From The Intercept
A FEW DAYS AGO, I shared what I thought was a fairly innocuous observation about a fundamental difference between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Warren spends most of her campaign unpacking and explaining detailed policy proposals, many of them excellent, while Sanders splits his emphasis between his own strong plans and his calls for the political revolution he has consistently said will be required for any substantive progressive policy wins.
"Smart policies are very important," I tweeted. "But we don't lose because we lack smart policies, we lose because we lack sufficient power to win those policies up against entrenched elite forces that will do anything to defeat us."
Within seconds, I was in the grip of a full-on 2016 primary flashback. I was accused of being a shill for Bernie and an enemy of Warren (I'm neither). My feed filled up with partisans of both candidates hurling insults at each other: She gets things done, he is all talk; she's a pretender, he's the real deal; he has a gender problem, hers is with race; she's in the pocket of the arms industry, he's an easy mark for Donald Trump; he should back her because she's a woman, she should back him because he started this wave. And much more too venal to mention.
I immediately regretted saying anything (as is so often the case on that godforsaken platform). Not because the point about outside movement power is unimportant, but because I had been trying to put off getting sucked into the 2020 horserace for as long as possible.
Liberals in the U.S. often say the Trump presidency is Not Normal. And yeah, it's a killer-clown horror show. But the truth is that from most outsider perspectives, there is nothing about U.S. politics that is normal, particularly the interminable length of campaigns. Normal countries have federal elections that consume two, maybe three months of people's political lives once every four to five years; Canada caps federal campaigns at 50 days, Japan at 12. In the U.S., on the other hand, there's a total of about nine months in every four-year cycle when politics is not consumed by either a presidential or midterm horserace.
There's another reason to resist attempts to turn Sanders vs. Warren into a redux of the 2016 primaries eight months before the first vote is cast. Today's electoral dynamics are absolutely nothing like 2016. That was a two-way race between two candidates with radically different records and ideas, in which one candidate's gain really was the other's loss. A winner-takes-all race like that pretty much always turns into some kind of death match. It's a spectacle that comes at a steep price. The relentless process of picking electoral winners sucks up intellectual energy, media airtime, movement muscle, and boatloads of money that are badly needed elsewhere. Like organizing to stop war with Iran, for instance. Or supporting movements trying to free migrants from Trump's concentration camps. Or figuring out what a transformative Green New Deal should look like on the ground. Or building international alliances with people in countries facing their own hate-filled authoritarian strongmen.
These primaries are another species entirely. There is a small army of candidates, with two of the leaders running on platforms so far to the left, they would have been unimaginable for anyone but a protest candidate as recently as 2014. The front-runner, meanwhile, is eminently beatable (especially if Joe Biden keeps showing us exactly who he is, as he did about six times this week).
All this means that for leftists and progressives, the name of the game is not canceling out each other's candidates. It's doing everything possible not to end up with a Wall Street-funded centrist running against a president with the power of incumbency. That means making the case against the idea that candidates positioning themselves as the "safe choice" are in any way safe, whether at the polls or once in office. And it means helping to bring more and more people to one of the genuinely progressive front-runners. There's plenty of time to worry about vote-spitting down the road the task now is to enlarge the number of votes available to be split (or combined).
Because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was absolutely right when she said on ABC's "This Week," "We have a very real risk of losing the presidency to Donald Trump if we don't have a presidential candidate that's fighting for true transformational change in lives of working people in the United States."
That was clear on the morning of November 9, 2016. In case more proof is required, see the recent devastating elections in India and Australia, where right-wing incumbents won despite predictions to the contrary, as well as the results of the European parliament vote, most notably in France and Italy, where the far right has surged. Again and again, we learn the same lesson: Tepid centrists carrying the baggage of decades of neoliberal suffering are no match for machineries of scapegoating willing to stop at nothing to win. Luca Casarini, a longtime Italian activist who now works on an Italian ship that has rescued dozens of migrants in the Mediterranean, recently put it to me in these harrowing terms: "There is pleasure being taken in the suffering of others. That is what these politicians are selling."
Even on the off chance that Biden did manage to pull off a Macron and win (which he's about 35 years too old for), there is the problem of what he would (and wouldn't) do once in power. "No one's standard of living will change. Nothing would fundamentally change," he told a swanky fundraiser at the Carlyle Hotel a philosophy he helpfully reiterated, for those at the back: "You beat them. Without changing the system."
AS I'VE SAID before a time or two, in the age of climate breakdown, if nothing fundamentally changes in the political and economic spheres, then absolutely everything is going to change in the physical sphere. Indeed, these changes are already well underway. So we either change those human-created systems or the natural systems on which all life depends will ruthlessly force change upon us. Given this and so many other life-and-death crises, would it still be worth substituting Trump for Biden or some similarly compromised runner-up? Without question or hesitation. Getting rid of Trump in 2020 is a civilizational imperative, if only to slow this slide into barbarism.
But what the progressive surge in these primaries is telling us is that we can, and must, do so much better.