The Great Compromisers

Joe Biden and Strom Thurmond
Joe Biden and Strom Thurmond

“We must take back the streets” Joe Biden bellowed on the Senate floor in 1993 “And you take back the streets by more cops, more prisons…The Biden-Hatch crime bill, as it becomes law, god willing, I hope that we will have ended, once and for all, this notion that somehow Democrats are weak on crime.” Just six years earlier, George H.W. Bush had won a Presidential election by playing into racial fears with his Willie Horton ads, insinuating Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis couldn’t keep White Americans safe from Black predators. While running for President in 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton flew home to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Vector, a mentally disabled, partially lobotomized Black man, remarking after “No one can say I’m soft on crime”. This was the context under which Biden and Clinton teamed up with racist extremists like Strom Thurmond and Orrin Hatch to pass the 94 crime bill, which would turn out to be one of the most harmful pieces of legislation of the past half century.

It had been nearly thirty years since America turned its back on the Civil Rights Movement and gave birth to the era of Mass Incarceration. Rather than build a true multi-racial democracy, White America had embraced an American mythology that allowed the racial caste system to continue, and a new generation of horrors had been normalized. The two parties presented different views of America, but both were just putting their own spin on the overarching lie that America stood for liberty and justice. By 1994, the Reagan era had finally come to a close, but the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the past two decades had become so ingrained in American politics that both parties were competing with each other to show how cruel and draconian they could be, and very few politicians were willing to take direct aim at the central racist idea of Black criminality that had been used to justify the entire prison industrial complex. When he rose to the floor in opposition of the crime bill, Bernie Sanders would be a very lonely voice, declaring “This is not a crime prevention bill. This is a punishment bill, a retribution bill, a vengeance bill…Let us have the courage to talk about the real issue — how do we get to the root causes of crime?…Let’s demand that every man, woman, and child in this country have a decent opportunity and a decent standard of living. Let’s not keep putting poor people into jail, and disproportionately punishing Blacks.” Bernie certainly wasn’t alone in calling out the troubling direction the country was going in, but America was trapped by its ghosts, and there weren’t enough people willing to acknowledge the horrors of mass incarceration and police violence for a change of course to take place. Being labeled soft on crime had become political suicide, and the 94 Crime Bill passed with overwhelming support, including a yes vote from Sanders, who recognized he couldn’t stop its passage and tried to use whatever leverage he had to improve the bill. He now regrets that decision, as should every politician who voted in favor of policies that enhanced the scope of police and prisons over the decades.

Twenty six years after the passage of Biden’s crime bill, in an era where technology allows the whole world to witness new cases police brutality every day, America is experiencing another reckoning. There is a strange fatefulness in John Lewis passing away in the year of the this momentous election — the historical parallels couldn’t be more stark. Donald Trump has taken on the George Wallace role, refusing to pay his respects to Lewis, and echoing Wallace’s call of “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” with rhetoric that amounts to “police brutality now, police brutality tomorrow, police brutality forever”. The Black Lives Matter protestors who have sparked the largest protest movement in the country’s history are channelling John Lewis — once again asking America to reckon with its past and build the multiracial democracy America claims to strive for. By sending federal troops to maul Black Lives Matter protestors that he has labeled “terrorists” and “anarchists” who are “against America”, Trump is leaning into the ugliest elements of America’s racial lie, but it is not a lie that the other candidate, Joe Biden, is willing to fully challenge. Dr. King’s words in his letter from Birmingham Jail could easily be written about Biden, the “White moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” Just like the White moderates who turned their back on the Civil Rights Movement rather than have a genuine reckoning, Joe Biden is trying to find a non-existent middle ground between Trump’s vicious rhetoric and the Black Lives Matters Movement’s urgent calls to reimagine society. As protestors call for police to be defunded, and the savings to be reinvested in communities, Biden is instead calling for an increase in police funding for more training, and is issuing statements like ”there’s no place for violence and destruction of property…arsonists and anarchists should be prosecuted”. While he pays his respects to John Lewis, he refuses to acknowledge that the same brazen police violence that resulted in Lewis having his skull cracked open is continuing to occur today, and ends up legitimizing Trump’s vile rhetoric by repeating his language. Paternalistically, he thinks it’s his place to tell Black protestors how to fight for their freedom, and will find a way to justify more violence against them before he ever truly reckons with America’s history and his own harmful record.

In his brilliant book Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, Eddie Glaude writes: “We cannot let the current political moment strangle our imaginations. We hear politicians and pundits recoiling from bold visions…Safety, for them is found in the comforts of the familiar, in an incremental approach to our problems. But our after times require big ideas and bold visions, or we will find ourselves stuck right where we are.” For Biden and the moderate wing of the Democratic party, that is not how politics are done. These compromisers, as I call them, believe that elections are won and change is achieved by finding a middle ground between the country’s racist reactionary right wing, and the its humanistic antiracist left wing. In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Vann Woodward wrote “Just as the Negro gained emancipation and new rights through a falling out between white men, he now stood to lose his rights through the reconciliation of the White man”. While the times demand the Democratic party have a complete falling out with the GOP and fight for human values, they are going with a candidate who has spent his career legitimizing right wing hysteria, and who can’t bring himself to reckon with the harm he has caused throughout his career with that approach. Biden may sincerely believe that racial justice is an important issue, but he paternalistically thinks it is appropriate to put the demands of the Black Lives Matters movement on hold — and in doing so, he commits the very act of treating Black lives like they don’t matter that has put so many people in the streets.

James Baldwin once wrote “People who imagine history flatters them are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world”. Like all politicians narcissistic enough to run for President, Biden wants history to remember him as a great man — but to him his greatness lies in his ability to compromise and “get things done”. His own record includes not just spearheading the effort to pass the Crime Bill, but also playing an instrumental role in building a critical amount of support for the Iraq war, fighting desegregation of schools in the North, green-lighting corporate greed of credit card companies and student loan debtors, laying the groundwork for Trump’s deportation machine and concentration camps, aiding a military coup in Honduras and legitimizing brutal dictator Juan Orlando Hernandez, conducting endless drone strikes in the middle east, and supporting Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine. Biden could learn from these mistakes and reckon with his past, but he instead imagines that his record flatters him, and thus doubles down on the same failed ideas that have already caused so much harm. Compromisers like Biden look down with disdain upon those who put forward bold ideas of how we can reimagine our nation, calling such proposals “pie in the sky”, and insisting that we can’t confront the foundational lies about America that have constrained our ability to build a compassionate and egalitarian society.

Looking back through American history, compromisers have consistently played this role. When abolitionists demanded we end the barbaric practice of slavery, compromisers said that was too radical of a position, and made deals with slavery enthusiasts in the South to maintain the “negative peace” that Dr. King spoke of. As the nation embarked on the audacious attempt of post Civil War reconstruction, the compromisers buckled when reactionary anger swelled. Rather than committing themselves to repairing the legacy of slavery and protecting the rights of newly freed African Americans, they convinced themselves that enough had been done, allowed the Confederacy to rewrite history, and respected their calls for “states’ rights”, ushering in a new era of racial terrorism. When the next reckoning came in the form of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the compromisers once again convinced themselves passing a few pieces of legislation without really confronting the deeper lies they had told themselves about America was good enough. The compromisers whitewashed the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, creating what Julian Bond referred to as the “master narrative”, pretending that end of formal segregation meant the fulfillment of Dr. Kings dream, while doing nothing to challenge the “triplets of evil” — racism, materialism, and militarism — that Dr. King warned would lead to the nation’s “spiritual death”. COINTELPRO and the assassinations and imprisonment of members of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation organizations that followed were carried out with bipartisan support, and the reactionary movement led by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan was legitimized by compromisers who once again thought they could find a middle ground between the virulent racism of the right wing, and the calls for transformational change coming from the left. The still-standing Confederate monuments not only glorified the people who rebelled against their country in defense of the practice of slavery, but served as a monument for the American capacity to tell ourselves lies to avoid confronting our ugly history. By the time Biden passed the Crime Bill in 94, the ideas of the Reagan revolution had been mainstreamed. The compromisers had legitimized a new era of racist dogwhistles, and were now adopting them to remain politically viable. Moderates were afraid of being labeled as communists, soft on crime, and unsupportive of the troops, so they conceded the ground and let Republicans set the narrative. Social programs to help uplift people were deemed “giving away free stuff”. Spending trillions of dollars on and sending thousands of troops to die in pointless wars was deemed “patriotic”. The right to buy high-powered weapons and engage in discriminatory practices was deemed “freedom”, while people’s right to live free from the harms caused by those freedoms was not.

In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Biden would warn Democrats not to celebrate damage to the GOP because “the demise of the Republican Party means your own demise…means the demise of the two party system”. Similarly in his current Presidential campaign, Biden has repeatedly claimed that after he beats Trump, the GOP will magically become reasonable and work with him on bipartisan legislation. What these quotes reveal is that, to him, the Republican party and the conservative ideology that fuels it are not enemies to be vanquished, but enemies for him to do eternal battle with, compromising the whole way. The two party system that has kept a stranglehold on American politics consists of two views of America that both serve to protect lies about the greatness and innocence of America. While the conservative view is outwardly racist and glorifies America’s racist past, the liberal view seeks to create an illusion of progress that fits into a revisionist history that presents America as a nation whose arc is consistently bending towards justice. By denying the people suffering the most under this system a seat at the table, Democrats are able to present themselves as the only avenue to change, and sell the idea that they can work with Republicans to get things done. On top of that, they expect to be thanked and praised for the great job they have done in fighting for the change that never seems to come.

James Baldwin once wrote that “To be an American writer today means mounting an unending attack on all that Americans believe themselves to hold sacred”. These words should also apply to politicians who claim to be fighting for change, but are instead antithetical to the philosophy of the compromisers who rule the Democratic party. One essential problem with the compromisers is they always legitimize conservative ideas, a practice that never looks good in retrospect. For instance, the idea that slavery was a “necessary evil” which was once the position of compromisers, now sounds extremely racist when coming out of the mouth of Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. The idea that the compromisers of the slavery era were a product of their times is faulty, because there were abolitionists begging them to pick a side in that moment. In this moment, there are also forces begging the compromisers to pick a side, but Tom Cotton still enjoys the legitimacy of the New York Times letting him publish an op-ed calling for the US military to be deployed against protestors, and the Democratic party not even bothering to field a candidate against him in his re-election bid. While Dr. King and John Lewis are hailed as heroes today, they were reviled by much of America during the 60s, and the compromisers of the time legitimized the hatred and violence they were subjected to by criticizing their tactics and telling them to not demand too much change at once. Half a century later, the transformative change Civil Rights leaders called for still hasn’t taken place, and compromisers are telling the freedom fighters of today to not get too radical in their demands, and let them negotiate gradual changes with the right wing. Rest assured — fifty years from now the conservative ideas of today will be universally recognized as deranged, and the actions of today’s moderate Democrats will look just as bad as the moderates of the 60s who refused to stand with Dr. King and John Lewis when they were getting beat down in the streets.

Another harsh reality that must be faced is that the tactics of the compromisers simply haven’t been effective in delivering change. From an electoral strategy standpoint, compromisers have an obsession with appealing to moderate Republican voters and the White middle class, while doing very little to appeal to the masses of poor, young, working class, Black and Latinx voters who actually make up the majority of the country. In their negotiations with conservatives they consistently give up too much without getting much back in return, and still don’t end up winning the support of the conservative-leaning White voters they are catering to. Barrack Obama showed the power of mobilizing this rainbow coalition in his two resounding electoral victories, but he sadly didn’t apply that lesson to his governing style — instead prescribing to the philosophy of compromise. His attempts to work with the GOP would be in vain, but that didn’t stop him from spending eight years trying to prove that he wasn’t the radical leftist commentators on Fox News claimed him to be. Rather than argue against the baseless rhetoric encouraging Americans to fear Muslims and Latinx immigrants, Obama continued the failed war on terror with endless drone strikes, and deported a record number of undocumented immigrants. When the first Black Lives Matter uprisings took place in Ferguson and Baltimore, Obama deployed the National Guard, and criticized the protestors for property destruction, showing himself to be more concerned with proving he wasn’t weak on crime than protecting the human rights of the protestors. When the Occupy movement broke out, he told them to wait for change rather than take the side of the popular movement calling out America’s unconscionable level of wealth inequality. When a police officer arrested a prominent African-American professor for breaking into his own home, Obama was more concerned with the conservative backlash that came when he said the officer “acted stupidly” and “there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately” than he was with the backlash that would come from the Black community when he invited the arresting officer to the White House for a beer. Every time he tried to prove he was the kind of President conservatives wanted, the GOP simply moved further to the right, and compromisers let them successfully drag the nation’s body politic rightward in much the same way they did in the Reagan era. By the end of the Obama era, the right wing voters he had tried in vain to appeal to ended up becoming Trump supporters, and the left wing voters that put him in the White House felt betrayed by the Democratic party, setting up the circumstances for Trump to win in an election where nearly half of all eligible voters stayed home.

Whether it’s because they have been corrupted by corporate money, or because they lack courage and imagination, compromisers refuse to learn their lesson and try a new way of doing things. Even in 2020, as the GOP completes its transformation into a cartoonish death cult, a pandemic exposes all the flaws in our broken system, and climate change bears down on us, the compromisers still insist they have the gameplan to get America back on track. During the Democratic primary, then-candidate Bernie Sanders tried a different approach and scored a surprising endorsement from Joe Rogan, host of one of the country’s most listened to podcasts. Over the years, Rogan has lent his platform to alt-right provocateurs and made racist and transphobic statements himself, so it was surprising to hear him publicly say that he would vote for Bernie over Trump. What was remarkable about this development was that Bernie didn’t resort to compromise in his efforts to appeal to Rogan and his viewers — he didn’t shift his campaign platform, praise Rogan, legitimize racist dogwhistles, or back down from his core beliefs that have animated his leftwing base — he simply went on the show and made the case for his vision for America. While there were valid principled criticisms made by people like Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor about Bernie’s failure to call out Rogan for his bigotry, Bernie also faced a wave of backlash from compromisers, who Taylor addressed by saying “your critiques ring hollow when most of you have always made excuses for mainstream Dems that have championed war, repression & anti-black racism…Now’s not the time for your tears”. The level of hypocrisy at play was stunning — Biden had eulogized none other than Strom Thurmond, and his supporters were somehow outraged that Bernie had sat down for a conversation with Joe Rogan. Compromisers have convinced much of the Democratic base that the only way to build support for liberal causes is to compromise with conservatives, and Bernie had just won the endorsement of a highly influential conservative media personality without compromising, and they were mad at him for it. As it turns out, the logical and straightforward ideas that Bernie spent his campaign preaching — healthcare is a human right, minimum wage should be a living wage, we need to get money out of politics, having the world’s largest prison population isn’t a good thing, marijuana should be legal, billionaires should pay their fair share of taxes, and we must take urgent action to combat climate change — are quite popular with the American public. The compromisers may have deemed these ideas too radical to win an election running on, but that is because they continue to treat the absurd logic of American conservatism as legitimate. A big reveal in all of this is that the conflict between the Democratic establishment and the Republican party is largely an act of political gamesmanship meant to maintain the power duopoly that is our two party system, and many Democrats care more about maintaining that duopoly than actually fighting the Republicans to save our Democracy. By winning the endorsement of an influential right wing personality, Sanders had broken the rules of the game. Rather than taking the endorsement as evidence that there was a better way to defeat Trumpism, compromisers vilified Sanders and labeled the endorsement as evidence that he and Trump were one in the same. Tragically, Bernie showcasing his ability to win the support of Republican voters without compromising ended up hurting him in the primary, as Democratic voters bought into the faux outrage over the Rogan endorsement, and allowed themselves to be convinced that the best way to beat Trump is to nominate a compromiser who will be careful not to upset Republicans by fighting too hard for justice. Exit polls showed clearly that many Biden voters preferred Bernie’s policies, but felt Biden was the better candidate to beat Trump. Biden’s philosophy of compromise had trickled down to his voters, who were compromising their own values and material needs because they have been convinced it’s the only realistic way to get things done.

With Trump and the GOP proving themselves utterly incapable of competent governance, Democrats have a rare opportunity to win over disaffected Republicans in this election. In a thread addressing the conundrum of what to do with the Never Trump wing of the Republican party, writer Anand Girandas wrote “In this historic election, there are a greater-than-usual number of disaffected Republicans who are willing to stand against Trump’s fascism. But we must find a way to involve them without centering them, to bring them into the tent without letting them own it”. Sanders’ courting of Rogan’s endorsement would seem to be a good example of how to do that, and stands in stark contrast to the way Biden has bent himself to the will of disaffected Republicans looking for a new home. The Democratic National Convention would end up featuring speeches from Republicans such as oligarch and stop-and-frisk champion Michael Bloomberg, Iraq War propagandist Colin Powell, corporate CEO and failed California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, and homophobic, union-busting Ohio Governor John Kasich, but was almost entirely absent young progressive voices. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was allowed to give a 90 second address only because Bernie Sanders invited her, and she was followed by Kasich calling her out by name as not representative of the Democratic party during a more prominently featured address. This convention dynamic perfectly encapsulates the way the Biden campaign has spent the past year running away from the progressive wing of the party in an effort to reassure conservatives.

Throughout the Trump era, a chorus of Bush Republicans who have disavowed Trump became regulars on CNN and MSNBC, their images somehow instantly rehabilitated, along with Bush himself. During the primary, their message was simple — we aren’t getting in the tent if that radical Bernie Sanders is the candidate. Rather than make the case that Bernie’s policies aren’t actually that radical at all, the compromisers relented and fell back on the conventional wisdom that has blocked progress and lost them elections over the years. During a pandemic that has made healthcare more important than ever and caused tens millions of people to lose their employer-based health insurance due to high unemployment, Medicare for All popularity has skyrocketed with 87% of Democrats, 46% of Republicans, and 69% of all Americans favoring the policy. Despite these numbers. the Biden campaign and the DNC are refusing to adopt it. Whether Biden is afraid of Trump calling him a socialist, or is simply in the pocket of the insurance lobbyists that donate to his campaign, it is simply horrible strategy not to campaign on a policy that would so obviously benefit the vast majority of Americans. In addition, Biden is refusing to adopt a number of other popular progressive policies, such as a $15 minimum wage, a tax on billionaires, and marijuana legalization. Bernie Sanders had made huge inroads with Latinx voters that Democrats have struggled to turn out to the polls over the years, but rather than offer a job to a Bernie surrogate like Chuck Rocha, Biden hired conservative commentator Ana Navarro to lead his Latinx outreach team. We could have a candidate tapping into the backlash against police violence that has sparked the largest protest movement in US history, but instead we have a ticket consisting of the man who wrote the crime bill and a woman who made her career enforcing the crime bill, and they are relying on the help of the Lincoln Project. Rather than embracing the young activists who have inspired so many people, Biden is relying on the help of the Lincoln Project, a group of Republican grifters who spent their careers pushing furthering the conservative agenda before they started making anti-Trump videos. The leadership of the Lincoln Project consists of figures like George Conway (husband of Trump propagandist Kellyane Conway), Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist and enthusiastic defender of George Zimmerman, and Ben Howe, who once tweeted “Give me a gun. Put me in Darren Wilson’s shoes. I’d have shot Mike Brown right in his face”, and then wrote an entire article defending the tweet. While the moral compromising involved in catering to such figures rather than the freedom fighters of today is bad enough, it’s also just bad strategy — the notion that these Never Trumpers know how to beat Trump is laughable when considering the fact that they already lost the battle with Trump for control of the Republican party.

If not for the unprecedented mass death and economic devastation caused by Trump’s mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic, Biden’s approach would likely have him primed to lose to Trump. Putting the issues of whether or not Trump will be able to successfully cheat his way to a win, and what will happen if he refuses to go along with a peaceful transfer of power if he loses to the side, it appears Biden is likely to win this election thanks to how massively unpopular Trump has become. If Biden does prevail, we can all let out a collective sigh of relief, but we should also view his Presidency as a huge missed opportunity. Trump has torn the mask off the conservative movement and revealed how it has always been about conserving racial and social caste systems, and enabling endless corporate greed, and there has never been a better time to repudiate the entire ideology and make the case for the transformative change. Because compromisers are beholden to the same corporate interests as Republicans, and unwilling to reckon with the deeper lies at the heart of America, they cannot admit that Trump is a reflection of America, and instead try to paint him as a unique evil.

Despite the compromisers’ intense focus on vilifying Trump, their inability to reckon with their own failures and America’s deeper flaws has made them ineffective in their resistance against him. Because they have adopted so much conservative logic over the years, they find themselves unable to fight him on the grounds of his worst actions, and instead have to find ways to attack him that fit into a narrow version of patriotism that doesn’t challenge the lies they live within. Rather than impeach him for threatening nuclear war on twitter and committing crimes against humanity at the Southern border, or arguing that his blatant racism makes him unfit for office, they focused all their attention on allegations that he had betrayed the nation by colluding with Russia and extorting Ukraine. While his relationship with Putin, and his withholding of congressionally-approved military from Ukraine certainly did amount to impeachable offenses, they were far from the worst offenses he has committed throughout his Presidency. The narrowness of the terms Democrats have been willing to take the fight to Trump on show how much ground they have already conceded to an open White Nationalist with clear goals of becoming America’s first dictator. Rather than use every tool at their disposal to resist Trump, compromising Democrats have approved his cabinet appointments, passed his military budgets, allowed him to conduct mass surveillance on American citizens, funded his concentration camps, and even given him money for his wall. For all their theatrical resistance, the compromisers have become the enablers of fascism in the Trump era.

There is no denying the cultishness of Trump’s base of support. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times he lies to them and metaphorically spits in their face with policies that harm them — his pronouncement that he could shoot a man on 5th Avenue and not lose voters has mostly proved true. The less obvious reality that is the cultish manner in which many Democratic leaders have treated compromise like some kind of religious doctrine, even when faced with the outlandish and dangerous leadership of Trump. Additionally, a large share of the Democratic base has truly been convinced that their compromising Democratic leaders really are doing the best they can, and that transformational change is not realistic. It’s impossible to say what might have been accomplished in previous generations if compromisers had sided with the radical movements of their times and taken a stand, but it’s likely that we would not find ourselves in our current predicament if they had. Today, there is an invigorated grassroots movement ready to fight for transformational change, and there is no limit to what could be accomplished if the compromisers would simply abandon their tactics of old and use all their political capital to help empower this incredible movement. Sadly, the compromisers are showing no signs of budging, and appear to be clinging to the myths they tell themselves with the same stubbornness with which Trump supporters insist their leader is infallible. The calamities we face today are the end result of the lies America has told itself to avoid facing its past. A new world is waiting to be born, but we are running out of time to realize it. As Eddie Glaude writes in Begin Again, “The third American founding must happen in the context of a political transformation. It must involve a complete rejection of the way we have conducted politics up to now. Otherwise, we will succumb to the temptation of safety and find ourselves trapped once again.” While a Biden administration may offer a sense of safety in contrast to the malevolence of the past four years, the politics he represents do not offer solutions to the profound problems we face, and will not prevent another Trump-like figure from rising to power in the near future. As important as it is for Biden to win this election, it is even more important for the American people to reject the compromise doctrine, and do the hard but necessary work of confronting our past, healing our trauma, imagining new ways of living free from the oppressive structures that strangle our humanity, and building the type of society that might finally turn our constitution’s hollow words into reality.

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