I wrote this assessment of Biden and the Democratic Party in September of last year; it was an attempt to counter the facile categorization and dismissal of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party as simply capitalist and neoliberal, possessing no independent agency and incapable of constructing a progressive reform agenda around which millions could gather and support. Roughly a month into the Biden Presidency, it holds up pretty well:
What’s behind the new profile, new dynamics, and new politics of the Democratic Party (and the democratic coalition) is a profound shift in thinking and feeling across significant sections of the American people.
Its material roots lie in the rise of neoliberalism, financialization, and globalization and the accompanying spike in income inequality, growing social and geographic divides, cross border migration, a surge in monopoly power and political predation, and lopsided and unsustainable growth. It is also a product of the prosecution of unwinnable wars of conquest in distant lands, the Great Recession of 2008, and the racist backlash that followed the election of President Obama.
The new dynamics are closely connected as well to the persistence of police and vigilante violence against people of color, a narrowing of job opportunities and precariousness of life for young people, and accelerating climate disruption.
And, not least, it springs from the new conjuncture that we are living through that lays bare the deep class and racial inequalities (including mortality and morbidity rates) embedded in the political economy of U.S. society and the insufficiencies of the public sector and public goods.
Out of this material substratum comes not only a surge of struggles stretching back a decade, the rise of new political actors, such as Black Lives Matter, the greatly expanded footprint of women in politics, the revival of mass climate politics, and the two presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, but also a Democratic Party loosened from its past moorings and trending in a progressive direction.
That Biden won the nomination may seem on its face to go against the grain of these changing dynamics. But on closer inspection it isn’t so inexplicable. First of all, the progressive/insurgent wing of the party, while growing, isn’t the singular voice nor is it yet hegemonic. Second, Biden had the support of President Obama and no other voice in the Democratic Party has remotely the same influence as he does. Finally, Joe Biden was the first choice of African American voters, which, once the primaries moved from Iowa and New Hampshire, gave him a leg up over the other contenders for the nomination. If South Carolina changed the dynamics of the presidential primary in Biden’s favor, the vote in Michigan and across the Midwest a week or so later sealed the deal.
Biden wasn’t my first choice. Elizabeth Warren was, but she, like Bernie, didn’t enjoy the support of the party’s most powerful and loyal constituencies. And it was these constituencies that crowned Joe Biden the party’s nominee. They believed Biden was best suited to beat Trump and, if elected, to enact a robust reform agenda. Voters don’t want a “political revolution,” but they don’t want to stand still either. And in their calculus Joe Biden is best equipped to negotiate this tension.
I know many young people and social activists aren’t excited by Biden. I understand their sentiments, even if I don’t agree with them. I didn’t like Hubert Humphrey, the party’s presidential nominee in 1968, and I, along with many other young radicals at the time, didn’t vote for him. But what we got was Nixon and the intensification of the bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia, the prolongation of an unjust and cruel war, and criminal behavior in the White House.
In November, I would argue, not voting for Biden, Harris, and other Democrats down-ticket would be even more shortsighted and infinitely more disastrous than our decision not to vote for Humphrey in 1968.
I would add that Biden has shown that he isn’t the Biden of 25 years ago, or even 12 years ago when he partnered with our first African American president. Like most of us, he’s changed and evolved. And in a good way. And a wise movement will allow space for people to change.
Since he won the nomination, he has reached out to the entire party, worked closely with Bernie, and, as mentioned earlier, signed on to the most progressive platform in the party’s history. Whether he is capable of a new dance like Lincoln, or Roosevelt, or Lyndon Johnson were when they and the country faced profound challenges, whether he has the wherewithal to evolve into a transformative president, can’t be answered at this juncture. But there are, nevertheless, grounds to think he can.
If elected, Biden would walk into the White House at a moment unprecedented in our history. He would find himself governing in a conjunctural crisis whose templates are a deadly pandemic, a crisis-ridden national and global economy, a racial reckoning, and a worldwide climate emergency that cry out for solution. Standing still isn’t an option. Nor is a return to the pre-Trump normal, whatever that was. And I believe he, Kamala Harris, and most Democrats realize this.
Moreover, like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson, he would feel the pulls, pressures, and desires of an electorate as well as a coalition that carried him over the finish line on Election Day. No doubt, both voters and activists would expect an agenda that includes immediate relief, a science-driven plan to attack the coronavirus, the enactment of progressive reforms in line with the crises gripping the country, a reckoning with policing and systemic racism, and, not least, the democratization of voting laws and the political system.
Such an agenda would not only resonate with tens of millions feeling the crushing weight of the present times, but it might well register with some of Trump’s base too. It’s progressive policies and legislation not discourse that will begin to fracture that retrograde coalition.