On the Precipice of a Political Reckoning: Biden as Sisyphus

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and the uphill climb ahead of us.

After the death of his son Beau in 2015, then Vice-President Biden was asked about his faith as a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Tragic accidents impacted the lives of both men — Colbert as a child, Biden as a newly-elected Congressmen, husband and father. Biden explained his faith evocatively.

“My wife — she’s a professor — when she wants to leave me messages — she literally tapes them on my mirror — when I’m shaving. She put up a quote from Kierkegaard — and Kierkegaard said,

‘Faith sees best in the dark.’

For me, my religion is an enormous sense of solace. Some of it is ritual, some of it is comfort with what you’ve done…what my faith has done…it’s a place you can go…but sometimes it leaves you.”

Colbert, “What inspires me, sir, about your life, your response, and your service to the country, and what you’ve instilled in your children, is that you have suffered, and that through your suffering, you have dedicated yourself to other people and helping them.”

Biden, “I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up…and most of them do it with an incredible sense of empathy to other people.

Biden goes on to describe that he doesn’t want to embarrass Colbert by throwing the light back on his own situation, but he leans in and taps Colbert’s hand, offering appreciation for Colbert’s childhood trauma. It’s a rare moment of male vulnerability on national television. Colbert describes how he tells people he helped raise his mother after the accident, how they raised each other. In a moment that could have become saccharine or something like a staged conversation, the two men offered a glimpse of humanity.

Contrast that to the current President’s sense of humanity, according to a recent Atlantic article on the way he’s spoken about military veterans:

When President Donald Trump canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018, he blamed rain for the last-minute decision, saying that “the helicopter couldn’t fly” and that the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. Neither claim was true.

Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

Or the way he mocked a disabled reporter in 2015:

Or the way he views and treats women. Or how he treats any non-right-wing media people. Or the countless other examples he’s offered. He is a man entirely lacking in empathy, and whose policies follow along those same lines.

In a simple way, it goes back to suffering. Following Trump’s life from privileged birth to privileged schooling to privileged business beginnings (inheritance)…to failure after failure that never brought significant consequences. Instead, his many failures and his quest for tabloid fame in the 1980s and 1990s eventually led to Reality TV fame. Without having to deal with consequences for his shortcomings, Trump learned never to confront his many failures. Never had to accept suffering as a condition of being human. Consider Trump’s recent illness. Eventually testing positive for the virus he publicly downplayed and ignored and blamed others for. With over 200,000 Americans dead and millions of lives impacted in numerous ways…Trump has thrown the virus into his “Fake News” category. Nothing involving suffering counts as real in his mind, unless he’s talking to his base about what the Democrats have done to them. Instead, he’s consistently and purposefully misled the American people (see Woodward’s book and the audio from interviews with Trump). Empathy? A foreign concept for this man.

***

I asked friends to finish the sentence: Joe Biden is…

Here are the responses:

  • Joe Biden is acceptable under these circumstances.

Almost all of the responses define Biden by what he is NOT, which is probably how he became the Democratic nominee in the first place. He represented the safest and most familiar choice on the left. He didn’t position himself as the future-minded candidate many progressives hoped for, but perhaps we have defined him in ways that are premature. Maybe the biggest problem is we continue to see the Presidency as a one-person job. In reality, the President is in the driver’s seat…in a car that is on cruise-control. The real distribution of power lies in the ways that the three branches of our government shape our laws, regulate (or don’t) our industries, and maintain our collective and individual safety.

It’s always easier to project whatever each of us individually want to see, or are afraid of, onto a candidate or the opposing candidate, before that person actually enters office. The word “hope” implies a belief in tomorrow. Whatever tomorrow you can imagine.

Any Democratic candidate’s vision of change, or “First 100 Days” talking points, are malleable and contingent on the rest of our democratic system functioning.

Without also winning the Senate (which looks more likely than it did a few months ago) the progressive left knows change will be slow and Republicans will abuse the filibuster to block most proposed legislation. Democrats will need to gain a majority in the Senate, then abolish the filibuster, if they are to turn plans into policy.

In an incredibly in-depth late August New Yorker profile reported and written by Evan Osnos, Biden explained that the murder of George Floyd and the protests and subsequent events had dismantled a myth deeply embedded in his consciousness. For years, he’d been telling a parable about the morning of Obama’s Inauguration:

“I called my two sons and my daughter up, and I said, ‘Guys, don’t tell me things can’t change.’ ” Hunching forward in his seat, he told me that Trump had made a mockery of that parable. “I’m embarrassed to say, I thought you could defeat hate. You can’t. It only hides,” he said. “It crawls under the rocks, and, when given oxygen by any person in authority, it comes roaring back out. And what I realized is, the words of a President, even a lousy President, matter. They can take you to war, they can bring peace, they can make the market rise, they can make it fall. But they can also give hate oxygen.”

***

Four years later — -let’s ask what Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton, narrow and improbable as it was, represents today…on the precipice of the 2020 election.

Think of those red hats emblazoned with intentionally white letters. “Make America Great Again” was a clear call to those Americans who:

a) Have been economically disadvantaged by late-stage capitalism, undergone massive job loss due to declines in manufacturing and factory work, and overall wage stagnation

b) Have grown increasingly alienated from mainstream American culture in its diversity, city-focus, acceptance of LGBTQ and immigrant communities, growing religious apathy and overall heterogeneity.

c) Have become increasingly isolated from each other as our general habits have become more individualistic and less group-based. (decline in community gathering, church attendance, increase in the atomized family, increase in substance abuse — opioid epidemic).

As the data-focused website Five Thirty Eight highlighted in July, 2016, only 20% of voters fit the conservative definition of “real Americans.”

How does one fit this category? Just make sure you check the following categories:

  • white

Those “real Americans” are over-represented in the upper Midwest that contributed so heavily to Trump’s victory. Joe Biden is the first Democratic Presidential candidate without an Ivy League degree since Walter Mondale in 1984.

Ezra Klein’s examination of identity in politics Why We Are Polarized dives deeply into this. Listening to his interviews with thinkers and scholars on these topics is an education unto itself.

Think of the television show, Roseanne. That is the demographic population that Trump dominated. Roseanne was so important because it took an honest look at a working class family and dysfunction. Read the following with the connection in mind: What do the audiences of Roseanne and a Trump rally have in common?

Here’s how a sociology professor named Mr. Moore, from Fairfield University in Ohio, summarizes Roseanne.

The “Not So Perfect Family”

In the 1980s, television continued to explore new frontiers of family issues. Roseanne (1988–1997) was a controversial sitcom that was the first to explore the real issues and struggles faced by a working class family. It was the first family sitcom to feature a woman as the family authority figure. Actress/comedienne Roseanne Barr shocked many viewers with her raw language and laid back approach to motherhood. Her house was always a mess and the family seemingly just one step from tearing each other apart. The two lead characters, Roseanne and husband Dan (played by John Goodman, were both overweight and unconcerned with their outward appearances. Their children were loud, constantly fighting with each other, poorly behaved, and disrespectful much of the time. Despite their outward dysfunction, Roseanne and Dan clearly care for each other and their warped children.

Roseanne, for many years, tackled a number of provocative subjects and issues including poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, birth control, teen pregnancy, obesity, abortion, social class, domestic violence, infidelity, and gay rights. The female characters are typically shown working together and are able to voice their opinions freely without consequences. For these reasons, and more, Roseanne ranks among the most important television shows of all-time.

***

The hollowed-out economy of the Rust Belt provided the boost Trump needed. His most significant support came from counties in the industrial Midwest where whites without a college education are the majority. Simply put, the middle of the country is mostly rural and suburban, with a few large cities.

The following chart is from Metropolis Magazine, which used NYTimes Interactive Maps, analyzing the urban/rural divide and how it propelled Trump’s victory in 2016.

2020 Primary Race: Appealingly Safe

Joe Biden became the Democratic nominee a few months ago (doesn’t pre-COVID life seem like ages ago?) because the majority of Democratic voters saw him as the safest choice for winning back those votes and pulling together the broadest coalition of voters.

Though he has rarely been viewed as a Progressive, he had the added benefit of the Obama effect. Eight years as the friend/confidant/partner of a largely popular recent President…that boost was enough to convince many to go with the safe choice. Contenders Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg were both more intelligent, younger, and more representative of our country’s future leadership) were drowned out of the crowded field. Though they didn’t cause some centrists to cringe as much as Bernie did, they weren’t quite safe enough.

In an era of endless scrutiny and general Trump fatigue, it was difficult for people to sustain excitement toward one candidate. Our social media universe rewards controversy and our general public is misinformed or has become numb.

Trying to speak eloquently about health care policy and the widening gap between the stock market and the actual economic impact of job loss on an overcrowded debate stage is nearly impossible. This explains Elizabeth Warren’s difficulty in breaking through and this is one major reason why Bernie Sanders did so well in 2016 and again at the beginning of the 2020 Primary.

Following the principle that “less is more” on the campaign trail and debate stage, Sanders didn’t often attempt an in-depth analysis of economics or health care. An absence of budget considerations and details didn’t stop the crowds in 2016. The role of professor went to Elizabeth Warren. The average American couldn’t digest her wisdom, and the average American man (especially without an college education) doesn’t know how to listen to intelligent women. Identification with gender identity is tied closely to education-levels. Why do you think the voices you hear narrating truck commercials sound like that?

Instead, Sanders spoke in easily digestible sound-bytes. Short enough to drill into our collective, impatient and confused memory banks. While Sanders had the debate stage antics (captured here by Larry David’s SNL parody of Bernie as grumpy Grandpa, flailing arms, no-nonsense vocal delivery) to accompany those short, potent economic crisis bullet points.

During the 2016 primary, Sanders wore away that collective confidence the left might have had around Hillary Clinton. The Hillary-Bernie battle became a brutal fight and Hillary entered the general election like an ancient Redwood that had been chopped away at. She was an easier target for the ruthless, malignant presence of Trump, especially in the states she needed most. Those suburban and rural votes that Hillary desperately needed in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin evaporated. Those 64 electoral college votes (especially the 20 in PA and 18 in OH) were Trump’s path to victory, despite losing the popular vote by 3 million.

A year ago, during the opening of these Democratic primaries, Sanders was back near the top. But that voice and those same talking points became overly familiar. Unlike the right, not everyone on the left wants to hear the same sound-bytes on repeat. The highly-educated want plans (Warren and Pete). Those in the center want moderation and familiarity. Those generally left out of our economy and with the least political power and highest levels of distrust in the process wanted a sea change. In that context, of course we ended up with Biden.

Sanders’ age went from endearing him to many — old Grandpa Bernie — to becoming a liability when he suffered a heart attack early on in the primary season. Sanders’ unwavering belief in the voice of the people (which people and which voice is another question) has been admirable, but his unwillingness to compromise always kept him from creating as broad a coalition as he needed. Over time, we should see him as more of a bridge to future progressive leadership. The movement he helped spark has pulled the Democratic Party in a progressive direction. But that movement probably owes more to our cultural movements of the people than Bernie himself. #metoo and Black Lives Matter are what political movements look like in the age of social media. Bernie’s version is what political movements looked like in the late 1960s. The combination of both has led us toward more representative new leaders.

New candidates emerged and have been establishing themselves in Congress for the last two years. Known as “The Squad,” US Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and the party’s most well-known young voice, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) represent the future of the left. It isn’t shocking that two of the four come from Midwestern cities. Over the last decade, as the urban/rural divide has become more intense, the Midwest represents that divide state-by-state, with a few very dense cities: Chicago, Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Madison, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Pittsburgh, while the rest of those relatively-large geographic regions are filled with rural and suburban populations.

Young women of color became the new voices on the progressive left, winning the 2018 midterm elections, while Beto O’Rourke nearly pulled off an incredible upset in Texas and Stacey Abrams (Georgia) and Andrew Gillum (Florida) came close to winning governorship in the South.

On the Precipice

https://www.istockphoto.com/photos/colorado-mountains

Now here we are on the precipice of the 2020 General Election. Early voting has begun. We dropped our mail-in ballots at our local city hall. In California, you can track your ballot. It has been confirmed. Our ballots did not end up in any garbage in, or in any river. They ended up in the same pile of envelopes that all the other California ballots ended up in. But we know how California will go. We wait and see on the results in Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

An election day voting process threatened by COVID-19 then exacerbated by Trump and his postmaster buddy/donor Louis DeJoy messing with the ability of the postal service to handle mail-in-ballots. Among progressives, many have seen Biden as too centrist, and dislike that he has been in Congress longer than 47 year-old Americans have been alive. Now Trump is attempting to paint Biden as a radical socialist who will allow apocalyptic conditions in our cities and ignore our collective security. All while this administration has failed repeatedly to protect Americans from COVID-19, and regularly fanned the flames of racism and polarization. An attempt at genuine national unity seems like a Sisyphean task.

Many of us on the coasts think that those Midwestern swing states have received too much attention since 2016. The outdated Electoral College was established in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. As with many legal issues, the problem comes back to treating the Constitution as gospel and with reverence, rather than as a living, breathing document that needs constant refinement. According to a Pew poll from March, 81% of those on the left agree that the Electoral College should be replaced with a national popular vote — a view that Pete Buttigieg pushed early on in the Democratic Debates, while only 32% of those on the right favor the change. Books have been written, and the consensus is clearly in place on the coasts, but the entrenchment of old habits and the way that vote manipulation and vote suppression has weaved its way into Republican state legislatures keeps democracy from functioning the way it should…for now.

The question is not “IF” but “WHEN” these underhanded tactics will stop working that should bring us hope. If this election brings a Democratic majority in the Senate, as is currently expected, there will be few roadblocks to immediate economic and health recovery and future economic plans that involve green jobs and bringing back something of a middle class. Following the demographic trends and the increasingly far-right stance of the Republicans leads to a future where Texas turns blue and those on the left can stop obsessing about the upper Midwest. In that case the Electoral College becomes irrelevant. On the other hand, as I’ve explained above…we can’t stop worrying about the PEOPLE who LIVE in the Upper Midwest and the PEOPLE who LIVE in the South. Too often, we conflate the politics of the conservative leaders of those states with the people who live there.

The Wait Is Nearly Over…Or Is It?

We have been waiting for November, 2020 for what seems like a decade. The ten months of 2020 have seemingly taken a decade. Time is relative…the power of that truth has been made especially obvious this year.

Despite all of the problems, we keep believing in the possibility of progress. Despite the potholes, we drive. Despite the aching backs, we carry our children. Despite the attempts of some politicians, of our corporations, of our pharmaceutical industry, and of our binge-content-industry to numb us, we remain semi-aware and somewhat alive. We may have to wait past November 3rd to know.

Chris Rock says Vote…and talks about Tuesdays.

Obama on Biden’s Campaign Trail in Philadelphia: October 21

DNC Speeches

Joe Biden Accepting the Democratic nomination

Barack Obama speech — 2020

Michelle Obama speech

Kamala Harris speech

Bernie Sanders speech

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store