It’s puzzling to observe how much of the woke demo-socialist left with its presumably enlightened views on the fluidity of gender and the hybridity of race still view internal dynamics of the Democratic Party and Joe Biden’s presidential program as a black-or-white choice between the left-progressive base and the moderate center, as if no shades of gray were even conceivable. Even Bernie Sanders has tried to convey to his most avid and adamant followers that a strategic compromise in support of Biden’s mild-mannered liberalism is a necessary step in the direction of the socialist utopia of their dreams. If Trump wins, we can forget about progress—and the civil war of a revolution would scarcely improve our political condition.
The simpleminded notion that a progressive agenda (Medicare for all, free college education, strong climate action, etc.) is incompatible with the party establishment’s more gradualist approach is just wrong. Universal health care is the goal of every serious Democrat, but most of the veterans know that such a radical systemic transformation will not happen overnight. Expansion of Obamacare by way of a public option is an interim move in the direction of Pan-Medicare. The arrival in Congress of Sanders acolytes is also a step in the direction of passable legislation. But critical mass will have to be reached with many more left-progressives from all over the country elected to the House and Senate, where ideas and ideals can become law.
For all the cheerleading of “the squad” for a more radical sort of political change, it is the middle of the party that won many more seats in the 2018 blue wave. And if rank-and-file voting Democrats were ready for democratic socialism they would have made Sanders their presidential nominee. Neither Sanders nor Biden appealed to me as the most promising president—there were six or eight other candidates that I would have much preferred—but the African-American electoral base of the party (a more important and powerful cohort than the youths of the Sanders wing, many of whom don’t even vote) felt better about Biden as a winning choice than even the more liberal and moderate younger contenders. And I’m beginning to understand why.
Under the Trump regime and what it promises if given another four years in power, the crisis is so dire that further polarization and demand for instant transformation would only enhance the tyrant’s chances of reelection—as proved by Republican rhetoric of Biden as some kind of crypto-communist. Biden’s mashed-potatoes demeanor may look soft, bland and white from a leftist perspective, but it is apparently the comfort food most Democrats (and some Republicans) want as an alternative to the pathological virulence of Trumpism and the uncertainty and upheaval of the political revolution Sanders called for.
The “decency” everyone speaks of in Biden’s character—and he does seem far less ego-driven than a lot of other politicians, perhaps because he’s been humbled by life experience, loss of loved ones, grief—is more important at this moment than any kind of doctrinaire righteousness, a major defect of so many ideologues of the left. Having morally correct intentions is one thing; learning the skills of legislating is another. Older Democrats know from experience the value of compromise as an instrument of progress. The young people who think radical change can happen by flipping a switch are doomed to be disappointed.
The youth-led, women-led, Black-led movements shaking the country have moved the mainstream leftward, and Biden is a seasoned enough pol to know that he is merely a bridge to more dramatic improvements in policy. He has the modesty not to claim that he alone can fix the country, and will wisely draw from a wide range of advisers.
Instead of a takeover by one faction or another, radical, progressive, liberal, moderate and even conservative Democrats (and disillusioned Republicans) must combine forces to establish a strong enough coalition to defeat the incumbent. Once that’s accomplished, the real work can begin.
Stephen Kessler is the author of “Need I Say More?” and other books.