Joe Biden’s inauguration came and went without incident.
In a sad testament to the surreal times in which we live, that counted as a “win” for America.
A beleaguered country which was promised, four years ago, that its citizens would be exhausted by the sheer scope and quantity of forthcoming victories did indeed end up “tired.” But not of “all the winning.” Rather, tired of the turmoil. Exasperated by the never-ending vitriol. Drained by mistrust. Sick from a pandemic. Torn along racial lines. And economically stricken.
In his address, Biden didn’t pretend otherwise. But he nevertheless expressed optimism. Not the kind of soaring, almost aggressive, optimism characteristic of a messianic Barack Obama speech. Rather, an almost naive, idealistic optimism that could only emanate from someone who’s overcome so much loss, that he truly believes everyone has the capacity to suffer while retaining a sense of hope, purpose, and faith, as he did through unimaginable personal tragedy.
“Naive” may seem like a misnomer. After all, someone who’s experienced the kind of suffering Biden has can’t possibly be “naive” when it comes to knowing how truly cruel a place the world can be. Rather, the naïveté comes in projecting the capacity to cope onto 330 million people, the vast majority of whom can’t be expected to similarly steel themselves in the face of calamitous outcomes or, more common, in the face of the mundane, daily grind that can render life devoid of meaning.
Everyone deals with suffering differently. And there are different kinds of suffering. On Wednesday, Biden effectively pleaded with the nation to somehow absorb his own tolerance for psychological distress. He was asking, not telling, as Obama would. He made promises, yes, and there’s no doubt he intends to keep them. But Biden’s exhortations for the country to marshal the spirit of decades past and unite around a common cause almost surely fell on deaf ears in many locales across the nation.
It’s true that many of America’s “sins” aren’t new. Indeed, confronting the country’s “original sin” is one challenge Biden will attempt to tackle. But it’s not clear that America is, as Biden suggested, an inherently optimistic nation anymore. The irony is that, while absurdly overwrought, Donald Trump’s description of the country as a desolate wasteland during his own (wholly bizarre) inaugural address was in many ways an accurate description, depending on where in the country one goes. Of course, Trump turned the figurative “American carnage” he described in January of 2017 into literal carnage by January of 2021. A true “visionary,” that guy.
By any objective account, Biden’s address was a good one. There were no gaffes, almost no rhetorical missteps, and no moments when he didn’t seem in command of his words and thoughts.
But I, for one, fear Biden’s idealism may be misplaced. The country still wants change. Ironically, that’s perhaps the only constant — the desire for change. But not the kind of change that Biden promised will come if everyone just starts being nice to each other again and resolves to be optimistic and friendly to their neighbors. People want real change. Transformational change. The kind of change that Biden at times explicitly rebuked during the primaries.
Of course, Biden didn’t rebuke it because he thought it was unnecessary. Rather, he cautioned against “radical” proposals because both he and the Democratic leadership feared the stakes were too high to risk putting anyone but him at the top of the ticket. They saw an existential threat in Trump. And they wanted to give voters an off ramp. Biden represented a free pass off the “Trump train” for those inclined to disembark, but not if it meant a vote for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.
To his credit, Biden has paid lip service to the issues that Progressives champion, and he’s acutely aware of the enormous sway held by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “sisters.” While their clout on the Hill may be small, they together command a legion of followers that rivals Trump’s base in fervor and, quite possibly, in number too.
While I’ve readily acknowledged the notion that America may need a “placeholder” of sorts in order to restore domestic stability and rebuild trust with a disenchanted world, rescuing American democracy and resurrecting the American dream will fall to someone other than Biden. Someone with the capacity to excite voters and, crucially, to make them understand that what unites them truly is stronger than what divides them. And no, I don’t mean that as a silly, sentimental cliché. I mean it literally. The problem is that most Americans are blind to the tie that binds them in suffering: It’s a lack of economic opportunity that creates the cascade of social ills plaguing the nation. That’s what makes the electorate amenable to the siren song of populism and authoritarianism.
Failing to grasp that leads to blame-casting and factionalism, as the economically disadvantaged look for scapegoats rather than placing the blame where it belongs — namely with a broken economic system. There’s no connection between, for example, Muslims and the opioid epidemic in Appalachia. Illegal immigration isn’t to blame for the loss of factory jobs in the rust belt. Undereducated white males in coal country aren’t shooting African Americans in fast food parking lots in Atlanta.
Unnecessary economic hardship brought about by capitalism without guardrails, an acute education crisis, and a steadfast refusal on the part of the country to confront its past and take serious steps to remedy inequities that should have been eradicated decades ago, all contribute to a situation where the masses are unable to achieve the kind of overall well-being that’s conducive to a stable democracy.
Eventually, “someone” with the voice and the vision to remedy that situation needs to be given the green light by her party to step up and take her place in American history.
It’s probably true that someone like Biden is necessary right now to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg.
But the calls for transformational change aren’t going to go away. If Democrats don’t let their star shine, they risk the return of Trumpism or, as I’ve warned previously, the rise of a far-left ideologue.
I wrote about this in October. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from that linked piece.
The irony for people who demonize Ocasio-Cortez, is that once the US reaches a firebrand tipping point, we should be so lucky that she or Ilhan Omar or someone dedicated to democracy (if not capitalism) is that firebrand. What’s more likely, though, is that someone much further to the left will take a look at Trump’s successful dismantling of America’s checks and balances, study it, and then ride a wave of popular discontent with pervasive inequality and governmental dysfunction into The White House on the way to installing an authoritarian regime based on just the same kind of extreme ideals that conservative alarmist media falsely ascribes to Ocasio-Cortez.
One bad turn deserves another. And 2016 was a pretty bad (right) turn. You can expect an equally hard left turn if the realities currently prompting millions to protest in the streets are not acknowledged and addressed in a substantive way over the next four years.