When mainstream media outlets first declared President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over his incumbent opponent Donald Trump early last week, community members and University affiliates flooded the streets of Morningside Heights to celebrate his victory. In the days following, students at Columbia have begun to reflect on Biden’s triumph with tempered enthusiasm, pointing to Biden’s carceral and foreign policy records as evidence of his disconnect with current activist movements and more progressive youth audiences.
In the wake of the president-elect’s nomination earlier this June, the Democratic party faced the potential loss of a younger and more progressive voter base. In April, just hours after U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign, seven national youth activist groups signed an open letter to Biden emphasizing that “exclusively anti-Trump” messaging is not enough to bridge the gap between his platform and progressive movements around criminal justice, climate change, or healthcare. In response, some supporters of former presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders began promoting the “Settle For Biden” movement, which called on progressive voters to support Biden despite his differing views, stating that “our nation will not survive four more years of Donald Trump.”
Over the course of his campaign, Biden’s past in politics became a sticking point for many of his progressive opponents. As a senator for the state of Delaware, Biden voted for the 2002 resolution that authorized the use of military force against Iraq, and supported the Hyde Amendment, which heavily restricted access to abortions by prohibiting the use of Medicaid dollars for medical costs unless a pregnancy is life-threatening or a result of rape or incest. Most notably, however, critics have pointed to his role in coauthoring the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which hardened federal prison sentences and has been linked with the mass incarceration of Black and Latinx people.
This year’s election took place against a background of social upheaval and change, whichhighlighted greater divides among progressive populations and traditional Democratic voters. This past spring, after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, millions of Americans took to the streets to protest the ongoing state violence against Black Americans. Despite increasing dialogue around solutions to mass incarceration, Biden has maintained a moderate stance on the issue, supporting police reform—as opposed to defunding or abolition—in an appeal to Republicans.
As the Black Lives Matter movement highlights the urgent need for anti-racist policies, students have expressed concerns that liberal voters will become complacent after Biden’s election, drawing attention away from issues like systemic racism and the push for police abolition.
“2020 was a really bad year for Black people,” Toledo-Navarro said. “What worries me is that the people who were strong allies will stop now that Trump’s out of office. They’ll think, ‘okay, mission accomplished,’ because they associated racism with Trump.”
Michael Miller, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard and an analyst for the Fox News Election Decision Team, cautioned against seeing a Biden win as an indication of America’s voter base moving to the left. According to Miller, Trump’s loss can be credited to a moderate base of voters who were primarily concerned with ending the Trump presidency. Specifically, Miller cited split ticket votes from Republicans, particularly “suburban white men.”
“They voted for Biden, and then voted for Republicans down-ballot,” Miller said, pointing to the fact that Republicans have maintained a majority in the Senate despite predictions that Trump’s presidency would encourage more Democratic ballots. “We don’t see that there’s a lot of evidence of this sweeping left flank that’s bringing him [Biden] into office. And so the referendum is really about the man, and not the party.”
Additionally, Miller noted that had Trump’s administration not mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, he likely would have won the election. The last leg of the presidential election ran concurrently with an ongoing pandemic that has taken the lives of almost 250,000 Americans and left 15 million more jobless—an outcome that has drawn ire toward the Republican Senate and the White House for the government’s slow and decentralized response. According to polls from the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of voters viewed the pandemic as a ballot box issue.
While Biden’s ability to appeal to moderate and conservative voters might have won him the election, student organizers said they are wary of the president-elect’s ability to be the face of social progress in the years to come.
“I feel like we’re getting the watered down version of everything that we really like,” Skylar Nieman, BC ’24, said. “It’s exciting to potentially have public options for healthcare on the horizon, but [it’s] definitely not ‘Medicare for All’. It’s exciting to rejoin the Paris Agreement, but [it’s] definitely not the Green New Deal.”
Biden notably received the support of many Republican figures, such as former Ohio Governor John Kasich, former Homeland Security Department Chief of Staff Miles Taylor, and Cindy McCain, wife of the late Senator John McCain. Kasich has had a long history of supporting pro-life measures on abortion in Ohio, while Taylor defended Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies.
This election cycle, student organizer Myesha Choudhury, BC ’23, has used her online platforms—which collectively have a following of more than 15,000 people—to be a vocal critic of both Biden and Trump. Choudhury and other students are now encouraging their peers to keep a level head amid the celebrations last Saturday.
“I feel like it’s really important for us not to see the new president-elect as some sort of savior,” Choudhury said. “We shouldn’t pretend that, just because someone better than the last person was elected, all our problems are gone.”
For Choudhury, who is a Muslim-American and first-generation immigrant, Biden’s track record with foreign policy has made her most wary of the new president-elect.
“As a child of immigrants, I’ve always had a soft spot for how politicians handle foreign policy,” she said. “Seeing Biden voted for the Iraq War and did a lot of war crimes in the Middle East—those definitely struck a chord with me.”
Despite these perspectives, Biden’s victory has been regarded as a huge milestone for women, and more specifically, women of color in America. His vice president, Kamala Harris, is the first female, African-American, and Asian vice president-elect.
“As someone who’s grown up with a younger sister and someone with a Black mother who’s raising Black children, it means the world to them,” Alejandro Toledo-Navarro, CC ’23, said. “Her election is about showing that women and specifically Black women are more than capable of doing what you need to do to get the job done.”
However, Harris' own political history has drawn criticism from progressive audiences as well. In particular, student organizers point to her strengthening criminal penalties which drove rates of imprisonment up in her roles as district attorney and prosecutor in California beginning in the 1990s. During her tenure, Harris defended California’s death penalty and threatened to jail the parents of truant children.
“While it’s amazing that we are having a South Asian and African-American woman being put into the White House, it’s also important to realize that she did have a lot of anti-Black work,” Choudhury said. “I don’t want to play identity politics to immediately say, ‘oh she’s a woman of color—she must be amazing as a politician.’ It’s definitely important to keep them both accountable regardless.”
With the rise of social media activism during the pandemic, staying politically and socially active has become increasingly easy, especially for younger generations. Aishlinn Kivlighn, CC ’24, said she hopes that this shift will allow more people to engage with the issues that affect them, encouraging more students to call for their politicians to serve their communities.
“I think Biden has a willingness to listen to people that I was excited by because I feel like there’s much more of an opportunity now for organizers to actually get what they want done,” Aishlinn Kivlighn, CC ’24, said. “A lot of the work I have done so far to be a politically-engaged young person has been through contacting elected officials and trying to push them to create the changes that I want to see.”
As celebrations continue across the nation, Trump’s call for multiple investigations into voting processes and fraud in contentious states like Pennsylvania and Nevada has casted a shadow over Biden’s triumph and even the coming four years. While student organizers have acknowledged the immediate need to support the legitimacy of democratic elections, they continue to advocate for a political environment in which Biden and Harris are held accountable and continue to face scrutiny for their pasts in the Senate and the White House.
“We’re allowed to criticize our politicians because their job is to serve us, and if we’re complacent, we aren’t going to get the work that we want done,” Choudhury said.