most out-of-touch, least values-driven candidates from what was initially an uncommonly diverse and left-leaning primary slate. That task would have been delicate even in simpler times. Today, with an ongoing pandemic, a once-in-a-generation economic crisis afoot, and a recent sexual assault allegation against the presumptive Democratic nominee, it has the potential to be a minefield. But it hasn’t been, really. Perhaps that’s because, at its core, this outpouring of accolades from the party’s nuclei of ideas and energy for an establishment candidate in visible cognitive decline is the picture of political normalcy. In a two-party system, the pride swallowing and the strained flattery arrive in the wake of every primary. For elected officials in either party, this is the cost of membership.

Plus, we’re living in strange times, pandemic aside. The Democrats currently face an opponent, Donald Trump, who has activated the GOP’s base in new and fearsome ways. In a recent piece in the Nation, former leaders of the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society wrote critically of the Democratic Socialists of America’s decision to refrain from endorsing Biden after Sanders withdrew from the race. “Some of us are DSA members, but do not believe their position is consistent with a long-range vision of democracy, justice, and human survival,” the group wrote. By failing to direct its members toward Biden, the country’s current best chance for leftward movement in the White House, the SDS leaders wrote, the DSA has communicated that Biden and Trump are equally undeserving of the presidency, a premise the group that authored the Nation piece strenuously disputed.

Still, it might be difficult for some left-leaning people to really get energetic about campaigning for the former vice president. The challenges of endorsing Biden are particularly acute for progressive women and feminists, for example, especially those who’ve been supportive of the #MeToo movement and other efforts to unveil and eradicate sexual harassment and assault. Several women have accused Biden of foisting demeaning, unwanted kisses and touches upon them in professional settings, and Tara Reade, who worked in Biden’s Senate office in the ’90s, has accused him of sexual assault. When the New York Times reported on Reade’s allegation, its piece pointed out that the sexual assault allegations against Trump were far more extensive than the one against Biden. Some left-leaning pundits have made similar comparisons between Biden’s policies and Trump’s, expressing their halfhearted support for Biden by calling him (as they called Hillary Clinton four years ago) the “lesser of two evils,” an attempt at falling in line without abandoning their principles.

I’d argue that, for anyone truly invested in progressive social change, this is the wrong way to approach an election. A resigned acceptance of an elected official’s shortcomings won’t help turnout or organizing efforts. And assessing sexual assault allegations by their relative severity only serves to minimize them. But there’s a better way to think about how the far left can support Biden. It just requires some refocusing.

Here is the mindset of a political organizer: No one candidate will ever be a perfect leader in any movement’s eyes. Activists accept they’ll have to put political pressure on—and occasionally argue with—whoever wins the election. The question, for them, is which elected official they’d rather be up against, considering the respective communities the candidates are beholden to and their respective abilities to be swayed. Would Ocasio-Cortez rather push Trump to halt deportations, or Biden? Would #MeToo activists rather mobilize for sexual harassment legislation under a Trump administration, or a Biden one? It’s not about accepting a lesser of two evils. It’s about choosing an opponent.

Over the course of her campaign, Warren proved to be a clear communicator on gender issues, and her attempts to hold men accused of sexual harassment and assault accountable got results. Her February skewering of Mike Bloomberg on his history of sexist remarks and the sexual harassment claims he racked up at Bloomberg LP was one of the most memorable moments of the entire campaign cycle. Later that same night, she skillfully dismantled the Bloomberg apologia of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, leading to a broader reckoning with the anchor’s history of sexism and incompetence, shunting him into early retirement. Her success on these matters explains why it was a little surreal to hear the same candidate who made mincemeat of two sexist jerks in one night and made visible hundreds of stories of pregnancy discrimination last fall narrate a video in support of a man whose understanding of gender issues hasn’t much advanced past his 1981 op-ed that faulted child care tax credits with “subsidizing the deterioration of the family.” But Warren knows what she’s doing.

The broader grounds of Warren’s endorsement demonstrate that Biden has cleared the bar for political praise set by a coalition of “Any Functioning Adult 2020” bumper stickers. Biden has served in government for a very long time, Warren says in her endorsement video. Obama assigned him tasks, and he completed those tasks, she notes. Biden is “committed to getting something good done for this country.” Not anything specific, just “something.” Not something great or transformative, just something “good.”

Ocasio-Cortez offers a slightly different framework for coming to terms with a candidate like Biden. In response to a question about Reade’s allegation from a participant in an online conversation convened by the Wing, the congresswoman assured the audience that “it’s legitimate to talk about these things” if Democrats “want to have integrity.” She’s also been calling for Biden to adopt more progressive policies on immigration, climate change, and health care—all while affirming that people who agree with her should commit to voting for the Democratic nominee in November. In other words, Ocasio-Cortez plans to use her support for Biden to move him closer to her favored policy ends, without waving away Reade’s allegation. Biden doesn’t have to be anywhere close to perfect to be a useful potential ally for Ocasio-Cortez’s political cohort.

Likewise, in her endorsement, Warren did credit Biden with one actually great thing: doing what other people want him to do. “When you come up with new facts or a good argument, he’s not too afraid or too proud to be persuaded,” she said in the video. It’s a slightly inaccurate line of approval, considering that at several turns in his campaign, when given the chance to own up to sexist views he held in the past or his previous policy positions, Biden has lied or gotten defensive.

But early in his presidential campaign, Biden did change his position on the Hyde Amendment: Like the vast majority of his former rivals in the race for the Democratic nomination, he now opposes the controversial policy, which prevents low-income women from receiving federal Medicaid coverage for abortion care. The likely reason for his shift was simple: Democratic voters and elected officials have moved left on several issues, including health care and abortion rights, so it made sense for Biden to follow them. Even Barack Obama said in his Biden endorsement that his 2008 platform would be insufficiently far-reaching for 2020. Biden may not be leading his party into a bold, radically equitable future, but at least he’s on the bandwagon.

Smart activists will take note of the way Biden has slowly but surely followed his party to the left. As advocates have pressured Democratic Party leaders to adopt more progressive policies, Biden has been forced to modify his own. Like any other elected official who wants to retain the support of his party and voter base—and much more so than his ideologically purer peers to the left—Biden is susceptible to carrots and sticks. A Biden presidency isn’t a death knell to fairer policies on health care, housing, and wealth redistribution. It’s an opportunity for activists to gain some ground. At least, that’s how the left should imagine it. To maintain some movement cohesion and dispel the nihilism that’s setting in, the left should think of a hypothetical Biden White House not as the least disastrous outcome out of two possible disastrous outcomes, but as a more favorable setting for a set of ongoing fights.

This distinction might seem merely rhetorical, but it makes a big difference when you’re talking about a candidate who’s been accused of sexual assault. The choosing-an-opponent framework doesn’t require any moral concessions or wavering on values, because there’s no wholesale acceptance involved. And yet, it still leaves room for the sort of fired-up enthusiasm the begrudging lesser-of-two-evils narrative smothers. 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.