Want change? Put a centrist in charge.

Adam Fereday 9 February 2021
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Broadly speaking, Anglophone left-wingers have responded to Joe Biden’s success in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election in one of two ways: depression, or hyper-exuberance.

For the former, take a recent Varsity comment piece. President Biden, the author holds, is not an agent of radical change; rather, his expeditious passing of progressive executive orders is little more than the pursuit of ‘good optics’. At the end of the day, his complicity in the perpetuation of capitalist domination over the American working poor puts him in more or less the same league as Trump. In short, meet the new boss: same as the old boss, but wearing a blue tie.

For the latter, look no further than Labour’s shadow foreign secretary. In an interview with the Guardian, Lisa Nandy described Biden as a ‘woke guy’ who was willing to speak up loudly and proudly in support of trans rights and BLM on the campaign trail. Her views were echoed in a subsequent Guardian comment piece by Owen Jones, who ascribed Biden’s win to his parading his support for progressive political stances on his sleeve, itself a response to ‘progressive movements… shifting the centre of gravity within the Democrats to an extent no nominee can ignore’.

These commentators use the same evidence to make contradictory arguments: Biden’s campaign was simultaneously radically progressive, and doggedly conservative; his executive orders are both window dressing, and a cheering break with the dark days of Trump. Except, of course, neither can be both. So which are they? Or has the left got Biden wrong?

By way of an answer, it’s worth looking back to the career of another American President who claimed the top job after a long stint in Congress: Lyndon Johnson. He was a man who possessed deep flaws, and expressed views which repulse the modern-day historian. For all the controversy over Biden’s historic opposition to busing (that is, the use of federally mandated buses to racially integrate schools in the 1970s), he has never expressed racist views, whereas Johnson peppered his conversations with senators with racial slurs.

Yet, paradoxically, Johnson was also one of the most significant agents of progressive change in the history of American politics. As a senator, he used his considerable influence to facilitate the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, despite vehement opposition from the Southern Democrats. As President, Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, which together smashed the ‘Jim Crow’ system of state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Deep South. In doing so, he wrong-footed racists in his own party who thought he was ‘one of them’, usually right up to the point when they were duped.

It is all too easy to reconcile Johnson the racist with Johnson the agent of progressive change by, as is happening with Biden, subordinating one to the other. Either the change he instigated did little practically to undo America’s history of racial oppression, or racial equality was Johnson’s plan the whole time, with his overt racism being just a cover-act to give false reassurance to his southern colleagues. The truth is both simpler and more complex than that: Johnson was a conviction racist, who nevertheless possessed the will, reputation for pragmatism, and knowledge of Congress to create the space for progressive change to happen.

As it was then, so it is now. Biden, unlike Johnson, is a principled anti-racist with a strong public record on human rights. However, what Nandy et al. get wrong about Biden is that his campaign self-consciously avoided adopting the language and imagery of radical socialism. At a town hall in Miami, Biden referred to himself as ‘the guy who ran against the socialists’ to distance himself from the supporters of Bernie Sanders, the only self-identifying democratic socialist who participated in the 2020 presidential primary.

This anti-radicalism was an aspect of Biden’s presidential platform from the outset. In a forgotten early episode of the campaign, Biden – having emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee with Sanders’s termination of his bid for the role – was issued with a list of demands by seven Sanders-adjacent youth progressive groups. They argued that, unless he incorporated a swathe of controversial policies – ‘Medicare for All’, cancelling all student debt, taxing wealth, and the Green New Deal – into his platform, he would lose the election. He told them to get stuffed, then won the presidential election anyway, and then gave an inauguration speech which was heavy on unity and restoration, and light on socialist rhetoric.

And yet for all the apparent bromides, there are already early signs that the new administration will be a vehicle for the kind of progressive change the left craves. Since becoming President, Biden has started the process of making the legal route to U.S. citizenship more widely accessible, and set up a taskforce to reunify families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border by the hideous cruelty of the Trump administration. The U.S. is part of the Paris Agreement again. Anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people have been reaffirmed, and transgender people can once again serve in the military. With a compliant Congress, Biden will be able to implement a policy long confined to the wildest dreams of the Democrat Party’s socialist faction: raising the U.S. hourly minimum wage to $15.

This agenda has, as we have seen, left some partisans claiming Biden is ‘continuity Trump’ and a capitalist stooge. I think this indicates little more than an allergy to good news on their part, or an obsession with style over substance. However, it is equally misguided to conclude that Biden got where is he is now by wearing socialist principles on his sleeve. The fact is this: he, like Johnson before him, is a product of Congress – a dispositional pragmatist who has made a living by knowing how to work people. While his anti-racist and human rights credentials are strong, he is not inclined towards the style or substance of the politics of the left of the Democratic Party. Moreover, he doesn’t need to be; he won the 2020 election by speaking to Americans in the language of compromise and unity, not firebrand socialism, and will govern in that language. History suggests that, perhaps perversely, this means progressives have every reason to expect great things from the Biden administration.

He won the 2020 election by speaking to Americans in the language of compromise and unity, not firebrand socialism, and will govern in that language.