"Our eternal present."
America has stopped becoming.
Swearing to it: Another round of ‘hope and change.’ (Wikimedia Commons)
NOVEMBER 9—“Four more years” used to be the way campaigning incumbents decorated bumper stickers. It was Nixon’s promise (or threat) as he sought a second term in 1972, if I am not mistaken. Now the election of a challenger as our 46th prez once again calls this phrase drearily to mind. And never mind promises or threats this time. Joe Biden’s victory last week turns “four more years” into a condemnation.
Not three days after The AP called the election, we are already reading of how little the Biden administration will get done. He will face difficulties on Capitol Hill. He has to appease all sides if he is to draw our divided republic back together. These assertions will now prove an excellent dodge as the Biden White House deflects the question of how much the deeply corrupt, deeply mendacious Joseph R. Biden Jr. intended from the first to do by way of reform, renovation, and re-imagined policy directions.
Not much, as paying-attention people have understood from the first. It will be poignant to watch as this bitter reality lands in the minds of those many millions of voters who helped put Biden in office with uplifted eyes. The what-is will be the all-there-is so long as Joe and Kamala Harris, his not self-evidently competent Veep-elect, are in office. This our press and broadcasters now urge us hourly to accept.
A top Biden adviser named Ted Kaufman told us all this last August, when he remarked on the eve of Biden’s acceptance speech that the many splendid things Joe was promising out on the hustings would never come to be. “The Democratic convention has sucked up all the political oxygen in America,” the astute David Sirota wrote at the time in Jacobin, “so much so that most people missed Team Biden signaling that it may back off the entire agenda it is campaigning on.”
People missed it, David, because the mainstream press left the momentous implications of the Kaufman comment entirely unreported. Not the time for such truths: People hadn’t voted yet.
The election is behind us. Now’s the time.
The New York Times, which surrendered any claim to objectivity way back in the early Russiagate days, is drawing back the curtain on the incoming administration with all the obfuscatory finesse it can muster. “Biden Could Roll Back Trump Agenda With Blitz of Executive Actions,” is the head on its story this morning. Wow. Here comes Joe, new broom in hand.
Here are the pithy paragraphs in the piece that follows:
But there is no question that Mr. Biden and members of his party are eager to systematically erase what they view as destructive policies that the president pursued on the environment, immigration, health care, gay rights, trade, tax cuts, civil rights, abortion, race relations, military spending, and more.
Some of that will require cooperation with Congress, which may remain divided next year. Mr. Biden’s pledges to roll back some of Mr. Trump’s tax cuts are almost certain to run headfirst into fierce opposition from that chamber. Efforts to advance a more liberal agenda on civil rights and race relations — centerpieces of Mr. Biden’s stump speech during his campaign — may falter. And his efforts to shape the new government with appointments could be constrained by the need to win approval in a Republican Senate.
Here comes Joe, there goes Joe. If only Joe could do what he wanted.
What are we reading here? What are we not reading? How shall we understand these post-election efforts at perception management and the base cynicism implicit therein? This election faces us with fundamental truths about our predicament it is essential to grasp.
Biden will fight the Covid–19 pandemic, he will defend gay rights, civil rights, abortion rights, racial equality, and so on. Setting aside how little of this will get done and how inauthentically Biden will press said defenses, the topic here is change at the margins. None of this even remotely constitutes a decisive shift in direction of the sort our troubled, tarnished republic requires. Biden will bring America back into the Paris climate accord: This is a fine commitment, but there is something apple-pie about the thought, is there not? A safe display of anti–Trump determination is my read.
A humane health-care system? No—Biden has already said so. A proper infrastructure program? No. A jobs program, a Green New Deal? No and no. On the foreign side, renovated, 21st century policies toward Russia, North Korea, China, apartheid Israel? No, no, no, and emphatically no. What about the Iran nuclear accord—yes, that one, the one that matters? No again: Biden is far too in with the Israeli lobby to reverse the Trump administration’s course, and anyone who expects otherwise is still dreaming.
A reduction in military spending such that some little something might get done to reverse the social and economic decay at home: This is a good one, isn’t it? Shall we ask Michele Flournoy or Susan Rice or any of the warmongerers on Biden’s short list for cabinet posts how much they have in mind?
Whenever Joe Biden appears in public, he always manages to look as if he just brushed cobwebs out of his hair back in the green room. Maybe it is the visual effect of the mental deterioration. We should take the lesson in any case.
Between now and 2024, if he lasts that long, Joe Biden will face us with our nation’s inability under current circumstances to alter course—to remedy all that we know full well is injurious to us and countless other human beings. With the press and broadcasters four-square behind the undertaking, the Biden presidency will deprive us of any notion that our future can be different from what we see out our windows.
Joe Biden and the party that imposed him upon us will do their best to maroon us in an eternal present, to put the point another way. As some readers will recall, Sartre used to tell us that to live was an incessant act of becoming. This was what the existentialists, for whom I still have a lot of time, meant by the expression “condemned to freedom.” To be free faced one with an unending succession of choices, each moment we are alive bringing another one.
Jean-Paul Satre, ca. 1950. (Wikimedia Commons)
America has stopped becoming: This is our reality two decades into our new century. In the philosophic terms just noted, its people are not free and have no choices.
There are a couple of ways to understand what has brought us to this condition. We can begin with reference to that dreadful decade after Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall, otherwise known as the triumphalist 1990s. Francis Fukuyama (who to my amazement continues to be employed in Thinktankland) published his faux-thoughtful The End of History and the Last Man in 1992. We Americans were it: Humanity could not improve on our neoliberal way at life and government. So must we impart our good fortune to others.
Liberalism, in truth, has never been so liberal as those who embrace the label prefer to think. Post–Cold War triumphalism simply stripped the illiberality implicit in American liberalism of all artifice. Joe Biden is but one consequence—along, of course, with all the wars, bombs, drones, and subterfuge Biden and his party have sanctioned these past decades.
But what is the end-of-history bit if not a fashionable restatement of American exceptionalism? By way of our chosen-people consciousness, Americans have been certain since the late–18th century that they are providentially gifted and need change nothing. Neither do they need to think very much, for all the decisions were already made. America must simply stay the course, for it is implicitly the right course. When problems arise—as they did, say, at the turn of the 19th century and as they do now in spades—they can be corrected by minor adjustments at the margin.
It is rather difficult to fathom that those holding power in this nation—or over it, better put—still take the old mythology seriously. We have overmuch to think about even as we need not think. One does not accept for a moment that America is exceptional in the way these people insist. Let us say simply: All nations are exceptional, but none is exceptionally exceptional.
Neither does one believe for a moment that the what-is is the all-there-is. This assumption is foisted upon us by powers that no longer lead so much as coerce, who do not take our predicaments seriously, who have no intention of facing 21st realities because they do not know what time it is. But it is ours to push past this suffocating business, and our political process—if this is not too obvious to state—is not at our disposal to get this done.
It is always necessary, if one is to advance, to begin with a full and honest assessment of where one is. Many things will have to be watched, many policies abroad and at home, once Biden and Kamala Harris assume office. And this is where we are as we begin our watching.