If the noise coming from Joe Biden’s presidential campaign sounds familiar, it might be because it echoes the message that we heard four years ago from Donald Trump. No, Biden is not using blatantly racist messaging to appeal to a rabid base of white voters who are aggrieved by the existence of a black president. Instead, Biden is selling voters on a mythical and glorious America that existed before Trump, and declaring himself as the only person who can return us to that noble past. While Trump’s MAGA declaration harkens back to the days of Jim Crow, when the KKK kept black people in check and women understood that their place was in the kitchen, Biden’s version glosses over the horrors of mass incarceration, systemic poverty, widespread sexual assault, and endless imperialist wars. Throughout his long political career, Biden has played a huge role in advancing some of America’s worst policies, but instead of making amends and demonstrating how he has changed, Biden is taking a page out of the Trump playbook and refusing to apologize for anything. Much like Trump, Biden is narcissistic enough to think that he has some unique ability to fix the nation’s problems, and entitled enough to ask the American people to vote for him without rehashing his past. As Democratic voters grapple with the task of picking the best candidate to defat Trump and lead the country in a new direction, the answer can’t be picking a toned-down version of Trump who has unapologetically championed many of the policies that brought us to this perilous place in history.
In response to Trump’s Make America Great slogan, Colin Kaepernick offered a simple retort: “America has never been great for people of color”. In Trump’s case, that was exactly the point — he was appealing to white people worried about losing control of America, and promising to preserve the country’s racial hierarchies. Biden is not dog-whistling to racists, but is instead asking people of color to vote for him without showing any attentiveness to their experience as marginalized Americans. In his opening campaign video, Biden implores Americans to “remember who we are”, and make sure that Trump’s presidency is nothing more than an “aberration”. However, many would answer the question of “who we are” by saying that we are a country that throws people in inhumane prisons for minor offenses, gives police license to murder black people, allows poor people to die by refusing them medical treatment, and invades developing countries and undermines their democracies to create profit for billionaires. In this sense, Biden’s promise to return America to how things were before Trump demonstrates how insensitive he is to the lived realities of marginalized people, and how little vision he has for a better future.
When Martin Luther King Jr. led the historic March on Washington, Joe Biden was 21 years old. Eight years later, Biden became the fifth-youngest Senator in US history. Despite coming of age during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Biden rose to political prominence without ever participating in the movement or using the power of his office to promote antiracist legislation. To the contrary, Biden presented himself as a reactionary leader who consistently pulled his party to the right. When schools were being integrated in his home state of Delaware, Biden led a crusade against bussing, declaring in 1975 “I oppose busing. It’s an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me.” Biden would end up proposing a failed measure that would prevent the federal government from withholding funding to schools that refuse to integrate by barring them from requiring schools to disclose their racial makeup, and when two black men were appointed to high-ranking positions in the Department of Justice, Biden was the sole member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote against them, on the basis of their pro-bussing stance. Earlier that year, Biden stated “One of the reasons I asked to join the Judiciary Committee, was so that I could work more closely with the attorney general and solicitor general and thereby put a stop to busing”. Biden absurdly argued that segregation was strictly a Southern issue, and that integration in the North was racist because it insinuated that black people would learn more by being around white people. This stance showed a shocking lack of awareness of racist practices like Redlining that caused segregation in the North, and totally missed the point that bussing, while imperfect, was important because it allowed black people to access the more well-funded educational facilities located in white neighborhoods.
In response to the Civil Rights Movement, Richard Nixon and Ronald Raegan rose to power by stoking fear of black criminals, and declared a “war on drugs” that would be used as an excuse to throw millions of black and brown people in jail. Rather than reject this thinking, Biden chose to compete with the Republicans over who could propose the most heavy-handed punishment. When George H.W. Bush gave a national address in 1989 about his intention to revamp the war on drugs, Biden responded by stating “In a nutshell, the president’s plan does not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them, or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”In 1994, Biden teamed up with Orrin Hatch to champion a crime bill, and gave a disturbing speech on the senate floor where he repeatedly stated “We need to take back our streets”, and plainly stated that he does not care about the underlying causes of crime, and is only concerned with throwing so-called criminals in jail. Throughout his tenure as the Senate judiciary chairman, Biden would end up writing and rallying political support to pass some of the most punitive and racially oppressive criminal justice policies, including the massive disparity in punishment between crack and powder cocaine, civil asset forfeiture, harsh penalties for marijuana possession and distribution, and funding the rapid expansion of the prison industrial complex. On the death penalty, Biden remarked “There is now a death penalty. If you are a major drug dealer, involved in the trafficking of drugs, and murder results in your activities, you go to death”. After co-sponsoring legislation with racist Senator Strom Thurmond, Biden proudly boasted “We changed the law so that if you are arrested, and you are a drug dealer, under our forfeiture statutes, you can, the government can take everything you own…Everything from your car to your house, your bank account, not merely what they confiscate in terms of the dollars from the transaction you just got caught engaging in”. On the subject of mandatory minimums, Biden was proud to have enacted laws that made sure anyone convicted of any drug crime do hard time, proudly commenting that “We have laws that don’t allow judges discretion to sentence people, flat time sentencing. You get caught, you go to jail”.
Biden’s troubling history does not end there. He voted in favor of the Iraq War, regularly sided with credit card companies and big banks over poor and working class people, and voted against gay marriage. He was chairman of the Anita Hill hearings, where he personally pursued a provocative and inappropriate line of questioning. When his Republican colleagues viciously attempted to humiliate Hill and denigrate her character, Biden failed to use his power as chairman to admonish them for their shameful attacks on a brave woman who begrudgingly came forward to tell her story. Multiple women came forward and offered to testify and corroborate Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas, but Biden chose to adjourn the hearings without letting them speak. As a result, women across the nation were sent a message that they would not be believed if they spoke out against sexual abuse, and a right-wing extremist was given a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, making decisions about women’s rights over their own bodies. Throw in Biden’s history of inappropriately touching women, and a troublesome picture emerges of a man who represents many of the worst attitudes of his time.
It would be unfair to not acknowledge that it’s very difficult to spend fifty years in politics without being on the wrong side of history sometimes, and that Biden has been on the right side plenty of the time. However, in choosing the person we want to lead us in this moment, we have a duty to look at their record and ask what they learned from their mistakes and how they’ve evolved. Elizabeth Warren started out as a conservative, but was able to grow from her experiences, and is now leading the discussion on progressive policy proposals. Bernie Sanders has expressed some outdated opinions, but he has shown willingness to speak to young activists and re-evaluate his positions. Joe Biden has certainly gone through a transformation of his own, spending eight years as the VP to the nation’s first Black president and seeing first-hand the virulent racism that Obama had to endure. In recent years, he has expressed regret about the Iraq War, mass incarceration, and the Anita Hill hearings, and his position on gay marriage, but how much has he really grown? While Biden now admits the Iraq War was a mistake, he doesn’t seem to have any regrets about the endless drone strikes carried out under the Obama administration. When dealing with accusations of inappropriately touching women, he half-apologized before saying “I’m not sorry for anything I’ve ever done”. He finally called Anita Hill to apologize in recent weeks, but she rejected his apology because he could only offer that “he was sorry for what happened to her” and failed to take personal responsibility. He may have some regrets about the war on drugs, but still opposes marijuana legalization. He now recognizes that mass incarceration has had some negative effects, but insists that he meant well rather than owning up to the racism that fueled his positions. Biden has not come out in support of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or reparations, and he has been unsympathetic to the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. He is silent about the human rights abuses taking place in Palestine, and has shown no inclination to re-evaluate our problematic alliance with Netanyahu’s far-right regime. On climate change, Biden says he is looking for a “middle ground” between the people who want to aggressively deal with it, and the science-deniers who say it’s not real. When you look at the evidence, it becomes quite clear that Biden is still the same guy whose idea of getting things done is bending to right wing extremists. He always believes his intentions are good and he fails to fully grasp how severe the repercussions of his actions have been, which makes it impossible for him to change his ways.
While he forged an undeniable bond with Barack Obama, Biden ultimately represents the political norms Obama felt he needed to conform to to survive. He was a leader in the Democratic party as they went along with mass incarceration, militarism, and corporate welfare, but failed to combat poverty or put forward any meaningful antiracist legislation. Trump didn’t come out of nowhere, and it’s time for the Democratic party to own up to their role in creating the conditions for his rise. Working people haven’t gotten a significant raise in decades, and the wealth disparity is at an all-time high. Despite living in the richest and most powerful country in the world, Americans are struggling to make ends meet, and too many people are falling through the safety net when life gets hard. America has a serious problem with racism that touches society in more ways than we realize, and Democrats have failed to bring forth strong antiracist legislation or take any real stand against the racial hierarchies within our society. People like Biden are part of the reason why African-Americans make up 9% of the world’s prison population, setting the table for a society so used to authoritarianism that Trump seemed reasonable.
“I know now that all people hunger for a noble, unsullied past…That hunger is a retreat from the knotty present into myth and that what ultimately awaits those who retreat into fairy tales, who seek refuge in the mad pursuit to be made great again, in the image of a greatness that never was, is tragedy.”
When Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this in We Were Eight Years in Power, it was clearly directed at Donald Trump and his campaign of revisionist history, but the principle of his message can apply to any politician that promises the restore a greatness that never actually existed. The Trump administration has already destroyed countless lives and caused irreparable harm to the planet, but it would be an even greater tragedy for us to learn nothing from it all. A Joe Biden presidency might feel like a relief after four years of Trump, but it would only set the table for another demagogue to rise to power. The time is now to address climate change, wealth inequality, systemic racism, and sexual assault with bold solutions, and there are exciting Democratic candidates doing exactly that. Biden is here to tell us that people like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar are too radical, and that America can be great again without facing or apologizing for its past. America has a great many wrongs to right, but we can’t fix anything until we take an honest look in the mirror. Past generations have made the mistake of not atoning for slavery or Native American genocide with tragic consequences, and it is imperative that we reject any narrative that downplays the horrors the US government has overseen in recent decades. Joe Biden is not interested in rooting out the racism that has brought America to the brink of fascism, so instead he reassures us that we are not actually racist, and promises to end the nightmare by chopping the head off the snake. America has the opportunity to achieve true greatness by radically transforming itself and leading the fight against the reactionary politics that are proliferating across the planet. This can only be down by building a movement that centers the marginalized and oppressed populations. If we let Joe Biden lead us down a road of escapism and retreat into the myth of American greatness, voiceless people will continue to suffer, and we will fail to recognize our potential. Worse yet, the table will be set for another Trump-like figure to harness people’s frustrations and march us again towards fascism.
Recent statements like “I actually like Dick Cheney” and “I have no empathy for the younger generation”, along with his refusal to condemn his “Republican friends in the House and Senate” for their role as enablers of Trump tells us everything we need to know about Biden. He is not going to get enthusiasm from young voters without recognizing that this generation faces unique challenges in the age of insane student loan debt, climate change, and school shootings. And during a time where the Republican party is brazenly embracing fascism, and attempting every dirty trick they can think of, we need a president who will take the fight to them, not make nice and pass ineffectual policy. Whoever picks up the pieces after Trump will be inheriting a mess, and we need someone who will use that opportunity to build something ambitious and sustainable from the ground up. The fact that more than half of Americans didn’t vote in the 2016 election should tell us something about how much faith people have in politicians, and Biden’s promise to return things to their natural state is not going to animate anyone who isn’t already outraged about Trump. Someone who offers a vision of a government that actually works for the people can get them off the sidelines. Many feel that we must support Biden because he is the best suited to beat Trump, but I not only believe we have a duty to pick a virtuous president who will make substantial changes, but also feel it is a mistake to think Biden’s version of MAGA will be more persuasive in this moment than Trump’s more arousing message. It might go against political wisdom, but I think the person most likely to defeat Trump is also the person most capable of doing what must be done to save America.