You don't have to be excited about Joe Biden to vote for him

Progressives, I beg you, don't sit this one out

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, Apple)

In the fall of 2004, my father traveled from California to Ohio to canvas for John Kerry. It was no small undertaking; he spent weeks away from work and family, organizing and knocking on doors. Though his commitment to the cause was unwavering, he was not thrilled with the candidate he'd signed on to support. He considered Kerry insincere and ineffectual, and he talked openly to us about how he wished someone else had won the nomination.

As a fiery-bellied teenager, I didn't fully understand my father's choice to canvas for a candidate he disliked. But Dad never hesitated; he threw himself into getting out the vote. When the Democrats lost the election, he expressed little surprise, but also zero regret. And he used the disappointment of 2004 to fuel him in 2008, canvassing for a far more compelling Democratic nominee.

I've been thinking a lot about my father and John Kerry lately — every time I hear "enthusiasm" or "popularity" applied to the 2020 presidential race. Safe to say, neither of the two-party options excites me; exhaustion is the best I can muster. On the one hand, we have an elderly white man with a history of bizarre public behavior, who has been accused of sexual assault, whose platform and track record contain plenty of reasons to give progressive voters pause. On the other hand, we have President Trump.

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Our country is in burning turmoil, and the White House is eagerly fanning the flames. If we are to have a shot at quenching them — let alone beginning to repair the damage left behind — we, the voting public, will have to play the two-party game to its conclusion in November. And that means rallying behind Joe Biden.

I've been dreading this time, even as I knew it was coming. It doesn't feel good to be asked — or to ask others — to swallow our disappointment, anger, and shame at how deeply our institutions have failed us. To absorb the insult of a Democratic Party that, once again, is playing to the white male center while taking so many other voters for granted. To, at least for the moment, accept the unacceptable bind that our country's electoral politics have put us in.

But this is where we stand. In our profoundly dysfunctional two-party system, personal enthusiasm for a nominee is not a prerequisite for getting them elected. The Republicans understand this; it's how we ended up in our current presidential mess.

Many progressive voters I know have already decided to grit their teeth and back Biden; they don't need my persuading. But we cannot afford a repeat of 2016, when would-be Democratic voters chose to sit the election out or cast purely symbolic votes — protest, third-party, write-in — because they could not stomach the thought of voting for Hillary Clinton. I do not say that they "threw away their votes," because these were deliberate decisions made on principle. But these decisions played an important role in facilitating Trump's rise to power. And the past four years of right-wing rule have showed us that we cannot afford a moment more.

I am not interested in deflecting responsibility onto the voting public at large, given how many marginalized Americans are still fighting to have their votes counted at all. But if you have the privilege to vote unimpeded, and a healthy sense of horror at what's going on in this country, then you also have a responsibility to use your vote wisely. You cannot just take your ball (or, in this case, ballot) and go home.

I understand the impulse. Believe me, I do. But we just don't have the luxury of indulging it. Sitting out an election makes impassioned principles indistinguishable from apathy, and the symbolism of voting in protest is simply not powerful enough against the opposition we have now. It shouldn't be this way. We should be furious that it is. But even if we go all-out from this point forward to dismantle the two-party machine, we must still reckon with a looming election in which our only practical alternative to the current autocrat-in-chief is to elect the other guy.

This will take more than just holding our noses at the ballot box and voting for Biden. We need to make sure he wins by as close to a landslide as possible. That's because anything less than a resounding loss for the Republicans will open doors for bad-faith pushback. Already we cannot trust the current regime to depart quietly — witness Trump's recent noises about delaying the election. On top of that, conservative leaders are taking advantage of the pandemic to step up their efforts to suppress votes in marginalized communities. Ensuring an overwhelming Biden victory will require overcoming decades' worth of voter suppression efforts, and that won't be easy. We have to truly throw our weight behind him, as frustrating as that might be.

It's important to acknowledge that getting Biden elected won't fix our broken electoral system; we must still constantly push him, and all our leaders, towards justice and equity. But right now, people are expending enormous amounts of activist energy simply to try and slow our descent into fascism. A Biden win in November would allow us to redirect that energy towards a more humane and less intransigent administration. And Biden has demonstrated that he can be pressured towards positive change even in areas where his track record is not ideal. In a 2019 interview, political activist Angela Davis cited Biden's evolution away from supporting mass incarceration towards defunding police, and he has showed similar growth in other areas.

Of course, the presidential race is hardly the only one of consequence on our ballots — this November, or any election year. Even if the guy at the top of the ticket isn't our first choice, getting him elected will add teeth to our votes all the way down the ballot. Electing progressive leaders and enacting humane laws is critical, but they can only do so much against an administration that blocks or flouts them at every turn. A Biden presidency, undergirded by a groundswell of progressive leadership and legislation, would go a long way towards actually getting things done.

There are a lot of reasons to be disappointed that Joe Biden is likely to be the 2020 Democratic nominee. But we still need to fight like hell against those attempting to keep him out of office.

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Zoe Fenson

Zoe Fenson is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, Narratively, The New Republic, and elsewhere. When she's not writing, you'll find her doing crossword puzzles in cocktail bars or playing fetch with her cat.