A recent Sun article detailed the lack of grassroots enthusiasm for Joe Biden on campus, a deficit reflected in the essentially “one-man operation” of Cornell for Biden. Similar concerns about an enthusiasm gap for Biden among young voters have been omnipresent in the news for the duration of his campaign, even leading FiveThirtyEight to debunk the claim. Yet it’s no secret that Biden was the first choice of few college aged voters in the Democratic primary and has seen tepid enthusiasm on Cornell’s campus. This trend makes me — as a progressive, young and highly enthusiastic Biden voter — something of a rarity. As such, I’d like to explain exactly why I believe Biden is the ideal candidate for progressive change at the national level despite the fact that Cornell Progressives has refused to endorse him. I’d like to explain why I can’t wait to vote for Biden.
Cornell Progressives establishes its case against endorsing Biden on ideological values, as George Defendini ’22 explained, “While many of us want Biden to succeed and none of us want the continued rise of Fascism under Trump, we decided in writing our Constitution to reserve endorsements for candidates who align with our values of Progressivism and Leftism.” Such a conviction to only endorse candidates whose ideology fully aligns with their values is, undeniably, a fair position to take as a progressive organization. Yet the historical record of progressive transformation in America shows that ideology is not the most effective predictor for the enactment of bold progressive policies at the federal level.
Consider the two historical eras in which the United States observed the most Progressive change in its history: FDR’s presidency and the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. Roosevelt — who basically invented the modern American welfare system and expanded federal power further than ever before — was not a leftist. In fact, he was reviled by leftists such as Huey Long and Norman Thomas. Indeed, “Until he became president, many people regarded him as a feckless aristocrat” and in his first presidential campaign, he even ran on a platform which called for a balanced budget. Roosevelt was no vanguard of the left. Yet, paradoxically, he was the most effective progressive president in American history.
We can look back even further than Roosevelt. The Progressive Era was an era, not a presidency for a reason. The movement that led to the greatest breakthroughs in labor protections and anti-corruption in government in American history was not the ideological crusade of a single leader — it was a broad movement which attained such successful ideological sway that it pushed three presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson) with three sharply differing appetites for progressivism to the left. It was a movement fueled by the need for radical change due to horrific abuses of major corporations and political machines in the latter years of the Gilded Age. It is important to note that none of the aforementioned presidents should ever be held up as heroes. Wilson was a vicious racist whose name was rightfully scrubbed from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. Roosevelt’s Japanese internment policy will forever be one of the most evil injustices in American history. Each of these men had colossal, reprehensible moral failures. Any history of their “progressive politics” which neglects these facts is a distortion.
Yet when we examine their successes — the creation of social security in FDR’s administration and the “Trust Busting” of Teddy Roosevelt — the historical record suggests that it is not raw ideological conviction which yields progressive reform, it’s the intersection of times of crisis which demand radical change and political leaders willing to adapt and listen to experts, as Roosevelt did with his “Brain Trust.” The problem with ideological purity tests is that they implicitly operate under an assumption of the “Great Man Theory” of history — that historical change is generated by the ideology and will of singular figures. Yet the FDR and Progressive Era case studies tell us that dramatic progressive change is not the work of determined ideologues. Such change is the result of sustained, broad progressive movements occurring in the context of political crises which push deeply flawed, even bad leaders towards a better way.
The cataclysm of 2020 has once again sparked the desire throughout broad swaths of the American public for the level of dramatic change which progressives have long believed were necessary. And Biden has been willing to listen. He took the unprecedented step of tacking left before the general through the Biden-Sanders task forces. Moreover, half of Biden’s campaign rhetoric has been advocating listening to experts, as Roosevelt did with his “Brain Trust” — the exact reason 80 Nobel Laureates penned a letter supporting Biden.
This willingness to listen to the left is why he is running on arguably the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. And Biden’s reputation as a moderate ideological weather vane for the center of the Democratic Party actually behooves the left. As Andrew Yang explains, “The magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable.” In this moment in history, Joe Biden is the candidate who can forge a winning, durable electoral coalition and channel that victory into the progressive change we desperately need come January 20. That’s why progressives shouldn’t just vote for Joe Biden, they should be excited to do so. Biden is in a better position to enact the change they demand by virtue of this unique moment in history and his unique political persona than any candidate in decades. The ideological measuring sticks may not tell you that, but the historical record will.
Yet the truth remains that these arguments are less important than the one which we all already know. We have a burgeoning fascist in the White House who is endangering the lives of Americans every single day and tearing down our democracy from within. A president who encourages white supremacists on national television. A president who criticizes a governor after law enforcement foils a plot by a far-right militia group to kidnap her. A president who has refused to commit to leaving office if he loses this election. A president whose failure to listen to scientific experts and clearly communicate their recommendations to the American people without political agenda has led to thousands of deaths from Covid-19. The continuation of Donald Trump’s administration is a literally dire threat to the American people and to the American experiment itself. Your vote this election is not just about progressive change in America, it’s about people’s lives. It’s about whether our democracy endures. It’s about giving this country a chance again or sealing its doom.
That’s why I can’t wait to vote for Joe Biden — as a young person, as a progressive and as an American.
Andrew Lorenzen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this semester.