The Democratic Left, Biden, and Rational Choices

April 13, 2020

Voting for a political candidate is not always the result of a careful, well-informed consideration of the various pros and cons of having this candidate hold elective office.

(Yes, I’m known for my understatement.)

Ignorance, bias, and emotion influence voter choice. The role of ignorance and bias is lamentable, but can’t do much about these factors and, in any event, I’m not addressing these influences in this blog post.

Regarding emotion—in particular enthusiasm for, or profound dislike of, certain candidates—this is not necessarily a bad thing.  If one were completely indifferent to the results of an election, presumably one wouldn’t vote.

That said, emotion should not prevail over reason.

Which brings me to the reaction of some on the Democratic Left to the realization that Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee. Vox ran a story the other day discussing the possibility that some on the Left will sit out the election, and in recent days hashtags such as #WhyImNotVotingForJoe have been popping up on Twitter.

Disappointment among Sanders supporters is to be expected. The question, though, is whether it would be rational for a Sanders supporter to sit out the election, vote for a third-party candidate, or even vote for Trump.

First, let me make the case for why sitting out the election would be a rational choice, which I think fairly approximates the thinking of some on the Left. Two possible outcomes: Biden is elected despite low turnout from the Left, in which case sitting out didn’t matter, and the Left has the satisfaction of not having had to support a candidate they disdain.  Or Trump is re-elected. Sure, that means four more years of incompetence, bigotry, and preferential treatment for the wealthy, but this makes it more likely we will have a real social revolution in 2024! The people will become thoroughly disgusted with Trumpism and will insist that the 2024 Democratic nominee be a truly transformative candidate. Have to play the long game. Shouldn’t settle for half-measure Joe.

But there are a couple of problems with this reasoning. The first problem is that if Trump has four more years to shape the federal judiciary, the Hard Right will control this branch of government for decades. Trump has already appointed over a quarter of federal appellate judges. Moreover, there’s already a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and although Ginsburg is amazingly resilient, it wouldn’t be shocking if she’s not on the bench in a couple of years. Much of the progressive legislation that Sanders or Warren have proposed, from Medicare-for-all to the wealth tax, is subject to constitutional challenge. In fact, the Right is already rehearsing their arguments. Bottom line: four more years of Trump could delay progressive legislation for many, many years. (Reminder: the courts are still kicking around various aspects of Obamacare, which was hardly a radical piece of legislation.)

The second problem is this: Recall what Sanders (and Biden) asserted is the existential crisis of our time. Climate change. Trump has already severely damaged efforts to ameliorate the effects of climate change. Four more years of Very Stable Genius at the helm of our environmental policy will be disastrous for future generations. No matter how progressive a candidate is elected in 2024, they will not be able to undo the harm caused by Trump if he remains in office for another four years.

One doesn’t have to be enthusiastic about a candidate to recognize that, given one’s concerns, that candidate is the only rational choice. (For what it’s worth, in my 48 years of voting in presidential elections, there was only one nominee for whom I experienced genuine enthusiasm.) Seems to me, for those who have supported Sanders and his policies, a vote for Biden is the only rational choice.

(Note: this blog post is not an endorsement of any candidate; rather, it is a critical examination of what would be a rational choice given one’s political position. In any event, this blog post expresses solely my personal opinion, and its views are not to be attributed to the Center for Inquiry.)