In 2008, on the precipice of the presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain that would hold the world in thrall, the late, great historian Howard Zinn wrote a piece for The Progressive called “Election Madness.” Zinn lamented the fact that Americans had been persuaded to believe that “the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.” Voting, he argued, shouldn’t be so all-consuming. “Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.” The rest of the time, he wrote, we need to get involved in social movements.
As someone who has spent much of the last eight years involved in such efforts—I cofounded the Debt Collective, a union for debtors that has challenged both the Obama and Trump administrations, and has helped make student loan cancellations and free public college major political issues—I wholly agree with Zinn’s call for grassroots mobilization. But, writing twelve years ago, he assumed a degree of electoral stability that hasn’t held up. If 2008 was madness, what is 2020? Mayhem? Tragedy? Farce? Collapse? This year we are not being asked to choose between two mediocrities: one mediocrity and one murderous egomaniac seems more apt. We have before us two white men who represent America’s ruling class gerontocracy, but only one is a tax-dodging criminal who cheers white supremacists, panders to conspiracy theorists, and is responsible for more than 200,000 Covid-related deaths.
In 2008 we were not facing a static duopoly. The Republican Party was already going off the rails. Since then, it has given up on winning majorities and decided it can only secure victory through voter suppression. Citizens in poor and Black and brown communities often find themselves standing in line for hours, only to learn they’ve been purged from the voter rolls or that their district has been so gerrymandered their votes don’t count. The pandemic has further revealed the fragility of our electoral system, provoking a distressing debate over absentee ballots and voting by mail, and brazen attacks on the postal service. Trump, in his bizarre, occasionally honest way, bluntly stated that high levels of voter turnout would ensure we’d “never have a Republican elected in this country again.” This country’s long history of disenfranchisement, and the fact that some of the nation’s core political institutions (the Electoral College, Senate, and Supreme Court) are designed to shore up minority rule, abet his party’s nefarious cause.
It turns out that the left must be constantly active in the fight to maintain the most basic political right—the right to vote—while also seeking to expand and reimagine it. (Ranked-choice voting, for instance, seems more likely to engage voters and produce more egalitarian democratic outcomes.)
But Zinn was correct on this: voting is never enough. (Black people and women were not enfranchised via the ballot box, after all.) We need to organize. If progressives had built a formidable coalition devoted to pressuring President Obama from the beginning, we might not be in the mess we’re in. Obama took office in the midst of a historic financial crisis, and yet liberals and leftists held back, optimistic that the “hope and change” candidate would spontaneously do the right thing. He didn’t. As a result, the financial sector emerged stronger than ever while tens of millions of people lost their homes, savings, and livelihoods. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Standing Rock protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Dreamers’ campaign for migrant rights only kicked off after the 2010 midterm elections, when the Democrats no longer held both houses of Congress. In contrast, the Tea Party began mobilizing in 2009.
We can’t afford such a blunder again. The intersecting crises we now face—a pandemic, a global economic meltdown, a racist resurgence, climate chaos, a failing electoral system—demand a response that dwarfs the New Deal. But let’s not forget that the New Deal didn’t come about spontaneously. Socialist organizing, widespread disruption, and thousands of worker strikes propelled FDR to act.
Biden often reminds people that he isn’t a socialist while distancing himself from popular policies including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Nevertheless, under pressure from activists—with whom lines of communication are at least open—he has made concessions on a range of issues, including the Debt Collective’s demand for student debt cancellation. (He has committed to $10,000 of student loan forgiveness per borrower and promised bankruptcy reform in favor of debtors, a striking reversal for the former senator from Delaware, the nation’s credit card capital.)
While Biden was not my first choice, nor my second, I’ll take a cowardly centrist over an aspiring autocrat any day. We must fight hard to elect the mediocrity, and then fight him hard right out of the gate.