What is Bidenism?
Optimism, the Status Quo, and the Increasingly Distant Past
In the face of an ongoing crisis of legitimacy, a wave of social and cultural unrest, an impending economic meltdown, and a raging pandemic, the Democratic Party has put forth Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as their candidates for the nation’s saviors. Many of us, myself included, have some fairly deep reservations about one or both of those candidates, both with regard to their past actions and the platform they’re promising for the future. I still intend to vote for that ticket, assuming we have an election, because the alternative is so much worse: Herrenvolk democracy, with white property-holders as the explicitly favored group, enshrined as the nation’s dominant political ideology. What amounts to institutionalized one-party rule would then at least try to entrench that state of affairs by extending its control of the judiciary and further utilizing the federal apparatus of paramilitary violence that we’ve gotten a taste of over the past few months.
Maybe this would succeed. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it would somehow turn out in sunshine and rainbows. I’d rather not live in a world where we have to find out which of those outcomes is most likely.
Given that those are the stakes, it’s easy to treat Biden as a cipher for all the anti-Trump sentiment percolating throughout the country: a septuagenarian with fifty years in the public eye, who’s somehow enough of a blank slate to serve as a vessel for the genuinely widespread anti-Trump feelings in the United States. His three major qualifications are his eight years as President Obama’s vice president, the blithe self-assurance to power through the various gaffes that have defined much of his career, and his ability to maintain a position roughly in the center of the Democratic Party without actively angering any significant constituency.
To be clear, those are all real and meaningful qualifications, especially at this particular moment in our political history, from the viewpoint of the Democratic Party as an institution and a plurality - if not an outright majority - of the party’s primary voters. Biden’s folksy demeanor, his lack of overt offensiveness, and his unimpeachable orthodoxy are a powerful combination.
But to treat Biden solely as a cipher or a vessel, as I’ve done myself from time to time, misses something fundamental about him and the campaign he’s running. I’m not saying he’s going to win or even that there will be an election - this is 2020, things can and presumably will get worse - but that there is a genuine ideological core to what Biden is selling, and that is has a potentially broad appeal. Let’s call this ideological package “Bidenism.”
Helpfully enough, Biden defined it himself in a series of off-the-cuff remarks to a room of wealthy donors last year. “No one’s standard of living will change,” he said. “Nothing will fundamentally change.” This, in a nutshell, is the ideological core of Joe Biden’s appeal
So what is Bidenism? From my perspective, it has three main components, each of which reinforces the others:
1) Donald Trump is an aberration, an exception to the normal course of American history and governance.
2) Removing Donald Trump from office via election would essentially solve the problem by returning governance to a responsible leader.
3) No major changes to our current political structures, much less the deeper organization of society, are necessary.
Bidenism is, therefore, an ideology focused around maintaining the status quo. Things are pretty much fine.
Sure, we should probably tweak some things. We can build a slightly better world. That better world would have a meritocracy more open to talent from all segments of society. Racism, which is obviously bad, ought to be addressed in a systematic way: The Justice Department should investigate civil rights abuses, small business loans should be more available to minorities, and so on. The Obamacare exchanges would be more efficient. There should be new investments in green energy and carbon taxes to address climate change. We should probably replace some of our decaying roads and bridges. The pandemic, which is still happening, should be addressed with a substantial stimulus package.
The right kind of leader might even be able to convince the other party to engage on projects like this that, almost everybody agrees, will benefit the American people as a whole.
Not that long ago, this line of thinking goes, things were better. You could respect the other guys - always guys - even if you didn’t agree with them. You could have principled, good-faith disagreements about how best to meet the country’s needs. In that same speech to the wealthy donors, Biden said this explicitly about hardcore segregationists: “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything,” Biden said. “Today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy.”
The whole package is nostalgic, but vague enough not to point toward any specific period. Specifics might raise uncomfortable questions about whether this vision of the recent past really holds water. This is all quite sensible and practical in terms of policy, with goals that are both generally laudable and modest enough to seem achievable. According to this line of reasoning, the United States has its fair share of problems, namely its deep history of racism, but it’s virtuous at heart: a shining city on a hill, albeit one that’s gotten a bit dimmer of late. A little bit of hard work can fix what ails us.
It’s a fundamentally optimistic view of the American future, rooted in the perpetual optimism of Americans themselves. To the extent that there’s a unity of American culture at all, the durable expectation and occasional reality of better things in the future is a core American characteristic. American optimism has been around long enough to be noted by de Tocqueville, mocked at some length by Twain, and provide the fuel for everything from the mortgage bubble to the space race. Things might not be great for a person right at this moment, but they could hope for better for their kids, and sometimes - often enough not to be proven completely wrong - that faith was proven right. In that sense, it forms a continuous thread in the country’s history, but one that has woven itself into America’s constituent regional cultures, racial groups, and social classes in distinctly varied ways over time and space. The optimism of a Black sharecropper in the post-Reconstruction South isn’t that of a white 1950s Orange County suburbanite or a 2020 college-educated Millennial, however much they might draw on a common wellspring.
To be clear, this is a particular kind of narrative about the American past, not a straightforward reality. It’s wrong in many of its particulars and overlooks plenty of times and places where things got worse and people suffered horrendous fates. Yet Hope and Change was a powerful message in 2008, and Bidenism is its direct descendant, hitting at least a few of the same notes twelve years later. It’s one with tremendous ideological force that speaks to a lot of different Americans in relatable ways, to a deeply rooted piece of American identity that resonates on the broadest possible level.
Whether you’re a conservative Arizona suburbanite who’s embarrassed by your 2016 vote for Donald Trump, a Black small-business owner in Los Angeles, a Latino farmworker in central Washington, or a white-collar millennial in Orlando, there’s something to buy in Joe Biden’s basic message. It doesn’t have to hit every rhetorical high point or paint a bold vision in the American future; it just has to offer something other than American carnage, and the broader the appeal, the better.
But things aren’t, in fact, fine. Maybe some things need to fundamentally change. While those notes are similar to what we’ve heard before, particularly in 2008, they hit a lot differently in 2020. It’s a harder sell to an audience that is, or at least ought to be, more cynical after a global recession, the Donald Trump Experience in all its varied manifestations, and now the pandemic. It’s harder to believe that Trump is the aberration, rather than an expression of more fundamental problems in the fabric of American and global life in the twenty-first century.
Vague nostalgia for an era with greater comity across the political aisle isn’t going to erase 30 years of conservative media’s effects on Republican voters. The much-less-polarized political culture of the postwar era, itself a bizarre aberration in the grand scheme of American history, isn’t coming back even if we wanted to embrace its many downsides. There’s no returning to the economic growth and unchecked globalization of the 1990s, with its visions of the end of history and the triumph of democratic capitalism across the world. Nobody’s going to forget Charlottesville, George Floyd, Kenosha, and Portland. We’ve opened a whole series of Pandora’s Boxes just in the last four years, and that’s leaving aside two decades of constant imperial war, Bush v. Gore, Newt Gingrich, and Iran-Contra before that. In material terms, the American Dream is providing visions of a future for its inhabitants that is increasingly at odds with lived reality. The gap between expectation and what we can seriously hope for is growing.
A great many Americans - a majority, in fact - are fed up with Donald Trump. For some, that’s about his obvious and blatant corruption, his racism, his mainstreaming of a particular brand of white nationalism, putting kids in cages, sending federal paramilitaries into American cities to brutalize protesters, or any number of other things that you’ve heard about ad nauseam over the past four years. But for many others, and perhaps more, the objection to Donald Trump is fundamentally aesthetic. He’s an embarrassment, a crass, moronic expression of everything unattractive about the American character, the Ugly American Abroad forced onto our television screens and social media feeds until he’s effectively unavoidable. Mockery of Trump’s verbal diarrhea and his incessant bullshitting stand in for substantive critiques of what he and his associates are actually doing.
These aren’t mutually exclusive - this is an a la carte menu of objections, not an either-or proposition - but the divide between the two perspectives is real. Are things basically fine, or aren’t they? Should we be worried about how things look, or what’s happening away from the Oval Office and Mar-a-Lago?
I’m going to vote for Joe Biden, assuming I get the opportunity to do so. There’s no American future with the Trump regime in power. But there’s no guarantee of an American future if we go on thinking that things are pretty much fine. This is a country whose institutions, infrastructure, and attitudes were built for a different era. If we can’t start having a broad, genuine conversation about making some basic changes in how we run this country with regard to race, fiscal policy, institutional design, and a whole raft of other things, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to exist for much longer.
(My apologies about the three-week delay between posts: I moved from Los Angeles to Arizona and took a week of vacation for the first time in a year. This Substack will be back to its regular weekly schedule over the coming weeks and months.)
Firstly - Congrats on the move! Hope things go well there. Secondly - My take on Biden has turned into one of pure apathy. He's milquetoast enough to absorb those abandoning Trumpism voluntarily, and those who just want things to be "back to normal". He's no where near what anyone actually wants in a president, but considering our current president is sending death squads to kill black people who just want to breathe in peace, I'll take the milquetoast. I can only hope that the Dems actually become Dems and use their mouthpiece to promote actual progressive policies, but will settle for a "return to normalcy" or a year or so. That'll give me time to refresh and get actual mad, instead of just worn down like I am now.
Thank you for writing this, it has put a lot of my personal worries about Biden into words in a better way than I ever could.
Thinking back to the Remain campaign in the UK, I think it is fundamentally a bad idea to run on a platform of 'normal is fine' after over a decade of war, austerity, and decades of relative economic decline. Similarly, Made America Great Already was always a terrible response to Make America Great Again, and that felt like it was at the heart of the Clinton campaign. I'm not really sure a campaign that essentially hinges on setting the clock back to 2016 and 'no one's standard of living will change' is anymore of a good idea. I don't think this will win Trump more votes necessarily but it might mean people are not willing to go through the hassle (or danger this year) of voting. (My ability to be optimistic is not helped by the number of people on Twitter talking about people who don't vote must be massively previleged... which is literally the diametric opposite of what is actually true.)
For the record, I am British but would vote for Biden if I was able.