Meet the New Democrats, Same As the Old Democrats

Human beings are naturally drawn to bold statements, and, concomitantly, to overstatement. Nowhere is that more visible than in politics, and nowhere is politics more prone to it than when it involves the President of the United States. Such overstatement is dangerous no matter who it comes from, as it reinforces illusions about the world in which we live. Even if the result is more CNN than FOX News, it’s still dangerous.

Bombast like that of the outgoing president is easy to spot and criticize, especially when you vehemently disagree with the person spewing it. More moderate overstatement is just as damaging and common, but it is less obvious. This more subtle bombast has gone into overdrive in 2020, in large part as a reaction to Donald Trump’s term in office and savage attempt at reelection.

As liberals sigh with relief at Joe Biden’s imminent assumption of the Oval Office, we see comments such as this, from J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami (full disclosure: I have known Jeremy for many years, and, despite significant political differences with him, I like and respect him): “I know you’ll agree: January 20, 2021 cannot come soon enough. Beyond that lies hope inspired by broad vaccine distribution, economic recovery and a new day for our nation marked by new leadership and new direction.”

I certainly agree that January 20, 2021 can’t come fast enough. The reasons are obvious, and virtually all of them have to do with Trump’s exit, not Biden’s entry. But he does not symbolize hope, he is not “new” in any way, and he does not offer either a new direction or a way out of our current morass.  

A popular refrain these days is that Joe Biden is “the right man for this moment.” It’s a continuation of the campaign appeal to Biden’s “decency” and “normalcy” as an antidote for Trump’s authoritarianism, mania, cruelty, and corruption.

Biden is as normal a politician as you’ll find. He knows how to talk the talk, how to be tactful, how to sound like a leader, and how to avoid outrage. What he is not is a man for this moment and he is most certainly not “new.”

Let me be clear on one point. Joe Biden is not a stubborn, immovable ideologue of a politician. He is a man who keenly feels political pressure and moves with it, within the bounds of his basic political orientation. When he entered the Senate in 1973, he was a conservative northerner in a party that was moving to the left. He maintained a centrist stance as the party lurched hard to the right through the 1980s and fit nicely with the Democratic conservatism mixed with limited social liberalism that became a neoliberal model in the Clinton years. He deftly maintained a balance between being a conservative voice on some matters as vice president while moving a bit to the left on others, such as foreign interventionism.

As Ryan Grim noted in a recent piece for the Intercept, Biden’s picks for his incoming administration are virtually all improvements over those of Barack Obama twelve years ago, and Obama was perceived (however incorrectly) as well to the left of Biden.

Perhaps Biden’s most controversial pick so far has been Neera Tanden, a close ally of Hillary Clinton who, despite drawing fire for her tweets from Republicans, has, as the leader of the Center for American Progress, spent more time attacking progressives and defending neoliberal programs than she has opposing right wing figures. Yet even Tanden, Biden’s nominee for the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, is significantly less awful than Obama’s choice in ’09, Peter Orszag, a deficit hawk whose ideas would have fit perfectly in the Ronald Reagan administration.

That said, the idea that Biden is the man for this moment is terribly misguided. It is not based on a real analysis of the moment, but on a reaction to the nightmare presidency of Donald Trump. Biden is indeed the antithesis of a president who would tweet maniacal ravings from his toilet; who intentionally stoked xenophobia, racism, misogyny, transphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and white supremacy; who enacted cruel policies for little reason other than their cruelty; who illegally cashed in on every opportunity he could find during his presidency; and who made foreign policy decisions based on an obsession with his predecessor and his deep admiration for authoritarian nationalists.

But Biden is not a man given to bold action. At his best, when he agrees on the need for progressive change, he is an incrementalist, devoted first and foremost to maintaining the status quo and improving it with tweaks around the edges. He will go as far as he’s pushed, but that push will always come up against Biden’s natural inclination toward the inertia of the status quo.

There is some good in that. Biden is not the sort to get swept up in a momentary political fad. He changes slowly, but he does change, and that leads him to follow longer-term trends rather than the momentary ones that the United States, across the political and social spectrum, tends to idolize.

But it also means that Biden will be slow to fully appreciate the magnitude of a moment, and even slower to react to it. When he does react, he is inclined toward the path of least resistance, not the bold and decisive change.

And therein lies the first problem. The moment we are in feels to many of us like it requires calm, stability, and “normalcy.” After four years of Donald Trump giving vent to the worst impulses of Americans, that makes a lot of sense.

But it also ignores the ways in which Trump exposed the fundamental flaws in an American system –economic, political, social, military, and diplomatic—that is in a state of decline.

After four years of Trump, over 74 million Americans voted for four more, nearly 47% of the electorate. That’s despite an economic meltdown unseen since the Great Depression and a pandemic that Trump denied, leading the wealthiest country in the world to respond in such a clumsy way that we account for over 20% of the world’s COVID-19 infections, and around 18% of deaths, despite having less than 5% of the global population.

That’s truly remarkable. And the Republicans who have enabled this disaster gained seats in the House of Representatives and lost less than expected in the Senate. That’s a testament to the fact that the Democrats’ strategy of “return to normalcy” is the failure it was always obviously doomed to be.

Returning to normal means returning to all the things that brought us Trump in the first place. The most obvious of those is the centrist road Democrats trod in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008. Millions of people never recovered from that crash. One of the truths that Trump regularly manipulated for his own ends was how slow that “recovery” was. Huge financial firms and big industries were bailed out while working people were left to scrape their way back above water, if they could. Wealth, already stratified to a unprecedented and unconscionable degree, got even more unevenly divided. And then the pandemic exposed the glaring, and often racist, holes in an American health care system that, even with the improvements brought about by the Affordable Care Act, is a joke throughout the world.

But there were other issues in 2016 that have only gotten worse since. For all the justifiable celebration of finally having a president who was not White, racism was growing under the surface. Decades of liberal programs, incrementalism, had done nothing, or at best far too little, to attack systemic racism. But affirmative action meant we saw more non-white faces in more places, and the “N-word” could no longer be spoken aloud. These measures, certainly welcomed by many people of color, did little to address systemic racism, and Black and Brown people remained the first to lose their jobs or homes when crises hit, they remained targets of a racist police system that frightened people (not only white folks) are terrorized into protecting, or, they are told, their neighborhood will look like something out of the film The Purge. Black and Brown people remained outside the system of privilege tied to historic wealth, feeling a disproportionate amount of class discrimination.

Joe Biden, to his credit, is talking about some of these things. He is, at least, recognizing the problems of systemic racism, of police violence, economic inequality, and flat-out racism. But his proposed solutions leave a lot to be desired, and seem mostly rooted in Obama-era ideas taken one small step further, like his approach to health care. The history of the past 75 years demonstrates how badly flawed this approach is.

The moment requires more. It requires not just a rollback of Trump’s tax cut for the rich, but a progressive redistribution of wealth, a reform of our political system which currently creates minority, and white, rule, a rollback of the militarization of police forces, a completely new approach to public security, and a national project to come to an understanding of free speech, hate speech, and their interactions with communications, government, and workplaces.

Those, and many more, are requirements of this moment, and each of them represents a much longer process of rethinking and restructuring the system we live under. That’s the longer-term goal. But short term, this is a country mired in deep crisis, and the Trump presidency, as well as the fallout from the pandemic are symptoms of that crisis. They are not the crisis themselves, and any immediate solution must also be the start of long-term ones, or else similar crises will simply erupt again. And I haven’t mentioned climate change!

That’s why, bringing it back to Jeremy Ben-Ami’s message, it is so dangerous to think of the Biden-Harris administration as “new.” That is one thing they are most definitely not. Biden promises a return to Obama-era politics. He, like Obama, is coming in talking about working with Republicans, while Republicans are making it clear they will do everything they can to obstruct even the meager goals Biden has set out.

Biden promises a return to the Iran nuclear deal and imagines he can do that without confronting a much bolder Israel and Saudi Arabia who saw under Trump just how much effect they can have on U.S. policy in the Gulf and the Levant. He promises a “tougher” approach to Russia, while avoiding any details about what that means, and clinging to the Democrats’ myth that Russia’s very real interference in U.S. politics is highly impactful and unique.

Biden is not new. He is what brought us Trump. Sure, enough Americans recognized the disaster that Trump is and voted to go back to what brought us here. I certainly did, and I’d do it again if that’s the only choice I have. But far too many of those Americans did not vote for the Democratic approach, as the Democrats’ poor performance in these elections showed. While centrists couldn’t wait to blame progressives for their failures, with absurd logic, their arguments only proved what was obvious: the lack of solutions offered by Democrats is combining with massive voter suppression to keep these races close. Otherwise Republicans, as Trump himself pointed out, wouldn’t stand a chance.

Nothing “new” here. It’s the same old threat, and we’d better start treating it as such now and get ourselves something better, because the next wannabe authoritarian that comes along is not likely to be as oafish and self-defeating as Donald Trump.

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