Biden’s Arrow Hits Home


Joe Biden has mastered the political stump speech.  Watch the whole of his controversial campaign speech in Danville, Virginia, and you’ll see a great piece of Americana: a politician who knows how to work a crowd, seeking votes in a way that’s entertaining and folksy.  Biden’s allusion to slavery was hardly a gaffe; it was a logical and powerful way to get across a larger point about class and how Republicans have treated it for several decades.

We know Biden’s speech was a big success, because he was immediately excoriated as a dunce and a racist.  Blowback dominated the media for several days.  Romney huffily declared that Democrats had hit a new low and tried to get us to believe that Biden was a dangerous man whose message of division somehow “disgraced” the presidency.

Both sides questioned old Joe’s fitness and utility: Could he fill the presidential shoes if necessary?  Shouldn’t Obama drop him in favor of the sure-fire Hillary?  Democrats behaved predictably, too: instead of championing Biden and endorsing his underlying point, they grew sheepish.  If only they learned unity, the race wouldn’t even be close.

Puncturing the politics of avoidance
Yes, Biden hit a nerve, and he did it by puncturing the politics of avoidance that has been gripping the country.  Ever since the Reagan era, when Republicans managed to yoke together with one seamless ideology the economic interests of the elite with the social and moral concerns of people far more ordinary, class has been diminished as a potent source of political energy.  Republicans wish their supporters to believe that the interests of the wealthy and the less-so are the same.  To the extent that Democrats can pry this apart and present an alternative vision of class in American society, they will gain an important advantage over a Republican party that’s badly weakened already.

After all, this election is not “about jobs” or “the economy,” as Republicans say so blandly: it is about economic inequality and the role of the super-wealthy in our economic life.  It is about whether people like Mitt Romney, who has the whole world as his oyster, care about this nation’s economy and its ordinary people.

Romney would like voters to believe that his interests and theirs are just the same: that, if you feed the interests of his class, all will benefit; the interests of all classes will be served.  If that were the case, the recession would be ending, because American elites can write the script of the unfolding story.  They can decisively aid in restoring the nation’s economic health.  Leaders of America’s corporate class already have far more power than the president to see to it that Americans are more fully employed.

A party that’s drifted from its noble beginnings
Biden’s bald reference to slavery may well have pricked the conscience of Republicans who know how far their party has drifted from its noble beginnings.  In Lincoln’s time, Republicans were not only the champions of abolition: they were devoted to egalitarianism and to securing better economic prospects for lower-class whites.  The most radical Republicans advocated for full racial equality, a bracing proposition given the time.  Republicans were the ones who wanted to discuss such forbidden topics as slavery; it was Democrats who were proponents of silence, who wanted all discussion of “the peculiar institution” gagged.

Yet even then there were Republicans, such as Horace Greeley, who would not join the anti-slavery fight because they doubted whether the nation’s growing free-market system held out a sufficient promise of prosperity to American workers—even when those workers were white.  In the meantime, the persistence of slavery in America proved beyond a doubt that powerful elites, if left to their own devices, could not always be counted on to do the right thing.

Perhaps it was all that history that gave Biden’s arrow such a powerful zing.

Democrats: Shake It Up

CAN THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY change from within?  Probably not, because most very active Democrats see no need to.  The party has its entrenched blocs of support, just as the Republican Party does.  The Democratic Party’s need to retain its base, which it counts on to win in national elections, enforces its own tendency to be conservative.  Sadly, the party is unlikely to give up or disregard interests already in its column, even if doing so would bring it a base of support that’s broader, stronger, and more fervent.

It’s an unfortunate situation for several reasons.  1.) The Democratic Party is at risk of losing control of the Senate to an observably weaker party that’s on the verge of disintegrating.  Yet rather than boost its popularity by advancing a constellation of smart new ideas, the Democratic Party is coasting along defensively, its identity defined by its historical positions and the reactive posture it habitually assumes vis-à-vis the Republican Party.  What the Republicans attack, the Democrats defend.

2.) The Democrats’ patchy ideological vision leaves the country vulnerable to a rightward lurch: the staleness that might seem a parochial problem is a problem for the country, too.  The party’s failure to take up feasible positions on matters like fiscal reform or entitlements, for instance, leaves us with a defeated, going-nowhere feeling.  (Did you know that many Democrats, including my own representative Jan Schakowsky, voted against the bill to increase the debt ceiling?  Their numbers equaled the number of Republicans who voted no.)  Democrats’ inability to change with the times is creating an ideological vacuum that other ideas—other candidates—other factions are filling.

3.) In the meantime, large blocs of disaffected or simply bored voters have been left without partisan representation.  Such voters now comprise a plurality of the electorate, as the percentage of Americans affiliated with either party has continued to decline.  If the Democrats wish to remain relevant, they as a group must fashion an ideology that appeals to a greater number of these voters, and that’s compelling enough to induce them to identify with the party.

It’s not enough for a few leading Democrats (e.g., the President) to espouse new ideas.  The Democrats collectively must shift to new ground.  It’s not enough for a few Democrats reach out to young voters, or to green voters, say, because, in themselves, such gestures have no efficacy.  Without the power of a whole party behind them, the proposals of a few men or women mean nothing.

Until the Party modifies its identity, its would-be adherents will know the party is not really about them.  They won’t be able to rely on it as a vehicle of their values and concerns.  This is why enthusiasm for voting and the parties is waning.  This is why so many Americans are dissatisfied with the work their political leaders are doing.  The parties do not faithfully mirror modern Americans and their world; the mirrors they hold up are cloudy with the treacly cliches of decades.  They’re distorted with age.

Democrats must give up their comfortable mantras and embrace efficiency.  They must become champions of small, smart government, because this is the only kind that we can sustain.  There’s no reason why Democrats can’t continue to champion a constructive federalism (that’s only sensible), but they must work to rid government of its bloated, statist qualities.  Democrats must work toward a sort of state that maximizes individual freedom, which paradoxically might include becoming more protective of our economy, our skills & labor, and our resources and environment.

Democrats should identify themselves with the project of restoring civic integrity to the country, whether through increased emphasis on civics education in schools, through clearer paths to citizenship, or through the embrace of a party-wide pledge to renounce things like super-PAC money.  Democrats should acknowledge that entitlements must be reformed and take the lead in proposing changes that are practical and humane.

There are glimmers of hope within the Democratic Party.  I find it hopeful that the president and the Clintons are working together more closely.  Though none are ideologues, each has personified a pragmatic liberalism that could help catalyze a new outlook party-wide.  If aided by an echelon of leading Democrats, their inclinations could form the nucleus of an all-out movement.

Meanwhile, closer to home, a progressive version of Democracy is very much on display, with Illinoisans like Rahm Emanuel, Toni Preckwinkle, and now even Governor Quinn pushing against the party’s traditional constituencies in a quest for more efficient government that reins in spending.

Can the Democrats shake it up and become a new party?  Though it seems up to them, perhaps the answer’s with you.

RELATED:
New Democrats
Why Democrats Should Embrace Simpson-Bowles

Know someone who would like this article?  Feel free to share it using the buttons below.