Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been running for president for months, will make his campaign official on Thursday. Although he remains the prohibitive favorite of a plurality of Democratic voters in every poll at this admittedly early stage of the Democratic presidential primary race, Biden seems to know that his position is precarious. His vulnerabilities are to be found not in his relative moderation on policy grounds, but the immutable traits he inherited at birth, and his opponents in the Democratic Party’s “woke” primary are taking dead aim at them.
As Biden began preparations to launch his presidential campaign in earnest, he embarked on something of an apology tour. He took responsibility for failing to give Anita Hill the “hearing she deserved,” while blaming his Republican colleagues for that condition. He attacked “English jurisprudential culture” as “a white man’s culture,” adopting the social-justice left’s critique of foundational assumptions at the root of the American justice system. Among them, the presumption of innocence, the high evidentiary burden associated with criminal convictions, and the right of the accused to confront their accuser in a courtroom, which social justice advocates perceive to be the products of white, male cultural hegemony. He even flirted with naming Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as his running mate out of the gate. It was a trial balloon that Abrams, who harbors her own presidential ambitions, unceremoniously popped.
These maladroit maneuvers expose Biden’s self-doubt. Such insecurities are, however, not figments of his imagination; intersectionality’s long knives are out for Joe Biden.
The Associated Press’s dispatch from the Democratic contest describes the ongoing “woke litmus test” imposed on the party’s white candidates by both progressive activists and the media venues catering to them. Biden is singled out for criticism. His presidential bid, you see, “is expected to wage a campaign aimed at winning back the working-class white voters who swung to Trump in 2016.” The assumption embedded in hostility to the notion that a successful campaign should target swing voters is that successful appeals to this demographic transgress against identitarian dogmas. Bernie Sanders, too, receives an unfavorable mention for failing to talk “in depth about whether he has been treated better by society because he’s a white man.”
Concerns that this kind of racially charged self-flagellation might alienate prospective Democratic voters are, it seems, easily dismissed. The AP quotes Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons who expressed the concern that white candidate risk “overdoing” this kind of talk but added that those who are turned off by it “are probably not reliable voters for Democrats” in November of next year.
A companion piece at National Public Radio explores the subtext of Simmons’s assertion by asking if the very concept of “electability” is inherently biased. Cornell University Professor and author Kate Manne told NPR’s reporters that voters’ willingness to support women for down-ballot races but perhaps not “at the highest levels” of government is a function of “more masculine-coded domains” like, presumably, the Oval Office. The fear that a particular candidate may lose the general election against Donald Trump is particularly suspect if that candidate is a woman or a minority. Electability concerns, she said, “could easily be post hoc rationalization for these very common sexist biases, or in the case of Pete Buttigieg, homophobic biases.”
And with that, the Democratic Party’s “woke” activists have the casus belli for the civil conflict to come. As NPR’s report stated, Democrats may “rightly perceive the various prejudices at work among their fellow voters.” It cites a 2017 study that purports to demonstrate “the sobering role of racism and sexism” that prevailed among polarized white voters in 2016. Can an ethical Democratic presidential campaign appeal to Trump voters without compromising itself in the effort to appeal to a racist electorate? And can an ethical Democratic voter support his party’s two frontrunners—Sanders and Biden—who are doing just that? Is the act of backing a candidate without a traditionally marginalized background itself an expression of bigotry?
There are, of course, political operatives who will deploy these arguments in bad faith in the hopes that the moral quandary they impose on well-meaning Democratic voters will generate traction for their candidates. But identitarian true believers are not so cynical, and the disunion these arguments will sow among Democratic voters is unlikely to fade when the primary ends.