Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

Bernie or Bust? Sanders Supporters' Tough Voting Decisions

For many American progressives, Bernie Sanders’ exit from the 2020 Democratic primary race and endorsement of Joe Biden was yet another crushing blow. Hampered by years of centrist policies and broken promises, progressives and leftists finally had a candidate who looked poised to run away with the nomination. But after the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday bloodbath, morale faltered among Sanders supporters, only continuing to dwindle as coronavirus and media narratives helped Biden pull away with the nomination. Once again, the chance for a nominee who believed in social democracy and progressive policies had virtually disappeared. Following Sanders’s final exit, many Biden supporters and media figures have questioned whether Sanders supporters will even cast a vote for Biden in the general election. The narratives and reasonings surrounding this debate tell a revealing story about how this situation came to be and what the future may look like for the American Left.

To begin, progressives certainly have not been shy about criticizing Biden. Out of all the 2020 Democratic candidates, few represent the centrist establishment more than Joe Biden. His record on key issues leaves much to be desired, especially to supporters of one of the most consistent progressive politicians in recent memory. Not to mention, Biden has talked down to millennials and left-leaning voters, diminishing young people’s problems and telling those critical of his record or policies to “go vote for someone else.” These comments, alongside Biden’s lackluster record and centrist policies, certainly muddy the waters for progressives looking to cast a presidential vote. Biden has tried to win them back, but his move to the left only included lowering the Medicare age from 65 to 60 and a means-tested student debt cancellation program. 

Unsurprisingly, progressives like former Sanders spokeswoman Briahna Joy Gray have still declined to support Biden. Other prominent figures, like hosts of the popular leftist podcast “Chapo Trap House,” have fully committed to not supporting Biden. To be fair to the Chapo hosts, they live in New York and thus are reassured by the fact that their votes probably won’t tip the scales. Yet, their influence and the influence of other progressive figures on social media will likely have an effect on voters. Given that risk, what are the reasons progressives are citing to not support Biden? Much of the rationale behind progressives not voting for Biden stems from two connected realities: they’ve once again lost a chance to build a national movement and must use their remaining power wisely. 

The 2020 primary race followed a long line of American progressive movements that fell short. While Barack Obama was an inspiring and grassroots outsider candidate, his policies after getting elected soured him to many on the Left. This is a tough reality for many people on the liberal spectrum, but especially for progressives who were hopeful for a major healthcare overhaul and an end to disastrous foreign and domestic policy decisions. Unfortunately, Obama didn’t deliver the hope and change of his campaign platform, and after eight years his administration left progressives with little more than some key supreme court decisions and a watered-down healthcare bill. But Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination restored some progressive hope. Despite the race breaking in favor of Clinton, Sanders began building a movement that looked to bring the Democratic Party closer to its Roosevelt-era roots. The election of Sanders acolytes like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar in the 2018 primaries signaled a renewed potential for this new Left force. That potential looked to be realized in 2020, with both Sanders and Warren gaining traction nationally and the primary centered around Sanders-led policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. 

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Yet 2020 was likely one of the last chances for this change. Sanders is pushing 80 and there isn’t a large bench to pull from to replace him as a progressive icon and the most popular senator in America. The 2020 primary was a tough and disappointing campaign for Sanders and his supporters. Bernie was relentlessly attacked by candidates and media sources alike for his ambitious policies and alleged sexism and toxic supporters. He also faced genuine institutional barriers to gaining the nomination. The superdelegates which helped spoil Sanders’ chances in 2016 came into play after the first ballot at the convention. This concession, gained by Sanders and his supporters after the messy 2016 Democratic National Convention, still meant Bernie had to win outright on the first ballot or face a potential establishment roadblock.

Behind the scenes, Obama was hostile to Sanders’ rise, threatening to step in should Bernie be the nominee and helping coordinate the exit of Fmr. Mayor Pete Buttigieg to clear the way for Biden. Combined with poor polling locations in key Sanders areas, a botched Iowa caucus, and the Biden campaign still turning out the vote in the midst of a pandemic, the odds were stacked against Sanders. Under these conditions, even after winning the first three contests for the first time in history, Bernie was unable to secure the nomination. Such open resistance to his movement doesn’t sit well with Sanders supporters, many of whom need Bernie’s policies to manage their medical costs, student loan debt, or climate anxiety. As a result, they aren’t necessarily ready to line up behind a candidate pushed by the very establishment that dampened their hopes, regardless of Sanders’ endorsement of him.

While the scars of past and recent losses run deep, part of the lack of Bernie voter support for Biden comes from an alternative idea of how to wield political power. Following Sanders’ exit, the general consensus among pundits was that Bernie supporters could leverage their votes to push Biden and the Democrats to the left. At face value, this may seem like a decent idea. However, this ignores the history of progressive power in the Democratic party. Party leadership ignored the popular anti-war candidates in 1968 to nominate VP Hubert Humphrey, and after Nixon’s crush of George McGovern in 1972 they refused to nominate “riskier” progressive candidates. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich all tried and failed to win the nomination as progressives. Barack Obama was the clearest challenge to the centrist norm in the party, but he only achieved this after running an insurgent campaign against the establishment favorite, Hillary Clinton. As a result, gains have only been made by progressives through insurgent campaigns like Obama’s and Bernie’s that appeal directly to voters in spite of institutional resistance. This hasn’t been a total loss for the Left: Medicare for All and the Green New Deal enjoy widespread popularity among both Democrats and the general public. However, establishment figures like Biden still resist making these policies benchmarks of their message.

Given the barriers erected and disparities between the Democratic establishment and progressives’ policy goals, the only remaining option for many Sanders supporters is to challenge political calculus by not voting for Biden. If Biden believes he doesn’t need to adopt Bernie’s policies, then he must also believe he doesn’t need to appeal to Bernie’s voters. Biden and the Democratic establishment believe Bernie’s supporters will coalesce around the nominee as they have before for candidates like John Kerry or Hillary Clinton. Should Sanders supporters revoke their support en masse and impact the election, the message may be sent to the Democrats that progressive support is not easily won by centrist candidates who refuse to support popular policies. As it stands right now, the activist base formed by Bernie has limited power. Their presidential candidate was blocked, and their legislative champions are being challenged in the upcoming congressional elections. Their vote for president may be the last real chance they have to make their presence known. Under this reasoning, what is already looking like a tough sell for Biden may be an opportunity for progressives to leverage their power and prepare for a realignment come 2024.

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Adding to this tough sell are the particular problems Joe Biden has as a candidate: he is far from a suitable figure for progressives to rally behind. He voted for the Iraq War, mishandled the Anita Hill allegation against Clarence Thomas, supported the War on Drugs, and opposed busing. However, even beyond these political flaws is a larger character flaw: his treatment of women. Biden’s creepy, invasive touches and interaction rightfully earned him criticism even before he ran for president. When Tara Reade came forward alleging Biden sexually assaulted her when she was his Senate intern, Biden’s creepy behavior was taken to its fullest extent. While this article is not designed to prosecute the entirety of Ms. Reade’s allegations, it should be noted that her story is credible and has several corroborating witnesses. Also, the #MeToo movement made significant improvements in how the public perceives sexual assault allegations. That is, until those allegations were against the Democratic nominee. 

Previous champions of the #MeToo movement, like Alyssa Milano, Hillary Clinton, and even Joe Biden himself are now doubling back on their support for sexual assault survivors and trying to discredit Ms. Reade. Every previous trope used against assault victims has returned: digging into their backgrounds, claiming they don’t have evidence, picking apart their story over time for inconsistencies, flat-out lying, and death threats against the victim. This treatment has left many potential Biden supporters with a sour taste in their mouth as they suddenly have to grapple with their feminist values vs. their political affiliation. Not to mention, Republicans and President Donald Trump have jumped on these actions, calling Biden and other Democrats out for their double standard. Joe Biden recently said that people who believe Reade “probably shouldn’t vote for me,” and that invitation looks more and more inviting each day. While the Tara Reade allegations may not switch potential Biden voters to Trump, they may very well depress support for either candidate. Faced with the choice between one known rapist and another alleged rapist, many may just choose not to vote at all. 

While the Tara Reade allegations and alternate political calculus may make sense to some, many voters are resistant to a “Bernie or bust” mentality. Among non-Sanders voters, one of the biggest issues of the 2020 election is defeating Donald Trump. This isn’t to say that Trump isn’t a concern for Sanders supporters, but rather that defeating Trump was a higher priority for non-Sanders voters than policies like Medicare for All. This fuels Biden’s image as an electable alternative to Trump. Biden lacks the policy adherence of Sanders in favor of a more general push to “restore the soul of America.” Given his support among Democrats, defeating Trump is clearly on the minds of many voters. As a result, any organized effort that helps deliver Trump the election is inherently opposed to their interests. It’s worth noting that groups most impacted by Trump’s policies, like young people afraid of climate change and Latinx people terrorized by the administration’s immigration atrocities, generally supported Sanders. Nevertheless, the unique threat of Trump and his fascistic movement make a compelling argument for Sanders supporters to put aside their political concerns and vote for Biden. Bernie’s endorsement of Biden attempted to bridge that gap and unite in favor of defeating Trump. This shift in the race is overshadowed by the larger coronavirus threat and the Reade allegations. Yet, these arguments will likely continue as election day draws closer.

Given all these factors, answering what is likely to happen is nearly impossible. It’s an understatement to say that Americans are living in uncertain times. The current pandemic is unparalleled in modern history and affects every aspect of American life. As Trump continues to manage (and bungle) the crisis, Sanders supporters may recognize the particular threat posed by Trump and get behind Biden. However, the particular faults of Biden don’t give Bernie voters much hope that their support will lead to the changes they want. The argument for not voting is also powerful, as the 2020 primaries proved that establishment Democrats are willing to stifle a popular left movement to preserve their institutional control and interests. Ultimately, liberal voters are faced with a lackluster candidate whose flaws, including a sexual assault allegation, continue to mount. The future is grim for American leftists still reeling from losing their genuine chance at winning the Democratic nomination. Whether they decide to hold their nose and vote for Biden, vote third party, or not vote at all is still to be seen.

Editor's Note: This article was corrected on May 20 to reflect that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has stated that she would vote for Joe Biden in the upcoming election.

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Joe Ezersky