Thomas Frank: “I came here to understand the Biden mystique, not to bury it.”


How can self-styled progressives overlook Joe Biden’s long legislative career of anti-progressive measures?

Because his name isn’t “Donald Trump,” and of course the usual left-wing delusion that leads to all genuine precepts being thrown away so the common threat can be met head-on, and then unceremoniously appeased owing to neoliberal donor cash.

The author Frank is no fan of Biden, but he gives it the good old (non)college try.

What’s behind Joe Biden’s mystique?, by Thomas Frank (The Guardian)

It was once a no-brainer among DC pundits that, in an electoral match-up between a friendly centrist and a bitter polarization-machine like Donald Trump, the guy who was closer to the middle would automatically win. And in the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, that conventional wisdom would seem to have found its man: he stands on behalf of no great causes, just a return to the consensus days of yore.

The flaw in this viewpoint is that the consensus days of yore were a dreadful time. What bipartisan centrism meant, in Biden’s heyday, was deliberate, state-sponsored cruelty on a scale so vast it is difficult to comprehend. It meant baked-in racial discrimination. It meant imprisoning enormous numbers of our fellow citizens for using drugs – especially crack cocaine, whose users (disproportionately African American) were singled out for horrendously harsh retribution. It meant three-strikes laws. Mandatory minimum sentencing. Unlimited funding for police departments. A boom in prison construction. And, as it pleased Joe Biden to say on the worst of these occasions, “the truth is, every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress – every minor crime bill – has had the name of the Democratic senator from Delaware, Joe Biden, on that bill.”

Biden has tried half-heartedly to walk back the decades he spent transforming America into a penal state. He may succeed in persuading voters to forgive him. But he’s not going to win because the old centrist strategy has worked and Republicans are fatally outmaneuvered by his clever triangulations. These days even the Charles Koch Institute is to the left of where Biden was back in the crackdown era.

You can say something similar about Biden’s famous rapport with the working class: it is badly compromised by his actual political record …

So, how does Biden do it?

 … Catering to society’s well-educated winners is no way to run a party of the left: Biden seems to be one of the few mainstream Democrats to have grasped this. He recalled in the interview being told by a Hillary Clinton operative in 2016 that he “had to make a distinction between progressive values and working-class values”.

“I said I’ve never found a distinction,” Biden claimed he replied. “Never found them hard to sell.” He told the Times about white working-class enthusiasm for gender wage equality and some other issues, and then he took this shot at the very heart of modern-day liberalism: “We treat them like they’re stupid. They know they’re in trouble, and nobody’s talking to them. Nobody’s talking to them. That’s what we used to do. That was our base.”

It is a point in Biden’s favor that he understands this problem. But is he the man to resolve it?

Will it work?

Frank concludes: “My own hope – and it is merely a hope at this point – is that somewhere in the soul of that tongue-tied, old-school Delaware pol flickers the forgotten core value of the Democratic party: solidarity.”