Let me start with the punchline: Biden’s speech laid out the case that the United States is in a moment comparable to 1932, but with the fascists in charge. He called, in essence, for a New New Deal and a New Civil Rights Era. Our crisis is severe. It requires transformative change, and we must seize the moment.
Throughout the convention progressives have expressed everything from concern to outrage about the paucity of speakers from the left wing of the party. By the end of Biden’s speech, it was clear why the campaign chose to elevate moderates and even Republicans.
The arc of the convention was designed to methodically build a foundation for Biden’s speech, and the nature of that foundation requires support from people who aren’t Democrats and aren’t from the left wing of the party. If the crisis is as grave as Democrats argue – and it is – then Republicans and moderates must testify to that fact. Trump will also claim that the survival of the country is on the line, so who’s to say this isn’t just partisan hyperbole?
There’s another reason. The speech takes advantage of Biden’s persona – as more of a moderate, a guy who does bipartisanship, and a pragmatist – to make the case for transformation in the terms not of revolution but of restoration. We must restore what we have lost – kindness, empathy, a functional government. This is what Trump’s demagoguery, incompetence, and corruption have wrought. We need to go “back” – where “back” is the kind of nostalgic myth that only an old white dude from a working-class family can get away with. And yes, it is a nostalgic myth.
I said it’s a “myth.” It’s a powerful one, encoded in a set of rhetorical tropes that presidents and major-party nominees used to trot out all the time. At least before we were engulfed, to paraphrase Biden, in Trump’s darkness. Indeed, after four years of Trump’s demagoguery and linguistic narcism, it turns out that the clichés in Biden’s speech matter. They’re no longer simply background noise. They carry with them a sense of urgency.
Biden’s speech doesn’t, however, pretend that myth reflects anything like the lived experience of most Americans. So it offers the myth as a promise, a promise that America has not kept, because of longstanding discrimination and exploitation. At any other time, this would be just more hokey stuff. Not in 2020.
I mean, “build back better”? I’ll grant it’s alliterative, and easy to remember. But it hardly seems inspiring. Yet somehow it captures the argument. We are building toward a better past, but also building toward an America better than that past.
The thing is, as much as my heart is with Bernie, my head says that, at least in the United States of America, you don’t build a coalition for transformation by promising revolution. For most Americans, revolution suggests violence and terror. It suggests chaos. It signals that for things to get better, they must first get worse. If they get better at all.
But maybe you can build a coalition for transformation if that case is built on small-c conservative rhetoric. Especially when more than 170,000 Americans have died preventable deaths, when our economy is in tatters, and the president so disdains our system of government that he has never read the Constitution – and, furthermore, so disdains his religious followers that he can’t even be bothered to learn a single passage from the Bible.
I have no idea if Biden will actually be an agent of transformation. It will require control of the Senate, as well as the elimination of the filibuster and a willingness to play hardball that seems alien to Biden’s view of governance. It will require having legislation that is ready to go from day one, and to push it through in the first hundred days.
In short, it will require taking the lessons of 2009-2010 seriously.
But I’m increasingly confident that Biden at least understands the need for major change. It’s up to us to elect him, give him the margins he needs, and then be prepared to make sure he keeps the promises he made last night.