What Biden Could Be Good For

Photograph Source: jlhervàs – CC BY 2.0

Should the two runoff elections in Georgia give control of the Senate to Democrats, we will be in a better place than we would otherwise be, though not by nearly as much as we would be were the actually existing Democratic Party more than just a Lesser Evil Party.

Since the late seventies, Democrats have been promoting the political line that made Trump and Trumpism possible – Wall Street and corporate friendly neoliberal austerity politics at home, sustained by an industrial policy based not on the needs of the “defense” industry and a Pentagon hellbent on full spectrum global dominance.

By a year or two into the Clinton presidency, with the dying embers of New Deal-Great Society politics all but entirely snuffed out, that has been pretty much the entire party’s general line.

Even so, they were good for sending Trump packing or, rather, for letting Trump send himself packing. How could they not? The man is a laughing stock, good for the fossil fuel industry perhaps, and for other capitalist dinosaurs-in-the-making, but despised by the rest of the nation’s “power structure,” for his obvious unfitness for the office he holds and for being an embarrassment to all but the most venal denizens of “the donor class.”

We would surely now be at least somewhat better off had Bernie Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren, a self-described capitalist celebrant, been the Democratic nominee, and had the mainstream party been less of a stumbling block in the way of the swelling tide of progressive dissidents seeking public office.

But we would probably not now be a whole lot better off, because what this country needs is a genuine Left Opposition, and with our duopoly party system’s stranglehold over our political scene as robust and seemingly infrangible as ever, this currently lies out of reach.

This is why sensible dissidents, in the “squad” and its ever-widening gyre, stay within the Democratic Party fold. They are there not out of retrograde sentiments, quite to the contrary, but because, were they not, they would marginalize themselves.

Needless to say, in a better possible world, progressive dissidents would now be actively engaged in running mainstream Democrats out of town on a rail, and it would be good riddance to all of them, from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on down (or, in some cases, up). They deserve it, just as surely as Republican miscreants – sorry for the redundancy, inasmuch as all Republicans are miscreants — deserve deportation to some later-day Devil’s Island.

I put it that way in order not to sink to their depraved moral level, especially now, as they rally behind their Leader’s efforts to oversee as many judicial murders of federal death row inmates as he can while he still remains in office.

This is one of those moments when it is hard not to regret the direction civilization has taken — inasmuch as what Trump and Mitch McConnell and others of their ilk deserve is the hangman’s noose or the firing squad or, best – and most symbolic and humane of all — the guillotine.

They need not worry, however – not when “bipartisanship” (collaboration between the Lesser and Greater Evil parties) is esteemed to such an extent that even the foulest Republicans must never be spoken of unkindly, even in jest. Trump yes, but not his enablers.

Nowadays, the heroes are the goody-goodies who reach “across the aisle”; justice be damned. This is likely to remain the case for some time.

Therefore, frontal assaults on the old regime are, for now, out of the question. Indeed, hints of anything smacking of the “democratic socialism” that Bernie Sanders and others made almost mainstream for a while have become downright verboten, unless presented piecemeal and in watered-down versions.

Sanders’ “democratic socialism” is essentially, New Deal-Great Society liberalism brought up to date. Inasmuch as it leaves property rights — rights to control and benefit from productive assets — largely unchanged, there is not much “socialist” about it. And yet, mainstream Democrats run away from it.

Could this be just because it accords a greater role to states, and a lesser role to markets, than has become the norm, across the entire mainstream, preposterously narrow, political spectrum, since the Democratic Party’s glory days? If so, how pathetic is that!

Be that as it may, progressive dissidents now find themselves engaged in what Antonio Gramsci called “a war of position.” What he had in mind was the Western front in World War I, before the United States entered the war and before the February and October Revolutions in Russia.

Then, locked into a virtual stalemate, the contending sides fought each other over comparatively tiny patches of land. Grave carnage resulted. Future struggles between Bidenites and the anti-Biden left will surely be kinder and gentler, but could well become similarly protracted.

Some good could come from them, nevertheless. For one thing, they could hasten the time when it is better understood than it now is that “diversity” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

When Obama took office, there was much bruhaha about his putting together a cabinet consisting of “a team of rivals,” just as Abraham Lincoln did. The expression entered public discourse thanks mainly to a much ballyhooed book by “presidential historian” and cable news mainstay Doris Kearns.

Needless to say, the application of the idea to the Obama cabinet was pretty much a joke; what he brought together was a team of class warriors from Goldman Sachs.

Team Biden’s aim, it seems, is to put together an administration comprised of persons representing the various constituencies upon which Democrats depend for votes, more or less in proportion to their size and degree of support.

In accord with the spirit of the times, these constituencies are essentially self-identified identity groups, reflecting contingent, historically mediated racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender divisions.

This is not a bad thing, considering how, not long ago, white males ruled nearly every roost. And because most of these groupings intersect in various ways with class divisions, it is not as much at odds with the exigences of current forms of class struggle as might appear.

That “diversity” ought to be about more than ascribed racial and ethnic identifications is a lesson that should have been learned, but wasn’t, in the Obama years.

Being a “black” president, Obama did do some good — by being there. He was more helpful, though, to Wall Street and to the military-industrial-national security state complex than to persons “of color,” except perhaps for the ten percent or so that, like Obama himself, had already moved beyond the threshold of embourgeoisement, even as their lives, and especially the lives of their adolescent sons, hardly mattered to our country’s vastly over-resourced forces of repression.

In view of his past, Biden is an unlikely figure to convey that message. But perhaps for just that reason, and because in politics ironies abound, it will become a lot clearer to many more people –“of color” and not — than it evidently now is that, as James Carville, might put it: “it’s the politics, stupid.” Carville is one of the few Clintonites still kicking around that I can see and hear without becoming enraged.

In much the way that the best argument against Trump and Trumpism was, and still is, Trump himself, Biden will likely turn out to be the best argument against the “ism” that will soon enough bear his name.

Or, not. It depends on whether he remains true to his nature and his past or allows himself to move – or be pushed — in a more constructive direction. Perhaps, when the situation calls for it and when pressures to do the right thing become overwhelming, that old dog can learn a few new tricks. I wouldn’t count on it, but, for the moment at least, the prospect doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.

The situation so far, though far from hopeful, could be a lot worse. All the talk lately about appointing Republicans to powerful positions – John Kasich, for example, or, believe it or not, Cindy McCain – bodes ill. So does Biden’s reluctance to reward the progressive dissidents that put him over the top in the battleground states with anything like a genuinely progressive appointee.

He has appointed a climate Czar, however. Unfortunately, it is John Kerry, a proponent of market-oriented palliatives, that got the nod. But Kerry is a prominent figure, so this is an encouraging gesture. And even as Biden has been busy re-empowering old Obama and Clinton hands, he has, for the most part, been finding them at the top, not the bottom, of the barrel – witness, for example, Wally Adeyemo, Heather Boushey, Jared Bernstein and, for that matter, even Janet Yellen.

None of them are exactly cut from the same cloth as the progressive dissidents who have no place else to go, but they are about as good as could be expected.

And then there is Biden’s pick to be the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden. She seems well-calculated to tick progressives off; not because her politics is any worse than the politics of the others, it isn’t, but because she is a diehard Clintonite, who was prominent in efforts to squelch the Sanders campaign.

Ironically, rightwing pipsqueaks, Lindsay Graham especially, have it in for her too – because they have delicate feelings, and because her tweets showed them no mercy. It also doesn’t help that she is a woman and the head of a George Soros supported, ostensibly “liberal” thinktank, the Center for American Progress.

Republicans are therefore determined to block her nomination. If I didn’t know better, I would say that Biden and his advisors chose her to be their sacrificial lamb. But they are not that clever. I must say, though, that inasmuch as, like the Clintons, she has been no friend of entitlement programs, including Social Security, I would not be particularly upset were she to fall into a sacrificial lamb role.

However, were Biden to succumb to Republican pressure to dump her, it will be a bad sign. On the other hand, it would be a good sign if, with the Senate no longer under McConnell’s thumb, he right away does what Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate could easily do if they have their wits about them and if they are able, like Republicans, to enforce party discipline.

At the top of the list would be increasing the number of Supreme Court Justices – in order to keep five nefarious rightwing troglodytes, three of them Trump appointees, from doing incalculable harm — to reproductive rights, to democracy, and to the capacity of the national government to regulate public affairs in the public interest.

Next in line should be DC statehood; the case for that is beyond reproach and the need is urgent. Now would be a good time too to put Puerto Rican statehood, if they want it, on the agenda as well.

And, of course, Biden should make it clear that while he does not, like Trump, want to treat his political opponents in the ways that the rightwing autocrats whom Trump admires do, by locking them up, he does want the Justice Department to be independent, and therefore to undertake and continue prosecutions when appropriate.

Trump is sure to abuse his pardon power by providing his cronies, his idiot children and their spouses, and himself with get-out-of-jail-free cards. We will see how much of that our troglodyte judges will allow.

He is already talking too about running again in 2024. There are plenty of morons out there and they are not about to disappear any time soon. Therefore, this is indeed a concern; Trump did get some eighty million votes, after all.

However, though the prospect sickens, a politically active Trump could actually be a good thing — if it leads the Republican Party to ruination, as it well might by impeding efforts to get the Greater Evil Party back on the track it was on in the Mitt Romney – John McCain days.

Nevertheless, it will be a national disgrace if, one way or another, the Trump crime family eludes justice or, failing that, avoids financial ruination.

At first, Trump ran for president not to win, but to enhance his brand. How wonderful and fitting it would be if the Trump name – like, say, Benedict Arnold’s – becomes an inexpungeable mark of disgrace.

Be that as it may, there is a real danger that without Trump actively undermining his own cause, Democratic “moderation” could be disheartening enough to lead to dire electoral consequences as soon as the 2022 midterm election. It happened to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and, of course, to Barack Obama. Why not Biden too?

“America is back,” Biden and his minions declare. Back at what? At dominating the world and leading it to ruin?

Ironically, the Israeli assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s leading nuclear scientist – it now seems clear that Israel was the main and perhaps the only culprit – presents an opportunity of truly historical import that cries out to be seized, but that Biden will almost certainly let pass.

For four years, a seven year old in a septuagenarian’s body has had access to the American nuclear codes; it is a wonder that he has not unleashed Armageddon in a fit of pique, because something on Fox News or worse struck him the wrong way.

Indeed, because he is president still and because he is mentally decomposing in full public view, we cannot yet be confident that we have dodged that bullet. It seems a lot more likely than not that we have, however. But, nuclear disarmament remains as elusive a goal as ever.

Now, though, is a time not just to salvage what remains salvageable after Trump of the Iran nuclear deal, but to call for nuclear disarmament for the entire region. This would include Iran, of course; and it would block efforts by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies to become nuclear powers. And it would require Israel, the one nuclear state in the region now, to give up the bomb.

What a fantastic game changer that would be! Israel, after all, is not just the region’s sole nuclear power; it is also, by far, the most bellicose state actor in the Middle East.

Nobel Peace Prizes haven’t been worth a whole lot, since Henry Kissinger got one, but if Biden wants one even so, this would give him a far greater leg up than Obama had.

Sadly, though, it isn’t going to happen, because Biden has been in AIPAC’s pocket from the moment he entered politics at the national level; and, on this, the old dog is just too set in his ways to change.

We can dream, though: today the Middle East, then the Indian subcontinent, and, inasmuch as the French and British nuclear forces are basically just historical vestiges, maintained more for symbolic than military reasons, the European region as well. Biden could de-nuclearize them all.

General and complete nuclear disarmament would be better, of course, but failing that, a nuclear order comprised of three “superpowers,” the US, Russia, and China, could present an opportunity to concoct a more stable configuration for the foreseeable future than the world has known since the early years of the nuclear age. Biden could move the Doomsday Clock back a few notches, if he could find the courage within himself to try.

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).