Repackaging the ancien régime
Is the priority getting rid of Trump at all costs? Daniel Lazare takes a look at the reactionary nature of the Biden-Harris programme
Beating Donald Trump should be easy. After all, he is a minority president who only made it into the White House by virtue of an 18th century constitutional vestige known as the electoral college. He has presided over the greatest economic plunge since the 1930s, and his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been nothing less than mind-boggling - and not in a good way. He is Herbert Hoover squared - the man who suffered a crushing defeat in 1932 after promising that “prosperity is just around the corner”, when the darkest days still lay ahead.
But things are rarely equal, now more than ever. Hoover, for example, was the third Republican president in a row, which means that voters had all but forgotten what a Democratic administration even looked like. With unemployment nearing 25%, they thus opted for a jaunty New York state governor named Franklin D Roosevelt, simply because he seemed fresh and unsullied. But Trump is not the last of a Republican triumvirate. On the contrary, he is the first Republican after a two-term Democratic presidency. Hence, he still seems new, while Joe Biden seems mainly concerned with turning back the clock to an ancien régime that grows more and more tarnished, the more distant it grows.
Hence Biden’s problem: how to seem forward-looking, when his eyes are firmly fixed on a supposed Democratic golden age in the past? The issue comes through loud and clear in the 40,000-word draft platform that Democrats released late last month.1 Particularly when it comes to foreign policy, the document is a prolonged exercise in chutzpah - one that goes on and on about Trump’s failings without mentioning the Democrats’ own.
The platform assails Trump’s failure to end America’s ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East, for example, without mentioning that Biden voted for those wars in 2001 and 2002, defended them for years after and then, as vice-president, presided over military intervention in Libya and Syria that could not have been more disastrous. The platform accuses Trump of “fawn[ing] over autocrats” without noting Barack Obama’s enthusiastic embrace of the Saudis. (The newly-elected president set the tone for US-Saudi relations by greeting then king Abdullah with a low bow in April 2009.2) It accuses him of making “common cause with kleptocrats” without mentioning Mykola Zlochevsky, the Ukrainian kleptocrat who provided Biden’s son, Hunter, with a lucrative no-show job solely to curry favour in Washington.
The platform also blames Trump for undermining international cooperation “in the midst of the worst forced displacement crisis since WWII” without mentioning that the refugee crisis began in 2015 as a direct consequence of the Obama administration’s Middle East military policies. It promises to “end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and help bring the war to an end” without mentioning that Obama approved the war in March 2015 and then, for the next two years, provided the kingdom with the military back-up it needed to continue pulverising the poorest country in the Middle East.
“President Trump said he would get the United States out of these wars,” the platform concludes, “but instead he deployed more combat forces, expanded their missions and stoked regional tensions that unnecessarily endangered American lives and interests.” Trump stands accused, in short, of failing to end wars that Democrats began.
Presidential platforms are products of America’s increasingly dysfunctional political culture. Rather than programmes, they are quasi-religious sermons, filled with platitudes about restoring America as a shining city on a hill, a light unto the nations, the last great hope on earth, etc. No-one takes them seriously - not even the candidates themselves. “I’m not bound by the platform,” Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole cheerfully confessed in 1996. “I probably agree with most everything in it, but I haven’t read it.” In 2000, neither party bothered to draft a platform, and the press barely noticed.
Still, like the mutterings of a patient on a psychoanalyst’s couch, platforms provide insight into what each party is thinking, in this case Biden and co’s desire to heap blame on Trump, while remaining sotto voce about their own role in the ongoing disaster. The document radiates confidence that the gambit will work. But what Dems do not realise is that the contradiction provides Trump with a slow ball over the centre of the plate that he may well hit out of the park.
The platform also provides insight into what a new-old Biden administration will look like. To make a long story short, the second adjective is the one that counts.
While Obama remains personally popular, there is no question that his administration’s reputation has declined. Everyone remembers Tulsi Gabbard’s denunciation of Hillary Clinton last November as the “personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long” - this was after Clinton suggested that Russia was secretly grooming Gabbard for a third-party run; or Bernie Sanders’ prolonged assault on Obamacare, the ex-president’s signature medical-insurance policy. To be sure, Gabbard was an outsider who never scored more than five percent in the polls, while Sanders, who was not even a registered Democrat, turned out to be more of a straw man than most people realised when a simple phone call from Obama to Pete Buttigieg in February was enough to pull the rug out from under the Sanders candidacy and start a pro-Biden stampede.
But what is important is that such attacks resonated with the party’s base, which was clearly unhappy with the Biden-Clinton leadership. This does not mean that rank-and-filers will not now hold their nose and vote for Biden. But it suggests that many are still so angry that they may stay home or even vote for Trump out of sheer orneriness.
This is especially true for whites, who went three to two for Trump in 2016, and for working class whites without college degrees, who voted Republican even more heavily by more than two to one. Some may switch to the Democrats, given how severely Trump’s policies are hurting workers and the poor. But some are still so angry with the ancien régime that they will balk at voting for a slightly revamped version.
Black voters are also ambivalent. While 79% say they will vote for Biden, that is nine points less than the 88% who voted for Clinton four years ago. For those aged 18 to 29, the figure drops to just 68% - a 17-point drop from 2016 - while 18% are unsure and another 13% say they will vote for Trump.3
When Black Lives Matter commissioned a series of black focus groups last January, one young participant said that his mother and grandfather had voted over the years and that “all of them got nothing. So why should I participate in the same process?”4 Biden, moreover, poses a special problem, as the person who did more than anyone to create America’s “carceral state”: he spent his 36 years in the Senate trying to out-hawk the Republicans, when it came to drugs and crime. “Give me the crime issue … and you’ll never have trouble with it in an election,” he reportedly told fellow Democrats, following Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980.
The upshot was a series of ultra-punitive crime bills that caused the state and federal prison population to quintuple over the next 30 years, with blacks and Hispanics accounting for two-thirds of the increase.5 A 100-to-one sentencing standard for crack users, as opposed to users of ordinary powdered cocaine (a provision that Biden pushed through in 1986), was particularly destructive, since crack at the time was emerging as the drug of choice among the inner-city poor. It was the equivalent of prosecuting beer drinkers, while letting fans of vintage champagne off the hook, and thousands more impoverished minorities went to jail as a consequence.6
Biden has tried to repair his image in recent years, but his penchant for racist gaffes keeps getting in the way. In 2007, he described Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.” In 2019, he bragged about his ability to work in the Senate with segregationists like Mississippi’s James Eastland and Georgia’s Herman Talmadge. “Well, guess what?” he said. “At least there was some civility. We got things done.” In May, he told a black radio host, “you ain’t black” if “you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump”, while, just a few days ago, he declared:
Unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly diverse attitudes about different things. You go to Florida, you find a very different attitude about immigration than you do in Arizona. So it’s a very diverse community.
Given a record like that, it is hardly surprising that black voters are less than enthusiastic about returning to the Democratic plantation. In fact, it is a wonder that they are contemplating a return at all.
Of course, Biden has tried to appeal to them by appointing the dark-skinned Kamala Harris, the state prosecutor-turned-senator, as his pick for vice-president. But it is worth remembering the shot that the ever-quotable Gabbard got off at Harris at one of last winter’s Democratic presidential debates:
She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about when she was asked if she had ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labour for the state of California. And she fought to keep [the] cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.7
It is a return to the old regime at its most punitive.
They will be less enthusiastic still, once blacks and whites realise how much of old-style Hillary Clinton bellicosity lingers on in Democratic ranks. While blaming Trump for not winding down years of Democrats wars, the platform criticises him for not revving up others that Dems are eager to start. It attacks Trump for “push[ing] to bring Russia back into the G7, while lambasting our Nato partners and ignoring intelligence about Russian bounties for killing American troops and other coalition forces in Afghanistan” - a story that was so spurious that even The New York Times wondered whether the evidence was being “tweaked by people seeking to hinder efforts to withdraw American troops”.8
The platform adds that Trump
sees Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a strategic partner - not a strategic rival. He sees anti-European Union, far-right nationalists as political allies - not destructive antagonists. Democrats will join our European partners in standing up to a revanchist Russia. We will not allow Moscow to interfere in our democracies or chip away at our resolve. We will reaffirm America’s commitment to Nato and defending our allies. We will maintain transatlantic support for Ukraine’s reform efforts and its territorial integrity.
So Democrats will continue rallying Nato against Moscow and, while denouncing ultra-nationalists in the EU, will continue standing by a neo-Nazi-influenced Ukraine. As for other conflicts, the platform promises to “rally friends and allies across the world to push back against China” and, despite Narendra Modi’s authoritarian regime, says that Democrats “will continue to invest in our strategic partnership with India - the world’s largest democracy, a nation of great diversity and a growing Asia-Pacific power.” Translation: the US will continuing partnering with a rightwing nationalist state as part of its jockeying against Beijing.
The platform promises to bring down Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro “through smart pressure and effective diplomacy”. It accuses Trump, outlandishly enough, of “strengthening” the Cuban government and says that a Biden administration “will promote human rights and people-to-people exchanges” in order to “empower the Cuban people to write their own future” - which sounds awfully close to regime change. It says that Biden will maintain a military presence in both Syria and Iraq. And, while urging a return to “mutual compliance” with the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord known as the JCPOA, it calls for “a comprehensive diplomatic effort to … address Iran’s other threatening activities, including its regional aggression, ballistic missile programme and domestic repression”.
Since those activities are entirely defensive in the face of years of Saudi, US and Israeli pressure and aggression, it means that the confrontation with Iran can only continue. So is this what Democratic restorationism means - a return to Hillary-lite? Turning back the clock may carry less weight at the polls than Biden imagines.
Criminal Justice Facts, The Sentencing Project:sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts.↩︎
See ‘The Biden disaster’Weekly Worker May 28.↩︎