A Democratic Socialist’s Case Against “Bernie or Bust”

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Great candidate? Yes. The only good candidate? Unclear.

I’ve heard a lot online and in person about people, generally democratic socialists or their farther-left kindred, who intend to vote for Bernie Sanders, and only for Bernie Sanders, in 2020. If the Dems nominate anyone else, they would vote third-party, or not at all. This varies somewhat, of course. Some would vote for a candidate like Elizabeth Warren, who is progressive but less so than Sanders, while others take a firmer, Sanders-only stance. Such a vote is variously explained as a rejection of the Democratic establishment hold on the nomination process, a sign that enough centrism is enough, or a stance that incremental policies are worse than nothing. These are all principled goals. I consider myself a pragmatic democratic socialist (that’s a lot of adjectives), and I intend to vote Dem regardless of the nominee (though I’m obviously pulling for Sanders at this point), but I am still furious with the universal anti-Bernie establishment alliance that has emerged in the days leading up to Super Tuesday. I can totally see, even empathize with, why a more idealistic democratic socialist would choose to take a stand like the ones outlined above. That makes me even more mad that centrist Democrats take the absolute worst possible argument to persuade Sanders-only democratic socialists to choose non-Sanders nominees in the general.

I’ve heard three main lines of argument on this issue. First is some variation of the blame game: “It’s people like you who got Trump elected in the first place!” I find this one a bit overdone. There are a lot of reasons why Clinton lost the election (I highly recommend the FiveThirtyEight series “The Real Story of 2016” for a deep dive.) It’s unclear that either a) Bernie supporters are the only reason for Clinton’s loss, or b) those who stayed home or voted third party are some kind of an anomaly. Data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study finds that Bernie supporters were not uniquely “disloyal”, and that those who voted for Trump disapproved of Obama (and thus were probably uniquely for Bernie). I don’t buy this particular argument, and it certainly doesn’t follow that a Bernie supporter must vote Dem in the general to “atone” for their electoral “sin” or whatever.

Second is the argument that any Dem nominee is the “lesser evil” relative to Trump. I don’t take issue with the premise of this argument. Certainly Trump is a greater evil than any Democratic nominee (and most other Republican nominees, too.) I don’t even consider that a question. This is the reason why I will disregard who’s nominated and vote Dem in the general. However, this is also the argument that makes me the most angry (and the one that induced me to write this article). Here, centrists completely miss the point of “Bernie or Bust.” The protest is explicitly intended to send a message to the Democratic establishment that choosing between the lesser of two evils is not okay. This argument only proves the Bernie supporter’s points. It won’t go anywhere, and it irritates me that people even try to use it.

Last is the argument that because Biden (or whoever else) won the Dem primary, that candidate is entitled to the votes of the Dem primary base. This is wrong in several ways. For one, if a Bernie supporter believes that the primary was rigged against him and thus that the nominee’s victory was not legitimate, it stands to reason that nominee doesn’t even “deserve” such a vote in the first place. For another, Bernie (and other candidates) have the ability to engage inactive voters and pull voters from sections of the electorate that other candidates may not be able to access. These voters were activated politically by specifically that candidate, and it seems like bad faith to argue that they’re now forced to vote for some other candidate as a result. Finally, this is just plain wrong on the most basic level. Politics is about free choice, and while I would prefer that you don’t cast a protest vote, I respect your choice to do so, and you’re certainly not obligated to vote for any candidate.

I find each of these arguments rather entitled or disingenuous to varying degrees, and I think they all harm the argument in favor of voting “blue no matter who.” So, I’m here to present an alternative set of arguments. These approach the issue from my democratic socialist perspective. I’m taking this from a lens of “what choice would help the democratic socialist movement most overall?” My thesis is that choosing the Dem nominee will, on balance, allow democratic socialists more freedom to influence the national debate and Overton window. Furthermore, it’s important that the Bernie supporter vote Dem downballot regardless of who their choice is for president, as that’s where they can have more influence on the future direction of the party.

Here are my three lines of argument in the case against “Bernie or Bust”:

1. There’s no clear point where we should choose protest over change within the system.

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Suppose for this argument that I were a Communist (of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist variety, say) who does not support Bernie Sanders because he doesn’t want to abolish literally all private industry. (In other words, suppose I was everything the right wants people to think Bernie is.) Let’s also suppose that Bernie was the Democratic nominee, but that I intended to vote for the American Communist Party nominee because I wanted to send a message to the Dems that a candidate who supported any private industry wouldn’t fly with me and because I wanted to protest the two-party system that forces choices between the lesser of two evils. Would a Bernie supporter try to convince me to vote for him? Probably. I (not hypothetical communist me, but democratic socialist me) think they absolutely should. It seems reasonable to ask a Communist to vote for the most viable candidate who shares some of their beliefs. This is similar to what center-left Dems do in asking Bernie voters to support a Biden or a Warren type. The overlap in platforms is substantial enough for a President Biden or President Warren to pass policies that largely agree with Bernie’s agenda. This will be even more true after our Bernie faction gets some say over the Dem platform at the national convention. Certainly the Dem platform will be a lot more agreeable than the Republican one, which will probably feature socialism front and center — in a negative light. This brings me to my next point, which is that

2. A President Trump inflicts real, substantial and lasting harm on the democratic socialist movement.

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Remember when Trump, in his 2019 State of the Union, uttered the words “America will never be a socialist country,” and then Democrats stood up and clapped? I certainly do, and it hurt. That’s the archetypal example of how Trump hurts the socialist movement. He can, and does, use the gigantic mouthpiece of the presidency for attacks on socialism. His goal is to make our movement a frightening concept that will turn off large portions of the electorate, and the longer we let him do so, the harder the damage will be to undo. Already, he’s made attacks on socialism into the focus of the right-wing media bubble (consider this year’s CPAC agenda as an example). He and his Republican allies also have the ability to divide Dems through legislation, procedural votes and other political action. Mitch McConnell has already used meaningless votes on Medicare for All in attempt to exploit divisions among Democrats in the Senate. The phrase “socialism” is deeply unpopular among the electorate. The damage Republicans have already done to public opinion on socialism will be hard to undo simply because of partisan tribalism. We already have our work cut out for us. It is in our interest to disempower Trump and his allies so that we can repair the damage to the democratic socialist brand and make the case to the electorate without the presidential bullhorn shouting full-force attacks over any case we could make. Furthermore,

3. A Democratic president affords democratic socialists the opportunities to shift debate to the left and to have our policy priorities heard.

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Consider that even a President Biden has to pass much of his platform through Congress, where it would be subject to the usual amendment and debate process. This would give progressive standard-bearers like AOC and Rep. Pramila Jayapal their say on the House floor (and senators including, well, Sanders and Warren, the ability to influence debate in the Senate.) Remarkably, Biden’s “return to normalcy” rhetoric has some upside for democratic socialists as a result. His “return to normalcy” could also include an attempt to return to the “regular order” process of Congressional debate, which is open to amendments and speeches. That would give our beloved firebrands the time to articulate a strong and coherent case for the progressive policies we’re looking for. In addition, the progressive wing in the House would likely gain effective veto power over any of Biden’s flagship policies, which would probably result in the ability to extract some concessions even in the worst-case scenario. For that matter, who’s to say that Biden wouldn’t sign a bill farther left than what’s in his platform? It seems at least plausible that he’d be a lot more open to democratic socialist policies than he currently sounds like. After all, his whole candidacy’s built around compromise. If that’s a compromise with our movement, he might well consider it just as valid as if it were a compromise with the right. Simply put, the president can’t just monolithically set the agenda for the entire nation in one fell swoop, and even a President Biden has a lot of democratic socialist upside.

In sum, I’d argue that the choice between “blue no matter who” and “Bernie or Bust” comes down to weighing the benefits to the democratic socialist movement overall. Does staying home or voting third-party in protest provide a greater benefit to the socialist movement than helping toss one of its greatest threats out of office? I don’t think so. If I’ve convinced you, I encourage you to share this article with anyone who you think should hear its arguments. If I haven’t, more power to you. However, I’d encourage you go vote and choose a third-party candidate for President as a protest, and then vote Democratic down-ballot. Down-ballot is where progressives can make the most impact — consider that a large part of the upwelling of pro-Biden support came from a series of big establishment endorsements like Jim Clyburn and Harry Reid. Transforming the Democratic majority into a progressive majority will be our bridge between the political wilderness and the White House, and your vote is crucial to that effort! Thanks for reading!

In solidarity, Will Kramer

Self-proclaimed campaign ad connoisseur.

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