May 5, 2019


What Biden and Trump Have In Common: Before reinventing himself as an Obama ally, the former VP built his career as an icon of white working-class grievance. (Joshua Alvarez May 5, 2019, Washington Monthly)

Joe Biden is one of those Democrats who makes you wonder if there really is a liberal party in America, or if one is even possible. The substance of Biden's politics--the legislation he's authored or voted on, the actions he's taken when political convictions mattered--has, as the New York Times' Jamelle Bouie notes, a consistent pattern: "For decades Biden gave liberal cover to white backlash [against the Civil Rights movement]. He wasn't an incidental opponent of busing; he was a leader who helped derail integration. He didn't just vote for punitive legislation on crime and drugs; he wrote it."

Biden built his career as the political avatar of the white "Middle America" everyman--protective of his blue-collar job, suspicious of cities, and even more suspicious of societal change. Biden's candidacy and potential election to the presidency, Bouie writes, might "affirm the assumptions" of Trump's politics, in particular that white resentment and racial chauvinism make up the "center of American politics." Biden will likely present himself "as the real embodiment of working-class white identity." By taking up that role, however, he would not be repudiating Trump's politics--he'd be affirming it.

Obviously, Biden did not invent his constituency, nor did he invent the racialized politics that earned him consistent reelection. Stoking--or at least attending to--parochial whites' fears and resentments is the dirty energy fueling American politics. Lyndon Johnson understood what's "at the bottom of it" and told Bill Moyers in a Tennessee hotel barroom in 1960: "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

Johnson's knowledge of how white anxiety works, and of how easily it can be exploited, haunted him four years later. The night he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, he told Moyers, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come."

Posted by at May 5, 2019 9:51 AM