Whether out of inertia, ideological commitment or geopolitical calculation, the Biden administration has badly misjudged the domestic politics of the war in the Middle East. A supermajority of U.S. voters supported a cease-fire as far back as two months ago (more than two-thirds, including more than three-quarters of Democrats). Highly placed Israeli officials regularly speak of Palestinians in genocidal terms (“human animals,” “children of darkness”) and openly express their intention to intensify the settlement project — potentially even in Gaza — and to deny Palestinians a state indefinitely.
The Israeli government has killed about 20,000 Palestinians since October 7, including more children alone than the total number of Israeli civilians killed in all conflicts since 1948. As these facts have sunk in for Americans, unmanageable strains have appeared in the Democratic coalition that defeated Donald Trump in 2020. All of us are now in grave peril as a result.
Despite a wave of McCarthyite repression, the gulf is growing between what the American people will tolerate and what the Israeli state is doing: this gulf is the result of the U.S. administration’s own choices. Biden flew to Israel after Hamas’s October 7 attack to make clear his unequivocal support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a key step in the “bear hug” political strategy we’re told Biden is smartly deploying.
“I come to Israel with a single message: You are not alone,” Biden said on October 18, and then repeated for emphasis: “You are not alone.” Antony Blinken has sat in on meetings of the Israeli war cabinet. U.S. warships have been swiftly dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Congress has largely fallen into lock-step behind the war machine, while the State Department explicitly instructed its employees not to use phrases like “cease-fire,” “de-escalation” or “restoring calm.”
While the administration has publicly wheedled and cajoled the Israeli government not to go too far, its actions have rendered those warnings impotent, continuing to send munitions to the Israeli military and blocking any international attempts to hold Israel accountable for its campaign of vengeance and displacement.
The administration’s support for this unconscionable war is shearing apart the Democratic coalition. Up until now, Biden’s electoral strength has been his ability to hold together a broad range of constituencies. Before October 7, both I and the rest of the Left cautiously applauded how his administration absorbed some of the energies of the defeated challenges of Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and showed renewed vigor at the National Labor Relations Board, the use of industrial policy to confront climate change, its muscular antitrust program and attempted student debt forgiveness.
But the Biden coalition is now at serious risk of collapsing in 2024, as younger voters, Arab and Muslim voters, and increasingly voters of color abandon him in droves. According to a recent poll, Biden now trails Trump among voters under 30. Never very enthusiastic about Biden’s age or his well-established centrist impulses, their new horror at his handling of the current crisis will make too much of the Democratic base unlikely to show up in the numbers needed next November — if Biden is on the top of the ticket.
The president is now losing in many polls to Trump and other Republican candidates, sometimes in some states by double digits, as voters peel off and demobilize. He is in especially bad shape in the critical swing state of Michigan, where Muslim American and Arab American communities make up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate, as of course do younger voters. His narrow 2020 victory depended on support from both of these groups of voters, as all recent Democratic presidential successes have. He cannot win on the current path.
The consequences of such a loss will be worse than a mere rerun of Trump’s first term. That outcome would mean the nationalist and racist global far right regains its crown jewel, better prepared to exploit it. This faction is already in power in Israel in the form of Netanyahu’s government (as it is in many other countries) and is working to return its cohorts to power in the United States, reducing the Biden years to a brief interregnum. By refusing to confront the program of the far right as it has manifested internationally in Israel, Biden’s administration has rolled out the red carpet for its own authoritarian opponents here at home.
Leading the way is AIPAC, which has specialized in campaigning against those who oppose its radically right-wing Zionism by focusing deceptively on unrelated domestic issues while interfering in Democratic primaries to pull the party and the nation to the Right. That organization and its allies are gearing up to spend $100 million to punish critics of Israel in Democratic primaries next year. As Republican donors and politicians — and too many Democrats along with them — seek to neutralize anyone who dares express solidarity with Palestine, it has never been clearer how the fate of democracy at home is intertwined with the struggle for survival and self-determination of the Palestinian people.
For this reason, it is of the utmost urgency that the disaffected and demobilized progressive wing of the Democratic coalition finds its voice, to match in the political arena the outpouring of solidarity for Palestine in the streets and in civil society. Although the moment has passed to mount a real challenge to take over the party in this cycle, as Sanders nearly accomplished in 2020, it is not yet too late to compel the party to recognize the danger it is putting us in and to change course. Such an adjustment would involve a struggle to reweight the party’s internal balance of power: to nationalize the fight against AIPAC and take on that organization’s electoral power; to reengage the understandably disgusted and disaffected in the Democratic electoral base; and to pressure the administration to change course, an outcome which could save thousands of lives. For this, however, a primary challenger is needed at the national level.
While doubt about Biden’s role in the upcoming election is spreading, and there are many people who could mount resonant campaigns of their own (Governors Gretchen Whitmer and JB Pritzker, Senator Raphael Warnock), no one with a real future in Democratic Party politics has yet been willing to break the taboo against challenging a sitting president. The moment calls for someone who can draw the connection between the violence against the people of Gaza and the threat to American democracy. This is not the only, or the most morally urgent, critique of Israel’s current actions. It is, however, the one that best fits the present political situation in the United States. While a traditional 50-state campaign is no longer possible, the Biden administration and Democratic Party could still be compelled to react to a challenger speaking with clarity on these issues.
For this role, we should consider attempting to draft Andy Levin, the former Michigan congressman. While Levin is not the voice of the marchers on the streets (nor could or should he pretend to be), he is by experience a seasoned labor and climate organizer and former synagogue president who has directly challenged AIPAC — which financed his electoral defeat in 2022. The relationship between Israeli militarism and political authoritarianism here at home is one that he understands intimately. His Michigan roots give him a closer connection to Arab and Muslim American voters than most 63-year-old white former congressmen. And his passion and clarity on labor and climate orient him to the issues at the heart of the younger generation’s progressive politics: Levin helped direct organizing efforts at the AFL-CIO before his time in Congress, and today is focused on conversion of coal plants into parklands and clean energy generation. While it would be crucial to understand more clearly his position on Israel and Palestine, he introduced a bill while in Congress proposing to attach conditions to U.S. aid to Israel — a promising sign.
Critically, Levin could wage this internal battle not by attempting to destroy Biden but by campaigning against AIPAC and for the renewal of democracy in this country — targeting not just the Israel lobby, but also the fossil fuel industry and military-industrial complex that stand in the way of a peaceful, sustainable and democratic future. In this way, he could thread the needle that understandably worries many: how to channel the strong but currently diffuse popular objection to the administration’s current direction, which is becoming a grave crisis both morally and politically — without offering inadvertent assistance to the authoritarian and racist Right. By running on an explicitly anti-war message, Levin could also open up the space for other candidates who might be more likely to win the nomination and the election, but would be unwilling to move against Biden first.
There is no shortage of Americans calling for an end to Israel’s brutal war, from many quarters. Currently, however, there is no clear structural mechanism for individuals to channel this incredibly important political sentiment in the formal political arena. No credible individual representing this position so far occupies a bully pulpit like the one a presidential run offers. Certainly, a candidate entering now would face a steep uphill battle, barring major unforeseen circumstances. But such a candidate could render a great service by concentrating and magnifying the voices of millions of Americans who see the choice clearly: war or democracy.
Disclosure: Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501©3 nonprofit, In These Times does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.
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Gabriel Winant is assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and author of The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America.