Joe Biden is officially running for president and campaigning on the message that he’ll help us reclaim “the core values of this nation.” And that’s risky. Not because the message itself is a bad one. It’s pretty good. But it’s risky because, among today’s Democrats, having a campaign message at all is a fraught endeavor.
A campaign message presumes a unity of purpose among constituents, some shared vision for the nation. Today’s left, however, is atomized. It’s a constellation of identity-based grudge peddlers, with each racial, ethnic, and gender identity competing in an endless game of Rock, Paper, Scissors that they call intersectionality. In the identity sweepstakes, a straight black female beats a gay white male, who beats a straight white male, and so on. This means that if you’re a Democratic hopeful, your makeup is the message.
You run on your identity, and that identity dictates a personalized list of grievances and confessions. Those higher up the identity chain have more grievances; those lower down offer more confessions. And if you can’t compete, you promise free goods and services.
That’s the game.
The only message that might find purchase on the left as a whole is “America is unjust.” That would even bring in the pseudo-socialists who disdain American capitalism more than American bigotry. Anything short of a blanket condemnation of American injustice is problematic because it would mean prioritizing. And if a Democratic candidate prioritizes one concern over another, he’ll be targeted as a bigot by progressive activists. That means explaining, qualifying, and apologizing to grievance-mongers up until the night he concedes defeat. In 2019, something as innocuous as “Yes we can” might very well be shelved as ableist.
In the identity game, Joe Biden can’t even make the tryouts. He’s a straight white male senior-citizen. Not only doesn’t he rank on the grievance scale; he’s old enough to have been an adult when institutional prejudice was a reality in this country. That puts his privilege score off the charts. If that’s not enough, there’s his well-documented penchant for massaging and sniffing female acquaintances. With all that baggage, it makes sense that he’s trying to appeal to something bigger than identity politics.
But if you’re a Democrat, there is nothing bigger than identity politics. Before Biden’s candidacy was even official, it was flailing in the muck of gender- and race-based outrage. His handling of Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991, when Biden was the Senate Judiciary chair, is cited by progressives as sexist, and his support for tough crime legislation in 1994 is considered racist.
And now, in Biden’s announcement message, we can already catch a whiff of obeisance to the social-justice left. While making a case for our Founders’ virtues in drafting the Declaration of Independence, he had to crowbar in an apology for Thomas Jefferson’s slave-ownership lest the mob come after him for perpetuating white supremacy. They still will.
It probably hasn’t occurred to Biden that, in pledging a return to a pre-Donald Trump United States, his message literally means “Make America Great Again.” When Trump ran on that message, it was offensive to some conservatives who thought America had never stopped being great. In Biden’s reiteration, it will offend progressives who think America was never great to begin with. Trump never apologized, and he won. Biden hasn’t stopped saying he’s sorry.