“The more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense for the comic.” – Søren Kierkegaard
There is much suffering in the Age of Trump. The principal source of grief is Trump himself: what he does and doesn’t do, what he says and doesn’t say, and what and who is he and is not.
At the same time, if we think about it, we will admit that much of this misery is bequeathed by a history that includes Reagan, Bush, and right-wing Republicanism, but also Clinton, Obama, and Democratic centrism.
The Democratic Party is now suffering through the pain, but also the stimulating pleasure, of a real reckoning with the sources of its failings and of our political malaise and the ways to move beyond them.
And because Kierkegaard was right about this as about so many things, it seems fitting to begin this discussion with the comic:
Joe Biden will almost certainly announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in the coming days, joining an already crowded field that includes a great many strong candidates — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and many others — who have already organized campaigns and mobilized substantial resources.
Biden has already put his foot in his mouth big time, by failing to appreciate the seriousness of the “personal space issues” raised by a number of women about his propensity to touch (and kiss and smell). This weekend’s SNL skit gets at the humorous absurdity of his cluelessness. But even some commentators who were initially willing to excuse Biden’s touchiness as personal style rather than sexual harassment have noted that the way he has subsequently joked about the matter betrays a real incredulity about the politics of the present.
I don’t know how this matter will impact Biden’s popularity, and likely candidacy, moving forward. I do know that, as SNL captured brilliantly, in this as in so many things, Biden is a dinosaur — an old man who has spent many decades in public life, and whose style and very “old boy,” transactional concept of politics has failed to keep up with the times.
Ever since Biden stepped down from his long-running role as Barack Obama’s avuncular wingman, he has faced questions about his narcissism, his ambition, his past primary failures, and his questionable past stands on important issues, from busing and harsh federal sentencing laws to the Iraq War to solicitude for banking and insurance industries. It is perhaps difficult to remember, but Biden was “Joe Biden” long before Obama entered the political stage, and was among other things the quite public disparager of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. He was not always the “nice guy” that so many now prefer to fondly recall. Obama gave him a political second wind, elevating his reputation and offering him an aura of cultural and racial “progressivism.” Biden is now seeking to capitalize on this. Questioned by many about how he fits in the current intra-party debate, and whether or not he is sufficiently “progressive,” he has proudly declared himself to be “an Obama-Biden Democrat, man.”
And this, to me, is the fundamental weakness of his entire “candidacy” — that he is looking backward at a time when we need to move forward, and he is inviting the Democratic Party, and the American public, to move backward with him.
There are two problems with this.
The first is, quite simply, that the evocation and invocation of the Obama Era is, however understandable and even appealing, an exercise in bad faith and pure nostalgia. For the fact is, while Obama was in many ways a good president, and is surely an admirable, dignified, intelligent, and charismatic man, the Obama years were years of many disappointments and failings. The January 2017 report at FiveThirtyEight.com was one of many post-Obama diagnoses that starkly identified the failings: “Barack Obama Won the White House. But the Democrats Lost the Country. What Happened?” As political scientist David Shultz noted early in 2016, well before Trump’s victory, in “Obama’s presidential legacy: a weakened Democratic party and timidity of reform”:
Obama leaves the Democratic Party far weaker today than when he was elected. The statistics are chilling. In 2009 there were 257 Democratic House and 58 Senate members; today there are 188 and 44. In 2009 there were 4,082 Democratic state legislators; today there are 3,163. In 2009 55 percent of state legislators were Democrats; today it is only 43%. In 2009 Democrats controlled 27 legislatures and 28 governorships; today it is 11 and 18. No matter what the statistics, the Democratic Party is weaker today than in 2009.
The collapse of the Democratic Party under Obama is even more glaring given that demographic trends potentially suggest a brighter future for the party. Yet there are signs that millennials, the most liberal and largest generation in American history, once excited by Obama in 2008, have disengaged. In a famous 2010 New Yorker cartoon a character exclaims, “Obama has the potential to get a whole new generation disillusioned.” Granted, part of Obama’s problem was Republican intransigence, but he even had problems getting his own party members to follow him.
These political failings were not Obama’s alone. They were failings of the entire Democratic establishment. And that is the point.
The election of Trump, and the Republican domination of the entire national government for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, was a huge wakeup call. And a great many woke up. What is called “The Resistance” was and is many things. What cannot be doubted is that there has been a dramatic revitalization of debate within the Democratic Party, and an equally dramatic political mobilization. Much of this mobilization has been on the left, where DSA membership has mushroomed; dynamic “Justice Democrats” have been elected; and charismatic figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have put the very question of “democratic socialism” at the forefront of discussion. But much of this mobilization has been in the center, as Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol emphasized in their 2018 piece “Middle America Reboots Democracy.” Some of this mobilization is class-based. Some of it is linked to questions of gender or race or immigrant rights. And all of it is mobilization, of a party that had become enervated, and ossified.
There is no going back. There is no “Obama-Biden 2020.”
And this leads to the second problem with a Biden candidacy: he simply does not understand this. His recent comments on “progressivism” demonstrate this.
When recently asked about whether he was sufficiently “progressive” given the recent progressive mobilizations, he responded: “I’m told I get criticized by the New Left…I have the most progressive record of anybody running for the…anybody who would run.”
When asked last week to clarify what he meant by “progressive,” his effort was less than compelling. It’s worth quoting him at length:
Well, that’s changing too. For my whole career, I wish I had been labeled in Delaware, the seven times that I ran, as a moderate. I was never labeled as a moderate. If you look at my record with the ACLU, my record with all of the traditional liberal organizations, I have never walked away from. . . I’m not sure when everybody else came out and said they’re for gay marriage. I’m not sure when everybody came out and talked about a lot of the things I’ve talked about, but my point is the definition of a progressive now seems to be changing. That is, are you a socialist? That’s a ‘real’ progressive. Or do you believe in, well, whatever…I mean, so I was talking about, up until this last time around, the traditional judgments of whether or not you were, quote, “a liberal,” was…what your positions on race were, women, what’s your position on LGBT community, what’s your positions on civil liberties, you know, I’ll stack my record on those things against anybody who has ever run, who is running now, or who will run.
You guys, if you look at all the polling data and look at all the actual results, the party has not moved to way — I don’t want to characterize it, whatever characterization you just made. The fact of the matter is the vast majority of the members of the Democratic Party are still basically liberal to moderate Democrats in the traditional sense…show me the really left, left, left winger that can beat a Republican. A Republican. So the idea that the Democratic party has kind of stood on its head, I don’t get it. And by the way, the party should welcome, should welcome, this, I don’t know how you want to characterize it, the progressive left. It should be welcome. We should have a debate about these things. That’s not a bad thing. But the idea that all of a sudden, the Democratic party woke up and, you know, everybody asks, what kind of Democrat are you, I’m an Obama-Biden Democrat, man. And I’m proud of it.
Biden’s response is not bad. He defends his record, as one might expect him to do. He welcomes debate with the “progressive left.” And his response is not wrong. “Socialism” has not become the sine qua non of progressivism within the Democratic party. Indeed, most of the 2018 “blue wave” involved victories for Democrats who are neither democratic socialists nor Justice Democrats. In 2018, 26 of 79 candidates endorsed by Justice Democrats won primaries, and of those 26, 7 — seven — won House seats in November, out of a total of 64 new Democrats in the House. And none of those victories was in a swing district. As Ella Nilsen and Dylan Scott pointed out in Vox, “Most of the new Democrats in the House are more moderate than you think.”
But while Biden’s response is not bad or wrong, it is tone-deaf.
It is tone-deaf to imagine that reciting a list of conventional identity-political positions — “women,” “LGBT,” etc. — constitutes a vision or even a program in a post-Trump moment in which, as even rather centrist liberals like Mark Lilla have insisted, conventional identity politics are insufficient.
It is tone-deaf to defend one’s credentials as a “liberal” and a “progressive” without mentioning that very serious class inequalities and economic insecurities that so obviously concern so many Americans, and that indeed helped to create the climate of grievance and resentment that Trumpism successfully exploited. It is equally tone-deaf to avoid mentioning the issue of the future, climate change.
And it is tone-deaf to imagine that “all of a sudden, the Democratic Party woke up and started asking what kind of a Democrat are you.” Perhaps Biden has just woken up. But for two years, this has been a real debate, and it has powered many candidates into office, in Congress, but also on the Chicago City Council, and in local races across the country. This debate has not waited for Biden to make up his mind about whether he wanted to run for President, and indeed the debate has been all about surpassing Biden-style Democratic leadership.
In the past two years there has been a real revitalization of debate about how the Democratic party can move forward to engage the issues of the future and the voters of the future. Every single one of the current field of contenders for the Presidential nomination is bringing something new to this debate. Most of them are youthful. But even those who are more senior, like Sanders and Warren, are bringing new ideas. Biden brings nothing new. He is an “old pro,” and an old man, who represents in every sense the past. He is not to be blamed for this. But neither ought he be supported for it.
In one of his short novels, Milan Kundera reflects on the power and the illusions of nostalgia. He points out that “the Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” Kundera goes on to link this idea with the Latin word ignorare: “to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss.” He titles his novel Ignorance.
The yearning to return is powerful. And its realization is impossible.
Biden’s time has passed.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a Senior Editor at Public Seminar, and his book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, was recently published by Public Seminar/OR Books.