Can Joe Biden make America decent like him?
A skeptic's hope for the Democratic nominee
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Joe Biden was not my ideal nominee. But he is the nominee now, and the only thing standing between us and a descent into dimwit autocracy. And as I watched his party convention last week, I felt admiration for the human being he is, and even a sense, to use a Biden word, of “possibilities.”
What came through, above all, during the convention was his personal decency. It was the intended message, and we heard it loud and clear. He gives his phone number to people with stutters or grief or sickness. He has dedicated himself to his family without fail. He calls his granddaughters so often that they avoid his calls.
But for me and many others, if I’m being candid, Biden has often risked confusing warmth with justice, personal kindness with systemic kindness. “Joe Biden cared,” that brave 13-year-old Brayden Harrington said at the convention. “Imagine what he could do for all of us.” This is the heart of his pitch, as I understand it: that his personal kindness can be scaled up to the nation. “How do you make a broken family whole?” his wife asked last week. “The same way you make a nation whole: with love and understanding, and with small acts of compassion; with bravery; with unwavering faith.” Again, a powerful sentiment. But in a country in the shape ours is in, I am not sure small acts of compassion will cut it.
Power is gravely, lethally imbalanced in America. The insurance companies have too much of it, and the people who need medical care have too little. The banks have too much of it, and the credit-card debtors and mortgage borrowers and student debtors have too little. The police have too much of it, and Black people who wish not to be murdered for existing have too little. Corporations and their lobbyists have too much of it, and people who merely possess a vote have too little.
Making America whole will in fact be very different from what Biden so admirably did with his family, because in the case of the country, the work involves not just love but also justice. Not just bringing people together, but knowing whom to go after and having the passion to do so. Not just healing rifts but beating back power.
And, generally speaking, this has not been Biden’s way. He is by no means a scourge of power. He began his campaign by reassuring wealthy donors that, under him, nothing would fundamentally change. He is among the many Democrats who went along with the broad trajectory of the great neoliberal conquest prosecuted by the right in recent decades. His positions on healthcare, lobbying, taxation, policing, and other things suggest a desire to tune up the country’s engine, not to rewrite the obscene power equations that squelch and doom so many.
And yet I feel a sense of possibility, because these times we’re living in leave me no choice. With America living through multiple, intersecting crises, with revolutionary anger on the streets, with a serious questioning of capitalism under way, what path is there but to hope that Biden can be persuaded that his personal decency must now be marshaled for the sake of structural decency?
Personal decency is giving your phone number to people. Structural decency is making healthcare a human right. Personal decency is reassuring people that, when they get knocked down in life, they can get back up. Structural decency is supporting a safety net tight enough that they can actually do that.
What I hope for Biden is that, recognizing the gravity of this moment, he is able to go beyond the mission of unifying the country, that he will begin to speak of unifying it for the purpose of changing things fundamentally. That he will muster the courage to fight for the institutionalization of his compassion, putting kindness where it counts most: in the law.
And I will say, as an erstwhile skeptic of a Biden presidency, that I believe Biden could, if he chooses, pull it off, because of his great superpower. He has a talent for making the political personal. A generation ago, the feminists taught us that the personal is political. The Biden law seems to be that the political is, and must always be, personal.
He explains his political philosophy not in the ideological terms that immediately repel people into camps, but by quoting the sayings of his parents. He makes political things sound like values things. He makes far-reaching policies sound like matters of simple fairness, simple decency. Unlike many of us sniffing the glue of wokeness and spending too much time on Twitter, he never forgets where the average American voter is, and, at his best, he translates what needs doing into a language that can get them done.
A tragic version of a Biden presidency would be an era of good feelings with no reform to show for itself — a situation that would leave America once again ripe for fascism, this time perhaps even with a leader who can read. But I want to believe in the opposite possibility: that Biden’s political skills can be deployed to smuggle in far-reaching change under the guise of folksiness, Ray-Bans, and dad quotes.
Should he embrace that approach for this grave time, he can be a transformational leader. He can exhort the country to do the big things it needs to do by making people see them as the right, the natural, the decent, the all-American things to do. He can take on systemic racism with a frontal approach that perhaps only a white male elder could. He can help the people of this country find a new, more honest patriotism, rooted in the understanding of a nation conceived in sin, sprouted above that blood at the root, and yet with ideals worth celebrating and institutions worth bettering.
There will be those who say that now is not the time to push Biden. I couldn’t disagree more. With a tyrant in the Oval Office, with evident designs on stealing the election if any opportunity to do so arises, a thunderous, historic victory is needed. In the absence of more passion than there is now for Biden from his party’s progressive base, that kind of victory feels less than assured. I don’t see how, given these circumstances, Biden can afford to show up in November as anything but the best possible incarnation of himself.
And that, I believe, is Joey from Scranton who doesn’t merely want to bring us together, but wants to bring us together for some great cause; and who knows that this cause must be the waging of an epic battle to make America decent like him.