By Matt Rosen | Illustration by Jubilee Hernandez
In the past few weeks, as Joe Biden has faced new allegations of sexual assault, and as those on the left recall Biden’s support of the Iraq War and the Defense of Marriage Act, there have been numerous calls to vote for Biden anyway. We can mourn the fact that Biden is our best option to defeat the current president, countless opinion pieces have told us, but when that fateful day in November comes, we will have to show up and do our duty anyway. We will have to vote for Biden, for only in this way can we prevent another four years of misery and stupidity and leadership colored by reckless abandon.
These calls to vote for Biden anyway have been precipitated by a fear among establishment Democrats: those who favored Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in this year’s primary might be willing to sit out the upcoming election, handing the victory to Donald Trump. The idea that one should vote based on one’s values, or indeed abstain from voting if one cannot vote one’s conscience, might get in the way of strategy, might hamper carefully laid plans. It would be a shame, this worry has it, if the President won another four years because Democrats could not find unity or vote tactically.
Last week, The Catalystran an article entitled “You Might Hate Joe — Vote for Him Anyway.” This article reflects many of the arguments that pundits in other newspapers have been putting forward in recent weeks. Joe Biden, the article has it, isn’t a very good candidate. The notion that his leadership would be particularly moral is at least questionable; his record shows gradual progress that seems mostly to track the evolution of popular judgment, which is not the sign of forward-thinking leadership; and the sexual assault allegations against him are worth taking seriously.
For all that, the article says, “you should vote for him.” We can do so with anger, with grief that the primary contest resulted in this candidate, but we are obliged to do so anyway. The article concludes that “principle has no place in a race with these stakes.” The president might win, and this might result in four terrible years, we are told; so we have to do what we can to prevent this, even if it means doing something we don’t really want to do. We have to choose the lesser of two evils.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider a strange line that this article and many like it take. Biden has been accused of sexual assault, recently by Tara Reade. If this is true, it is morally repugnant, and we should be saddened that someone who would do this could also run, perhaps successfully, for the highest office in our nation. The article that ran in last week’s The Catalyst declared that Reade’s account of this should be “believed and validated.” Never mind that a court of law presumes the accused innocent; never mind due process. We should believe that Biden has done this repugnant thing, and maybe others like it. But because there’s more than this at stake, the article says, we must vote for Biden anyway.
This is distressing on several counts. For one thing, Biden has been accused of something awful. There’s no doubt about that. But he has not been found guilty, and it would be a hasty injustice to “believe and validate” his accuser without due process. One of the great goods of this country is that we believe, unless and until we can be persuaded beyond doubt, that those among us are decent in the eyes of the law. That is a virtue worth defending.
But it is more distressing still to hear that we should believe Biden’s accuser and yet vote for him. It is said that this is the only strategic choice. And it is worried that Republicans vote tactically, while Democrats squabble tirelessly over values and the common good, failing to realize that politics calls for a distance from morality. There are, we may admit, two evils: a Republican victory, on the one hand, and the fact that Biden is the Democratic contender, on the other. But we must choose, or else sacrifice our vote to the impossibility of victory by a third party (a classic collective action problem).
This is not good thinking, and it is why we are here in the first place. Hannah Arendt, the political theorist who wrote about the origins of totalitarianism, once wrote that “those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil.” Whether or not Biden has sexually assaulted anyone, his record belies the claim that he is a progressive candidate, and bringing our country “back to normal” isn’t so much better than making our country “great again.” Biden may well be the lesser evil, but he is the lesser evil. We go wrong in forgetting this, in losing what we value to strategies and “the long game.”
To inhabit a polity sincerely, to stand for democracy, means to be answerable for the shape its politics take. If we must choose between evils, the thing to do isn’t to weigh them, to seek the lesser one. We have to ask about how we wound up choosing between evils in the first place, how we lost a care for civic virtue and succumbed to talk of tactics and victories.
Biden is objectionable, and it doesn’t much matter whether he is more or less objectionable than Trump. We should not vote for him anyway. We should not have to vote anyway. As many around the country remain quarantined in their homes, as our political and economic life comes almost to a standstill, now is the time in which we should be reimagining our collective future. That could be a future in which it is possible to vote your conscience.
And when it comes time to vote in November, vote for a third-party candidate, vote for a local hero, vote for someone who embodies civic virtue, vote for a parent, vote for nobody at all — but please don’t vote anyway, sacrificing your morals for what is “practical.” Some compromises cut too deeply, take too much; voting for Biden is such a compromise.