Okay. It’s time to get personal. I voted for Elizabeth Warren, even though I knew she had almost no chance to win.
I voted for her because she has progressive politics. She was willing to stand up to big corporations and wealthy individuals. She understood the terrible plight of poor and lower middle-class families in this era of hyper-inequality and had specific plans to support them. She supported the idea of Medicare for all, and the need for big action on the climate crisis. She denounced the racism of mass incarceration and clearly articulated a civil rights agenda for the 21st Century. She was an unflinching supporter of the #MeToo movement. She had a clear vision of creating a social democracy in the United States.
And I voted for her because she is a woman, and the U.S. is long overdue for a woman President.
Like many progressives, I supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 with great reservations. We know what the Clintons did: they created the bipartisan support needed to unleash neo-liberalism in the 21st Century. It was really hard to have to support Hillary in 2016 but I did because the alternative was and is unthinkable. I also wished the day after that disastrous election that she and Bill would just go away.
Warren does not have Hillary’s baggage. Quite the opposite, she was the leader of the most important effort to rein in the banks after the financial meltdown of 2007-2010. In the fight for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, Warren showed incredible tenacity and the ability to bring together a broad coalition in support of her historic effort to regulate capitalism’s most powerful and egregious institutions. She also showed great compassion during the debates, telling stories about people she had met at campaign stops. (OK, doing this when she had 45 seconds to speak might not have been a good debate strategy, but still…..).
But she never had a chance both because of the rampant sexism towards her and because Bernie Sanders was in the race. Sanders also articulated a progressive agenda, but a far more grandiose one that would require trillions of dollars to accomplish. He has positioned himself as the leader of a great political revolution in which workers, minorities and youth would rise up and put America on a humane course. He embraces the concept of socialism, although it is unclear exactly what he means. And after he lost to Hillary in 2016 Sanders built a formidable campaign with a large staff and early support from many progressive intellectuals and politicians. In the early days of the 2020 campaign, he seemed unstoppable.
But then he was stopped. And what stopped him was not Biden and the centrist Democrats, but a widespread rejection of his campaign by voters across the South and Texas. Bernie ran into a storm of opposition because:
- His belief that there is a hidden wellspring of voters waiting for socialist politics is delusional. There is little evidence that progressive movements are moving into high gear these days. Quite the opposite: all but one of the candidates endorsed by Justice for All lost in their Super Tuesday primaries.
- He has built his campaign appealing to young voters, but young people unfortunately voted in typically small numbers on Super Tuesday.
- He consistently couches racial issues in class terms. This has alienated many African Americans who understand the importance of addressing racism straight on. His recent decision to pull out of Mississippi to put resources into the very close contest in Michigan angered many Black activists because he clearly does not understand the deep connections that bind Southern and Northern Black communities.
- He is a polarizer, leading many to conclude that he would not be able to build a coalition broad enough to beat Trump or to govern if he did. Sadly, Bernie’s long career in both houses of Congress is unimpressive, largely because he did not want to engage in the hard give and take work to build coalitions that is always needed to pass important legislation.
- His personal style of perpetual anger does not resonate with most voters, who are still looking for someone who can stabilize the ship, not overthrow it. I was recently moved by a post written by famed civil rights activist Ruby Sales, who was targeted for assassination by an angry white cop while she led Lowndes County Alabama’s voting campaign in 1964. In this post, she warns that Bernie’s self-righteous anger, replicated by some of his followers, is as dangerous as the anger of the right.
Despite these shortcomings, Sanders’ campaign has successfully built a narrow but deep base of support because of his progressive politics. His base is whiter, richer and more educated than the working class he hopes will rise, but it is clear that millions of Americans resonate with his call for a ‘political revolution.” Perhaps most importantly, his campaign opened up a space for almost the entire field of candidates—including the so-called centrists– to take positions to the left of virtually all Democratic Party candidates before this year.
So, back to my vote for Elizabeth Warren. I voted for her because she had progressive politics but did not have Bernie’s baggage. She is a coalition builder; she does know how to get things done in Congress. She is compassionate where Bernie is angry. She is flexible (look at her position on Medicare for all) without sacrificing principles. I think she would have made a great President. But she had no road to the nomination and had to withdraw. (By the way, she will never ever endorse Sanders. Remember the debate where Sanders called her a liar on national television? She does.)
The Democrats’ nomination is now Biden’s to lose. I don’t think he will. Biden is running a good campaign. His biggest weakness—the specific format of debates the Democrats adopted—will be less of a liability as the field narrows and as his campaign picks up endorsements and money. His greatest asset is that he is what most Americans are looking for: an adult with real job experience. His support among African Americans is not because he was Obama’s Veep. It is because of his real commitment to the first Black president. Yes, Biden took terrible positions on school desegregation in the 1970s and mass incarceration in the 1990s. But as Obama’s wing man for eight years, Biden was steadfast and loyal. Biden has a track record of being a white ally that is undeniable, and frankly, unusual. I would not be surprised to see him choose a woman of color as his Vice Presidential candidate. (But I don’t think Stacy Abrams wants that job, darn it.)
For the past year, I have been writing that progressives cannot expect to win the Presidency when they still have not built their base. I still believe that to be true. Bernie did the left a big solid with this campaign because he energized thousands of young political activists. But the key will be whether or not these activists stay engaged in the hard work of community and labor organizing after the primaries—and the 2020 election—are over. The future of left politics should not and cannot be defined by electoral politics. The main metric for success must be the capacity of workers, minority communities, women, LGBTQI people to get organized, and to align with one another with a progressive agenda that allows them to coordinate their efforts to take on the matrix of domination in this country and the world. Certainly, electoral politics will support this organizing effort, as Bernie’s and Warren’s campaigns did this year. But Americans will not be ready for a truly revolutionary politics until they can envision themselves as agents of change. We are still a ways from the kind of progressive movement that can make a “political revolution” actually win.