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Biden’s Victory: A Blessing in Disguise?

Photograph Source: Matt Johnson – CC BY 2.0

It has been years since I last saw the great Alain Resnais film “La Guerre Est Finie” (The War Is Over, 1966), starring Yves Montand and Ingrid Thulin, in which, decades after the anti-fascists lost, a Communist veteran of the Spanish Civil War, still fighting the good fight, confronts the moral and political ambiguities of his situation. In that film, if I recall correctly, there is a saying attributed to Lenin, that I have never been able to track down, but which has stuck in my mind ever since: that patience and irony are the virtues of a Bolshevik.

For Plato, the virtue of a thing is that which makes it work well; thus, sharpness is the virtue of a knife. This is how Lenin or whomever, perhaps only the movies’ writers, understood that term.

As the sector of the ruling class that abhors Donald Trump but is nevertheless hellbent on holding onto its power, struck back against insurgent (small-d) democrats these past two weeks, catapulting hapless Joe Biden to front-runner status in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, the Bernie Sanders’ campaign, intent on seizing some of that power in order to lay the foundations for a better possible world, withstood a serious, probably fatal, blow. It is now hanging on by the skin of its teeth.

Biden is a relic of his wretched party’s inglorious, Clintonite past.

Notwithstanding his many capitulations over the years to the Democratic Party’s mainstream, Sanders is the most progressive, not entirely marginalized, American politician in living memory.

This sad and deplorable turn of events has caused me to reflect on how that possibly apocryphal remark of Lenin’s would apply not only to Bolsheviks, but also, in the right circumstances, to even the most anodyne “democratic socialists.”

Indeed, anyone who would challenge the status quo from the Left, no matter how kindly and gently, had better be able to navigate situations where patience is called for and in which ironies abound. Our political and economic elites don’t give in easily.

It is now clear that, even if Sanders stays in the race to the bitter end and stops pulling his punches, as he is inclined to do; and even if he wipes the floor with Biden in debate after debate, as he surely could do, he is not going to be the Democratic Party’s nominee. Those who feel threatened by the insurgency his campaign has sparked will make sure of that.

They – the party’s leaders, its “backbenchers,” and, above all, its major donors — are, after all, still calling the shots. For them, Sanders is good for keeping insurgent Democrats on board; beyond that, he is poison.

Had Sanders beaten down the “moderate” horde electorally, as he seemed to be on the way to doing two weeks ago, he might have been able to prevail anyway. But they beat him, and so, barring a miracle of deus ex machina proportions, this will not come to pass.

Jim Clyburn, the dean of African American machine politicians in retrograde Southern states, somehow managed to do for defenders of the existing power structure within the Democratic Party and in American society generally what Donald Trump did for racists, nativists, and Islamophobes. He liberated their authentic, deplorable selves.

AOC, organizer extraordinaire, counsels listening to, not blaming, the people that progressives are trying to bring on board. She has a point. But so does anyone who would point out how much better it would be if more of those people still had the sense they were born with.

Apparently, there are alarmingly many people born within the past twenty or thirty years – so-called millennials and GenZers – who fit that description. They couldn’t agree with Bernie more, but couldn’t be bothered to come out to vote.

And then there are the African Americans, not all of them geezers, for whom Biden, despite all he has done to harm black male youth, impede the rise of a black middle class, and put Social Security and other entitlement programs, including those involved with health care, in jeopardy, is comfort food.

Suburban ladies who would be Republicans if only Trump were a tad less embarrassing, but who think that Biden is just what the doctor ordered, deserve condemnation as well. If AOC and other organizers want to listen respectfully to their concerns, then more power to them. I would rather deride them; they deserve it amply.

Corporate media deserve condemnation most of all. They have been working assiduously against the Sanders insurgency from Day One, and their efforts have paid off.

Thanks to them all, the unjustified and unjustifiable false belief that the way to defeat Trump is to nominate a candidate whose politics made Trump and Trumpism all but inevitable has come to be regarded as gospel truth.

Even within the Sanders camp, many people seem to believe this nonsense; their argument is just that Bernie’s way is good enough too for sending Trump and his minions packing.

Arguably, weariness accounts for Biden’s sudden rise even more than the deplorability of Democrats. After more than three years of Trump-induced, mind-befuddling drama, people just want it to be over. Who could blame them?

But, of course, a Biden victory over Trump won’t bring peace of mind; it probably wouldn’t even lead to the kind of braindead “normalcy” that so many people who agree with Sanders on “the issues,” but then don’t come out to vote in anything like the numbers necessary to put him in office, seem to crave.

What is essentially a class war waged within the bowels of the Democratic Party will go on; the only question is what direction it will take.

For it to take one not mired in a sense of futility and despair, patience and irony are indeed indispensable.

With enough of those virtues on display, Biden’s victory need not be quite the disaster it feels like now; it could even be a blessing in disguise.

Had hardcore Democrats done better at keeping their deplorability under control, Sanders would become their nominee, and would then go on to defeat Trump in November even more handily than Democrats will defeat Trump with Biden for a standard-bearer.

But the difference hardly matters; Trump will defeat himself.

This was all but certain long before the covid-19 was on peoples’ minds. Now that it is, and now that Trump is flubbing the rapidly accelerating crisis that virus has brought on, spectacularly and in full public view, it is more certain than ever that Trump will lose.

It is becoming increasingly certain too that the house of cards economic “strength” he still boasts of is on the brink of falling down hard, partly on this account. This is yet another reason why Trump is toast.

That he is his own worst, and sometimes his only genuinely effective, enemy has been clear from Day One. This is why, even were it not so fundamentally wrong-headed, the Biden-is-more-electable argument, would be irrelevant.

Trump has already garnered all the supporters he has any chance of acquiring, and they will either stand by their man or not. Their numbers can only get smaller.

Therefore, no matter how inept Democrats are, even if they fall back to Hillary Clinton levels of ineptitude, the writing is on the wall: Trump is heading for a bad November indeed.

Thus, the question Democratic primary and caucus voters ought to be asking is not which candidate would do better against that loser, but which one they trust more to handle what may well come to pass if he decides not to turn power over peacefully or if he calls upon his supporters to rise up against the election winner.

These might seem like concern only paranoids would worry about, but is there anybody who doubts that Trump has it in him? He has already defied nearly every norm that has made the United States as estimable as it used to be, and largely still is. Why would he not go all the way?

***

It was reasonable to think that Democrats would be reasonable enough to choose Sanders over Biden, the best of the candidates running over the very worst. But then, with the Democratic Party as it is and as it will be in the immediate future, how reasonable was it to think that Sanders could then get much of anywhere laying down the foundations for a better possible world?

The short answer is: not very reasonable at all. The problem is not just that GOP legislators would block him at every turn. It is that Democratic legislators would too.

They would oppose Sanders in much the way that their counterparts opposed George McGovern forty-eight years ago. Back then, they started from even before the moment he was nominated. It is no different now.

It would be different, though, if instead of trying to forge ahead with a comparatively isolated leader at the top, there was a large and growing Left Opposition, working inside the Democratic Party, that its leaders thought needed to be placated, even if only for the sake of party unity.

With any Democrat, even Biden, in the White House, some measure of government competence would surely be restored; this would be an enormous gain. It is far from clear, though, that any Democratic president could do much more.

Sanders and Biden could not be more different but, in the circumstances that now obtain, it is far from clear that what they would be able to accomplish would differ all that much.

Even were there to be many more progressive House members after the 2020 election than there are now, and even were Democrats to take control the Senate, fundamental change would be as elusive as ever, even with Sanders in the White House.

The Senate especially would be a problem, partly because the average Democratic Senator makes even Biden look good, and also because that institution is, by design, exceptionally difficult to change, except in minor ways.

Thus, for now and the foreseeable future, Democratic Senators are more likely than not to stand in the way of fundamental, salutary changes than to support them.

But with a strong and principled Left Opposition threatening party unity, many of even the most retrograde Democratic Senators might find themselves effectively compelled to do the right thing.

Recovering some semblance of the party’s pre-Trumpian past is eminently doable, and so too, in the right circumstances, are bolder, more audacious, and urgently needed policy changes of the kind that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren put forward. It all depends on how well (small-d) democratic insurgents, operating within the Democratic fold, are able to leverage their power.

A revolution, even the saccharine kind Sanders talks about, would be better. It would be better too to let the mainstream Democratic Party wallow in its own wretchedness and inanity, while walking away from it and forming a genuine party of the Left.

However, the level of political radicalization that a revolution of any sort would require does not presently exist in the United States, and our deeply entrenched duopoly party system makes it all but impossible to create a Left party that is not thoroughly marginalized.

This could be accomplished more easily in a parliamentary system, especially one that allowed for proportional representation, but not in a system like ours.

Therefore, the best we can do now is what radical students in the early seventies in Germany and elsewhere, speaking in a Maoist idiom popular at the time, called “a long march through the institutions.”

It is profoundly regrettable that Biden will, in all likelihood, be the Democratic nominee. At the same time, though, it must be acknowledged that this is not an altogether bad thing.

Sparked by the corona virus and the self-serving sugar high economic measures Trump and his kakistocratic minions have imposed, it looks like the long delayed global recession is finally upon us.

Recessions are unavoidable in capitalist economies; the question was never whether, but when.

But this one is likely to be a doozy, especially with Trump having eliminated or neutered most ways of mitigating the effects of severe economic downturns.

A recession would make it more difficult than it would otherwise be for Sanders to implement many of the changes he talks about and that his supporters desperately want. Also, it would likely diminish whatever political capital he would have, were he to have become president.

Better, therefore, to let Biden take the blame. This would leave the Left undamaged in public opinion, and free to criticize the administration’s false moves and foibles.

There is also the mortality and morbidity question.

Sanders would assume office about a half year shy of his eightieth birthday; Biden is younger by about a year.

Sanders plainly has all his marbles and then some. But how will he be in four or eight years’ time? Inasmuch as our institutions, the Senate especially, are effectively engineered to impede change, he would need even more time than that to get his policy proposals fully up and running, much less carried through to anything like completion.

It would be the same with Biden, of course, but the valences are entirely different. So are the starting-points. Mentally, Sanders might as well be just now reaching his prime; Biden, never having been on a particularly high plateau, already seems well on his way to Reagan-like senility.

In both cases, though for different reasons, the choice of a running mate therefore matters a good deal more than it usually does.

Here, it is a wash. Sanders would surely find someone politically compatible but younger, and also female and “of color” or both. Biden would have to do so too, not out so much from immediate inclination as out of political necessity. Were he to choose someone as retrograde as he, the millions of otherwise unenthused Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters would sit this one out.

How ironic it would be if, by electing a doddering doofus septuagenarian white guy intent on reinstalling the old regime, we end up with a progressive in the White House or, even more likely, a woman, or both.

Another reason why Biden’s victory is not as awful a prospect as might appear has to do with those “darker angels of our nature” that Trump released and set in motion.

These would of course include anti-Semites who would be unlikely to take kindly to a Jewish socialist with a Brooklyn accent. If nothing else, at least a Biden victory would not rattle their cages in quite the way that a Sanders victory would, sparing us from the spectacle we saw in Charlottesville, of “good people,” in Trump’s view, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

And, although Biden’s Zionism is beyond dispute, and his affinities with rightwing nationalists all over the world – very evident while Bill Clinton was doing his best to dismember Yugoslavia – are profound, we will also probably be spared the kind of nonsense leveled against critics of Israel and of the Zionist movement that rightwing Laborites in the UK, the counterparts of our “moderates,” invoked to smear Jeremy Corbyn and the Labor Left. Were Sanders the nominee, we would be hearing a lot of drivel about how anti-Zionists are anti-Semites or self-hating Jews; at least with Biden, we will be spared.

Finally, were Sanders the nominee, he would probably find it expedient to refrain more than he has been doing lately from speaking out about the injustices visited upon the Palestinian people by the state of Israel and about the positive achievements of the Cuban Revolution. He has said nothing that is not obviously true, but that sort of talk is poison in Florida retirement communities, and Florida is a swing state.

Were Sanders to go mum, it would be a loss. Expanding public discourse in the United States has been among his signal achievements over the years. More than anyone else, he helped make socialism – the word and, in some ways too, the idea – politically acceptable, to an extent that had been unthinkable in American politics for nearly a century. To the extent that he keeps on doing more of that, with regard to Israel-Palestine and Cuba especially, his legacy will be mightily enhanced.

There is no denying that Biden’s victory over Sanders is a bitter defeat. It would be fair to say too, however, that much good could come from it; that it is, or could also become, a blessing in disguise.

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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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