Recent tension between the Left and the moderate wings of the Democratic party have brought to the fore a question most Democrats have been dreading the answer to for a long time: if Bernie Sanders does not win the nomination, will his supporters go “Bernie or Bust” (BOB) and abstain from voting for the Democratic nominee in the general election?
Out of the group of voters on the Left who are likely to go BOB, only a small fraction will likely abstain from voting entirely. These are the hardcore DSA members and the disaffected independents, for the most part. For a sizable minority of the potential BOB voters, the answer is a bit more complicated: it depends on who the nominee is. If the nominee is Bloomberg, most of them will abstain from voting. Buttigieg will be hard to swallow as well. Klobuchar and Biden might be more palatable, but if the nominee is Warren, then these potential BOB voters might be open to backing another progressive.
In the mainstream, moderate center of the Democratic Party base, the situation is nowhere near as volatile. Unity is strongest toward the center of the party, and like gravity crushing dust into plasma at the center of a star, the party loyalists hold at their core the central conviction that Trump is the enemy of democracy, and that such a conviction is enough to propel the next Democratic nominee to victory. They hope to forge party unity out of a shared fear of a future that is even more Trumpian. For the moderate center of the Democratic Party, the question is not about what can be done that is visionary, but what can be done that is tried and true.
So, let’s say the moderates prevail in nominating a centrist like Buttigieg, Biden, or Klobuchar —there is already a test case of what such a scenario could look like. Though Andrew Yang has suspended his campaign, Yang supporters have continued to show support for Yang in the primaries, with #StillVotingYang trending on Twitter as recently as a week ago.
Yang supporters had this to say:
"His democracy dollars policy is the only policy that brings the power of money in politics back to the people," tweeted Leony Marks.
"#AmericaneedsYang because all the other candidates would just continue and play along with the old system of oppression."
"Don't tell me I'm wasting my vote by #StillVotingYang," added Jameson Helfrich.
"No vote that is cast thoughtfully is wasted, and your candidate is not entitled to my vote. @AndrewYang earned my vote, your candidate will have to do the same if you want me to change my mind."
Eric Quach tweeted: "TO BE CLEAR: #StillVotingYang ISN'T about voting @AndrewYang in the GENERAL election. IT'S about voting @AndrewYang in the Democratic PRIMARY election.
"If you want our vote, then you need to earn it & those who are attacking #YangGang, you definitely don't deserve it."
All of this has garnered a backlash.
"If you're #StillVotingYang, you clearly don't give af about removing the single biggest threat to democracy this country has ever seen. Do us all a favor and open your eyes before you find yourself complicit in Trump's reelection," writer Jack Wallen tweeted.
"This #stillvotingyang has really cemented that we are too stupid a people to deserve anything but Donald Trump as our president for the rest of his life or until the country literally explodes, whichever comes first," added author Ivan Brandon.
A similar dynamic is bound to play out between the moderates and the Left if the Left goes BOB in the General election. The Left will claim their right to vote however they wish or to abstain from participating, and, if Trump wins again, the moderates will accuse the Left of allowing Trump to win or at least not helping to defeat him if the Democrats prevail. The Left will be accused of playing the spoiler, just as they were in 2016 when Bernie supporters were accused of helping Trump win by not supporting Clinton (despite clear evidence to the contrary, the BOB voters did not impact the final outcome). Once the accusation is made, it will stick, just as it did in 2016, and myth will transform into commonly shared beliefs. The Left will forever be known to a vast subset of the Democratic base as the spoilers of the 2020 elections. That is dangerous for one simple reason: it will damage future recruitment.
I have pointed this out in the past when I wrote about what the Democratic Socialists of America would do if Bernie Sanders lost the nomination. Last year, I wrote:
“If Bernie’s campaign sinks, the DSA will go down with his ship [because the DSA is Bernie or Bust]. In the eyes of potential new party members, this might seem like an act of valiant loyalty to a leader, but it could also just be foolishly short-sighted. After all, one of the major criticisms that Liberals fabricated against Bernie supporters in the 2016 campaign is that they did not help Clinton defeat Trump. In 2020, the DSA will not even have the fall-back position of saying that the alternative to Trump is worse or just as bad. It will be a tall order to argue to potential liberal recruits that the DSA made the right decision to withhold support from another candidate should Trump win reelection. And if Warren or Biden (or any other Democratic candidate) wins the presidency and defeats Trump, the DSA cannot claim to have been part of that victory.”
It is important to understand what the goals of the Left are in a post-2020 election world. The main goal of the Left should be to expand their base of support. The DSA is by no means the only group on the Left, nor is it necessarily representative of the Left broadly. But it is the largest organization on the Left and it is closely aligned with Bernie Sanders and the Squad, making it a good bellwether for Bernie supporter sentiments. In addition, due to its size and connections to established progressive politicians within the Democratic Party, the DSA is in the best position to build a mass movement around Bernie Sanders’ policies and legacy. If the project of bringing social democratic values to American politics requires the development of a mass movement, as it most likely does if it wishes to develop a base of grassroots funding that can withstand pressure from big-money donors, then support for a momentary candidate should be subordinated to support for the long term movement. And as noted earlier, Leftists will struggle to recruit moderates if they carry the stigma of having played the spoiler in two elections that Trump won.
As a result, the Left should avoid going BOB for the sake of future recruitment. It might be tempting to demonstrate ideological commitment by abstaining from the general election should anyone other than Bernie win. As the Yang Gang asserts, everyone is entitled to their own vote. Moreover, just like the radical libertarians on the fringes of the Yang Gang, there are socialists and anarchists on the fringes of the Left who are attracted to an accelerationist argument for abstaining: whether the Democrats win or lose to Trump, the next president will not be able to solve the problems that are relevant to the working class, and further neglect will only add pressure to an already pre-revolutionary situation. But the problem with accelerationist arguments is that they often overestimate the capacity of the mainstream moderates to move away from the crushing gravity of the center of the Democratic base that is caused by party loyalty and a shared rejection of Trumpism. Moreover, while moving away from the Party is possible, as recent data showing the rising number of Independent voters demonstrates, moving from center to left is a different proposition. As it turns out, Party alignment holds true regardless of party registration status. It is easier to move someone away from the Democratic Party than it is to move someone to the Left. Or at least, no Democrat has succeeded so far in capturing the growing numbers of left-leaning Independents.
The Left must focus on presenting an inviting option long term if it wishes to build its base separately from or within the Democratic Party. Part of this should certainly include a principled demonstration of commitment to Leftist values. But in the event that Sanders loses the nomination, a BOB response would simply alienate potential future Leftist voters. Instead of slapping liberal moderates with an oppositional BOB reaction, Leftists should offer an olive branch and vote with the party in November. The Left has more to gain by voting with the party than by abstaining from voting altogether, no matter who the nominee is. As I have argued in the past, there is very little chance that Sanders will go rogue and launch his own third party or independent bid for the White House. Like Sanders himself, the major focus of all Leftists should be on securing the future of the movement, and as the saying goes: “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”