These first days of May, in the fullness spring, might well be the dawning of glory for former senator, former vice president and now three-time presidential hopeful Joe Biden.
Time will tell. Biden announced his candidacy for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party and quickly leapt to front-runner status. He’s got a familiar, mediagenic personality, and he has more experience in both the executive and legislative branches than any rival.
But then there’s the hackneyed slogan, “Make America Moral Again.” Not only is it pathetically derivative; it also commits the same nostalgic error as Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”
Banking on nostalgia for votes is a dangerous undertaking. Banking on appeals to morality is even iffier. If the U.S. electorate had had an appetite for morality in 2016, “President Donald Trump” would be a punchline, not a grim reality.
Trump, Democrats should remember, did not create the fractures in the American social compact that he mined for votes. He didn’t he create the racial bitterness, the religious chauvinism or the resentments of Middle Americans against “elites” real and imagined. He has exacerbated all of them. On that, Biden is accurate.
Politicians ought to be careful assuming how we became so bitterly divided, and how the nation can build toward a fairer reality.
“The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap” is a great book (first released in 1992 and updated in 2016) by Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the nonpartisan Council on Contemporary Families.
Coontz slays the many myths about self-sufficiency and political claims about virtue throughout history. She takes a critical view or the way Americans love to romanticize frontier families and their supposed virtues and work ethic, as well of those of the 1950s suburban beau ideal.
Frontier settlers and the postwar white middle class, she quips, “probably tie for the honor of being the most heavily subsidized in American history as well as for the privilege of having had more of their advantages paid for by minorities and the lower classes.”
The point, especially for Democrats, should not be to look back. That gauzy past was not so great for a lot of key constituents of the party coalition. The motivating promise is what the future can hold. Call it socio-economic realism. Figure out what the party can do for voters and articulate a plan.
In 2016 Donald Trump told workers and farmers they would not be forgotten. However, in his erratic trade policy, he has sold both constituencies down the river.
Biden, or any Democrat who stands a chance of beating the incumbent Trump, will do well to tell farmers, who are hurting more now than they have for decades, what the Democrats plan to do to get them through this rough time.
The same goes for blue collar constituencies. Biden’s support of a $15 minimum wage and tax changes to fund community college costs are a start. The plans are far more meaningful than his oratory about “a battle cry for the soul of this nation.”
Our constitutional order, our government’s respect for the rule of law — these things matter, and they are under attack by Trump and the Republicans who have kowtowed before him.
But we are vulnerable to these attacks because our civil society has been weakened by the rapacity of our economic elites. The depletion of the middle class has been ongoing for decades. The gutting of pensions, undercutting of unions and a range of other business shifts have slowly affected the living standards and sense of security our lesser half of the population.
The same can be said for scandalously rising costs of health care and higher education. In many communities, service workers cannot afford housing and utilities, that’s not new to Trump’s administration either.
Much like the opioid epidemic, political nihilism follows the ravages of an economic order that just doesn’t give a damn about the down and out.
I believe Joe Biden and the other Democratic candidates do give a damn. What they need to give voters is not nostrums about morality but rather a clear blueprint of the better society we’re going to build. For all Americans.