"Ding-dong, the jerk is gone. But read this before you sing the Hallelujah Chorus"
The Guardian (November 7, 2020)
Trump’s defeat is a time for celebrating – let us praise God for victory. But let us also show some humility in our triumph, and think about how we got here
Ding-dong, the jerk is gone. Finally, we have come to the end of Donald Trump’s season of extreme misrule. Voters have rejected what can only be described as the crassest, vainest, stupidest, most dysfunctional leadership this country has ever suffered.
Congratulations to Joe Biden for doing what Hillary Clinton couldn’t, and for somehow managing to do it without forcefulness, without bounce, without zest, without direction and without a real cause, even.
It is a time for celebrating. Let us praise God for victory, however meagre and under-whelming. But let us also show some humility in our triumph. Before we swing into a national sing-along of the Hallelujah Chorus, I urge you to think for a moment about how we got here and where we must go next.
We know that 2020 has been a year for reckoning with the racist past, for the smashing of icons and the tearing-down of former heroes. Also for confronting the historical delusions that gave us this lousy present.
In the spirit of this modern iconoclasm, let me offer my own suggestion for the reckoning that must come next, hopefully even before Biden chooses his cabinet and packs his bags for Pennsylvania Avenue: Democrats must confront their own past and acknowledge how their own decisions over the years helped make Trumpism possible.
I know: this was a negation election, and what got nixed was Maga madness. The Democrats are the ones who won. Still, it is Joe Biden who must plan our course forward and so it is Biden who must examine our situation coldly and figure out the answer to the burning question of today: how can a recurrence of Trumpism be prevented?
Biden’s instinct, naturally, will be to govern as he always legislated: as a man of the center who works with Republicans to craft small-bore, business-friendly measures. After all, Biden’s name is virtually synonymous with Washington consensus. His years in the US Senate overlap almost precisely with his party’s famous turn to the “third way” right, and Biden personally played a leading role in many of the signature initiatives of the era: Nafta-style trade agreements, lucrative favors for banks, tough-on-crime measures, proposed cuts to social security, even.
What Biden must understand now, however, is that it was precisely this turn, this rightward shift in the 1980s and 90s, that set the stage for Trumpism.
Let us recall for a moment what that turn looked like. No longer were Democrats going to be the party of working people, they told us in those days. They were “new Democrats” now, preaching competence rather than ideology and reaching out to new constituencies: the enlightened suburbanites; the “wired workers”; the “learning class”; the winners in our new post-industrial society.
For years this turn was regarded as a great success. Bill Clinton brought us market-friendly reforms to banking rules, trade relations and the welfare system. He and his successor Barack Obama negotiated grand bargains and graceful triangulations; means-tested subsidies and targeted tax credits; tough-minded crime measures and social programs so complex that sometimes not even their designers could explain them to us.
In the place of the Democratic party’s old household god – the “middle class” – these new liberals enshrined the meritocracy, meaning not only the brilliant economists who designed their policies, but also the financiers and technologists that the new liberalism tried to serve, together with the highly educated professionals who were now its most prized constituents. In 2016 Hillary Clinton lost the former manufacturing regions of the country but was able to boast later on that she won “the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product … the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.”
However, there are consequences when the left party in a two-party system chooses to understand itself in this way. As we have learned from the Democrats’ experiment, such a party will show little understanding for the grievances of blue-collar workers, people who – by definition – have not climbed the ladder of meritocracy. And just think of all the shocking data that has flickered across our attention-screens in the last dozen years – how our economy’s winnings are hogged by the 1%; how ordinary people can no longer afford new cars; how young people are taking on huge debt burdens right out of college; and a thousand other points of awful. All of these have been direct or indirect products of the political experiment I am describing.
Biden can’t take us back to the happy assumptions of the centrist era even if he wants to, because so many of its celebrated policy achievements lie in ruins. Not even Paul Krugman enthuses about Nafta-style trade agreements any longer. Bill Clinton’s welfare reform initiative was in fact a capitulation to racist tropes and brought about an explosion in extreme poverty. The great prison crackdown of 1994 was another step in cementing the New Jim Crow. And the biggest shortcoming of Obama’s Affordable Care Act – leaving people’s health insurance tied to their employer – has become painfully obvious in this era of mass unemployment and mass infection.
But the biggest consequence of the Democrats’ shabby experiment is one we have yet to reckon with: it has coincided with a period of ever more conservative governance. It turns out that when the party of the left abandons its populist traditions for high-minded white-collar rectitude, the road is cleared for a particularly poisonous species of rightwing demagoguery. It is no coincidence that, as Democrats pursued their professional-class “third way”, Republicans became ever bolder in their preposterous claim to be a “workers’ party” representing the aspirations of ordinary people.
When Democrats abandoned their majoritarian tradition, in other words, Republicans hastened to stake their own claim to it. For the last 30 years it has been the right, not the left, that rails against “elites” and that champions our down-home values in the face of the celebrities who mock them. During the 2008 financial crisis conservatives actually launched a hard-times protest movement from the floor of the Chicago board of trade; in the 2016 campaign they described their foul-mouthed champion, Trump, as a “blue-collar billionaire”, kin to and protector of the lowly – the lowly and the white, that is.
Donald Trump’s prodigious bungling of the Covid pandemic has got him kicked out of office and has paused the nation’s long march to the right. Again, let us give thanks. But let us also remember that the Republicans have not been permanently defeated. Their preening leader has gone down, but his toxic brand of workerism will soon be back, enlisting the disinherited and the lowly in the cause of the mighty. So will our fatuous culture wars, with their endless doses of intoxicating self-righteousness, shot into the veins of the nation by social media or Fox News.
I have been narrating our country’s toboggan ride to hell for much of my adult life, and I can attest that Biden’s triumph by itself is not enough to bring it to a stop. It will never stop until a Democratic president faces up to his party’s mistakes and brings to a halt the ignoble experiment of the last four decades.
Should Joe Biden do that, he might be able to see that he has before him a moment of great Democratic possibility. This country has grown sick of plutocracy. We don’t enjoy sluicing everything we earn into the bank accounts of a few dozen billionaires. We want a healthcare system that works and an economy in which ordinary people prosper, even people who didn’t go to a fancy college. Should Biden open his eyes and overcome his past, he may discover that he has it in his power to rebuild our sense of social solidarity, to make the middle-class promise real again, and to beat back the right. All at the same time.
Thomas Frank is the author of The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. He is also a Guardian US columnist