May 9, 2019

May 9, 2019

What Decent Joe Biden and Indecent Donald Trump Have in Common. My friend Ron Brownstein, who may be the sharpest political analyst plying the journalist’s trade, wrote some years back (in 2012, in fact) that the Republicans had become “the coalition of restoration” while the Democrats had become “the coalition of transformation.” In the Age of Trump, that assessment is even more on point.

The Trumpified Republican Party looks back to a time when white men had no need to pay heed to anyone but themselves and when America’s industrial might faced no challenges from other nations or from environmental concerns. Today’s Democrats, by contrast, champion the rights and power of the historically disadvantaged groups whom Republicans see as a threat to their vision of a white male-dominated nation, and to their own political power. 

This year’s flock of Democratic presidential candidates largely reflects their party’s commitment to transformation, in greater or lesser degree putting forth proposals that would create—or even themselves personifying—a more egalitarian America.

One of those candidates, however, has taken a different course, kicking off his campaign by evoking themes of restoration even more than transformation. That candidate, of course, is the current frontrunner: former Vice President Joe Biden. To be sure, Biden is committed to minority rights, greater worker power, environmental safeguards—the fundamentals of contemporary Democrats’ creed. But in his stump speeches, he looks backward more than forward, to a pre-Trump time of bipartisan decency which in fact began to erode with the 1960s’ shift of Dixiecrats into the Republican Party, and which completely ceased to exist in the mid-1990s with the rise of Newt Gingrich to the speakership and the coming of Fox News.  

Nor has Biden yet embraced many of the more egalitarian proposals his fellow candidates have put forth, such as free college tuition, universal Medicare, or dividing corporate boards between worker and shareholder representatives. So far, the raison d’etre of his candidacy has been his supposed ability to win back white workers who drifted into Trump’s column in 2016. And while his fundamental decency and basic center-left liberalism immediately differentiates him from our indecent neo-fascist president, he nonetheless resembles Trump in that both appeal to mythic pasts that they believe will cement their support among swing white voters: in Biden’s case, a past of cross-class, cross-racial harmony; in Trump’s, a past of unchallenged white male hegemony (which isn’t all that mythic) in which white workers flourished (which is partly true and partly false), which he alone can restore (which is horseshit). 

It’s the looking backward that sets Biden apart from the Democratic field, and that at minimum calls into question his ability to mobilize young voters. If he doesn’t course-correct, he may become the boat against the Democratic current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.