The nightmare of a future in which anarchist rioters and critical race theorists conspire to destroy the very foundations of American society could soon be upon us — or at least according to warnings now delivered with increasing stridency by the party that currently controls the White House. Should these radicals be given power in November, so the warnings go, they will immediately move to close churches, teach schoolchildren to despise their own country, and perhaps even set about decapitating every remaining statue of George Washington. “He’s against God,” the incumbent president alleges of his rival.
Maybe there is some hypothetical revolutionary Left-wing candidate out there who could theoretically seek to carry out such a frightening agenda. But the candidate fielded by the Democratic Party in 2020 is not some wild-eyed Robespierre reincarnate. It’s Joe Biden. And the apocalyptic scenario prophesied by Republicans about a potential Biden presidency can only be seen as comical in the context of his actually-existing political record.
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Unlike in 2016, when the personage of Hillary Clinton provided a boundless source of intense consternation, Donald Trump and the Republicans seem far less inclined to run against Biden as such. Instead, they’ve taken to portraying him as a walking corpse with severely limited cognition — and therefore it won’t be him pulling the strings once he’s wheeled into office, they contend, but a variety of other nefarious radical forces working behind the scenes. Fliers that declare “The Radical Left Has Taken Over Joe Biden” have been hitting mailboxes across the country, featuring grim images of Ilhan Omar, Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez interposed domineeringly over a confused and oblivious Biden.
On the one hand, party coalitions are always going to have a role in setting the president’s agenda; Trump, for one, more-or-less outsourced his own legislative priorities to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell for the first half of his tenure. And to the extent that Omar, Sanders, and “AOC” constitute a coherent ideological faction, certainly they would jockey for influence under a Biden administration.
But the casual castigation of Biden as a mere Trojan Horse for the “radical left” totally disregards the significance of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, which if nothing else were a direct repudiation of the “radical left” — insofar as such a thing exists within the constraints of US electoral politics. Biden’s victory resoundingly blunted the ascendance of left-wing activists who tried and failed to seize the reins of the Democratic Party, mainly by way of the five-year Bernie Sanders campaign. As Biden reminded an interviewer in Wisconsin this week: “I beat the socialist… That’s how I got the nomination. Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career — my whole career. I am not a socialist.”
It’s impossible to ever know what exactly a general election featuring Democratic nominee Sanders would have looked like, but a few things seem plausible. First, it wouldn’t have been necessary to “tie” Sanders to the activist Left, as they would have been the proud, unhidden core of his campaign operation. Figures like Shaun King, whom the Sanders campaign elevated as a top surrogate (King was even selected to introduce Sanders at his 2020 kickoff event) doubtless would have been the gift that kept on giving for Republicans. (Google him if you must.) And a fair number of the most ideologically adventurous twentysomething protesters who have run rampant for the past several months surely would also have been active Sanders supporters. Perhaps it’s possible that Sanders could have animated new segments of the general electorate and won against Trump regardless. But the project of “tying” him to the more excitable elements of the activist Left would not have been complicated. It just would have been a fact.
To use the same playbook with Biden as might have been used with Sanders, however, suggests a lack of imagination on the part of Trump and Republicans.
Even Sanders, despite being a professed socialist, never advocated for the mass appropriation of private property or full-scale nationalisation of industry. As president, he likely would have pursued relatively modest redistributive policies — modest compared with the welfare state policies that characterise other modern-day left of centre governments. But at least the inevitable “socialist” attack would have had the benefit of reflecting a term with which Sanders actually describes himself. Over nearly five decades in government, Biden has never touched “socialism” with a ten-foot pole.
Nothing about the mad rush to saddle Biden with socialist baggage is particularly new. In the waning days of the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain accused Barack Obama of conniving to implement socialism, with the charge having stemmed from an incident that in hindsight seems remarkably quaint. At a campaign stop in Ohio, Obama expressed his belief to a man dubbed “Joe the Plumber” that “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” McCain, whose electoral fortunes had crashed that autumn alongside the global financial system, saw this as a last-ditch opportunity to warn American voters about the possibly Mao-like designs that Obama had in store.
But with eight years of an Obama/Biden presidency in the bank, to call what was enacted during that period any kind of triumph for “socialism” would be laughable. And if the idea with Biden is that he’s so cognitively inept that he’d inevitably capitulate to the forces of radicalism which surround him — well, few would doubt that Biden’s sharpness has conspicuously diminished in his latter years. But he did exhibit the mental acuity required to get himself through a historically large Democratic primary field, and then go on to successfully “unite” the Democratic Party to a greater extent than was the case at this time in 2016.
Where the “Radical Left on the march” argument does have something at least approaching a point, is that the Democratic Party’s professional class has evolved sharply on questions of race and identity in the past several years — and especially since the onset of the nationwide protest movement this summer — with emphasis on diversity and representation now having reached a dogmatic fixation. However, it would be inaccurate to characterise this professional class shift as an embrace of “socialism” or even “radicalism”. More accurately, it’s a re-orientation of elite attitudes and signalling patterns, without any attendant shift in underlying power dynamics.
One pronounced feature of the Trump era is that those who have adopted the most histrionic rhetorical postures are just the same old banal careerists resorting to emotional theatrics. A recent example is professional left-wing activist Max Berger, who declared on Twitter that a fascist coup was underway. Berger previously worked on the campaign of Elizabeth Warren. It will be these types who gain additional institutional power in the context of a Biden presidency, and they will no doubt be inordinately fixated on matters of race, gender and sexual orientation. But are they “radicals”? Not really. They’ve just adopted the patina of rhetorical radicalism to justify their remarkably conventional life choices.
Even for avowed “democratic socialists” like AOC, the Republican PR strategy depends on exaggerating their influence within the overall Democratic party coalition. However much the party’s Congressional delegation has inched marginally leftward, for instance, the most powerful and catered-to faction are still members representing affluent suburban districts whose victories in 2018 enabled the Democrats to secure a majority. Names like Elissa Slotkin, Dean Phillips, and Cindy Axne aren’t nearly as well known as those who loudly place themselves at the centre of social media attention such as “AOC”, but the electoral formula which propelled them to oust Republican incumbents in states critical to the Electoral College (Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa respectively) is the formula now being most closely followed by Biden on a national scale.
And if Biden wins in November, it will owe heavily to these very kinds of voters — his most significant polling advantage is currently among white women with a college degree — not leftist radicals. Will Biden at least give Bernie & co a nominal “seat at the table”? Sure, that’s likely. Biden is running more as a traditional coalition-manager than any kind of insurgent seeking to overturn the consensus of the party he leads. But the Republican histrionics intentionally misportray which forces within that coalition would wield the leverage in the event of a Biden presidency. (“AOC” once suggested that in a more sensibly-apportioned parliamentary system, she and Biden would not even belong to the same party.)
Those who predict a revolutionary socialist upheaval under Biden might want to spend some time asking actual socialists what they think about Biden. Because the mood they exhibit isn’t particularly celebratory. A group of erstwhile Sanders activists have contented themselves with declaring “Not Him, Us” in their attempt to hector any remaining left-wing holdouts to suck it up and vote for Biden. These as-yet-anonymous manifesto writers decree that “Defeating fascism is priority #1” and as such, mobilising a ‘popular front’ against Trump is of urgent necessity. “The 1930s taught us one lesson we can never forget: we must unite — even with neoliberal opponents — to defeat fascism,” the group concludes.
Leaving aside the analytical accuracy of drawing a parallel between the present-day United States and 1930s Germany — let’s say the comparison seems a tad off — the increasing prevalence of this logic within left-wing activist circles means Biden has less need to appeal to them directly. It’s already been deemed morally obligatory for these activist types to join with the dreaded “neoliberals” in order to blunt the rise of global fascism, as personified domestically by Trump. And so whatever leverage they might have wielded in a Biden term has been forfeited from the outset.
In an alternate timeline, Republicans might take solace in Biden as a buffer against an invigorated activist Left which — it’s true — has made strides in recent years, both organisationally and within the popular culture. And the professional class Dems will probably agitate for bizarre racial and gender identity policies if given entry-points into the Executive Branch. But most of it will be superficial posturing — a speciality of those kinds of operators. And Biden himself is most eagerly courting endorsements from people like John McCain’s widow Cindy for a reason. He’s had going on 78 years to display the radicalism now being attributed to him, and there’s little sign of it yet.
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