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Salon - May 9, 2020

Hours after Bernie Sanders' exit from the Democratic primary race, an insidious new narrative emerged: If you do anything other than vote for Joe Biden in November — vote third party, write in Bernie or abstain, you're a Trump supporter. For those waiting to be won over, "it's time to get in line" seems to be the order of the day. 

What is driving this now, before the general election campaign has even begun? Who is the target of this admonishment? In general, it is Sanders supporters, and among them non-voters and skeptics of the two-party system. It's crucial to notice here that historically, those who choose not to vote out of dissatisfaction with the choices on offer come from marginalized communities. 

"Non-voters are not," Glenn Greenwald writes, "white trust fund leftists whose wealth, status, and privilege immunize them from the consequences of abstention." To the contrary, in 2016, "almost half [of non-voters] were nonwhite and earned less than $30,000 a year." Young voters on both sides of the aisle, in a series of interviews by the New York Times, resented "what they saw as a choice by leaders in both parties not to prioritize the issues they cared about." Dubbed the "lost generation," they are the worst hit in the current moment — more than half of those under the age of 45 have had their paycheck affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — and are still recovering from entering the job market during the 2008 crisis.

This reveals a certain snobbery among political elites who adopt this tactic of shaming. They frame voting Trump out of office as a life-and-death question, often arguing on behalf of precisely those communities that have the most to lose in either a Trump or Biden administration. "Children are languishing in cages," the argument might begin. Yet when those same communities express skepticism about Joe Biden — and justifiably so, given that Barack Obama's administration ushered in today's deportation regime — they are shamed and the discourse is deemed divisive. In other instances, they are patronized as too young or too idealistic to appreciate how politics "really" works.

The idea that citizens "owe" their vote to any political party or candidate warrants closer examination. Two questions emerge. First, a moral one: Do progressive voters owe their vote to Biden or, indeed, to anyone who might be nominated to  run against Trump? In other words, #VoteBlueNoMatterWho? Second, a question of strategy: What does shaming achieve? Should either camp, the Democratic establishment or the progressive left, be so eager to embrace it?

To the Democratic establishment

Biden's primary campaign was based on "electability," a nebulous quality played up by a chorus of media outlets and enhanced by his "moderate" Democratic challengers' abrupt withdrawal from the race just before Super Tuesday. Biden won not necessarily because people agreed with him, but because they believed he could "beat Trump." Exit polls in states where Biden beat Sanders demonstrate this clearly: Medicare for All, Bernie's signature policy, received overwhelming support: 57 percent in Michigan, 59 percent in Missouri and 60 percent in Mississippi. As John Nichols suggested, "the ideas that Sanders has popularized were running better than Sanders himself." 

Notional electability worked in the primaries, but is no guarantee against Trump, who proved himself electable in 2016 against all odds. Recent polling shows historically low enthusiasm for Joe Biden — only 24% of his backers are "very" enthusiastic about supporting him, compared to Trump's 53%. By contrast, even Hillary Clinton scored 32% in this index four years ago. The implication? Team Biden needs to motivate voters to turn up on Election Day. The solution is certainly not contempt. When most voters enter the voting booth, they do so knowing that their vote remains anonymous; ultimately, they will vote free from the pressures of social desirability. Without a vision they actually support, all it takes is a little rainfall on Election Day to make the marginal voter stay home. ...
Read full commentary at Salon