Joe Biden’s Opinion-Shaping Machine And Race

Wall Street broke out its checkbooks for Joe Biden in the wake of Super Tuesday, no surprise since his campaign is already its major recipient. Plus, he was the VP for an administration greatly indebted to it. Transparency. His campaign is awash in cash from the interests that Sanders is challenging as the very source of the blockage to progress. Are we going to get a re-treading of the policies that helped vault Trump to the White House in 2016?

Biden is the last moderate standing, having positioned himself clearly against the Sanders “revolution” in the debates, though it’s difficult to conjure a theme or concept that shapes his campaign besides beating Trump, the perception he can giving him an edge. We can thank the Democratic party establishment for pressuring the other moderates out of the race to prop Biden up (Matthew Stevenson, “The Super Tuesday Sting,” 3/6/20, CounterPunch).

But race played a curious role. The Black vote saved his campaign in South Carolina and strengthened his Super Tuesday and subsequent performances. He trumpeted his record on race in the debates which Kamala Harris—who has now endorsed him—exposed as checkered at best. Though avoiding any direct discussion of Obama’s policies, he has at least been mentioning him more often. This surely gave him a bump as well since the former president is still popular among Blacks. Though selective amnesia likely rules here since the Congressional Black Caucus separated itself from him early in his administration. The new Democratic party that has over the past forty years or so become more like the Republican party has done little for Blacks. So how do we explain the apparent love affair they have for the Democratic party establishment? They went for Hilary at this same juncture in 2016, neutralizing Sanders’ momentum and effectively ending his run.

Black voters make up 56% of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina and Biden got an estimated 61-64% of it. Sanders received 17%. These proportions generally hold nationally through the latest series of primaries. But Blacks have the largest support of any group for the signature progressive issue endorsed by Sanders, single payer health insurance. The national percentage is 74%. Since it’s hard to believe such deep-seeded beliefs could be countered, what intervened? The all-out media assault from sundry front groups doing the bidding of the private insurance industry to dissuade voters from choosing any candidate spouting Medicare For All was surely influential but hardly determining.

It’s the power of the Black leaders to represent their constituents in ways that counter their core concerns, like their decreasing standard of living and their increasing economic insecurity, according to Adolph Reed Jr. and Willie Legette. In the run-up to the 2016 South Carolina primary, for example, Congressmen James Clyburn (D-SC), John Lewis (D-GA), and Cedric Richmond (D-LA) denounced calls for free public higher education as “irresponsible” because “there are no free lunches.” Clyburn, who endorsed Biden in the recent primary, made his denouncement of Medicare for All and especially the Sanders progressive agenda quite clear in this support. This is no great surprise since between 2008 and 2018 he took more than $1 million from the pharmaceutical industry (“Mystique of the ‘Black Vote’,” Common Dreams, 3/7/20).

Of course, the culture of these Southern states, mostly Republican, has been dominated by the Wall Street neoliberal consensus ever since the Democrats lost their hold on the region. The expectation has been that the post-Civil Rights semblance of movements would coalesce around a resistance to this bloc, but the Black brokers and opinion shapers have mostly relished their roles in the dominant power structure. Since 2016, according to Reed and Legette, it has converged around a narrative that Sanders has difficulty appealing to Black voters, even as polls have shown repeatedly that his program is more popular among Black Americans than any other group. It has graded Sanders down for his critique of Obama and especially for mounting a primary challenge against him. Sanders’ progressive restructuring has been rejected for policies that mesh with the neoliberal consensus, like the racial programs for the educated and upwardly mobile that stress entrepreneurship and business development. Its main objective is to “undermine Black Americans’ participation in a broad movement for social transformation along economically egalitarian lines.”

These brokers’ support of the neoliberal consensus has been secured through framing the larger issue as the preservation of rights. Mara Gay explains James Clyburn’s strong support of Biden as someone he knows personally who will fight for the basic rights that are eroding under a Trump administration that has brought back the “same hostility and zeal for authoritarianism that marked life under Jim Crow.” She finds that voters concur, believing that Biden will fight for those rights since, as one representative interviewee claims, he was “with Obama all those years.” The clincher is that he is also the best bet to beat Trump. They’re “deeply skeptical that a democratic socialist like Mr. Sanders could unseat Mr. Trump” (“Why Southern Democrats Saved Biden,” New York Times, 3/6/20).

Is this an elite-fed discourse that stuck, or possibly some toxic populism like what circulates among Trump supporters? An investment in the good ole days when the Civil Rights Movement was ascendant is a worthy sentiment for sure. Where would racial relations be without the historic transformation that produced the pivotal “rights” legislation in the 1960s? And many who passed through those moments might have a romantic attraction to Biden’s image even though his support of Blacks before Obama hitched him was feeble.

But consider what’s happened since. The turn to the right in the 1970s brought on a mild “Reconstruction”-era backlash whose signal legal event was the Bakke case in 1977 which weakened Affirmative Action and banned quotas that were now deemed proof of “reverse discrimination.” The down-turning economy during this decade was the start of a structural change that revealed the widening wealth and income gap between the lower and upper classes, and Blacks were hit disproportionately hard. The rights legislation that helped to narrow the gap in the prior decade offered less protection.

The Reagan administration attempted to turn the clock back to the pre-Civil Rights era and partially succeeded in wiping away the gains Blacks had made. Toward the end of the decade protections, especially Affirmative Action, were further weakened legally, and culturally as “reverse discrimination” claims from intellectuals like Charles Murray and others compounded, supporting the rollback of social policy initiatives. These sympathies were also evident in Black communities where leaders pondered how to do the right thing and reverse the loss of ground. Many began to view Affirmative Action, for example, as a fetter, a burden that tainted performance by suggesting it was undeserved. The 1990s went far in dismantling all regulatory regimes, discrediting social policy initiatives, heeding the suggestions of Murray and passing the burden of improvement onto responsible individuals. The 1996 welfare “reform” law crystalized these changes, reversing AFDC and its underlying concept, no-fault entitlement, and the impact on Blacks was devastating. The Clintons were staunch advocates but somehow this association didn’t erode Hilary’s huge support in the Black community in 2016. Any gains for those who got the point and took personal responsibility after this change and tried to work the market to their advantage were wiped out by the effects of the 2008 Great Recession. As recent studies show, this event severely impacted Blacks, deflating their capital assets—mainly property values through the housing market crash—to a level not seen for many since the pre-Movement years, widening the wealth gap with whites.

Mara Gay claims that “despite enormous progress,” referring to South Carolina, “poverty in this still largely rural region, for Southerners of every race, remains crushing.” Enormous progress for what strata of society? Is every race being crushed equally? Progress and regress exist here in a kind of murky relationship. Who are the winners? If there is only a generalized, abstract poverty, then perhaps Blacks just see themselves as part of one big unfortunate swatch of misery and there’s no need for a special candidate to articulate their issues. Biden will do just fine!

Do the Blacks who voted for Biden really believe that rights, and possibly a stronger Affirmative Action, will get them better jobs and health care and education and housing, what polls say they want? The Supreme Court certainly weakened provisions of the rights legislation, ironically during the Obama years, and that needs to be redressed. But rights for individuals or a group need to be expressed with the potential of producing results. They could be in the 1960s when the kind of liberal Democrats Sanders espouses controlled Congress and our society was an ascendant, center-left one, mostly sympathetic with improving the plight of the underprivileged. Now structural change needs to accompany the expression of rights and compensate for this loss of sympathy in a society that is much more unequal generally, and especially within racial and ethnic groups.

A romantic attachment to the legacy and concept of civil rights in a vacuum allows the discourse of identity politics to capture the critical energy of race. The times demand the opposite, the link between rights and social justice; the gathering of all identities, affiliations, and dispositions together to discuss the common structure that can overcome division and artificial barriers. Class is such a structure. The delink of rights and social justice converts to the denial of the realities of class.

For Chris Hedges the power elite is always eager to keep discussions within the confines of special discourses like race, gender, religion, immigration, gun control, freedom, etc., because these issues are “used to divide the public, to turn neighbor against neighbor, to fuel virulent hatreds and antagonisms,” and they divert attention from class, the concept they fear the most (“Class: The Little Word the Elites Want You to Forget,” Truthdig, 3/3/20).

There’s a striking inequality gap within the Black community that’s been widening for some time, as William Julius Wilson’s research has amply documented for nearly half a century. The failure of rights activism has left many in the lower and working classes behind as the educated professional class has separated itself from them and achieved significant success. It’s interesting that nearly 9% of Blacks voted for Trump in 2016. Why have so few of the Black masses been absorbed a half century after Martin Luther King’s death? The inclusion of more from the lower strata will need to break down the not-very-visible structural barriers to mobility that divide and exclude. Something like the pro-active re-structuring pushed by the Rainbow Coalition, Jesse Jackson’s multi-racial, structural response to the widening of the inequality gap in his 1980s run for the presidency, which was clearly the revival of MLK’s late expression of the link between race and class. The distance between King’s social justice vision and activism and the rights-rhetoric infused activity of today is remarkable. It’s interesting that Jackson recently endorsed Sanders.

The opinion-shaping machine is strong enough to encourage Blacks to overwhelmingly support Biden who pushes virtually nothing related to class or structural change. Further evidence of this strength came recently in an interchange between Michael Eric Dyson, a persistent critic of the Obama legacy, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a staunch Sanders supporter (DemocracyNow. 3/16/20). Dyson has endorsed Biden, a surprise to many progressives given his critical history of mainstream liberalism. His reasoning is curious.

It’s not that he feels Biden is or has become a progressive. It’s about strategy and pragmatism. He believes Biden can win, and Sanders can’t, and this is all important given the dire situation in the Black community. There’s a hint it seems that Biden could be in the early stages of conversion to progressive ideas, or at least perhaps is a latently aggressive liberal and spirited supporter of the Black cause who can make change if elected because he—and the Democratic Party?—have been pushed to the left by the Sanders “revolution” begun in 2016. Biden has the best “methodology” and will be able to “deploy” it.

A staunch advocate of structural change, Dyson now seems to be saying that it can be accomplished through Biden who will have the authority and desire to marshal the necessary forces and interests together to build alliances, forge a consensus. It’s true that Biden’s public relations gestures—considered separate from his debate focus—have passed the desire test. He’s come out liberal and even progressive-sounding on most issues, pushed there perhaps by Sanders’ momentum as Dyson suggests (“Joe Biden’s Positions on the Issues,” Politico, 3/5/20).

But what will he forge a consensus about? In the process of marshaling forces together will he become a converted progressive, pumped up by his successes as an alliance builder? Will he support Medicare for All from having witnessed the effects of our health care system straining under pressure from the coronavirus? Will he be able to convince Sanders’ supporters to come along and bide their time as this—utopian—process evolves?

The rift would seem too wide to bridge. Trusting elites to change the system from the top down, persuading members of their power bloc to do the right thing, is a gamble given all the betrayals from the Democratic party over the past few generations. But we only need to go back to 2008. This was essentially Obama’s ruse in absorbing Wall Street into his administration, yet it never prosecuted actors in the financial sector for the consequences of the Great Recession. The seeding of fundamental change from the bottom up to legally secure socio-economic rights for the excluded is a better gamble, but one that it’s difficult to imagine Biden taking. And this latter strategy is surely the only one that can appreciably improve the conditions of Blacks.

Biden’s record over the years is revealing for its moderation. He’s a center-right Democrat, liberal on some issues but mostly in sync with the neoliberal order, market solutions and not firm governmental action, keeping his distance from “welfare state” interventions.

He’s for retooling Obamacare, not restructuring the healthcare system as a public institution. He’s not for restructuring the tax system in a progressive direction, what enabled the great middle-class expansion of the American Century, the turn to the past that Sanders the “socialist” advocates. And he’s not for expanding education through free tuition, what could clearly empower the next generation and seed a better democracy.

Biden will likely only play for pay and not pay the Democratic party’s debts…

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His next book, From Hyperion to Erebus, is due out this year from Wapshott Press.


John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class