Monday, November 9, 2020

On Eagles' Wings

What a difference four years make! Exactly four years ago today, America awoke to discover that we had somehow elected as our president a notorious, outer-borough businessman noted for his bankruptcies and divorces. He did, however, have a very good sense of the national mood and had successfully engaged and played upon the alienation and resentment so many Americans were feeling, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. That calamity, as Pope Francis recently recalled in his encyclical Fratelli Tuttiwas a tragically missed opportunity for fundamental change. Instead it “increased freedom for the truly powerful, who always find a way to escape unscathed.” Donald Trump saw that alienation and anger in so much of America (admittedly all hiding in plain sight) and exploited it to win the presidency, throwing out the Republican "conservative" agenda, which was all about making the rich richer at everyone else's expense, and instead embraced a vague but powerful "populist" position.

It is plausible that, had he actually governed as a "populist," he might be heading into a second term today. Instead uninterested in actually governing, he outsourced his policy agenda to the Republican party elite, people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and their colleagues, who cared mainly about tax cuts for the already overly rich, taking away people's access to health care coverage, shredding what is left of the social safety net, and appointing Republican business-friendly judges. This was the same unpopular Republican establishment that had been rejected in the Republican primaries that led to Trump's nomination! Trump meanwhile focused more and more on racial, religious, and cultural grievance politics - to the delight of his populist "base," which reveled in his performative authoritarianism, cruelty, and contempt for constitutional norms, but which got no tangible benefits in return. With the passage of time, Trump, reverting ever more to type, focused more and more on his own personal grievances to the exclusion of almost anything else. Add to that the pandemic, which he refused to address seriously and which he politicized appallingly, resulting in the world's worst casualty rate.

One of the traditional tropes of classical political theory has been the decline of constitutional government into rule by a demagogue tyrant. For four years, President Trump and his Republican party enablers pushed the country closer and closer to the brink. From that brink the American people themselves, roused to vote in unprecedented numbers, have suddenly pulled us back. Saving constitutional government from its deliberate destruction is no minor accomplishment, and it is also a prerequisite for any further political accomplishments.

It also didn't hurt - and almost certainly helped - that Biden basically ignored the so-called "culture war" in his campaign and completely ignored it in his post-election victory speech. There is a moral in that too, likewise hiding in plain sight, if only the culture warriors on both sides would notice!

It is widely assumed that Joe Biden will not seek re-election in 2024. Rather than thinking of himself as a helpless lame-duck, however, he may feel liberated by this and focus his energies on actual accomplishments. Our political culture considers re-election a president's primary accomplishment, but his party will have a better chance in 2022 and 2024 if he has more concrete accomplishments to point to. What the Democratic party needs to be doing in the meantime is aggressive and intense party-building at the local level, something it seemed to have ignored during the previous Democratic presidency..

Of course, the impediments to accomplishment remain many, mostly coming from the opposition party's hold on power.

One way of looking at the election results would be to see the prospect of a renewed Republican party gradually self-transforming into a multi-racial, multi-ethnic working-class party. There is indeed that possibility. But there remain two obvious obstacles. The first, of course, is the continued persistence and probably prevalence of racist and nativist white grievance politics as the symbolic face of the party for the foreseeable future - at least as long as those who have profited from fostering it remain on the scene.

The second is the continued presence and power of the Republican party establishment in Congress and the judiciary. Their reverse Robin Hood ideology of taking from the poor and giving to the rich will likely reassert itself in a rediscovered commitment to fiscal austerity, which will hobble the Biden Administration's attempts to enact most useful legislation.

For all its awesome majesty and despite the new president's popular mandate, the American presidency can be an amazingly weak office. In his 1960 classic, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt famously said "Presidential power is the power to persuade." If that was true then, at the zenith of 20th-century bi-partisan comity, then persuasion and bargaining are, if anything, more of a challenge today, when so few people are persuadable. 

Our antiquated and overly admired arrangement of checks and balances biases the system toward inaction. In today's hyper-polarized politics, an opposition party in control of Congress has few incentives to cooperate and compromise. If anyone can bridge this gap, Joe Biden, a traditional man of the Senate, is that one. His task, for which he is temperamentally and experientially well suited, will be to craft policy proposals and argue for them in a way which ordinary people can hear and comprehend. The challenge will be to find enough people who are actually willing to hear anything he says.

Fittingly, in this time which has seen so much unnecessary suffering, President-Elect Biden ended his post-election victory speech by inviting us to let ourselves be lifted beyond ourselves and our precarious present, meditating on the familiar words of the contemporary Catholic hymn, which so many Evangelicals also sing: And he will raise you up on eagles' wings, Bear you on the breath of dawn, Make you to shine just like the sun, And hold you in the palm of his hand.

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