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Biden Daze

Photograph Source: Beth Rankin – CC BY 2.0

Joe Biden was sent out to pasture three years ago when Donald Trump took over from Barack Obama; he ought to have remained there.

Instead, he has become central to the two main dramas currently unfolding on the American political stage: the process of selecting a Democratic candidate to run against Trump in November, and the Trump impeachment process now finally underway.

He is central not so much for what he has done, he hasn’t done much, but for what he is, and for what he represents. Poor hapless Joe, a doddering doofus who has hardly ever been right about anything; now an inescapable presence in the daze of this Trump afflicted phase of American decline.

Indeed, if the world survives Trump and if there are still historians trying to make sense of it all years from now, they may look back on these times not so much as the Trump Era, but as the period of the Biden daze. Let me explain.

***

The Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Lucky Romans; they had it good compared to us.

Last week, with the Republican Party he hijacked in tow, our Emperor wannabe left old Nero standing in the dust.

By ordering the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, by most accounts the second most powerful political figure in Iran, he ratcheted up his lying ways almost to the point of unleashing World War III – while, thanks in part to the perilously reckless policies he champions, the Arctic melts and Australia burns. He wasn’t fiddling at the time, he hasn’t the skill set for that – just playing his version of golf.

Meanwhile, leading Democrats and their media flacks are worried that their party is straying too far to the left. They want to keep it focused on the dead center where it has for so long been ensconced.

For this, on a scale of 1 to 10, the Lesser Evil Party deserves a 1; the Bat Shit Crazy Party, a minus 100 at best. Hooray for the lesser evil!

Trouble is brewing, however, within its ranks.

By far, the least of it is that the usual comity on the party’s Sanders-Warren flank now seems imperiled by a “he said, she said” kerfuffle over whether Bernie Sanders did or did not say that a woman could not be elected president. This is a question not worth debating for more than a second or two. The answer, obviously, is: “of course.” This has been the case for many years.

Sanders knows it; Warren knows it; everybody knows it.

The only Democrats inclined to raise the question in recent years have been Clinton apologists and, being always on the lookout for ways to blame others for her own failures, Clinton herself.

A different question, which seems to have become confounded with the one about electability — whether, if elected, a woman could actually do the job – is even less worth wasting time over.

I suspect that, when the dust settles, it will be clear that Warren is the one most at fault. Falling behind Sanders in the polls and with the Iowa caucuses almost upon us, she may have felt that the time had come to stir the pot – if not by outright lying, then by tendentiously misinterpreting something that Sanders may have said to her in private two or three years ago, and then sticking with her story.

But wherever the blame lies, this is a controversy that ought never to have arisen. The sooner it is over, the better.

No doubt, Bidenesque “moderates” and corporate media moguls will try to keep it going. In case they succeed, there is an obvious remedy: Sanders should name a woman running mate, as soon as he responsibly can. Ideally, she should be African American or Hispanic. Kamala Harris would do, but if she pans out as the Trump impeachment trial proceeds, and if there are no skeletons in her closet, Val Demings would be better. She is not just “clean and articulate,” as Biden once said of Obama, but also young, female, “of color,” and, best of all, from a swing state.

Warren must have been thinking along similar lines when she started campaigning with Julian Castro. For a moment or two, that almost made me prefer her to Sanders – not so much because I like Castro, though, like Harris, he was among the very best of the “moderates” in contention, but because I would love to see a Castro, even one unrelated to Fidel, in the White House.

Frivolity aside, there is a very different, genuinely substantive, problem that Democrats now face that has nothing to do with electoral machinations and that will not soon pass.

The problem is that the party’s mainstream, from Nancy Pelosi on down, and its ruling class backers, the longstanding ones and the ones who have joined on in reaction to Trump, fear that they are losing control.

They have reason to worry because there are so many potential Democratic voters who are way out ahead of them on such matters as the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, taxes on income that are genuinely progressive and on the wealth of the obscenely rich, and radically scaling down the military-industrial-national security state complex. Their old order is changing right in front of their noses: there is even dissent within the Democratic Party fold over that party’s time-honored dedication to American world domination.

They have reason to be concerned too that there are now true progressives, many of them in their late twenties and thirties, coming onto the national stage and running for office on the Democratic ticket. It is a poor fit, but unfortunately, anyone who wants to be politically effective, has nowhere else to go.

The most well-known of the party’s rebels with a cause is, of course, the very capable and charismatic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC. She clearly troubles the pillars of the Democratic establishment and their media toadies; witness the recent spate of patronizing columns in “liberal” newspapers, The Washington Post especially, and on liberal websites.

Their gist is that she and those who think like her ought not to be in the Democratic Party at all; that the party has no place for those who cannot stomach a Joe Biden and the other “moderates,” and who support progressives running against Bidenesque Democratic incumbents.

This is not exactly news. The actually existing Democratic Party is no place for true progressives; this has long been the case, and it has become clearer than ever over the past thirty years.

The problem, though, is that Democrats and Republicans have concocted a duopoly party system that has, over the years, become all-powerful and deeply entrenched. Effectively owning the political scene from the time of the Civil War on, they have made it all but impossible for a “third party” to escape marginalization.

There is therefore nowhere else for true progressives to go; worse still, it is all but impossible, as matters now stand, that there could be.

Transforming the Democratic Party radically for the better, making it into something more than a vehicle for voting against Republican miscreants is no easy task. But it is child’s play compared to what it would take to build a viable, full-scale alternative of the kind that is desperately needed and that could easily be established if, as in other so-called democracies, our institutions were less palpably undemocratic.

There is another, more immediate, problem facing genuine progressives too; that, as of now, to defeat Trump and Trumpism, they must make common cause with the Bidens of the world, distasteful as that may be.

Progressives therefore have to figure out how, as it were, to square the circle: to defeat Trump, but also to move beyond circumstances in which, in order to do that, it is necessary to cooperate with the political forces that made Trump and Trumpism all but inevitable.

Joining together with the lesser evil enemy on a tactical level is unexceptionable; indeed, for dispatching Trump and striking a blow against Trumpism this year, it is indispensable. A disabling problem would only arise were that tactical alliance to take on a longer-range strategic aspect.

Fortunately, as of now, unless the Sanders-Warren spat gets out of hand, there is a possible way, two ways actually, to square that circle: a Sanders way and a Warren way. Either way would defeat Trump, and they both hold promise for transforming the Democratic Party fundamentally and for the better. The Sanders way is preferable, mainly, but not only, because it is bolder and more in tune with working class concerns. But either would do.

Needless to say, defenders of the status quo will do, indeed are already doing, all that they can to keep those ways blocked.

In a less degraded political universe, it would be fair to say that they are, to put it mildly, overdoing it. After all, even Sanders is hardly a radical, much less a “red” (as per how that word was used under the old dispensation).

Indeed, the positions that both he and Warren are currently advancing are basically just modern-day versions of those put forward at the time of the New Deal and Great Society. The main difference is that they are more in tune with twenty-first century struggles for racial and gender equality, and, for better or worse, with “identity politics.”

However, on the economic issues that are the true bases of political contestation in the modern world, they are hardly more extreme than views that were generally commonplace in liberal circles years ago.

It is worth noting that back in the day, from the early thirties until nearly the end of the seventies, liberal Democrats were able to make common cause tolerably well even with Southern Democrats; people whose white supremacist views make Trump’s seem almost beatific.

Thus, the great liberal hope of the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson, ran for president with two segregationist running mates – Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver in 1956 and, worst of all, Alabama Senator and arch-segregationist John Sparkman in 1952.

And yet, Sanders and Warren strike fear in the hearts of Democratic Party muckety-mucks and liberal corporate media’s prize scribblers and talking heads. Go figure! The level of panic is almost grotesque; whoever doubts this and who has the stomach for it should tune in for a while to NPR, CNN, or MSNBC, or read the op-ed pages in The Washington Post or The New York Times. The rant goes on forever.

This is why the Democratic Party must now be remade, why Sanders and Warren and AOC and the rest must transform it at least as thoroughly as Trump transformed the GOP.

That won’t be easy. Before Trump, the GOP was already rotten to its core; for the Grand Old Party to die an unseemly death, all Trump had to do was be there. In marked contrast, progressives in the Democratic Party have their work cut out for them; they will have to engineer something like a political paradigm shift.

Whether this can be achieved by changing minds is an open question. Major paradigm shifts in the sciences often require the old guard to fall away or die off; this may be true in this case as well.

Of course, it is possible, even likely, that the dead center will somehow still manage to hold on for a while longer – setting the stage for a Trump v. Biden (or whomever) contest that Trump could, but probably won’t, win. In either case, the struggle will have to be carried on long past Election Day because, for Democrats, the temptation to fall into Hillary Clinton mode might as well be in their genes. It is not easily defeated, no matter how wrong-headed it may be.

But it must be resisted. Even in the short run, Democrats going Bidenesque or Buttigiegian or Klobusharian or whatever is Trump’s best, indeed his only, hope, short of a full-blown coup d’état, for holding on to power.

If Trump loses to Biden or some other moderate – especially if he loses by a lot — the outcome would be better of course, but it would still be awful. The fresh energies and radical perspectives that are now emerging would merge into the disabling Democratic mainstream, at least for another protracted period, and an historical opportunity even rarer and potentially more far-reaching than the one Obama squandered in 2009, would be lost.

Also, the stage would be set for someone more capable and smarter and therefore more dangerous than Trump to restore and enhance many times over all that is so appalling in the “make American great again” world.

For his inadvertent role in helping to bring that world into being, Obama has much to answer for; he even helped make weaponized drones a key part of America’s battleground and state terrorism arsenal. Trump would have probably figured out that he could do it too even if Obama hadn’t paved the way, but the Obama example didn’t help.

Inasmuch as Biden has attached himself to the Obama legacy, he too is culpable. But, at least, Obama was thoughtful, cautious, and, for a Wall Street and corporate backed Democrat, wise. Hillary Clinton would have been like him only worse in every respect, and Biden is worse than she.

It is telling that in the race for the Democratic nomination in 2008, there were only two candidates who ran to Obama’s right – Clinton and Biden, the two he empowered.

Voters in the primaries and caucuses this time around who say that they favor Biden because he is the contender most likely to defeat Trump should bear that in mind – Biden hasn’t changed, and Clintonian politics – opposing Trump, but favoring the conditions for his possibility — hasn’t become any more appealing.

Outside the Blue Dog caucus or its functional equivalents, Biden is still about as rearguard as it gets without passing over into the Dark – that is, the Republican – side.

***

Nowadays, Speaker Pelosi has become the Democrat that Democrats talk up most. Perhaps it is because she can sound progressive, but also, at the same time, lachrymose and prayerful; all the while remaining a stalwart defender of the status quo. “Donor class” Democrats appreciate this; they back her a hundred percent.

And as if that weren’t enough, it has become almost axiomatic that she knows as well as anyone ever has how, as it were, to work the House. Perhaps she does; if there is contrary evidence, it has yet to present itself in an unequivocal way.

Nevertheless, to those of us unacquainted with the labyrinthine ways of Capitol Hill, her decision to go after Trump only for abuse of power, specifically for withholding Congressionally authorized funds to Ukraine in order to solicit help in getting dirt on Biden and his son Hunter, and for obstructing Congressional investigations of his shenanigans in Congress’s Russiagate and Ukraine investigations seems bewilderingly parsimonious.

No doubt, the case is a slam dunk; Trump is guilty as sin. But why stop with those two charges when, on any plausible construal of what “high crimes and misdemeanors” means, Trump commits them about as frequently as he defecates or lies?

Just for starters: there is the “emoluments clause.” At this very moment, it is being violated in the Trump International Hotel just a short walk away from the Senate’s chambers.

There has also been a law on the books for nearly half a century forbidding the assassination of foreign leaders like General Soleimani, that Trump brags of violating. For a while, he would come up daily, sometimes hourly with different, contradictory reasons for the killing, but in the face of public ridicule and a crushing lack of evidence, he eventually gave up on that, saying that it doesn’t matter that none of his claims hold water because Soleimani was evil. He might have added: it takes one to know one.

With so much low-lying fruit to choose from, why not go for more? It could be argued that it hardly matters because Republicans won’t convict no matter how overwhelming the evidence might be. Even so, going for more would seem like a good way to educate the public and to begin the process of purging the body politic of the many Trumpian infirmities that have settled in over the past three years.

There is nothing to do about it now though, except to hope that Nancy knows best.

And so, we have an impeachment trial about to begin that will make Al Capone’s trial for tax evasion seem almost proportionate. Capone ended up in prison. Will Trump? Or will Pelosi, in league with others in the party of pusillanimity, not let that happen?

Obama’s Original Sin was to give George Bush and Dick Cheney and other high-ranking Bush era war criminals get-out-of-jail-free cards. The time to ask Democrats what they think about repeating that momentous mistake after Trump and his cohort are dispatched, as they surely will be in just a year’s time unless Democrats muff it again by going moderate, is now.

That Democrats will go moderate is always a concern; over many decades, courage has been bred out of them. Exceptions are rare for those much over thirty. There are, of course, a few unrepentant veterans of the sixties still around, like Bernie Sanders. But the future lies with millennials (AOC et. al.) and, the youngest of the young, the so-called Gen Zers.

The reactions of the Democrats vying to become their party’s nominee to the murder of Soleimani underscore the problem. They all faulted Trump’s recklessness and ineptitude, and his disregard of the rule of law.

However, except for Sanders who was more evasive than forthright on the issue, they all felt obliged to add that, of course, Soleimani was a “bad guy” who killed Americans and that it is a good thing that he was, as per the favored euphemism, “taken out.” Liberal corporate media had no argument with that; quite to the contrary, they promoted the idea assiduously.

This is only to be expected: hypocrisy rules in their quarters. If it didn’t, Russiagate and Ukrainegate or whatever gate they are onto now could never have flourished as they have, inasmuch as the United States does unto others, just about all others but Russia and other former Soviet republics especially, what it accuses others of doing unto the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave – only many times more egregiously. Even so, the hypocrisy surrounding the Soleimani assassination was, like America itself is supposed to be, “exceptional.”

To be sure, the hypocrites are right in a sense: unless we give state actors a pass on realist grounds – on the idea that states inhabit the morally free zone that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political theorists called “a state of nature” — Soleimani was a bad guy. But then, so are our generals, special ops forces, intelligence personnel, and so on — in just the same way. As they opine on MSNBC and CNN a viewer might not realize it; but, for anyone not willfully blind, it’s the plain truth.

It is true too that, like other states we demonize, Iran is a malign force in the world; but so too are Israel, the ally of which corporate media dare not speak ill, and its new best friend forever, Saudi Arabia. So too are many other U.S. allies in the Middle East and around the world. And let us not forget the United States itself.

As a recovering academic philosopher, I am tempted to go on at this point about “the moral point of view,” the point of view of hypothetical impartial observers and agent-neutral deliberators, but with Trump and his lieutenants pandering to Christian evangelicals, and Democrats trying so hard to seem respectful of their nonsense, I could as well simply refer back to the Golden Rule.

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” From that purview, “extra-judicial” murder – “taking out” foreign leaders, especially – takes on a coloration that transcends the comparatively benign noxiousness of ordinary hypocrisy.

Democrats might ponder how they would have reacted had Iran “taken out” Obama’s number two man, the very candidate their pundits nowadays so plainly favor. Soleimani did have Americans’ blood on his hands; as Obama’s understudy and collaborator, Biden has the blood of many more Iranians and of many of allies of Iran on his. Surely, from the perspective of the Golden Rule, if Soleimani is culpable, then Biden is too.

Perhaps the fact that Soleimani was a military leader, while Biden is merely a dunce who couldn’t soldier his way out of a paper bag is somehow relevant. It is hard to see, though, how that difference works in Biden’s favor.

However, in the Biden daze, where cowardice and hypocrisy overflow, liberals seem not to care or even to notice. They are too fixated on Trump alone, too committed to maintaining the status quo, and too confused even to see how counter-productive their ever-so-moderate tactics and strategies actually are.

More articles by:

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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