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Putting the Meh in Movement: Meet the 19-Year-Old Trying to Unite the Democratic Party

Putting the Meh in Movement: Meet the 19-Year-Old Trying to Unite the Democratic Party

In the 1991 gubernatorial election, a young investment advisor named Kirby Newburger came up with a slogan that was an unlikely hit. The race was between Edwin Edwards, then a two-time Democratic Representative from Louisiana’s 7th Congressional District with a reputation for corruption that was impossible to ignore, and David Duke, a former Klansman running under the banner of the Republican Party. Newburger, a moderate Republican, found neither choice particularly inspiring, but didn’t agonize much about making his choice known. He ordered hundreds of bumper stickers printed with the slogan “Vote for the crook, it’s important.”

Newburger’s slogan was not flattering, but it was popular. Edwards ended up winning the race for governor in a landslide, with both centre-right voters and those further to the left joining forces to vote against Duke rather than for Edwards.

The Settle for Biden campaign, which at the time of writing has 70,000 followers on Instagram and counting, is a modern-day version of the “Vote for the crook” bumper sticker. The Settle for Biden Instagram account’s bio starts with the words “Okay, fine. Biden 2020”; the posts are slickly designed graphics with consistent branding, pumping out the message that Biden’s candidacy isn’t what many young leftist voters wanted, but it’s what they’ve got, and that they’ll do well to accept that reality. Traditionally left wing figures like Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky, as well as former Democratic Primary candidate Elizabeth Warren, appear alongside text proclaiming “[S]he’s settling for Biden. Why can’t you?” One post shows a graphic from Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful campaign for nominee, crudely taped over and then annotated with Sharpie so that the “Bernie” text becomes “Biden.” Another post cheekily makes use of a scaremongering statement by Vice President Mike Pence: “Joe Biden supports a government takeover of healthcare that would set us on an inexorable path to socialized medicine.” It’s clear that the post is approving of Pence’s assessment, rather than reflexively denying it as the Democratic old guard might. But if this snappy and sarcastic social media campaign is an updated analogue of the sardonic 1991 slogan, who is the Kirby Newburger of 2020? 

Tracking down the campaign’s elusive founder took a while, and was even at times disorienting - as Settle for Biden’s slick organization and branding led me to expect a seasoned campaigner with strong ties to Democratic politics. In the end, I found a teenager with his own PAC.

I eventually managed to make contact with Sam Weinberg through Whatsapp, after a couple of emails had failed. I received a reply through the messaging app in seconds, even though it was 4am his time. Sam is 19, which might explain his waking hours and preference for messaging apps over email. We spoke on a Thursday evening, while Weinberg was out running errands for his campaign, and I was desperately trying to keep my toddler up past bathtime. The son of a psychologist and a former-probation officer, Weinberg grew up in Evanston, Illinois, 12 miles north of downtown Chicago. He attended the archetypal all-American High School - literally: Glenbrook High School counts the filmmaker John Hughes among its alumni, and as a result was the setting for the filming of the classic High School movies Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club. In his very own version of the teen rebellion drama, Weinberg tells me he was expelled (albeit from a different High School) in 2018, a “long story” of civil disobedience sparked by a dispute with the principal over the disciplining of students who refused to take the pledge of allegiance, culminating in him letting off a flare from the roof of a hotel in downtown Chicago. Weinberg says he supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries, and volunteered for him even though at 15, he was too young to vote. In the 2020 primaries, Weinberg said he was “a fan of both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I was not a fan – I’m still not a fan – of Joe Biden.”

“But when Bernie Sanders dropped out I started thinking well, Joe Biden will be the nominee, and there’s a good chance that Trump will try to steal the election, or Biden will just lose. So I decided to do everything in my personal power to make sure that didn’t happen by setting up Settle for Biden. I tried to combine sardonic millennial and Gen Z humour with substantive policy proposals. We’re focusing on how Joe Biden is not the candidate that a lot of people wanted, but he’s definitely a step in the right direction, and most importantly he’s not Donald Trump.”

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“To begin with,” Weinberg tells me, “it was just an Instagram account and it was just me behind it. Then about a month and a half ago I put out a call for resumes, and now we are a grassroots collective of eighteen people, all across the US, one person is in London, one person is in Israel.”

Weinberg’s allegiances can be a bit hard to pin down: as you might expect from a former Sanders supporter turned campaigner for a centrist candidate, he’s not keen to nail his colours decisively to any particular mast. One tweet from the Settle for Biden campaign claims “We’d rather fight for socialism under a Biden administration,” but Weinberg balked somewhat when I asked about it. “I don’t think I identify as a socialist,” he told me, saying that someone else on his team had written that tweet. “But I think the point still stands, that if people who do identify as socialists, or anyone left of center, those people should vote for Joe Biden; whether you’re advocating for centrism, or for further left progressivism, Joe Biden is a step in the right direction for you. Joe Biden is a lot closer to the far left than Donald Trump is, he may not be on the far left, he may not even be a leftist, but he will be held accountable by Americans who want him to embrace an agenda that’s more progressive.”

Weinberg, both in person and in his campaign, is a consummate political communicator. He knows which ideas to distance himself from, which buzzwords to substitute, he can reframe your question into the actual one he wants to answer before you’ve finished asking it. All of which is standard fare in a political communications professional, but I wasn’t expecting to see it in a 19-year-old. The Instagram account invites you to buy “Settle for Biden” bumper stickers, submit artwork for the campaign (the graphic with the tape was a submission by @dgilz), and in a masterstroke of knowing one’s audience, send in pictures of your pet adorned with the campaign’s slogan.

Weinberg’s campaign is far from universally appealing, but it does position him as a master of the political compromise. Joe Biden has angered some progressive voters by suggesting he would veto the popular universal healthcare proposal known as “Medicare for All,” if it were passed by the legislature during his presidency. Biden’s rhetoric around race has also been criticised as tone deaf, famously ending a recent interview by quipping “If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or you’re for Trump, you ain’t Black.” His record as a Senator also gives some progressive voters pause: in 1975 the then freshman Senator sponsored a bill that hampered efforts to desegregate schools in his home district of Wilmington, Delaware. Biden maintains that compromise was necessary to defeat the anti-segregationist, but some Black voters and historians see his support for the bill as a betrayal, and a sign that his support for civil rights causes is shaky. Despite this, Biden’s support among African American voters is overwhelming; he leads Trump among black voters by a 75 point margin.

Based on this record, some feel that the prospect of working with a Biden administration to affect genuine progressive outcomes is naïve. Weinberg, however, is optimistic: “There are definitely certain issues where a Biden administration could hinder progress, like on advocacy for Medicare for All, or on a Green New Deal. But a Biden administration wouldn’t be an ally or an enemy so much as a vehicle to move in the right direction. Biden views himself as a transition candidate, someone to restore calm and restore order to the country after Trump, but I don’t think that he would be an enemy, but I do think he would be someone who needs to be pushed to be more of an ally.”

Asked about other accusations levelled at Biden, in particular the allegation of rape made by former Biden staffer Tara Reade, Weinberg was far less comfortable in brushing them off: “I don’t have a good answer for you. That’s the truth. What Biden is accused of is absolutely indefensible, and there’s nothing I could say that would mitigate that. It’s something that me and the people I work with think about everyday. It’s really difficult to reconcile the fact that we as a country have to coalesce behind this candidate who is incredibly flawed, but at the same time, our choices are Joe Biden or Donald Trump, and only one of them is a major threat to democracy.

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Settle for Biden is not the only campaign that Weinberg is running in this election. On the 24th of June, he registered the Political Action Committee (PAC) ‘Restore Decency’ with the Federal Election committee. A PAC is an organization set up to pool funds raised from multiple contributions to a candidate or committee of candidates. The Restore Decency campaign, Weinberg admits, has “a different strategy” from the Settle for Biden campaign. “With the PAC our main goal is to bring in as much money as possible and spend as much money as possible, on behalf of Biden and against Trump, in swing states.” The impression one gets from the website is one of a decidedly more standard, and indeed positive campaign than the acerbic and self-deprecating Settle for Biden. “While Donald Trump has consistently shown himself to be fundamentally indecent,” declares the homepage, “Joe Biden has demonstrated a penchant for honesty, integrity, and decency.” Weinberg is executive director of both campaigns, though he was keen to emphasize that he is less involved with the PAC than some other members of his team. He’s fastidious about keeping the finances honest though: “The fundraising for the PAC is independent. We’re required to report to the Federal Elections Commission, so that will all be online. We’re keeping the finances completely separate.”

Weinberg is keen too to stress that his campaigning goes beyond the ballot box. “Other types of organizing are incredibly important as well. That's why we've directed our supporters to donate their time and money to grassroots organizations and progressives they believe in. That's also why 50% of our proceeds this past week have gone to support The Okra Project [a fund for Black trans people] and why a portion of our proceeds going forward will also be redirected to other grassroots organizations. It's also worth noting that non-electoral forms of activism could very well be meaningless under a second Trump term. He has shown undeniable contempt for freedom of expression and the right to protest. Trump's cronies have allowed protesters to be beaten, tear-gassed, and literally kidnapped. If our rights to free speech and free assembly are revoked, the effectiveness of grassroots advocacy would be immeasurably hindered. None of these things” Weinberg insists, “would happen under a Biden administration.”

Nevertheless, could some people convinced by cynicism of the Settle for Biden campaign feel betrayed to learn that the same guy was running a more traditional pro-Biden PAC? Weinberg says they shouldn’t: “I, along with the people I work with, are all very forthcoming about who we are, our affiliations, and our intentions. There's a wide range of opinions and perspectives within the Democratic Party. Settle for Biden is aimed specifically at people on the progressive left, like myself, who view Biden as an imperfect candidate or a means to an end. Restore Decency aims to highlight Donald Trump's incompetence and ineptitude. Those two messages in no way conflict — in fact, they’re complementary.”

Sam Weinberg’s campaign may be lukewarm on Joe Biden, but it’s an endorsement of electoral politics. The bottom line for campaigns like Settle for Biden is that working within the system is the best or only way to change it. This isn’t a new assumption, but for the Democratic party it’s likely to be a comforting one. As the tectonic plates of the political landscape have been shifted by crisis after crisis in the 21st century so far, Democrats have struggled to stay relevant. Whether cynical or not, Weinberg’s campaign is perfectly positioned to appeal to the warring factions of the party; indeed, it’s perhaps the only campaign that could appeal to both.

Ultimately, Weinberg is so interesting because the problem he’s facing down is one that millions of people in political communities across the world are dealing with too: when democracy keeps failing us, is every vote cast a vote for electoral politics, as much as it’s for the candidate on the ballot? And if so, should we continue to participate? As the world struggles with this question, Weinberg has gone all in on the answer. Yes, he says, vote for the imperfect candidate; vote, too, for the imperfect system, because they’re the ones we have. However his allegiances pan out over the coming decade, if the Democratic Party is to maintain its influence in the future, then people like Sam Weinberg will be indispensable to its efforts. Or maybe the party will be indispensable to him.

 

 

Corrections: This article was amended to credit an outside artist for a graphic used by the Settle for Biden campaign, to clarify Weinberg's school attendance and the circumstances of his expulsion, and to better reflect the donation rules surrounding PACs.

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