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Joe Biden can unite the country by being boring

Eugene Daniels of POLITICO joins Dispatch to talk about how Kamala Harris will make history when she is sworn in tomorrow – and the kinds of challenges she will face as a “first”.

It is an objective which goes without saying, but which so far has been without success. In this case, the best hope now is not Biden’s ability to summon the best angels of our nature with eloquent speech. On the contrary, the new president’s modest oratorical gifts – the fact that he is a bit boring by modern political standards – can be a powerful asset.

More than three decades of experience shows us what doesn’t work to unify Americans: inspiring words. With the exception of Donald Trump, all presidents from George HW Bush (who sought a “gentler, gentler nation”) to Bill Clinton (who pledged to be a “mender of the breach”) to George W . Bush (“I want to change Washington’s tone”) to Barack Obama (“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America ”) delivered important speeches dedicated to ending unnecessary conflict.

Here’s what might work instead: substantive acts at a time when people urgently need government to work, regardless of their political persuasion.

That wouldn’t require Biden to persuade people that it’s time to swear the culture war that fueled the Trump years. Instead, it would involve making it less relevant that many Americans feel contempt for one another.

The unique public health and economic challenges of the coronavirus pandemic give Biden a better chance at doing this than any recent predecessor – especially following Trump, who had no interest in doing so.

Many anti-government conservatives who watch Sean Hannity have something in common with many government-loving liberals who watch Rachel Maddow: Both want to get a needle prick in the shoulder. Neither has an interest in continuing the early and clumsy vaccine distribution that marked the last weeks of the Trump administration. Neither wants a recession. Neither wants children to go to school on computer screens in their bedrooms. Both therefore share an interest – albeit a limited and temporary one – in seeing the government become more functional.

Before becoming inevitable in last year’s Democratic nomination contest, Biden was even viewed by many who love him as a highly unlikely president. It was because of everything that it is not: it is not specially articulated; it is not an electric personal presence; he’s not someone who naturally expresses his ideas by framing them as part of a bold historical argument about where the country is now and where it needs to go in the future.

Here’s something else Biden isn’t: someone whose worldview has been shaped in a significant way by time on an elite college campus and the cultural debates that thrive in that context. He is the first president since Ronald Reagan for whom this is true.

He is also a politician old enough at 78 to have first-hand experience with the practical dynamics of the old Democratic coalition that started with the New Deal and ruled for many decades thereafter.

The old Democratic coalition, strongly led by working class voters, was united mainly by material goals. The government, in combination with the unions, promoted economic well-being in a tangible way: public works projects, workers’ protections and a social pact which, according to the beneficiaries, offered a reasonable floor to their standard of living, which included decent public schools.

Biden arrived in the Senate at age 30 in January 1973, just as a new policy was dawning. This was driven less by a material agenda than by an agenda stemming from identity politics. This included battles over the right to abortion and school integration, and gradually saw political conflicts take on sociological or even psychological tones: which politician or party is more virtuous, which is the most hypocrite or the most contemptuous. , which one is most favorable to people like you and shares your disdain for people who don’t like you.

By the second half of Biden’s nearly half-century career in Washington, that policy had grown into big business – supporting a political-media complex of radio and cable television hosts and possibly stars. social media that depend on an angry and divided culture, take advantage of it and always stir up more anger and division.

It is this industry of commercialized contempt that is the main reason why all calls for unity and for a more constructive policy by Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama have finally turned out to be weak. This is why about 80% of Democrats agree that the Republican Party has been “taken over by racists”, and the same percentage of Republicans responded that the Democratic Party has been “taken over by the Socialists,” according to one. October poll by the nonprofit PRRI.

One advantage of Biden is that he’s not really interesting to the contempt industry. There have been efforts to try and make him fit for business – to poke fun at his advanced age or try to stir up arguments over Hunter Biden’s questionable business ventures or Jill Biden claims “Dr.” in her name even if she holds a doctorate. but is not a doctor. None of these have generated much momentum and will certainly pay nothing like the dividends of the Trump era.

Modern politics depend heavily on symbolic arguments and abstractions. As outrageous as Trump often was in his rhetoric and political actions, until Covid-19, these outrages often did not overlap with the practical dimensions of daily life.

Biden presents a startling possibility. It can revive a policy which, once again, revolves around concrete things, rather than symbolism. If he passes ambitious legislation on infrastructure spending, as he promises to do, it will literally be concrete things. For the recipients of such spending, which would include many Trump voters, it will matter more than, to cite a haphazard example, an argument over whether Neera Tanden, his candidate for budget manager, has said too much. mean things about Republicans on Twitter. .

Biden’s deadpan and persevering personality in this context is a gift. His attempt to unify the country depends on shifting his focus from the abstract to the tangible, from the politics of identity to the politics of material gains, from great philosophical arguments to narrowly focused pragmatic arguments – from the exhortation to the realization.

Perhaps the best way to unite the country is not to talk too much about it.


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