New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. World
3 June 2024

Joe Biden doesn’t have a “left” problem. He has a Joe Biden problem

The president will only have himself to blame for any electoral damage come November.

By Hamilton Nolan

I like reading histories of the CIA. They remind us that America’s prosperity is built atop a foundation of lawless secret crimes against humanity that render laughable our claims to moral leadership. Also, they lay bare the important lesson: you can’t predict the future. Over and over, pipe-smoking men with impeccable credentials gathered in Georgetown townhouses in Washington and plotted out sweeping actions on the global chessboard that, inevitably… made things far worse down the road.

Coups and assassinations and rigged elections designed to somehow bolster their idea of America’s power produced conditions that gave rise to new generations of people determined to destroy America because they had been victimised by those same men’s Geppetto fantasies of making all the world’s population dance on their strings. Turns out that all the domino theory-esque rhetoric that fuelled decades worth of bloody global manoeuvring were… mostly wrong. Just bad theories. They were overconfident guys so drunk on their own self-assurance that they turned into monsters who were not even productive on their own terms.

Looking back, it would have been better to just try to do the right thing the whole time. The world would have arranged itself in a more favourable way for America as a result of that strategy than it did in response to a strategy of ruthlessly crushing anything deemed to be in opposition to its shifting and ill-defined “interests”.

Do the next right thing. It’s not only a slogan you might say to primary-school children: it’s also a valid piece of time-tested political wisdom. Imagining that you are capable of seeing 20 steps ahead on the chaotic chessboard of political life is almost always wrong. Selling out now in order to reap some supposed benefits that you believe you will accrue after a tortured chain of events often results in you selling out for nothing, when those events go in a different direction to how you thought they would. This is the great flaw in the thinking of the “accelerationists”, who reckon that if we make things as bad as they can be as soon as possible, the result will be a grand turnaround, a cleansing revolution that makes it all worthwhile. It probably won’t. You will just have made things bad. Bummer.

It’s easy to make fun of the wild-eyed accelerationists. But I say all this as a prelude to talking about another group who can fall prey to the same problem: the realists. That is, the people who understand themselves to be realists, and who place great faith in their own analytical powers, and who make it their business to lecture their counterparts, the idealists, about all of the compromises that must be made in the name of incremental progress – compromises that will, they believe, pay off in the long run. They are those who tell the idealists, “I share your goals, but you must be realistic about how to get there.”

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

I thought about this as I read a piece that Brian Beutler wrote recently, titled, “Biden’s critics on the left should rethink the concept of ‘leverage’”. (I am not here to attack Beutler, who is often very thoughtful, but rather to discuss this entire genre of argument.) The essay is an extended critique of the “lazy thinking” of progressive activists who threaten not to vote for Joe Biden as some sort of leverage in the struggle against his horrific policy on Israel and Gaza. This is a bad idea because Donald Trump is worse, Beutler says. “For at least as long as the GOP is a fascist formation, we should rethink the concept,” he writes. “The idea that boycotting politics amounts to savvy bargaining is wrong.”

The first point I’d like to make about this is: duh. Biden’s policies are better than Trump’s and if Biden loses and Trump wins politics would get worse. Do progressive activists, who are as a group deeply engaged in the issues, need thousands of words to understand this? To put a finer point on it: who is this argument for? Setting aside the small number of accelerationists, who as I mentioned above are foolish, where exactly is this enormous group of left-wing activists who are unable to understand that Trump is worse than Biden? For one thing, I am on the left and I know a lot of people on the left who go out in the streets and protest Israel’s war in Gaza, and in November, most of those people who are politically engaged will vote for Biden, because he is not as bad as Trump. Some portion of them will refuse to vote for Biden out of sheer disgust at the direct role he has played in the murder of thousands of civilians. In the context of 150 million voters across America, the number of those people is small. To the extent that there are places like Michigan where there are significant pockets of people who have had direct relatives blown up in Gaza and who therefore might not be able to bring themselves to pull the lever for the guy who sent the bombs, any electoral damage is 100 per cent the fault of the Biden administration itself. Look in the mirror.

Beutler writes as though there is some enormous group of highly engaged left-wing activists who personally command large numbers of votes and who are making a tactical choice to boycott the election in order to exert leverage on Biden administration policy. In reality, this is just not true. Yes, there are some left-wing activists who will not vote for Biden. Is this group going to throw the election to Trump? No. What Biden needs to worry about is not highly engaged activists making some considered calculation not to vote for him, but instead millions of regular people who will not vote for him because they don’t feel excited about him. They will stay home because he has not given them an inspiring thing to vote for. That is approximately one thousand times more likely as a scenario for Biden to lose than “left-wing activists marshal millions to stay home as negotiating leverage”. Obama excited people. So they turned out to vote.

In 2020, people hated Trump so much that they were excited to turn out to vote. Now, Biden is the incumbent and he owns what the government is doing and he has achieved the nifty trick of supporting possible crimes against humanity and isolating himself on the world stage and thereby causing deep moral revulsion within the left wing of his party at the exact same time that he needs them to rally behind him during election season. This is not a problem of miscalculation of leverage; it is a problem of doing something horrible and turning off his political allies right when he is supposed to be pulling them into his coalition. I think that most of the left, including me, will end up voting for Biden, because he is better than Trump. (Polls show Biden winning overwhelmingly among Democratic-leaning swing state voters who pay attention to the news, a group that includes left-wing activists. This is not the group that will lose him the election.) But they will not be excited about it, because Biden himself has made that impossible. And that lack of excitement in the Democratic Party’s base will sap the Biden campaign of the energy it needs to turn out voters more broadly.

Is that the fault of left-wing activists? Should those who vote for Biden grudgingly be lectured because they didn’t pretend to be excited about the guy who shipped 2,000-pound bombs over to be dropped on residential areas? No. Again, if the Biden administration is looking for the culprit who has put its prospects in danger: look in the mirror.

The pernicious thing about these anticipatory lectures to the left, about the obvious fact that Trump is bad, is that they serve primarily to build plausible excuses in the event that Biden loses. If you write enough “dreamy lefties need to get real and vote for Biden!” essays in the six months before election day, the narrative of “the left abandons Biden” will be established. Then, if Biden loses, you have your culprits ready. (Indeed, this very same thing happened when Hillary Clinton lost, and when Al Gore lost.) But have you correctly identified the culprit? No. If Joe Biden loses, will it be because of the lost votes of highly engaged progressive activists who decided to stay home to exert leverage? No. Not even close! It will be because the totality of Biden’s actions during his first term was not sufficient to excite more than 80 million Americans enough for them to get up and troop to the polls for him.

And – maybe I missed it – are pro-Palestinian progressive activists running the White House? Are left-wing activists in charge of the Biden re-election campaign? Are left-wing activists in charge of the State Department? Are left-wing activists setting Biden administration policy right now, which voters will then judge him on in November? No. They are not. If you are worried that Biden is going to lose you better look at Biden’s adviser Steve Ricchetti, not Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

To blame the left for the political troubles of a president who is not of the left and who is being criticised by the left specifically because he is pursuing a policy that is the exact opposite of what the left wants is the definition of a straw man. And most of the left will still vote for him. The “Squad” will all vote for Biden! So how are we on the left already being set up to take the fall for this guy? It’s lunacy.

I would, in general, like analysts and commentators who see themselves as political realists to spend less time lecturing a reluctant group of voters who will probably not determine the outcome of this election and more time lecturing the president of the United States who is making the decisions that will determine whether or not he wins this election. Thanks.

More broadly, this sort of quandary calls for something that the left has, and the realists often lack: a theory of change. In the US’s two-party system, the left will always be forced into an uncomfortable allyship with the Democratic Party, lest the Republicans win and do something even worse. This has been the case forever. It is not very interesting to pop up every four years and deliver a lecture to the left about how Democrats are closer to their position than Republicans. This is obvious. The interesting discussion, which smart people on the left have been grappling with for generations, is how to exert influence within the constraints of this dynamic. The boundaries of this debate reveal the shortcomings of thinking about politics purely in electoral terms. If elections are everything, the left is simply destined to be marginalised forever. The logic never changes, so Democrats can take them for granted. There are lots of smart people who care about politics and focus their thinking on elections and know a lot about elections, but they are susceptible to miss the larger story of how societies actually change.

Movements exist before and after and beyond elections. “The left”, by which I mean here “people with genuine progressive moral beliefs about the world”, make up political and social movements that can move society towards their goals even in the absence of “constituting a majority of the Democratic coalition in Congress”. In the case of almost every familiar movement – civil rights, labour rights, gender equality, gay rights, anti-war movements, and on and on – the left was on the morally correct but politically unpopular side. How did it win anything, then? By forming national and international social and political movements made up of thousands and millions of people engaged in protest and direct action and education and community building and labour organising and other actions outside of electoral politics that, over time, change society itself and thereby cause politicians to follow that change. To focus only on the politicians and the elections is to miss the underlying fact that those officials ultimately do not cause change themselves – they are the end products of change. If you are interested in true insight into change, it is much more instructive to think about electoral politics in terms of its place in broader movements, rather than vice versa.

The useful thing about this vision is that it allows you, a person who cares about things, to focus on just working to accomplish the things you care about, rather than trying to game everything second-hand through the blurry and unreliable lens of elections. Is Biden better than Trump? Yes, in the same sense that if you’re trying to get to three, two is closer than one. Biden is also the sitting president, with full control over his own actions. What those outraged activists on the left who inspire so much political nail-biting are engaged in is the act of trying to get Biden to change his actions in order to save human lives. That is the worthiest goal there is. If you are a hard-nosed realist who has great wisdom in all of the levers of electoral politics, stop lecturing the left, and help it accomplish its goal.

Hamilton Nolan is a journalist covering labour and politics. This piece originally ran on his Substack “How Things Work”.

[See also: Ali Abbasi’s gift to Donald Trump at Cannes]

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy