Should the Left Vote for the Enemy? - Adolph Reed part 1/2

Adolph Reed argues that the left should vote for Biden in the coming presidential elections, even though Corporate Democrats defend the underlying system, Trump and the forces that back him represent a more overt form of fascistization.

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to You haven’t seen me for a while. Some people have been asking where I am, and where I am is in a basement working on a documentary film titled How to Stop a Nuclear War. It’s based on Daniel Ellsberg’s book, The Doomsday Machine. It’s going to be narrated by Emma Thompson, which is pretty exciting. We’re at least a year away from finishing. Talia has been doing more of the interviews, and we’re getting great feedback about her work.

Once in a while, I will be doing an interview, and now I’m going to, because I have a tremendous guest and because the situation calls for some urgent discussion. Today, I’m going to be speaking to Adolph Reed, and we’ll be back in just a few seconds.

Adolph Reed is an activist, an organizer, an academic, and an author. You can look him up, and you’ll see all his work. He’s been criticizing the Democratic Party as long as I’ve known of him. In fact, probably longer than I’ve known of him. Even back in, I think it’s 1996, he wrote an article, which was one of the earliest to critique the up and rising Obama, Barack Obama, who was running for Senate. I think his critique of Obama even predates the Senate run and was when he was running in Illinois politics. Right from the very beginning, Obama was surrounded by a circle of, what do you call it, apparatchiks who understood neoliberal politics.

My point is that Adolph has no illusions, in my opinion, about the Democratic Party. I also think he doesn’t have illusions about the American political system and the importance and urgency of the coming presidential elections. In fact, not just presidential. All the elections that are taking place in the United States in November are going to be very critical at this moment in human history, where we are facing an existential crisis in a way we never had before.

Of course, the obvious is the climate crisis, which is going far, far faster than most of the scientists expected. I believe in this last year, or the current year, we actually have already hit two degrees of global warming. Now, scientists don’t think that’s the two degrees. It seems like somewhat of an anomaly for this year. They don’t think we really have crossed the 1.5-degree line yet systemically. The thing is, when you read the literature, at least what I’m reading, they don’t actually know for sure what the hell is going on. It’s just happening faster.

As the crisis of climate increases in pace, the lack of responsiveness to it decreases, not increases. It’s like the elites have accepted we’re going into a climate catastrophe, and they figured they’ll be okay, and they don’t want to do what it takes to do something about it. It’s not the only issue.

I’m working on this film about the threat of nuclear war, and Daniel Ellsberg and many people have said it’s the most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think it’s more dangerous than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ellsberg makes the point that [Nikita] Khrushchev and [John F.] Kennedy never would have crossed the line, even though they were surrounded by people, i.e., Kennedy at the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Khrushchev in the Politburo. There were some real hawks on both sides, but neither wanted to cross that line. I’m not so sure how rational the leaders on the various sides are today.

The other problem in terms of the existential threat is the increased use of artificial intelligence. We’re already into it. The militarization of AI is on. It’s not a question. It’s just a question of how much and how soon. The extent to which humans may not be able to keep up with any rational decision-making, because the speed of the decision-making is going to become essentially superhuman, and we are not that far away.

We’re at a very, very critical time in history. I didn’t even mention new pandemics and so on. The bottom line here is modern capitalism does not have solutions for the crisis except to keep on carrying on. When you look at the reflection of that in American politics, it’s essentially chaos at every level. Out of this chaos, you have one section that wants to maintain the liberal institutions and just carry on. Then you have a section of capital, and it’s not new. It’s been striving for this since the Civil War, and it’s certainly striving for it since World War II, which is to have a real authoritarianism, American style. In this election, that’s our choice here.

Adolph Reed, as I say, has been aware of the Democratic Party, critiquing the Democratic Party, but he also has a recent article in The Nation magazine. He said, Why I’m voting for the Enemy. Now joining us is Adolph Reed. Thanks for joining us, Adolph.

Adolph Reed

Well, hi, Paul. Thanks for having me again. It’s always great to talk. I don’t have much to say after you just finished. I think you laid everything out.

Paul Jay

Well, I didn’t get to the punchline. So why are you voting for the enemy? Who’s the enemy? Who are you voting for?

Adolph Reed

Well, I think the enemy is the corporate Democrats, ultimately, or that’s one of them. I’m voting for them because, and I think we all should, because even though they said this every four years since 1976 or ’72, that the other guy is worse, this time, the other guy is that much worse. They are so much worse that there shouldn’t even be any discussion about sitting it out or the foolishness of making a protest vote or whatever. I know it’s tough. Frankly, that Nation column that I just did would have been much more caustic if it hadn’t been for Gaza. My eyes were on Michigan.

Well, no Palestinian-American is likely to vote for Biden cheerfully, and the lesser evil argument often doesn’t seem to cut much ice. That’s the problem. I think it has to do with the two options that face us and you laid it out already. The Democrats aren’t going to do anything serious to address the environmental crisis. I think it should be clear now that there’s absolutely no way to even address it seriously, much less to succeed within capitalism.

What does that mean? Well, that means that we have to look beyond all the half measures, all the misdirection, all the carbon credits, the rest of that foolishness, and the win-win options that liberals will lay out before us and will get enchanted with themselves and to start seriously trying to build a national and global movement that we need to address the global climate crisis seriously, which means also combating capitalism.

On the domestic political scene and its global manifestation, I’ve sometimes been comparing this political moment to a T-intersection. You come up to it, and there are only two ways to go, and they are two diametrically opposed directions. In this instance, either we turn right toward authoritarianism of whatever flavor or turn left toward something that looks more like social democracy at its best. It seems ever more likely that neoliberalism, as we’ve known it for the last 30 years, has finally gotten to a point where it’s no longer capable of delivering enough to enough of the population to continue to legitimize itself as a nominally democratic system.

There was an article in the Times a couple of days, I think it was the Times a couple of days ago, or maybe even Forbes, that only 5% of apartments in New York City are affordable for people with a median income. We’ve talked about this before, but people like [Peter] Thiel and [Elon] Musk are prepared to use this well-worn combination of scapegoating, as I’ve sometimes described it as a pickpockets misdirection, to catch the attention of the gullible masses out there. They are using this moment to push through and destroy all of the social protections, all of the democratic institutions that we’ve won.

Now, I have no expectation from Biden or the Democrats. One of the reasons that we’re in this position that we’re in now is that, at least since Jimmy Carter, the Democrats haven’t had anything to offer working people, period.

Tony Mazzocchi, my good friend and comrade, said decades ago that neoliberalism can’t hold. The Democrats aren’t going to offer anything credible to people. If our side, that is the left, can’t come up with credible alternatives and ways forward to offer the great mass of working people in this country, there are much more dangerous forces out there in society that will do that. What I’m talking about is not just a failure of the Democrats. I wouldn’t even call it a failure. They are doing what the Democrats do. It is a failure of the left to engage in the old-fashioned CIO-style organizing that we need to have to be able to connect with people who already agree with us about everything. They failed to do that, too.

I’ll conclude on this note that every four years since 1996, at least, or maybe even 1992, we get to this point, or a little earlier, say a year and a half out from the national elections. A lot of people on the left start getting worried and freaked out, saying they don’t like the options that seem to be available for us in national politics. To which my response was, well, it’s too late. You should have done something about this years ago, if not decades ago. On this point, I’d just say that I’m not expecting the Democrats or the Biden administration to do anything more than kick the can down the road for another four years. What that means is that a serious left is going to have to start taking advantage of the time that we have to try to do something.

There are some signs: Shawn Fain at the UAW, Mark Dimondstein at the American Postal Workers, and Carl Rosen at the United Electrical Workers. Other trade unions are expressing more concern about the need to build a broader working-class based movement on a CIO-model. None of that can happen unless the Democrats can keep the presidency and hold on to at least one of those two houses of Congress. So that’s it.

Paul Jay

You make an interesting point in the article. The sections of the left that either support third-party candidates, don’t want to vote, or are spending all their time attacking Biden, barely mention a critique of Trump. Part of what they’re doing is almost exaggerating the importance of elections in a weird way because it’s not like this election isn’t important. It really does matter who wins. They have this thing, which is, I can’t vote for the Democrats, especially after Gaza. It just offends me so much morally. Although, who the hell is it that moved the embassy to Jerusalem? That was Trump. To think that the Trump’s and the Lindsay Grahams of this world wouldn’t be worse on Gaza.

There is this idea that it’s twofold. One, you get the argument it doesn’t matter who wins because they’re both bad. On the other hand, they’re exaggerating the importance of the election and not focusing on the organizing.

Adolph Reed

That’s a really important point, Paul. It’s not clear what the vision is that our side wants to organize around or wants to gather around. There’s a need, and I wouldn’t even call it a revitalization. There’s a need, a really pressing need for people to get out and start trying to connect with other people who work for a living in American political culture now.

Paul Jay

There is organizing going on like that. It’s not nearly at a scale. There are people out knocking on doors, and there are people organizing, and certainly, there’s been a lot more movement in the unions. It’s not at the scale we need. The people that get a lot of visibility in terms of the internet, YouTube, and all the rest, the pundits of the left, there’s a section that is far more interested in just trashing Biden than worrying about how to actually organize.

Adolph Reed

Well, that’s unfortunately the case.

Paul Jay

I mentioned to you just before we started that I’ve been interacting with one of the AI platforms. I’m just blown away at how advanced it is already. Now I’m understanding what happened last time Trump won because that was the beginning of it. The secret sauce of the far right is the alliance with tech billionaires. They have a lot of artificial intelligence or machine learning, which we’re on the cusp of. Artificial intelligence seems to be the next gear of machine learning, but it seems like we’re already into it. The Peter Thiels of this world and others from Silicon Valley who have embraced far-right politics, they have their hands on tools that I don’t think most of the left have a clue on. I don’t think even the corporate Democrats, who also have their allies in Silicon Valley, they don’t seem to have made use of it the same way.

AI is at a point now already, and it’s going to get even more so, where it can analyze millions and millions and millions of voters, what they think, what they believe, the news they can consume, and tailor messaging to those people. They have conventional media, too, obviously, Fox and such. But everybody’s on social media now, and they’re all into these silos of right-wing information. AI is going to become a major player.

People are having trouble explaining why Trump is ahead in the swing states. In spite of the guy who is obviously a criminal, he’s involved in all these cases. If a Democrat can’t beat this guy. There’s more going on at the technological level. This began in the previous election that Trump won. A guy named Robert Mercer, who not only funded the Trump campaign but he owned Breitbart News, he brought Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, and others, and he took over. Essentially, they ran the campaign, and he ran this big hedge fund called Renaissance Technologies. That’s where they learned a lot about how to use and start developing AI for making money. They applied it to politics, including in England. Mercer and Cambridge Analytica were involved in Brexit. They’re on a whole other level than they were last time with Trump. I think that’s the secret sauce here, why he’s doing so well.

There is a way to fight this. You don’t fight it with more AI right now. You don’t fight it with new tech. You know what? You fight it with doorknocking.

Adolph Reed

No, that’s exactly right, Paul.

Paul Jay

Start organizing as you are saying, where you just talk to people and you can get past all this BS.

Adolph Reed

We’ve seen, too, that even in heavily-red states or states that vote heavily-red in partisan races, working-class-oriented, downwardly redistributive egalitarian ballot measures have won. We at Debs-Jones-Douglass, have found, in our own worker training and engagement with trade union members, that when you mention or when it sounds like you’re talking about partisan politics, people’s backs start to stiffen up a little bit.

Paul Jay

Not a little bit.

Adolph Reed

Well, no. Yeah, a lot. That’s partly because of this AI work that the right has done. But if you talk to them about the concrete issues, housing, health care, and jobs, you can find a common ground and open up.

I’ve told the story a lot, but I worked on the Sanders campaign in 2016 and 2020. In the 2020 campaign, I did a labor tour in South Carolina. At a meeting at the Steelworkers Local in Georgetown, South Carolina, there were a couple of white-ranking pilots in attendance. One of them is a guy about as old as I am and dumb as a post. He identified himself as a farmer, and it was literally like he just came out of an animal farm. All he said was, “Bring back the manufacturing jobs, get rid of the illegal aliens.” Those two phrases, no verb connecting them, nothing. The other guy, who was about 40, seemed like a decent guy, a decent trade unionist, and was interested. He said that he liked Sanders’s economic program but couldn’t understand why the Democrats keep getting bogged down in what he called the moral issues. I teased around with him to figure out what he was talking about, which I figured. It was basically reproductive freedom and same-sex marriage and stuff like that. I tried to live and let live. They see things a little differently. None of that really moved him. What slowed him up for just a second was when I asked him, well, which is more important to you? That no woman can ever get an abortion, or no two people of the same sex can ever get married, or that you have a secure life and a decent job with good working conditions and health care benefits? It didn’t stop him. I didn’t expect that it would because I’m just some fast-talking jerk-off who came out here from Philadelphia. I couldn’t help thinking, suppose somebody in his network, in his local, on his shift, in his extended family, in the softball league, in the church gathering, or whatever, would have this conversation with him on a regular basis. No, you don’t change people’s minds overnight. What you do get to do is more often than a lot of the people who imagine that they’re more radical than the likes of us are, probably, will ever be able to do is that if you engage with them about stuff you have in common, then not only can that be the basis for building the alliance instead of passing coalition, that can be one of the building blocks of a movement.

I remember, this was probably even before the Labor Party convention. I was at a UE convention in Milwaukee, and the representative from the Workers Party in Brazil was there to talk about their experience. In addition to mentioning that they were in existence for a number of years before he ran a candidate for anything, he also stressed what he described as the difference between a coalition and an alliance. A coalition is when groups come together around an issue, they’re dispersed, or they may or may not disperse afterward. But the alliance is something that the Reaganite right had actually been able to do because they worked on it for 16 years after [Barry] Goldwater got beaten. You put together a set of issues that, say, if I’m a Holy Roller who doesn’t care a thing about capital gains tax, and say, If you’re a libertine, Silicon Valley, cocaine-snorting person who doesn’t care about Jesus at all, what you want, politically, is to fashion a relationship such that I will fight for your right not to pay capital gains taxes, even though I don’t have a pot to piss in. Fight as hard for that as I would fight for outlawing even thinking about abortion because I understand that getting what you want is a necessary condition for me to get what I want and vice versa.

That’s the solidarity or the movement that we need to try to build on the left. We can’t do that if the way we approach politics is that we all get together in a room, and then the first thing we do is go around the room and make sure we all understand what we don’t have in common. I’ve been watching this going on for 30 years now, and I’ve been asking people for 30 years, well, how do you expect to get from that point to having the solidarity that we need to build the fighting force that we need to have? But that’s not what it’s about to people. That goes back to this problem of the left being about performance and taking moral stands in public.

Paul Jay

Now, let me add to what you’re saying. When I said there are people out there organizing, there are people knocking on doors, there are people working in unions. I’ve talked to people doing a lot of that door knocking. It’s mostly electoral politics, which is okay with me with a big but. Before I get to the but, I’ve also talked to people who have gotten jobs at Amazon and other places and are trying to organize within unions or to unionize. In both, I can’t generalize everyone because I’m sure there are people who are not doing what I’m about to say. They don’t tell the whole story. The people out there voting, knocking on doors electorally, they wind up defending the Democrats, and they defend the Biden record. Even people who are left and have a critique still whine up with the speaking points they’ve been given to say when they knock on the doors. You get someone who doesn’t like Biden and the Democrats, and mostly for pretty good reasons, and you just sound like a partisan hack.

Adolph Reed

No, that’s so true.

Paul Jay

People who are organizing in unions, they say, “Well, we got to start with talking about working conditions and fighting for contracts and this and that,” which, of course, you do. But this all is about, are we going to advocate class consciousness or not? Because if we don’t wake the sleeping giant, and you don’t wake it, you may get people involved in fighting for a better contract, that is great, but it doesn’t change the world.

Adolph Reed

No, that’s right.

Paul Jay

It doesn’t get them awakened politically. You could be knocking on doors, and even if you’re lucky and you elect a progressive Dem in some district, it’s good, it’s something, it’s better than nothing. When you’re knocking on doors, especially, you have to be able to critique the Democrats and explain things in a way people understand, but at a systemic level. They get the argument you made in that Nation argument. Why vote for the Dems? Well, one, there is something about defending these liberal democratic institutions. You’re not supposed to say that as a lefty and all the rest. The fact that we’re sitting here having this conversation and not being sent to jail afterward, it ain’t nothing.

Adolph Reed

No, look, you’re so right. I was a kid in the McCarthy era.

Paul Jay

People that weren’t don’t get what that is.

Adolph Reed

No, not at all. Yeah, not at all. Especially being a kid in the McCarthy era in a family that actually had connections to people who were being persecuted on a regular basis.

Paul Jay

Yeah, me too. I’m the same.

Adolph Reed

Yeah. That does make a big difference. Well, go back to Occupy, for instance. I was struck by how many of the radicals or the anarchoids or whatever the hell they were. Frankly, there’s a little bit of this in Black Panthers, too, that how the rhetoric of denouncing the fascist state or the repressive apparatus would come easily to the tongue. You could tell by people’s practice that they didn’t really take it in. 

Paul Jay

Yeah, you talk about fascist America. You go around, you don’t really believe it by the way you’re acting.

Adolph Reed

Exactly. That’s exactly right. I think that was especially true with the Occupy people. A lot of them were even trying to, or some of them tried to organize actions on the internet, but that’s the problem, too. I’m not trying to say, well, you need to be like us leftists, but the fact of the matter is that what it comes down to is what you think the possibilities are for reforming capitalism.

I think way too many, and this is another conversation about the limits of social democracy. I think way too much of what we now understand to be left has been anchored in the academy or elsewhere in the professional-managerial strata. It also yearns for what we now are supposed to understand was the marvelous compact that was formed on both sides of the Atlantic after World War II, not ever thinking that this was a truce. It was imposed on our side after defeat, basically. But that also is the way they think. I’m not saying that the gains of the post-war decades were [inaudible 00:32:03], but they were also flawed enough in a way.

But I will say this, and pardon me for the plug. Well, no, I’ll proudly make the plug. Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute does worker training around political issues. The listeners can find the website at, and our podcast, We’ve done 14 of them now. One of the greatest compliments I think we’ve gotten, we did an abbreviated briefing session for leaders of the Philadelphia Central Labor Council. By the way, the Philly CLC was the only one that actually had a meet-the-candidates forum in 2020 instead of just jumping on board with Biden.

When it was over, one of the leaders of the CLC said, and this was during the healthcare crisis when we did it, that the way you can sum up our training is how to turn class rage into class consciousness. That’s what the job of the left is supposed to be, and that’s what we all should be trying to do, especially. This is something else. I’d like to say it’s another illustration of what happens when Marxists cut connections to class struggle. I don’t mean out in the street practical connections. I mean theoretical connections. That class struggle is not a central epistemic premise around which they do their thinking and their work.

You’ve probably had arguments like this with people, too, who would say that, well, to raise this fact of a fascist world, or even authoritarianism, is alarmist and is over the top because the conditions that would induce the bourgeoisie to support fascism don’t exist. To which my response has been, look, they can get behind it when they think they have to. They can also get behind it when they think they can do it and get away with it. Those are two different ends of the continuum. We’re certainly at the point where they think they can get away with it. Even now, I think it’s a crapshoot as to how the bourgeoisie is going to come down. The signal that we’re getting from these articles about how more of Wall Street is starting to move toward Trump is they understand that they’ll be okay either way. There’s no real sense for that; it’s not a cross-class alliance or any of that stuff. Now, frankly, I don’t think there ever was. But anyway, I think that’s where we are right now.

Paul Jay

So that leaves you with, even though you’re saying there’s no place for a cross-class alliance for their own interests, the Democrats, I think it’s because–

Adolph Reed

Yeah, they need the urban vote.

Paul Jay

There is still some liberal democratic institutions that can still speak about this stuff without getting arrested, although if you’re on campus and it is about Gaza.

Adolph Reed

Yeah, tell me about it.

Paul Jay

But at any rate, let’s do a part two. I’m going to end this, and we’re going to pick up with the politics of Gaza. We’re going to take up this conversation about what is the attitude that class-conscious people, workers, and others have toward the elites. I actually think there is some possibility on some issues where we might see some rationality from the elites purely for their own interest. I think there might be some possibility. I think if there isn’t, we’re dead, given where things are at with the weakness of the movement.

At any rate, thanks, Adolph. Join us for part two. Thanks for joining us on If you like what we do, click the donate button. 

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Adolph Reed Jr. is an American professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in studies of issues of racism and U.S. politics. He has taught at Yale, Northwestern, and the New School for Social Research and he has written on racial and economic inequality. theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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  1. The only leverage the Left has unless workers get together and shut things down (cause financial pain ) is to make the Dems. believe we will withhold our votes. If they know they can take your vote for granted they will continue to move Right to get support from “Moderate Republicans”. Therefore the argument Paul and Adolph are making just pushes the Dems. further right. I have tremendous respect for both of you and would love to get your perspectives on my view.
    Thank you keep up the good work!

    -Danny Ferguson

  2. A bummer – was looking forward to something other than simply another version of the LOTE argument – its another iteration of the “this time it’s different, the GOTE ( greater of 2 evils) is soooo bad, we must vote for the LOTE, no matter how awful (s)he is!” I have been hearing basically the same thing every 2-4 years for decades, literally, now – it seems to me the only legitimate reason to vote FOR a candidate, because that is what we do when we press their lever – is because you LIKE him/her – but voting for someone you don’t like, because you HATE the “other” candidate is the reason we are in the mess we are in – for decades we have had much better candidates on the ballot – but they aren’t D/Rs – which for some quite bizarre, dysfunctional reason, “disqualifies” them from our consideration ….

    I am sorry, but anyone, i don’t care who, who persists in making these arguments does us, we the people, no favors – if we have decided we need a “revolution”, let us start at the polls, and if there are enough of us who persist in doing this, maybe we can avoid a revolution by bullet. because that is where we seem to be heading – take your pick, ballots or bullets – I, for one, prefer the former …

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