Biden’s toughest fight will be inside his own party

Joe Biden

It’s not Trump refusing to leave, or the senate remaining under Republican control that pose president–elect Joe Biden’s biggest problems.  It’s a schism in his own party that’s been brewing since the Clinton era.

Simply put, it’s a non–elected Democratic Party bureaucracy fighting against progressive candidates in a questionable belief that the Democrats need to maintain a conservative profile appealing to affluent white voters.

In the hyperpartisan US political climate it might seem counterintuitive to call the Democrats conservative, but a little historical perspective shows how a move to the right by the Democrats in the 1990s forced the Republicans to the extreme right, including vying for the blue collar voters (across gender and ethnic lines) taken for granted, but abandoned by the Democrats.  Just as in the UK, and Australia, an alienated working class is fertile ground for populist demagoguery, along with the hate–speech that comes from attributing the misery of the ignored class to this or that ethnic group, to capital city ‘elites’, to homosexuals, to migrants, and to anyone else whose votes aren’t important enough to secure a right wing ascendancy.

US author and journalist Thomas Frank wrote one of the more impressive pieces of US election commentary.  ‘Democrats must confront their own past and acknowledge how their own decisions over the years helped make Trumpism possible,’ he argued.

Biden’s instinct, naturally, will be to govern as he always legislated: as a man of the center who works with Republicans to craft small-bore, business-friendly measures. After all, Biden’s name is virtually synonymous with Washington consensus. His years in the US Senate overlap almost precisely with his party’s famous turn to the “third way” right, and Biden personally played a leading role in many of the signature initiatives of the era: Nafta-style trade agreements, lucrative favors for banks, tough-on-crime measures, proposed cuts to social security, even.

Thomas Frank
Thomas frank.

What Biden must understand now, however, is that it was precisely this turn, this rightward shift in the 1980s and 90s, that set the stage for Trumpism.

Let us recall for a moment what that turn looked like. No longer were Democrats going to be the party of working people, they told us in those days. They were “new Democrats” now, preaching competence rather than ideology and reaching out to new constituencies: the enlightened suburbanites; the “wired workers”; the “learning class”; the winners in our new post-industrial society.

I remember the Clinton administration engineering that ‘turn’, as chronicled in Christoper Hitchens’ 1999 book, No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton.  And I recall my own antipathy to Hillary Clinton dating back to Hitchens’ arguments about her complicity in the betrayal of the American working and middle classes.

Frank continued–

… just think of all the shocking data that has flickered across our attention-screens in the last dozen years – how our economy’s winnings are hogged by the 1%; how ordinary people can no longer afford new cars; how young people are taking on huge debt burdens right out of college; and a thousand other points of awful. All of these have been direct or indirect products of the political experiment I am describing.

Biden can’t take us back to the happy assumptions of the centrist era even if he wants to, because so many of its celebrated policy achievements lie in ruins. Not even Paul Krugman enthuses about Nafta-style trade agreements any longer. Bill Clinton’s welfare reform initiative was in fact a capitulation to racist tropes and brought about an explosion in extreme poverty. The great prison crackdown of 1994 was another step in cementing the New Jim Crow. And the biggest shortcoming of Obama’s Affordable Care Act – leaving people’s health insurance tied to their employer – has become painfully obvious in this era of mass unemployment and mass infection.

The argument is that this ‘turn’ has led many Americans to turn away from a party that they felt had betrayed or ignored them, becoming receptive to even the virulently anti–democratic demagoguery of a person as egregiously unqualified for high office as Donald Trump.  Put another way, the Democrats put him in the White House.

… let us also remember that the Republicans have not been permanently defeated. Their preening leader has gone down, but his toxic brand of workerism will soon be back, enlisting the disinherited and the lowly in the cause of the mighty. So will our fatuous culture wars, with their endless doses of intoxicating self-righteousness, shot into the veins of the nation by social media or Fox News.

So, what must Biden do to address this problem?  I think a good start would be to listen to what Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio–Cortez (AOC) had to say, shortly after Biden was declared winner by the media.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Describing herself as a democratic socialist, and a supporter of Bernie Sanders before uniting behind Biden to defeat Trump, she is a sharp critic of the incompetence displayed by the Democrat party machinery in managing campaigns.  Her harshest words are about the complete failure to understand how important social media are in election campaigns, and how imbecilic it is to blame progressive candidates for losses in the House of Representatives, when it was progressives who delivered swing states to Biden.  She makes the same case that emerged from Hillary Clinton’s election loss in 2016: Democrat candidates assuming they would win, but campaigning only half–heartedly, becoming ‘sitting ducks’ to Republican challengers willing and able to pull out all stops in their campaigns, including effective social media strategies.

AOC is talking about progressives, working at grassroots level, having marshalled precisely the voters Frank says the Democrats abandoned in the 1990s.  A stunning example was former mayoral candidate Stacey Abrams working to turn Georgia Democrat after 28 years of Republican dominance.

AOC’s prescription?  Put progressives in senior roles, and let them show the party how to campaign effectively across all media, not just the conventional outlets.

As if speaking directly to Frank’s main points, AOC said:

It’s really hard for us to turn out nonvoters when they feel like nothing changes for them. When they feel like people don’t see them, or even acknowledge their turnout.

To me, AOC’s perspective makes a lot of sense, particularly after watching how many voters still support Trump after four years of a chaotic, incompetent, corrupt administration.

But will Biden risk his working relationships with senate Republicans for the longer–term goal of hollowing out the Republican constituency, particularly that part of it regarded as Trump’s ‘base’?

In his victory speech, Biden was predictably ambiguous, but he did explicitly mention the diversity of support for him.

… to my campaign team and all of the volunteers and all who gave so much of themselves to make this moment possible. I owe you, I owe you, I owe you everything.

And to all those who supported us, I am proud of the campaign we built and ran.

I am proud of the coalition we put together.

The broadest and most diverse coalition in history — Democrats, Republicans, independents, progressives, moderates, conservatives, young, old, urban, suburban, rural, gay, straight, transgender, white, Latino, Asian, Native American.

I mean it, especially those moments and especially those moments when this campaign was at its lowest ebb, the African American community stood up again for me.

You’ve always had my back and I’ll have yours.

I said at the outset, I wanted to represent, this campaign to represent and look like America.

Thomas Frank and AOC offered up perspectives that resonate with my own longer–term perceptions about American politics.  That Obama squandered his enormous personal authority and popularity by not fixing the growing rift in his own party.  That Hillary Clinton would have been more at home in the Republican Party, and relied too much on supporters in the party hierarchy and hubris rather than solid electioneering.

As an aside to all this, I remember watching TV actuality of Clinton, as Obama’s secretary of state, declaring Wikileaks principal Julian Assange guilty on television, while seeking his extradition to test that assertion at law.  In what US court could he have had a fair trial after that unprofessional, overbearing display by Clinton?  It was all Donald Trump coming out of her own mouth.  I also recall how my perception of Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, turned entirely negative after she did the same: declaring Assange guilty on national television, ensuring he wouldn’t get a fair hearing in his home country either.

I can’t quite see Obama or Biden acting that recklessly, but I do see the same attitude – ‘we are born–to–rule elites’ – in the Democratic Party courted by former Republican John Kasich.  He campaigned for Biden and publicly rebuked Democrat progressives for having cost the party House of Representatives seats with precisely the policies that allowed them to wrest voters away from Trump.

Founding editor of Jacobin magazine, Bhaskar Sunkara, neatly summarizes my own fears about Biden living in the past:

Biden ran largely on the idea that he will be a return to the normalcy of the Obama years. But if he governs as a “normal” Democrat, it won’t be long before we have to deal with the next Donald Trump.

The real Trump buried himself in blunders and couldn’t deliver on campaign promises to voters. Instead of saving manufacturing jobs and protecting, as he pledged, “the jobs, wages and wellbeing of American workers before any other consideration”, the Trump administration eliminated paid overtime rules, created tax cuts for the rich and lost 740,000 manufacturing positions this year alone.

Yet a different Donald Trump might have handled the coronavirus pandemic competently and launched an ambitious infrastructure and jobs program capable of improving the lives of millions of people. Without actually challenging oligarchs and big business interests, this alternate-reality Trump might have been able to effectively marry economic populism with xenophobia, the same formula that has propelled rightwing authoritarians to power elsewhere in the world. A different Trump might have even managed to win over enough voters who typically vote for Democrats, including black and brown voters, to expand his base into one capable of winning the popular vote.

Jan-Werner Müller
German political philosopher and historian, Jan-Werner Müller.

The worst mistake Biden could make now is to not prepare for a long Democratic fight–back against an alternative reality demagogue’s brand of right wing populism.

German political philosopher and historian, Jan-Werner Müller observes that claims to a ‘working class Republicanism’ hasn’t produced any coherent set of policies, and ‘no rightwing populist government has made good on the promise of fighting neoliberal globalization. The reality has been a combination of big business and bigotry, or what American observers have called plutocratic populism: economics for the 1%, culture war (ideally, one that’s never really won) for the masses.’

… plenty of people – far-right grifters in particular – will want to cultivate a kind of “lost-cause movement” centered on a legend of how the leader got stabbed in the back by establishment Republicans. Populists are skillful at creating solidarity through a shared sense of victimization; a community of grievances might be even stronger when its prime representative is out of power than failing to fulfill expectations at the Resolute Desk.

As we have also learnt, checks and balances are much more fragile than civics textbook wisdom and liberal complacency (“We are not Hungary or Turkey!”) would have led us to believe. But rather than continuing some more or less romantic Resistance narrative and acting in a morality play with costumes borrowed from the 1920s and 1930s, liberals should learn the simpler lessons from the Obama presidency: do not demobilize on the ground, do not think that Republicans will ever give an inch – and compete not just on the field of more or less technocratic policy solutions but provide folks with a vision going beyond “at least it’s not Trump”.

Mueller sounds almost like Ocasio-Costez on that point: maintain a grassroots insurgency against Republicans even outside nominal election periods. The new president will not have long to sort out his party’s problems if he hopes to govern at all, let alone end the pseudo–Republican ascendancy in and out of Biden’s own party.

That work should take priority right now, before the grassroots apparatus disappears again, and before Biden can get to the business of legislating following his official inauguration on 20 January.

2 thoughts on “Biden’s toughest fight will be inside his own party”

  1. Imagine not just another Florida, but a dozen Floridas. Not just one set of lawsuits but a vast array of them. And instead of two restrained candidates staying out of sight and leaving the fight to surrogates, a sitting president of the United States unleashing ALL CAPS Twitter blasts from the Oval Office while seeking ways to use the power of his office to intervene. The possibility of an ugly November — and perhaps even December and January — has emerged more starkly in recent days as President Trump complains that the election will be rigged and Democrats accuse him of trying to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. I don’t have to imagine it, abrarve. I’m witnessing it in real time. I have stated in my In the news column, that I don’t think Trump can succeed with this ploy because the margins are so much larger in many states. But I acknowledge the fear as real. Trump has so debased democracy that in his own mind, a coup might seem legitimate.

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