Earlier this month, the most conservative of the major candidates in the Democratic field all but secured the party’s presidential nomination. However one accounts for Joe Biden’s victory, it should not be controversial to say that it was not a win for the left or for progressive Democrats.
Biden neither campaigned on the left nor meaningfully sought the support of progressive groups, making a public habit of telling activists who even politely disagreed with him to take a hike and go vote for someone else. Thanks to the entire party establishment rallying around him, he won anyway, largely on his own terms and from within his own comfort zone: pitching himself as the safe, pragmatic choice who could be counted upon by an anxious electorate (and a nervous class of big donors and business interests) not to rock the boat or have rough ideological edges of any kind. “I need you very badly,” Biden told a hundred wealthy contributors at the Carlyle Hotel in New York’s Upper East Side last summer “[If I’m elected president] No one’s standard of living will change, nothing fundamentally would change.”
He could scarcely have put it any clearer than that.
Nonetheless, the weeks since Biden’s de facto nomination have given rise to a curious media phenomenon which has some commentators speculating that the former vice president may yet surprise everyone and become a progressive standard-bearer after all — perhaps even a transformative figure whose presidency remakes both the party and the country he leads.
On what exactly is this contention being based?
Much of the argument hinges on the platform Biden has formally adopted which, among other things, commits him to strengthening unions, new spending on green infrastructure and education, and a public option for health insurance. Biden also recently endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan and said he now supports a partial forgiveness of student debt.
For writers like NY Mag’s Jonathan Chait and the NYTs’ Michelle Goldberg, all this is reason enough to think Biden might be a whole lot more progressive than he seems. As Chait would have it, in fact, comrade Joe is actually pitching “one of the largest wealth transfers in American history” on the basis of his tax plan alone. And that’s not all. “There is plenty more liberal meat on the bones of Biden’s program,” he writes, noting a suite of other policies including a $15 minimum wage and $17 trillion in clean energy investment. Goldberg, for her part, thinks Biden’s labor policy is fantastic, citing progressive economist Lawrence Mishel (who says no Democratic nominee in his lifetime has presented “as robust and fleshed out a policy suite on labor standards and unions.”)
With a pretty significant caveat (more on that in a moment) the above may actually be true. Biden’s agenda is, on paper, a reform-minded program that in several respects reaches beyond anything a centrist Democratic presidential candidate has gotten behind before. As some would have it, this is symptomatic of an encouraging shift in American liberalism, ever the tip of the spear when it comes to ushering in epochal social, economic, and cultural changes.
Which brings us to a second pillar of the Could Biden Actually Be Progressive meme, namely the idea that the former vice president, whatever his past commitments or patterns of behavior, will be carried by a wider zeitgeist that has seen the entire Democratic Party gradually bend towards the arc of progress. “To be sure, Biden speaks lovingly of Republicans and harks back to a time of bipartisanship, but he’s no moderate,” writes Ben Koltun for Morning Consult. “The Democratic Party has moved left over the years and so has Biden…So-called moderate Democrats today are leftists in the arc of Democratic history.” Goldberg agrees, writing that “Biden has always positioned himself at the center of the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party has moved left.” Chait thinks much the same, arguing that while Biden does indeed promise a return to normalcy, this is basically interchangeable progress in an uninterrupted liberal lineage represented by Roosevelt, Johnson, and Obama. Thus, while liberalism in 2020 may be about little more than continuity with the past, restoration of the old somehow implies progress towards the new. QED.
This line of reasoning is somewhat in tension with another part of the argument for Biden’s crypto-progressive bona fides, which wonders whether his conservative reputation might actually be evidence that a transformative liberal presidency lies ahead. “Like Pelosi, Biden has credibility with powerful blocs within the Democratic Party,” muses Koltun. “He’s in a better position than either Sanders or Warren in bringing the whole Democratic caucus along.” Similarly neither FDR nor Johnson, as Goldberg observes, were initially seen as progressive standard-bearers but ultimately proved to be two of liberalism’s most accomplished figures. If only Nixon could go to China, or so the logic goes, perhaps only Biden can usher in a second New Deal.
Little about the first, and most potentially persuasive, of these points is actually in dispute. Go to Joe Biden’s official website and you’ll indeed find a reform-minded program with plenty of chicken soup for the progressive soul. The problem is assuming Biden will actually meaningfully campaign on any of it. The 2016 Democratic platform was similarly heralded as the “most progressive ever” but its nominee produced the most policy-free TV blitz in modern political history. Presidential candidates are not strictly bound to run on the policies found in their own official platforms and there’s little reason to believe Biden is going to pivot leftward in a general election and abandon the more conservatively-oriented narrative he’s championed so far.
As none other than Chait himself observes, many of Biden’s stated proposals will face stiff resistance from the wealthy and from moneyed interests — as virtually anything worth pursuing invariably does. The complication, which goes unacknowledged in the resulting argument, is that Biden has openly courted many of these same interests over the course of his campaign: his list of fundraisers, advisors, and donors being a veritable who’s who of bagmen from the illustrious realms of Big Pharma, banking, real estate, and private equity. Sure, Biden is officially pitching ambitious proposals like a public option for health insurance. But he also launched his campaign at a fundraiser hosted by a health insurance executive and, as of last summer, had received the most money in the Democratic field from insurance and pharmaceutical employees.
In the context of a primary election shaped heavily by institutional opposition to Medicare For All and the populist candidate crusading for it, Biden’s public option — like many of the watered down healthcare proposals produced by the Democratic field — emerged as a kind of conservative compromise designed to balance the demands of liberal voters and progressive groups with those of profit-driven private industry. With the Sanders insurgency safely neutralized there’s little reason to believe Biden’s next move won’t be a further compromise (i.e. retreat) from the position he currently holds as donors and special interests inevitably rally against that as well. Is a figure like Biden, who has based his entire electoral pitch on securing and maintaining the support of exactly these groups, really going to go to the mats when they resist his agenda? The answer seems pretty obvious.
Insofar as the Democratic Party as an institution has moved in a more progressive direction (whatever that actually means), Biden’s candidacy can only be read as a conservative reaction to many parts of the shift. On every one of the issues said to matter most to liberals today — racism, immigration, reproductive rights, and the politics of identity — the former vice president is a reactionary throwback who has been on the wrong side of things for the vast majority of a lengthy career that began when the Democratic caucus still included southern Dixiecrats (several of whom, incidentally, were bosom chums). Thus, in the span of only a few weeks, a liberal culture that zealously embraced the #MeToo moment just a few short years ago has had to awkwardly renegotiate its relationship to sexual assault allegations for no other reason than that the figure currently being accused happens to be named Biden. Come November, leading figures in that same culture will call on the nation to strike a blow against racism by rallying around Strom Thurmond’s eulogist.
When the Sanders candidacy was suspended earlier this month, a coalition of major progressive groups, many of them youth-driven, issued a list of demands for Biden which included, among other things, that he pledge not to appoint “zero current or former Wall Street executives or corporate lobbyists, or people affiliated with the fossil fuel, health insurance or private prison corporations” to his team or cabinet. He responded in kind by appointing Milton Freidman admirer Larry Summers as an advisor, the political equivalent of giving progressive activists a giant middle finger.
Suffice it to say, this is not a pattern of behavior that suggests Biden is particularly serious about pursuing any of the progressive measures currently on his official agenda. His entire candidacy, in fact, grates cacophonously against the idea that liberalism today has much to do with progress in either a social or economic sense. Though far from the Democratic establishment’s first choice, Biden emerged victorious principally because he was the measure of last resort against a youthful populist insurgency that threatened big donors and corporate interests and briefly forced even dull as ditchwater centrists to talk like serious reformers. His ascendence represents not only a win for the most conservative figure in the primary, but a repudiation of the only significant effort in modern history to change how the Democratic Party and its leading figures fundamentally operate — all on behalf of big donors and party grandees and without significant overture to the cultural liberalism that supposedly defines the current Democratic zeitgeist.
Assuming Biden’s oft-elusive and zombie-like campaign actually survives the pressure of the next few months, we should fully expect it to embrace the conventional Democratic strategy of going mum on all the softly populist elements in its own platform, chasing conservatively-minded suburban voters, and pivoting to the so-called center. And in the likely event that such a maneuver occurs, many of the liberal commentators currently musing that Joe Biden may in fact be the second coming of FDR will probably deem it, yet again, a necessary tactical retreat in the face of the eternal Republican menace.
Call this state of affairs whatever you want, but don’t call it progress.