Joe Biden has consistently failed to give a compelling answer to one question: “Why are you running?” It dogged his campaign—the only answer he could really muster was to defeat Donald Trump. While candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren envisioned fundamental changes to American society, Joe Biden’s vision was, essentially, to defeat Trump, followed by a “return to normal.” To his credit, he did issue a list of policies he would enact. But in many aspects, it was a new coat on the same platform that Hillary Clinton ran on in 2016, with standard platform fare like “protecting and expanding Obamacare” and “rejoining the Paris Agreement.” Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders was proposing Medicare for All and a Green New Deal to address the same issues. The wide scopes of other Democratic candidates’ policy agendas made Biden look comparatively tunnel-visioned.
That was, of course, before the coronavirus pandemic.
We now live in a moment with no precedent in American history. An economic collapse and pathogenic disease has forced into the light larger societal diseases—yawning inequality, the suppressed simmer of racial strife now exploding in the open and an unresponsive, corrupt government led by a political party void of morals or competency. To anyone whose political philosophy does not inhabit the dark shadow of Reaganite odium towards an active federal government, the appropriate response to this American cataclysm is clear. However, it was still surprising to see resident centrist Joe Biden team up with many of former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ policy wonks to work out a decisively progressive agenda, turning Joe Biden’s candidacy into the most left-leaning in decades. While progressives were rightfully critical of the compromised, centrist platform of Joe Biden circa February 2020, it’s now less easy to argue in good faith with Biden’s new promise to enact a presidency unseen in scale since F.D.R—all conditional, of course, on a proper and requisite mandate come November.
Joe Biden’s new platform, influenced in large part by the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force’s recommendations, is the most explicitly progressive of any in modern American history. Most satisfyingly to policy nerds, Biden, or at least his policy team, very intuitively grasps the intersectional nature of these crises—and their solutions. He plans to have “high-quality, zero emission public transportation through flexible federal investments with strong labor protections that create good, union jobs” in America’s cities, addressing, in part, climate change, the dearth of public transit in urban America, the United States’ stagnating union manufacturing sector, and more—all while the plan fits into a single bullet point on his surprisingly extensive policy platform. There are many more examples of this type of intersectional policymaking that characterizes Joe Biden’s approach to the contemporary American malaise.
However, Biden has still been the recipient of unremitting criticism from skeptical leftists. Liberal progressives have, historically, had good reasons to be uneasy of centrist Democratic politicians like Joe Biden. The modern Democratic Party has been defined just as much, if not moreso, by gravitation towards the center than to the left. The most generous good faith argument one could make for their existence is the cruel contours of American electoral and political geography—by the nature of our institutions, and the contemporary polarization of the American electorate creating an advantage for one party over the other, the Democratic Party bears the unique task of earning the votes of liberal acolytes in Portland, Oregon, and unionized conservatives in Portland, Pennsylvania. The contemporary Democratic Party is a big tent by necessity of self-preservation, as Republicans have a comparatively homogeneous and small base that is more advantageously distributed across America’s political geography. Thus, in order to have a chance at winning elections, the party’s policies are largely made to appease a moderate voter base that is ostensibly persuadable to giving a “generic centrist Democrat” a shot. Indeed, Joe Biden, aficionado for compromise and incrementalism, is the textbook example of a “generic centrist Democrat,” someone who older, whiter voters would feel more comfortable voting for. His pre-COVID vision was criticized for being essentially a rehash of a typical Democratic platform. But the coronavirus has evidently affected his thinking, and multiple advisors around him have posited him as “the new FDR,” ready to expand the role of government to fill the void that Trump and modern American conservatism, through their complete and utter abandonment of good-faith governance, have created.
This label has earned the scorn of some leftists, and a Joe Biden presidency will inevitably disappoint progressives in some way. The floral poetry of campaigning on an FDR-style presidency will inevitably lead to the harsh prose of government—compromise, watered-down promises, and appeasing the Lovecraftian monsters on K-Street. But while we are suffering in this time of American despair, progressives must not embrace the nihilism of shunning electoral politics. The existence of Trump’s presidency is well enough proof that electoral politics have real, significant consequences. Countries with female leaders have handled the coronavirus pandemic better than their male-led counterparts. It is not conjecture to believe that had we chosen the highly polarizing yet deeply competent female policy wonk over the infantile strongman, tens of thousands of Americans would still be with us. Elections matter.
I am not being hyperbolic in saying that, if Trump somehow returns to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come January, the United States will further its already disturbing descent into open anocracy, joining Putin’s Russia in a growing list of global pariahs. There is no limit to what Republicans will do to entrench their grasp on America’s institutions, as they have made explicit over the past decade. Another four years will be a prolonging of this American misery. If you have a modicum of faith in America’s institutions—yes, even as imperfect and unresponsive as they are—the choice for November is clear.
That advice applies to today and it applied in 2016, and evidently it didn’t motivate enough people. There is reason for hope, however. The images of mass death, trauma, and suffering caused by a cataclysmic failure of our systems seems to have stirred support for a progressive policy agenda like never before. Joe Biden is well aware of that, as the recent changes to his platform make clear. That is a real cause for hope. This year, for those left-of-center, it may no longer be the lesser of two evils. Joe Biden was not my preferred nominee, and my sentiments are shared by many young people across the United States. But to see him talk in terms of fulfilling the demands of this moment—big, structural change—means that American progressivism might find a willing ally in the most unexpected of places. However much the messenger may be mediocre and uninspiring, the message itself is clear—America is crying out for change, and we must stir this country out from its sleepwalk towards the darkness. The redemption of this country, the opportunity to begin the process of healing this country’s past and present mortal sins, is in our hands; this moment in history is begging us to choose this imperfect yet important path towards justice.
Stewart Roeling is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Fridays.
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