February 20, 2021


Biden's Dreampolitik at Home and Abroad (Bruno Maçães, February 2021, American Affairs)

In a timely new book reflecting on the inner springs of Joe Biden's biography and personality, New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos notes a central contradiction that has long animated the new president. During the campaign, Donald Trump and most Republicans tried to associate Biden with a malevolent plan to smuggle socialism into the United States. As an electoral strategy, it was unconvincing, flying in the face of a long and distinguished career marked by the kind of relaxed centrism which has now become unfashionable. Biden has been careful to stress those moderate inclinations even after the election, as he prepared to assume office, but the concern goes back to the very beginning of his Senate career. In 1974, having supported civil rights and opposed the war in Vietnam, Biden received a high rating from a progressive group and immediately complained about it. Those ratings, he thought, could get him in trouble.

And yet there was another strain to his victorious 2020 campaign, and it had nothing to do with coaxing the Republican Party into its recent excesses. Running at a time when a record number of Democrats are happy to self-describe as socialists, and when the embers of street protest are still glowing across the land, Biden had to avoid appearing too picayune and narrow-minded. And he understood this. "He is very much a weathervane for what the center of the left is," a senior Obama administration official told Osnos. As he puts it, "by the time Biden effectively clinched the nomination, in March, he had begun to describe his candidacy as a bid for systemic change on the scale of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal." Franklin Foer in the Atlan­tic argued that Biden has inverted the historical template of every Democratic nominee. Biden's politics only began to flirt with revolutionary romance after he won the nomination.

The evolution confounded critics. Consider Osnos once again: "Biden was simultaneously accused of being a socialist puppet and a neoliberal shill." It was a productive contradiction. The problem now is how to continue exploiting it. Just as Trump--often with undeniable success--attempted to convince his supporters that they already lived in a nationalist utopia, Biden will have to convince Americans that they already live in the America promised by progressives. They are like Frenchmen of the Belle Époque, the trials of the Revolution long forgotten. If the country is already united around ideals of social and racial justice--if every cabinet secretary provides evidence that sexual and racial minorities have genuinely overcome their past op­pression--President Biden could be a centrist and a progressive at the same time. Progressive ideals would be realized with no need for the struggle and conflict of the progressive movement. After the events on Capitol Hill in early January, Biden confidently affirmed that "this is not who we are." As some commentators noted, the sentence would be much more convincing had he said "this is not who we should be." But on this question Biden will brook no compromise. It reminded me of the main element of his campaign during the prima­ries: Trump did not reveal anything about contemporary America and Trumpism would disappear once Trump had lost the election.

Like other presidents, Biden has of course presented his cabinet choices as symbolic proof that America has come a long way since its darkest days. What stood out was the methodical and perfectionist character of the current iteration of identity politics. At some point, it began to look like the president-elect was trying to solve an especially complex puzzle, a Rubik's cube of many colors and genders. When Biden nominated the first black man to run the Pentagon, women cried foul. Asian American activists became increasingly concerned that their minority groups would not be sufficiently represented in the top tier of the Biden administration. Sexual minorities expressed their disappointment that Biden had not yet named a prominent member of their community to his cabinet, something he proceeded to correct. It then became apparent than he had not awarded a sufficient number of key jobs in his cabinet to black women. In principle there should be at least five Latinos in the cabinet, including of course Latinas. And so on. The need to ensure ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation diversity has meant hammering some square pegs into round holes, while allowing for many degrees of freedom in selecting political insiders from each lane of the diversity pool.

As Nesrine Malik wrote, the exercise was revealing because it showed how committed Biden is to Dreampolitik--in this case, the promise of diversity as cosmetic change without deeper transformation. Selecting the cabinet was not a means to address the structural inequalities that produce the marginalization of minority groups in the first place, but an exercise in "mission accomplished," a kind of "end of history" for those who no longer believe in history and, in their quiet moments, may even disbelieve in progress. Kamala Harris explains: "When Joe asked me to be his running mate, he told me about his commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America--that reflects the very best of our nation. That is what we have done."

The example is, I think, reflective of a broader strategy. Forced to bring together very different sensibilities within the Democratic Party, Biden has found a way to reconcile political opposites. He can prom­ise the progressive and more radical wing a final victory over the forces of evil, while reassuring the centrists that he has no interest in the struggle, the fight to realize that victory. It is the fight, after all, rather than the final victory, which leads one into political danger.

F Troop back to normal. 
Posted by at February 20, 2021 8:23 AM