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Damn It, Kamala

Photograph Source: California National Guard – CC BY 2.0

It seems like forever ago, but once upon a time, the electoral circus was not given over entirely to retrogrades; Republicans were very nearly as loathsome as they now are, long before Donald Trump turned them into a cult, but within the Democratic fold, there was talk of Medicare for all, the Green New Deal, racial and gender justice, serious police reform, and of ways to rein in and, however modestly, transform our viciously inegalitarian and predatory capitalist system.

There were even inklings of interest in diminishing the size and influence of our preposterously overblown military-industrial-national security state complex, and there was talk of ways to get the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave to menace the rest of the world less.

But then, sensing that they were losing control, the Pelosiites and Schumerians struck back, quashing the Sanders and Warren insurgencies, anodyne as they were. It is telling that they encountered little or no resistance from Sanders or Warren themselves.

To please their donors and to secure their own power, instead of going with either of the two candidates worth supporting or with a “moderate” with a progressive bone in his or her body, they decided that their best course would be to put their worst foot forward. Hence, Joe Biden.

Because Trump is arguably one of the most execrable human beings on the face of the earth and certainly the one best situated to do harm, and thanks as well to the covid-19 virus, Biden is very likely to win big time on Election Day, despite being himself. Down ticket Democrats – some Bidenesque, some a lot better than that — are likely to do well too.

This is all for the good because four more years of Trump and his sycophantic Vice President, Mike Pence, would be too much to bear. It is far from an unalloyed good, however.

The “normalcy” mainstream Democrats crave practically invites Trumpism, sans Trump, to survive and even flourish in a more palatable form once Trump is gone. This is why, assuming all goes tolerably well between now and Inauguration Day, the main enemy will soon become the conditions that made Trump and the “ism” that bears his name possible — conditions that the Clintons, both of them, actively promoted, that Barack Obama supported as well, and that Biden and other hardcore Pelosiites and Schumerians nowadays actively personify.

Thanks to them, the electoral circus, once so promising, is now good only for something they did more to hinder than to help along — dispatching Trump and his minions.

Beyond that, there has been only one other thing I have had to look forward to this electoral season: the Harris-Pence debate. Harris has it in her, many times over, to reduce that base and servile sycophant to tears, making him, as one used to say in those pre-“woke” days, cry like a girl. That is the fate that bullies and bully surrogates deserve.

But No. Following the advice of the mainstream Democrats that brought us to our present pass, she pulled her punches — in order, they say, not to come on like an angry black female, and also to make it all about Biden, not herself, as a good little running-mate should.

She followed those instructions well. And so, the most interesting facet of the debate I had been looking forward to for so long became the fly that kept landing on Pence’s head, and the trouble he was having with one of his eyes.

She “won,” of course; going up against a Trump apologist, how could she not. Nevertheless, I have to say it: damn you, Kamala.

Needless to say, she has other, more momentous, crimes against sound judgment and moral decency to answer for than that – among others, her almost Biden-like determination to please AIPAC, her willingness to go along with Democratic Party Cold War mongering, her support for fracking. The list goes on.

But, as far as I am concerned, all that pales next to her refusal to pound Mike Pence into the ground. I am being facetious of course, but not entirely – because, in the spirit of Plagiarism Joe, I can honestly say, plagiarizing William Blake, that a Kamala Harris in Joe Biden’s cage puts all heaven in a rage.

***

Not all “American supremacist,” neoliberal Democratic Party high-fliers are created equal. I apologize for that phrase, but “imperialist” doesn’t quite cover the full spectrum dominance that has become the American way in world affairs.

Obama was unusually thoughtful and therefore inclined to be cautious; the Clintons, both of them, were unusually slick. I could go on but there is an instructive and timely “compare and contrast” exercise between John Kerry and Joe Biden that begs to be addressed.

If only because they have both run for president on the Democratic ticket since George W. Bush, now only the second worst president in modern American history, defeated Al Gore — after, like Trump, losing the popular vote — it is odd that those two are seldom compared and contrasted. With the worst of them now about to have his dreams come true, the time to take stock is overdue.

The Roosevelts, both Teddy and Franklin, were all about noblesse oblige. The Kennedys followed suit, but with more of the common touch — Bobby especially, but also Ted. JFK had it in him as well, though he was usually too drugged to show it. It also didn’t help that, having been groomed to be president, he could hardly help being, as Robert Frost put it, more Harvard than Irish.

Though coming from more humble origins, Kerry is cut from similar cloth. His origins weren’t half bad either; they were good enough for Skull and Bones, but then they will take practically anybody, even the Bushes, father and son.

George W. compensated by being more Midland and Waco than Kennebunkport, and by being bumbling and goofy and sounding like Buddy Ebsen, the Jed Clampett character on the Beverly Hillbillies, rather than like Raymond Bailey, Clampett’s banker. Milburn Drysdale.

Kerry was more subtle; refusing, for example, to speak French at public events in France. Having done hard time at a prep school in Switzerland, his French, it seems, is fluent.

Neither 2004 candidate was exactly working class hero material, but they did what they could.

Biden tries too, though, in his case, it comes more naturally. Nevertheless, despite all his jibber-jabber about Scranton (supposedly the opposite of Park Avenue, not that young Donald ever spent much time there in any case) and Wilmington, his parents were hardly proletarians. That they ended up where they did had more to do with failed business ventures than factories, mines, or mills.

Indeed, Biden is and always has been more about the middle than the working class. Insofar as he is union friendly – more than the Clintons or Obama, but not nearly enough – it is because, in his view and the AFL-CIO’s, it was the labor movement that brought the middle class into being.

Remember how when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he pushed a similar line, going on sententiously about “the great forgotten middle class?” Disingenuity is an affliction those two share.

Both Kerry and Biden started out to the left of where they now are. Kerry enlisted to go to Vietnam – noblesse oblige again – but it didn’t take long for him to turn against the war. Biden was no fan of that war either, but the Winter Soldier investigation, which Kerry helped organize, vaatly outshines the student deferments Biden piled up.

To his credit though, and notwithstanding his (highly exaggerated) claims to have been a civil rights and peace activist, he did start out in politics as a New Deal – Great Society Democrat. However, by the final years of the Carter administration, as the spirit of the times and the dead center of the Democratic Party veered to the right, Biden’s politics followed. Neoliberalism suited him.

Kerry was swept up by the same current, but it ran weaker in Massachusetts than in Delaware. Thus, for what it’s worth (not much), Kerry remained a liberal stalwart – not quite to the same extent as Ted Kennedy, his Senate colleague, but almost.

On the other hand, no one could accuse Biden of that – not, anyway, before it dawned on him this year that, as Bob Dylan put it back in his and Kerry’s and Dylan’s salad days, the times they are a changing and that he’d better get out of way if he wasn’t going to lend a hand.

For Trump and Pence, Biden is and always has been a man of the Left, but then they only speak nonsense. It is the case however, even so, that circumstances are now actually pushing him, along with the Democratic Party generally, to the left. Still, wherever his party’s center falls, count on Biden to situate himself to the right of it.

Both Kerry and Biden were “moderates” at a time when the conventional wisdom was that moderation was essential for digging out from national tragedies brought on by Republican presidents. In Kerry’s case, that would be the Bush-Cheney wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the assault on basic rights and liberties that followed. In Biden’s case, it would be practically everything — because everything Trump touches, he makes significantly worse.

Like Biden today, Kerry was never thought of as much of a prize; he was just the anti-Bush. And although his record as an opponent of the Bush-Cheney wars was hardly sterling, the general idea at the time was that, being sensible and intelligent, he could hardly help not being significantly better than Bush and Cheney on that account.

Dispatching those two was widely felt to be an urgent task, but there was no way actually to look forward to, much less enthuse over, voting for the Democratic alternative. Nevertheless, with the Bush v. Gore fiasco still resonating, the consensus view, even in progressive circles, sectarians aside, was that the wisest course was to opt for the lesser evil – that, however distasteful it might be, il faut le faire, as they would say at Kerry’s boarding school, it must be done.

That is even better advice now because the worst Bush and Cheney could do was destabilize the historically Muslim world and chip away surreptitiously at civil rights and other liberal protections. A second Trump term would put a good deal more than that in mortal jeopardy.

This is why expressions like “clear and present danger” and “existential threat” have never been more apt; not in American and world politics.

However, working up enthusiasm for Kerry was a daunting task; for Biden, it is all but impossible.

The remedy sixteen years ago was to pay as little attention as possible to what Kerry would say, letting Bush and Cheney themselves make the case for going to the trouble of voting against them in the only effective way one could.

Of course, Kerry was not a catastrophe, like the world has never before known, waiting to happen. Quite to the contrary, for a mainstream Democrat a quarter century after the party and the world took a neoliberal turn, he was, if not at the top of the heap, pretty nearly as good as it gets.

Compared to the several contenders for this year’s Democratic nomination, Biden was the worst – the least charismatic, the most Clintonesque (neoliberal, American supremacist, Cold War mongering), and, from a practical political point of view, the one least likely to succeed.

Therefore, though the stakes are higher than they were in 2004, it is easier now to abide by the strategic imperative of just letting the greater evil – in this case, the monumentally greater evil – act out.

The situation is complicated however, because, as president, Trump has the emotional and intellectual maturity of a troubled adolescent boy. Letting him act out is therefore more dangerous by many orders of magnitude than doing the same for Bush and Cheney. Besides, in their case, that strategy didn’t actually work out that well.

Harris is on track to become America’s first female president. It cannot happen too soon; perhaps it will happen sooner than we think. But, to make history, not in the Trumpian way but in a way that will be good for the world, we, and she, don’t have to wait until then – not if she is clever enough, as she probably is, and willing to figure out how to take charge without unduly alarming those who think that Vice Presidents should know their place.

To my dismay, that is just what she did when debating Pence. I will never forgive her for that, but perhaps, in the circumstances, that was the wisest thing to do.

However, the world needs her to do a whole lot more, not because she is any sort of paragon, and not because what happens in the streets matters less than what happens at the pinnacles of power, but because what happens there matters too; and because, when the Trumpian nightmare finally ends, there will be nobody there at the top, nobody worth following, but her.

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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