President Joe Biden held a rally in Joliet, Illinois, on Saturday. There he pressed the case for voting for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, focusing in particular on the Republicans’ plans to cut Social Security and Medicare if they win a majority.
On his way in, he was greeted by protesters apparently affiliated with the conservative organization Turning Point USA (TPUSA) who held signs declaring that “Socialism Sucks.” The president derided the claim that he was a socialist, saying, “I love those signs when I came in: socialism. Give me a break. Idiots.”
Unfortunately, he’s right about that. Socialists are committed to putting an end to the brutally unequal distribution of wealth and economic power in our society. And Biden has spent his entire political life on the other side of the barricades.
The Senator From MBNA
When Biden was in the Senate, he earned the nickname “the senator from MBNA” for his chummy relationship with the MBNA holding company — parent company of MBNA Bank — headquartered in his state of Delaware.
According to Jacobin staff writer Branko Marcetic, author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, Biden voted “against a measure requiring credit card companies to warn consumers of the consequences of making only minimum payments and voted four times for an industry-supported bankruptcy bill that made it harder for financially strained borrowers to get protection from creditors.” At the same time, he
spent years fighting off attempts to prohibit companies from filing for bankruptcy in states where they were incorporated but didn’t do business — a measure that would have hit the big fees racked up by law firms in Delaware, where many major companies are incorporated.
Meanwhile, Biden credited himself many times with having authored the draconian 1994 Crime Bill. As political winds have shifted, he’s stopped congratulating himself on that particular achievement, but there was a time when he proudly referred to it as the “Biden/Clinton” crime bill. A few years earlier, he wrote another piece of “tough-on-crime” legislation so draconian that he actually bragged that it did “everything but hang people for jaywalking.”
That attitude, which lead Marcetic to call then senator Biden a “zealot” for mass incarceration, was intimately linked to his support for neoliberal economic policy. The turn toward “tough-on-crime” politics emerged in the ’70s and picked up steam in the ’80s and ’90s as part of a bipartisan turn away from the path of tackling poverty by expanding New Deal and Great Society welfare state provisions and toward managing the social ills generated by poverty through a harsher regime of policing and incarceration.
And Biden was very much part of that bipartisan turn.
Socialism Is When the Government Spends Money?
When I debated Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk last fall in Arizona, he showed up wearing a “Socialism Sucks” T-shirt. He cheerfully told me in the green room that he changed into it when one of his staffers told him I was wearing a Bernie Sanders shirt.
I can understand why he thinks “Socialism Sucks” makes sense as a jab at me or a jab at Jacobin — but why on Earth would TPUSA think it made sense as a jab at Joe Biden?
Kirk has argued that it makes sense to call Biden a socialist because his administration has spent a lot of money on various projects. Apparently, he thinks the connection between that and “socialism” is self-explanatory.
Joe Biden just called Turning Point activists “idiots” for saying he’s a socialist:
$ 1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan
$1.2 trillion “infrastructure”
$1 trillion student loan “forgiveness”
$739 billion Inflation Reduction Act
$5 trillion in 20 months is what, exactly?
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) November 5, 2022
It’s worth noting that the second item on Kirk’s list was a bipartisan infrastructure bill that secured nineteen Republican votes in the Senate and was enthusiastically supported by the US Chamber of Commerce. Were those Republican senators socialists? Is the Chamber of Commerce a socialist institution? Obviously not.
Almost as absurdly, the first item is the American Rescue Plan. That one was a party-line vote, passing the Senate fifty to forty-nine — which means that, while no Republicans voted for it, every Democrat did. I’d love to know whether Charlie thinks that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are socialists. And the actual substance of the bill bore more than a passing resemblance to the CARES Act passed the year before and signed by noted socialist Donald Trump.
But even if we put aside the absurdity of Kirk’s examples, there’s a much larger problem with his claim. Does he really think that there’s something socialist about the mere act of the government spending money? If so, does it matter to him what it’s spent on? If the government spends money on a secret police force whose job is to infiltrate, spy on, and disrupt socialist and communist organizations, is that a socialist act? How about when Ronald Reagan dramatically increased government spending over the course of the 1980s for the sake of defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War arms race? If TPUSA had existed in the ’80s, would they have waved around “Socialism Sucks” signs outside of Reagan speeches?
The word “socialism” has a specific historical meaning — and even if it’s a broad enough tradition to admit of a range of interpretations, it’s not so broad that anything that falls under the category of “governments spending money” is somehow socialist.
“Socialism” is often used to refer to a new and qualitatively more egalitarian economic system that could replace capitalism in the future. Historically, when socialists have thought about what that might look like, they’ve often advocated democracy in the workplace and taking at least key sectors of the economy into public ownership so they can be planned for the good of society as a whole. But we can also refer to policies that can be implemented in the here and now as “socialist policies” if they reflect socialist values and meaningfully point in the direction of a more equal and democratic future. Sometimes socialism in the second sense is called “socialism within capitalism” and socialism in the first sense is called “socialism after capitalism.”
Biden is a million miles away from being an advocate of “socialism after capitalism.” Not only that, but hardly anything he’s done since assuming the presidency — or even anything he’s advocated doing — comes close to the short-term policies advocated by socialists.
The Inflation Reduction Act included some much-needed climate spending but also plenty of corporate-friendly deregulation. And his student debt relief measure, while a welcome break from his past policies (as senator, he helped make it impossible for student loan borrowers to declare bankruptcy), was still miserly and means tested. Socialists advocate treating higher education, just like K-12 education, as a universal social right — something that everyone should have the option to pursue if they choose to. We want tuition-free public education at every level, from preschool to graduate school, so of course we think it’s outrageous that people are shaken down decades after graduating for something they never should have been charged for in the first place.
Biden’s policy, by contrast, provides some relief to some borrowers, if they can prove that they need it badly enough. Better than nothing? Yes. Better than what the Republicans would do? Certainly. But socialist? Hardly.
I would give my left arm for a president who actually earned the label the TPUSA protesters are slapping on Joe Biden. We need and deserve leaders who will fight for economic equality and real democracy. But Joe Biden is not going to lead us into that more egalitarian future. He’s yesterday’s man.