US President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris deliver remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7, 2020, after being declared the winners of the presidential election. (Photo by Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Why Biden did better than Democrats around the country
02:15 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

The fragile unity within the Democratic Party that helped propel a cohesive message in the fall that centered on making America empathetic again – stopping the coronavirus, halting the pandemic-induced economic recession and confronting the nation’s deep-seated racial divisions – is once again in danger of unraveling.

Peniel Joseph

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris garnered the most popular votes in American history, but their victory failed to produce the desired Congressional wave effect; the Democratic Party’s hopes of a Senate majority now rest on the slender thread of two Georgia run-off elections. While centrist Democrats lost close-fought congressional elections, the hoped for embrace of progressive Democratic majorities in both houses failed to materialize.

It’s an old fight, but with new participants. Rising centrist Democratic legislators, most notably Pennsylvania congressman Conor Lamb, have had harsh words for the party’s progressive leaders, led by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for advocating radical proposals that frightened moderate voters and cost the party the down-ballot votes that might have captured the senate and added seats in the house. From Lamb’s perspective, Ocasio-Cortez and her allies relish in throwing out rhetorical Molotov cocktails from the security of safe districts, advocating policies that “aren’t just unpopular, they’re completely unrealistic, and they aren’t going to happen.”

Ocasio-Cortez offered an alternative view for Democratic losses in Republican leaning districts. Rather than blame progressive support for Black Lives Matter and calls to “Defund the Police” for Democrats’ losses, Ocasio-Cortez contended the party would be better off articulating a clear message about where they stand, who they are and where they see the country going. “We need to do a lot of anti-racist, deep canvassing in this country,” explained Ocasio-Cortez.

The longstanding civil war within the Democratic Party continues. Political and ideological battles over racial justice, the role of the federal government and the meaning of citizenship have been waged within the Democratic Party since the New Deal helped usher in an unwieldly coalition of liberals, Southern conservative segregationists (sometimes called Dixiecrats), moderates and progressives. Civil rights, Vietnam and economic decline helped to fracture this coalition after 1968, leading to political realignment that found white voters rushing to the Republican Party in droves.

This loop of history matters in particular because the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential victory should not be mistaken as a triumph over Trumpism, or over the darker structural, political and cultural forces that have led us to this moment of national crisis. Our contemporary national crisis is rooted in some of the same primeval forces that led to the national decline of the Democratic Party beginning in the late 1960s.

Covid-19’s disproportionate, and continuing, impact on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities nationwide has amplified pre-existing historic inequities that have plagued American society for decades, in some instances, for centuries.

A fissure with deep historical roots

This political and ideological dissonance between Lamb and Ocasio-Cortez reflects a larger national debate over race, democracy and citizenship that has deep historical roots – and cannot be papered over by the folksy appeal of Biden or Harris’ barrier-breaking identity. And it’s an urgent question, because whether or not the Democratic Party can bridge the yawning gulf between the world views, in policy and politics, of its centrist and progressive wings may very well decide the future of American democracy.

Part of this disagreement stems from the winner-take-all political climate fostered by gerrymandering Congressional districts and statehouses and other structural transformations that have disincentivized political compromise.

After former President Ronald Reagan successfully eroded New Deal social policy, former President Bill Clinton responded to the harsh political realities for Democrats engendered by the Reagan-Bush years through “triangulation,” a term coined by Clinton political advisor Dick Morris, designed to court swing votes by abandoning progressives. Rather than challenging GOP political philosophy directly, this approach conceded the meat of political debates to Republicans by passing politically expedient, morally reprehensible crime and welfare legislation to solidify support with centrist voters.

What looked to some like bipartisanship was really a structurally rigged game from the start. Ralph Nader’s surprisingly robust 2000 presidential campaign represented the pre-Bernie Sanders’ Left’s response to Clinton’s centrism. National Democrats, including Biden (who later publicly regretted his role in fashioning the crime bill), joined in the politics of triangulation, casting aside policy choices that would have attacked the roots of urban poverty, violence and crime in favor of photo-op politics that invariably ended with increased investments in systems of punishment rather than people

Former President Barack Obama tried to transcend these structural impediments. Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech called the nation back to the Founders’ dreams of non-partisanship, memorably arguing “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” but simply “the United States of America.” But as his recent memoir illuminates, once he became president, Obama’s hopes for bipartisan cooperation crashed on the shoals of GOP obstruction (fueled in part by Tea Party fervor) and Donald Trump’s birtherism conspiracy, the last a racist fiction alleging the president was born in Kenya – not Hawaii. The enduring irony here is that perhaps the most hopeful president in American history inadvertently helped to launch the most cynical.

What happens now that Biden will be president

Clinton’s pragmatic centrism and Obama’s attempted hopeful transformations – two efforts to which Biden was vital – both proved unable to halt structural inequities within America’s democratic system that have accelerated at a breathtaking pace over the course of the Trump Presidency. Now that Biden will be President, the fissures in his Party threaten to keep Trumpism alive.

The strength of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing lies in confronting this reality with bold policy ambitions – from Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and yes, investing more resources into eradicating poverty, violence, and inequality than are directed toward police and punishment. These are goals that prioritize real people over property, support voting rights as sacrosanct and reimagine the rights of citizenship to include access to quality and debt free education, healthcare, food, and protection from structural and physical violence.

The allure of the centrist Democrats can be found in their belief that politics is based on the art of the possible. From this perspective the most enduring change is incremental, built brick by brick and based in a kind of bipartisanship that prioritizes the fears, anxieties, and wants of predominantly White moderates.

Lamb, who rightfully points out that his majority-White district’s constituents and their hopes and dreams stand in stark contrast to Ocasio-Cortez’s racially diverse district’s, appears to long for the return to the kind of bipartisan centrism that, although temperamentally more civil that our current era, has contributed mercilessly to the disenfranchisement of Black Americans. One sees the troubling effects of this toxic 1990s neo-liberalism in mass incarceration, the exploitation of immigrants, intolerance toward LGBTQ communities, and the devaluing of women, especially Black women, in policy and politics.

The Democratic Party’s best chance to help shape the future

The historic and ongoing protests against racial justice in 2020 show us that there is no normal to return to. The nation’s political center of gravity has forever shifted and our institutions and political parties have yet to catch up. Americans have a generational opportunity to confront issues for which broad social (if not political) support has long existed – issues of housing affordability, income and wealth inequality, criminal justice reform, unemployment and environmental injustice rooted in racist policies that can no longer be ignored, massaged or ameliorated.

The Democratic Party’s best chance to help shape the future is not by negotiating some kind of backroom compromise between the Green New Deal and more incremental measures that attempt to nibble around the edges of systemic racism, entrenched poverty, economic inequality, racial segregation and violence against women, immigrants, the incarcerated, and LGBTQ communities. President-elect Biden must use the most important bully-pulpit in the world to advance a racially inclusive and economically expansive vision of American democracy, one rooted not just in the pragmatic limits of his ability to pass consequential legislation.

The Democratic Party is more important now more than ever precisely because our two-party system is broken. We have one major party that has advocated voter suppression, whose leaders have largely refused to acknowledge Biden’s election and allowed themselves to be bullied, badgered and broken by President Trump. Republicans won the presidency in 2016, made gains in the House of Representatives and appear likely to hold onto the Senate at the cost of the party’s soul and the integrity of many of its national leaders. This sorry state of affairs means that unless and until the GOP recovers the conservative principles that allowed political centrists such as former President Dwight Eisenhower and social liberals like New York City Mayor John Lindsay to find room in the party, the future of national progress lies in the hands of Democrats.

Both sides within the Democratic Party must recognize the depth and breadth of the problems facing the nation and our planet. Forging a consensus around anti-racism, climate change, and ending poverty requires facing unpleasant political realities. These include recognizing the central place that the struggles for dignity and citizenship being waged by BIPOC around the nation to fight the ravages of the pandemic and in support of Black lives is pivotal to the Democratic Party’s future.

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    Debates within the party should be less about the practicality of birthing new freedoms than our shared responsibility – whether Democratic centrists, moderates, liberals or progressives – of forging a broad-based national consensus, outlining bold steps toward achieving policy and political solutions that these watershed historical times demand. This requires the kind of political vision that Democrats such as FDR and LBJ articulated in a manner that, for a time at least, galvanized the nation beyond partisanship. The New Deal and Great Society, for all of their shortcomings and disappointments, called on Americans to embrace big ideas that could only be accomplished through a collective national will.

    Forged through depression and war, postwar America led the world, at its best, by setting a powerful example of the great things that could be accomplished by a good people. American identity in the 21st century has been reshaped by the structural violence of economic dispossession, mass incarceration, systemic racism and a plague that continues unabated. Now is the time for the Democratic Party to go big or go home by embracing audacious freedom dreams that call us toward the kind of aspirational citizenship that, from JFK to Obama, allowed us to believe that America was a place where all things are possible.