Reviewed in this article:
Bigger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism
Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht
Verso (March 2020), $33.95
Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden
Verso, January 2020), $25.95
They were like two ships passing in the night. It was 1980, and Joe Biden had just been re-elected to the Senate from Delaware while Bernie Sanders had become mayor of the largest city in Vermont.
Even if Biden had won his campaign, he was losing his compass. Ronald Reagan had swept into the White House on a surge of right-wing momentum. And while Biden talked about the “middle class,” he had more or less embraced his elite agenda, abandoning the mantle he had donned to first get elected in 1972. “Win, lose, or draw, Joe Biden isn’t a liberal anymore,” his defeated Republican opponent crowed. “I think that’s a victory.”
Several hundred kilometres to his north, Sanders had taken a diametrically opposed approach to power.
Though Vermont at the time was still a resoundingly conservative state, Sanders had made no concessions, running instead as an unabashed democratic socialist. On winning he would immediately begin a pitched battle against the local conservative establishment, rallying the same working class voters whom Biden scorned, and ultimately transforming the city of Burlington into a beacon of progressivism.
By the time Biden and Sanders would meet head on in a Democratic primary, some four decades later, these characteristics would be even more pronounced. Biden’s victory over Sanders would demonstrate the durability of the Democratic power structure and neoliberal ideology that Biden has served, and Sanders fought against, their entire careers. But the popularity of the campaign of the Vermont senator, astonishing considering the marginal status of democratic socialism a few short years ago, may prove that his are the politics of the future.
Biden’s story is told in Branko Marcetic’s Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, a sobering account of a politician who, for much of the last decades, has governed as a conservative in all but name. Despite the polemical bent of the title, it’s an even-handed and deeply researched political biography. Marcetic ably traces how Biden took a leading role in transforming the Democrats from the party of the New Deal into a neoliberal force, supporting endless wars, instituting mass incarceration, and slashing welfare, ending his career as an incredibly vulnerable nominee against a right-wing pseudo-populist president unafraid to gesture to the left of the Democrats.
Though Marcetic doesn’t put it in quite so few words, Biden was in many respects the prototypical progressive neoliberal politician. As early as 1974, Biden began identifying as “a social liberal who was conservative fiscally.” Yet he would continue drifting further rightward during the Reagan years, bashing the president publicly but telling crowds that “we can’t solve all social problems by an endless succession of government programs.” Biden voted for Reagan’s tax cuts for the wealthy, the biggest in U.S. history (until Trump’s in 2018), exhibiting an obsession with federal deficits and spending cuts that would mark the rest of his career.
When Jesse Jackson, his primary opponent in the 1988 Democratic nomination, denounced politicians who are “combing their hair to the left like Kennedy and moving their policies to the right like Reagan,” everyone knew who he meant. Biden was eventually forced out of the race after plagiarizing from a U.K. Labour leader’s speech and being caught out lying about his supposed civil rights activism—a habit that would crop up again in 2020. On multiple occasions this winter, Biden claimed to have been arrested doing civil disobedience while trying to visit Nelson Mandela in South Africa, yet no such event ever transpired.
Under Clinton, for whom Biden provided something of a political model, the Democrats would do more to advance a right-wing economic agenda than the Republicans could ever have dreamed. He would help write and pass a crime bill—the “Biden crime law”—that would lead to the mass incarceration of mostly poor and Black people, doubling the prison population in the following two decades.
It was a fitting cap on a career of pushing reactionary criminal justice policies. Throughout the 1980s, Biden worked with notorious segregationist Strom Thurmond to escalate the “War on Drugs” (he would later eulogize Thurmond’s funeral). Under the presidency of George W. Bush, Biden would become the biggest Democratic enabler of the war on Iraq. He called the Patriot Act “measured and prudent,” and lamented that it didn’t give police more powers.
Biden would continue to play a conservative role as Obama’s vice president. He watered down Obamacare, steered the “war on terror” to counter-insurgency air war in seven different Muslim majority countries, and became the foil of ruthless Republican negotiators like Mitch McConnell, who “realized that Biden was the administration’s soft underbelly,” Marcetic writes. McConnell’s greatest triumph was using Biden to extend Bush’s tax cuts in exchange for practically nothing, depriving the federal government of trillions of dollars in revenue.
Since establishment consensus held that it was Hilary Clinton’s turn to run for president, Biden bid his time. In the run-up to 2020, he tilted even more toward big donors, taking money from the superrich and Wall Street, big tech and fossil fuels. Wedding to his outdated notions of bipartisan chumminess, Biden suggested that Trump’s exit would lead his “Republican colleagues to have an epiphany.” It was a deluded conclusion befitting a man whose greatest career accomplishments had been helping implement Republican objectives.
Biden’s campaign for president has had all the markings of being a horrifying repeat of Clinton’s loss. In 2019, Biden would tell a ritzy audience of donors in Manhattan that if he won the presidency, “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.” His climate plan was written by a gas lobbyist. His main electoral strategy appears to be harkening back to a golden pre-Trump era that for millions of Americans never really was, while focusing on peeling off some of the Republican’s middle class suburban voters. And Trump, who has the bully’s knack for zoning in on and ridiculing his opponent’s weaknesses (in this case Biden’s mental deterioration), has given him the nickname “Sleepy Joe.”
It’s a sad irony that potential Democratic voters are stuck with a doddering upholder of the status quo at a moment when their appetite for fundamental change has never seemed greater or more urgent. That appetite for change isn’t even so new. But it has lacked for a movement, and a politician, up to the task of breaking through the power of the United States’ two capitalist parties.
That’s the argument that Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht make in Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism. An analysis of Sanders’s trajectory and campaigns for the leadership of the Democratic party, the book doubles as an introductory guide to a fledgling democratic socialist current in the U.S. And it makes the case that, win or lose, the senator has provided an unlikely spur to a radical movement set on changes beyond Sanders’s agenda.
Sanders has gone about it by doing everything Biden told Democrats for decades not to do: speaking honestly about inequality, rejecting corporate money and showing the power of small donor fundraising, advocating for bold government investment in the place of deregulation and privatization, and calling overtly for class warfare against billionaires and the corporate elite.
Day and Uetricht are both Jacobin magazine staff and members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which lends the book its pamphleteer's style: exuding the confidence of a stump speech, sprinkled with humour, and geared toward distilling socialist ideas in a plain manner. One conviction they are keen to impart is that socialism in America is not destined to flounder, as Werner Sombart once wrote, on “the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” Bernie Sanders himself, after all, is a uniquely American leftist—the son of working class Jewish immigrants to New York, whose democratic socialist politics are rooted in homegrown traditions of civil rights activism, anti-imperialism and New Deal politics.
Day and Uetricht suggest that what distinguishes Sanders’s brand of electoral activism—and those of a recent spate of more local socialist successes, like the election of six Chicago city councillors—are “class-struggle campaigns.” It’s a useful concept to refer to campaigns in which candidates “openly identify as socialists, aren’t afraid to name the enemy, and work to build working-class movements beyond their election—and beyond electoral politics altogether.”
They also point to the electric growth of DSA, a predominantly non-electoral organization whose membership since Sanders’s first campaign has increased more than tenfold. As of late 2019, nearly 60,000 people have joined this big-tent socialist organization. That includes DSA’s highest profile member, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who has remained with the group even after becoming a congresswoman. DSA has struggled, however, with a lack of racial diversity, and it is a weakness of the book that it offers only tepid explanations and no answers to changing this situation.
Where Day and Uetricht are strongest is in bucking a trend of despair on the left since Sanders’s loss. After five decades of political marginalization, socialist perspectives have completely shifted the arena of debate and discussion. Even in states that Sanders lost to Biden in the primary, his policies of a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and higher wages proved overwhelmingly popular. Day and Uetricht’s conclusion is a convincingly hopeful one: Bernie’s campaign may have fallen short, but the socialist movement is better positioned than ever to keep growing.
But if Biden is thoroughly yesterday’s man, he is bewilderingly also today’s candidate. While Marcetic cooly dissects Biden’s shortcomings, what’s missing in his book is any analysis and clues to show how Biden might be susceptible to being pushed beyond an old neoliberal consensus. Without the kind of politics that Sanders proved popular, it’s hard to imagine Biden rallying the energy and enthusiasm among voters needed to beat Trump in November.
A new consensus is undoubtedly starting to emerge in the United States. But a reader of these books will be left with the nagging worry that the socialist moment may not yet be strong enough to push Biden toward one last shape-shift.
Martin Lukacs is an investigative journalist who has covered Canadian politics for more than a decade. He has been an environmental writer for the Guardian (U.K.) and was co-author of the Leap Manifesto. His book, The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in the Age of Discontent, was published by Black Rose Books in late 2019.