American Liberalism Is Exhausted

Joe Biden can probably beat Donald Trump for a second time. But the Democratic Party he is the titular head of has no new ideas, no sense of dynamism, and isn’t even pretending they’re serious about achieving a better world.

Joe Biden delivers remarks during the National Peace Officers Memorial Service at the Capitol in Washington, DC, on May 15, 2022. (Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

After months of foot-dragging, Joe Biden is officially running for reelection — meaning that, barring some unexpected development on either side, Americans are likely in store for a second contest between Biden and Donald Trump.

It’s a disheartening prospect for many reasons, not least because it’s one very few actually seem to want. According to a recent poll, a majority of Americans would rather neither man run, though here the figures somehow look even bleaker for Biden than they do for Trump. A full 70 percent of the electorate purportedly thinks the president should not be seeking reelection, including more than half of Democrats. (The numbers for Trump being 60 and 33 percent, respectively.)

Having already rejigged the primary schedule to be maximally favorable to Biden, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has also announced it won’t be bothering to hold debates at all. What lies ahead will thus be a primary contest in name only. Biden, a candidate who elicits minimal enthusiasm, will be untested in the lead-up to his probable rematch with Trump, and the ideological schisms in American liberalism that were momentarily brought into the open during the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries will once again be hidden.

As far as the Democratic Party goes, none of this screams of confidence or dynamism. The political arm of American liberalism is effectively saying that it has no better candidate to offer than Joe Biden, and no vision its current leadership can envision pursuing that looks beyond the present horizon.

It’s depressing, but it’s also probably true. The list of DNC-friendly alternatives to Biden that have been floated over the past year are pretty feeble. Vice President Kamala Harris, who might otherwise be the de facto front-runner, is visibly considered a liability. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the preferred candidate among people who say “adulting” and count “homework” among their favorite activities, has seemed to generate more buzz despite being ideologically indistinguishable from Biden or Harris. After that, what you tend to find is a list of governors or 2020 also-rans like Amy Klobuchar.

None of these figures would represent more than a cosmetic break from the status quo. And if the Democratic Party is not going to shift gears or change course, it has little incentive to conscript any of the functionally interchangeable centrists who might take Biden’s place.

American liberalism is exhausted, but it cannot regenerate or reimagine itself, because doing so would require taking risks and breaking with pro-corporate shibboleths. When a political project has based its entire appeal on restoring equilibrium and stewarding normalcy, both are obviously impossible. The result, as the circumstances surrounding Biden’s reelection bid illustrate, is a constellation of institutions too enervated to transform themselves and too fixed in their patterns to be forced into a meaningful realignment.

Such a realignment would not actually be impossible. An incarnation of the Democratic Party willing to substitute a populist strategy for the current big donor and Wall Street–friendly approach could find fertile ground within the electorate on which to put down roots. Americans know the economy is rigged in favor of the rich. When it was first introduced, majorities of voters in both parties supported the idea of a Green New Deal. Ordinary Americans want higher taxes on the wealthy and a majority would prefer a universal, Medicare for All system that puts human need over private profit.

Pursuit of such an agenda, however, would require the kind of confrontation with corporate America that today’s Democratic mainstream gestures at when it’s convenient but dispenses with in practice. It would also require mass mobilization, the ousting of countless operatives from their sinecures, and a party culture open and dynamic enough to accommodate the challenging of incumbents.

Having defeated that vision in 2016 and 2020, Democratic grandees are evidently content to rest on their laurels, make broad appeals for tolerance, and pitch themselves as the only alternative to an increasingly menacing Republican right. Revealingly, Biden’s reelection announcement cast the president as the person best qualified to defeat the Trumpian right and win the “battle for the soul of America.” It’s a decidedly non-programmatic message, and one that, as the New Republic’s Prem Thakker observed, notably did not include the words “abortion,” “climate,” “environment,” “gun,” “immigrant,” “justice,” “labor,” “union,” and “worker.”

In a short-term, purely electoral sense, it may be enough for Biden to defeat Trump a second time. What it does not signify, however, is a political project that aspires for a better future than the present.