On Monday, Bernie Sanders endorsed Joe Biden for the presidency in a live-streamed virtual appearance with the presumptive nominee from his home in Vermont. “Today,” he said to Biden, “I am asking all Americans—I’m asking every Democrat, I’m asking every independent, I’m asking a lot of Republicans—to come together in this campaign to support your candidacy, which I endorse, to make certain that we defeat somebody who I believe, and I’m speaking just for myself, is the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country.”
This is not a move that ought to have surprised anyone. Sanders endorsed and campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and his rhetoric about bringing Americans together—including Republicans—to beat Donald Trump has long echoed the rhetoric of traditional Democrats like Biden, striking an often ignored contrast with the tone of his most vocal supporters. Since Sanders dropped out of the race, those supporters have been the subject of heightened consternation among Democrats. Over the last several days, a number of Sanders-backing groups, including campus outposts for the Sanders campaign, local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the national DSA organization itself, tweeted their refusals to support Biden. In the DSA’s case, the decision to endorse no Democratic nominee but Sanders had been made and announced at their national convention last year. A tweet from the author Reza Aslan was characteristic of the liberal response: “Breaking news: @DemSocialists endorses Trump for president.”
Naturally, the DSA not only opposes Donald Trump, but includes many members who, in associating Trump explicitly with fascism, have criticized the president in more strident tones than many figures in the Democratic Party. In 2016, the DSA’s national political committee wrote a statement explaining that while the organization would not formally endorse Clinton in the general election, members in swing states were likely to vote for her, and DSA chapters in those states would spend the months before the election focused on a “Dump Trump” campaign that included efforts to register black and Latino voters. The organization hasn’t announced its plans for this year’s general election, but a similar course of action seems probable.
There’s been a suggestion that the DSA’s refusal to back Biden illustrates the left’s naiveté about transactional politics. “Why did Bernie lose?” Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg asked on Twitter. “In part because some on the left prioritize self-righteous symbolism over political power and influence. The DSA preemptively expelling themselves from the tent of the only presidential candidate with a chance of hearing or being pressured by their ideas is that.” The notion that an organization set on abolishing capitalism would have otherwise had a meaningful place inside the tent of the Biden campaign is entirely too silly to merit an earnest response, but the embedded argument about political influence is worth unpacking for a moment.
Most advocacy groups promise those who offer their engagement and money an opportunity to get closer to the political system. The reward for backing the Sierra Club or the NRA is the knowledge that your issue of interest is being advanced through traditional channels by lobbyists and others with plenty of access to politicians, their campaigns, and the policymaking process. The DSA has promised its members exactly the opposite—that it is an organization not only working to build a movement outside the political system, but also bent on tearing that system down. On this basis, it has grown dramatically in members and in prominence over the past several years—from a state of total political irrelevance to a position of enough significance that mainstream political commentators can declare themselves upset about its pronouncements.
The modicum of influence the DSA has is derived entirely from being the kind of organization that would never endorse Joe Biden, who has promised to not advance socialism in America. Were it to do so, it would see its membership splinter and dissipate among however many dozen small sectarian leftist groups remain in this country, and get nothing in return for its trouble but the Biden campaign’s disavowal of the organization and socialism, broadly speaking. The DSA is detached enough from conventional politics that its endorsement of Sanders this year, after not formally endorsing him in 2016, was the subject of an internal debate. Opponents of the move were concerned not only by Sanders’s positions on various issues, including his opposition to reparations for slavery, but by the possibility that campaign work might divert resources from the organization’s other work, including support for labor organizing and local issue campaigns.
The fact that casting a ballot for a candidate is the only form of concrete political engagement most non-activists engage in goes some way towards explaining why rhetoric about voting and endorsements is often colored by more emotion than sense. At the opposite end of those who insist that not voting amounts to a vote cast for Donald Trump are conservative figures and GOTV strategists who will spend the next several months insisting the very same action by Republican voters amounts to a vote for Joe Biden. Neither assertion is right. When you don’t vote for anybody, then you don’t vote for anybody; the act is no more an endorsement of Trump or Biden than it is an endorsement of whoever the Libertarian or Green Parties might decide to run this year.
Some who sit out the election in November will argue that there are no meaningful differences between the two major candidates. They will be wrong. Others will argue that while one might be preferable, neither will be worthy of their vote. And in elections, as in life, there’s nothing logically incoherent about looking at an option you consider bad, looking at an option some degree better, and deciding that neither meets whatever personal threshold might be necessary for an affirmative choice that one does not actually have to go out and make.
In this case, one might decide not to vote for a candidate on the basis of some policy position or perhaps an unwillingness to back someone accused of sexual assault. Whatever the reason, not voting for reasons like these is a statement about what is and isn’t ultimately good enough, not a denial that the candidates differ or an endorsement of whichever one might be worse. The ability to opt out is a feature of a system where voting is non-compulsory and individuals have the freedom to make conscientious objections to either the field of candidates before them or the existing political order as a whole.
The wisdom of opting out—of not bucking up, lowering our standards and thresholds, and choosing the lesser of two evils—is another question, and the bottom line there should be obvious to anyone who understands the results of the 2000 and 2016 elections. If you happen to live in a state where the margin between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is likely to be close and want to see Trump removed from office, you can help make it happen by voting for Biden. Everywhere else in the country, an individual vote for the presidency is almost purely symbolic, which makes it a shame that the candidate progressives are being urged to cast ballots for is a man who opposes eliminating the Electoral College.
Every presidential election, roughly 40 percent of those eligible to vote, don’t vote. That figure includes not only potential voters who don’t like the choices before them, but also actively suppressed voters, those who can’t find or don’t make the time to vote, the unregistered, those who simply aren’t interested in politics at all, and people who believe, correctly, that their individual vote isn’t likely to make a difference.
Since 2016, a bizarre conviction has taken hold among political commentators that jilted young Sanders supporters who might not turn out are one of the most critical subsets of this population, an impression built by the over-representation of outspoken progressives on the social media sites journalists frequent, as well as the impressively stubborn myth that Sanders supporters refused to back Clinton or stayed home from the polls in remarkable numbers that November. In fact, as it’s proven useless to explain, more Clinton supporters either stayed home, voted Republican, or voted third party after the Democratic primary in 2008 than Sanders supporters did in 2016, and the Sanders supporters who did defect were mostly moderates and conservatives, not young progressives.
Nevertheless, it is true that some young and predominantly progressive voters will not vote in November, as was the case in our elections long before Sanders ever ran for president. With the general election essentially under way, they’re being subjected to familiar entreaties, including one from The New York Times’ Editorial Board on Sunday jauntily titled “Hey Kids: Get Out There and Vote!”
“Sitting this election out for whatever reason would not serve young voters’ interests in the short or long term,” they wrote. “They need to show up and be counted like never before, even if only to write in a protest candidate. Once they establish themselves as a reliable force, they won’t again have to beg and bargain with politicians to take them seriously.”
Reading the editorial, as with many pieces written about young voters, one might come away with the impression that young nonvoters are demotivated primarily by a possibly paradoxical combination of political apathy and political intransigence. But a national survey of 18-to-24-year-olds fielded by the Knight Foundation and released in February found that while 37 percent of those without religious objections to voting offered cynicism, disinterest, or dissatisfaction with political candidates as reasons for staying home, almost as many—31 percent—cited logistical constraints like being unregistered, or lacking the free time to vote. When asked what would motivate them more to vote, only 20 percent of the young people surveyed said a good candidate or a stance on a particular issue would make a difference, while 38 percent cited changes to their lives or policy that would make it easier to vote, including having more time to vote and the ability to vote online.
All of this comports with census data about voting and registration over the past several elections, which unsurprisingly shows that voters past retirement age, unlike young voters, are exceptionally unlikely to cite being busy as a reason for not having voted. Stability of residence also works in older voters’ favor—young people move much more, which can complicate registration and turnout on election day. It should be said that for all the talk about the youth sitting out, voters under 30 were the only age category that saw their turnout increase in 2016, albeit just slightly, from 45 percent to just over 46 percent. Turnout from voters over 65 dipped from 72 percent to about 71 percent. The gap, of course, remains extraordinary—so large, in fact, that it should be clear older voters would dominate the electorate even if youth turnout improved considerably, which doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.
Given this, progressive romanticism about young voters should end. Bringing them to the polls is less a matter of finding the right pitch than enacting the right policies, and that cannot happen unless the left invests more time, resources, and rhetorical energy winning over and turning out the older voters that, for now and the foreseeable future, actually decide elections. Progress is being made here. In the primaries, Sanders performed well not only with the youngest voters, but with Democrats under the age of 45. He was the candidate not only of “the kids” but many of those with children—parents anxious about whether a Biden presidency would sufficiently alter the trajectory of this country and offer the generations ahead a bright future.
The conversations about the concessions Biden might make to win them over has focused on his stances on issues like health care and climate change. But if Biden wants progressive votes, he should also pledge to make those votes matter more by endorsing the effort to bypass the Electoral College by interstate compact. He should also renounce his support for the Senate filibuster, which grants the most conservative parts of the country veto power over policies most Americans support and will make much of the agenda he’s urging people to the polls for impossible. It’s not obvious that Biden will take suggestions like this seriously and he ultimately doesn’t have to—the election isn’t going to rest on committed progressives, and it seems clear that Biden believes being president is the only truly critical item on his presidential platform.
Those who find this dispiriting should assuage their disappointment with how the Democratic primary turned out by involving themselves in other political efforts. Engage with a race somewhere down-ballot. Organize a workplace or an apartment complex. Plan a run for office yourself or, alternatively, a demonstration that might bring people to the streets whenever the coronavirus crisis passes. Even when they fail, these and other forms of political activity can be much more influential and consequential than whatever you do in the privacy of a voting booth.