There’s been a lot of talk over the past year about a return to “normalcy.” In American politics, that word is most closely associated with Warren Harding’s presidential tenure, coming after years of conflict and upheaval under Woodrow Wilson.
For Harding, normalcy meant a return to traditions of limited government and U.S. sovereignty. It meant, as he put it: “Not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
All this was by way of contrast with Woodrow Wilson, whose administration was most notable for multilateral overkill, prudish sanctimony, idealistic frustration, sweeping expansion of federal power, appalling racism, and, in the end, popular repudiation.
The normalcy of the Warren Harding era was partly due to that Ohioan’s genial, Middle American demeanor. Embarrassing to intellectuals, the 29th president was popular with the general public. H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun famously derided Harding’s speaking style: “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”
Joe Biden’s policy agenda is dramatically different from Harding’s. Yet there are certain similarities in manner and personality, and they help to explain Biden’s surprising political success thus far.
Our 46th president, like Harding, is admirably boring and non-threatening. People have a hard time hating Joe Biden. In U.S. presidential politics today, this is unusual. It is a real strength.
With regard to the ongoing Cultural Revolution that energizes Democratic Party progressives, you might say Biden is 90 percent woke as opposed to 100 percent. Yet it’s that missing 10 percent that makes all the difference with the broader electorate.
The vast majority of Biden’s declared policies and public statements pay full deference to the progressive identity politics of our time. He knows, as he puts it, that America has a “white man’s problem.” He bows and genuflects to political correctness whenever required to do so.
At the same time, Biden possesses what to his handlers must be a disturbing tendency to ramble, wander off message, and commit “gaffes,” blurting out the truth at uncomfortable moments. He can sound very 20th century, you know. Unscripted, he often comes across as either scrappy or incoherent. He seems to flash a winning grin and say: “I’m a 78-year-old white guy from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who looks like he lost the remote control. How far left could I possibly be?”
The answer, judging from his own domestic policy agenda, is: pretty far left.
On economic policy, Biden pursues a legislative agenda that is nothing less than revolutionary. Already, three colossal spending bills with a combined price tag of more than $6 trillion have been put forward under the following misnomers: the American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan, and the American Families Plan. These bills cram every item on the left-liberal wish list into a gargantuan project to rearrange the U.S. economy and its long-term relationship to the administrative state. Where congressional majorities are lacking, executive orders do the same. As if this weren’t enough to further balloon existing national debt, thus undermining long-term U.S. economic growth, sweeping new environmental regulations and added taxes are piled on top to finish the job. In effect, Biden announces, contra Bill Clinton: “The era of big government is back.” Bernie Sanders Democrats are delighted, as well they should be. The president is pursuing their domestic policy agenda.
On foreign policy, Biden oversees submergence in internationality. There are many statements of concern. In personnel terms, at the top, it’s the revenge of the Obamanauts. Well-credentialed liberal technocrats are back, as is Beltway-approved procedural regularity combined with plenty of ethical scolding. At the same time, U.S. defense spending will be flat or even cut, disconnected from a long list of worldwide commitments. The gap between accredited liberal words and U.S. actions continues to grow. In this way, Biden encourages—unintentionally—the possibility of deterrence failure and conflict overseas.
The new internationalist tone is more polite than Donald Trump. This is not difficult. At the same time, Team Biden’s foreign policy quietly maintains more than one Trump-like priority. There is skepticism regarding any new multilateral free trade agreement or military intervention overseas; explicit recognition that China is a front-rank challenge; determination to reconnect with middle- and working-class perspectives on international matters; and a focus on nation-building at home. In Biden’s case, however, domestic nation-building means left-liberal transformation, and this has foreign policy implications as well.
The Biden White House is determined not to let national security challenges distract from or derail a genuinely radical domestic agenda. On foreign policy, progressives will be kept happy with human rights declarations, expensive new climate change initiatives, and a withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Afghan conflict. Iran’s mullahs have been made to understand that America is desperate to reconstitute the 2015 nuclear weapons agreement. Joe Biden will coddle no dictators, unless left-wing verities demand it, in which case it’s perfectly okay. Climate czar John Kerry and his retinue roam across the rules-based liberal world order and beyond, aiming to save the planet by getting the Chinese Communist Party to make yet another phony promise on “green” priorities. This raises the disturbing thought: If John Kerry is the answer to our problems, then what was the question?
On issues of culture and national identity, the Biden administration provides material aid and assistance to the Great Awokening of our time. Knowing that remaking the country means controlling how elites along with ordinary people think and speak, ascendant Democratic Party progressives insist on a new understanding of American history. According to progressives, the key to mastering that history lies in U.S. legacies of white supremacy and structural racism. Moreover, they say, there’s been very limited progress in overcoming those legacies so far. The answer, according to progressives, can be found not only in giving them whatever policy item they happen to favor on a particular day; it also lies in a supine readiness to rework the everyday use of the English language in alignment with their increasingly weird ideology.
Like any revolution, this one begins with a small core of true believers who seek to impose it on the unruly masses. Ideological conformity is then enforced on the mentally weak through left-wing bullying and badgering using the latest communication technology. Apparently some people find this intimidating. More seriously, it is imposed using the power, authority, and purse strings of the federal government’s executive branch.
The Biden administration’s recent guidelines from the Department of Education are an excellent example of the new normalcy on cultural matters. According to these priorities laid down a few weeks ago, federal grants will now be tied to the use of the New York Times 1619 Project as a basis for teaching American history and civics in local schools. Ibram Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist is also listed in the department’s proposed priorities as an excellent source for incorporating antiracist practices into local schooling. No credible scholarly work is listed alongside Kendi and the 1619 Project as a useful basis for teaching American history or civics to schoolchildren. Nor is any primary source, such as the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.
In a sane political culture, such a preposterous approach to the education of our own children would be a complete non-starter. Every credible living U.S. historian understands the wickedness and significance of America’s history of slavery, and (as you know if your daughter or son attends public school) children are already taught as much. To suggest that Kendi and the discredited 1619 Project are the best sources for teaching any kid to better understand the full sweep of our nation’s history is absolutely ridiculous. They are the opposite. They are misleading, inaccurate, and truly divisive agitprop. They are semi-sacred texts of a nitwit cultural Maoism sweeping the country and its educational institutions over the past year. And now, thanks to the Biden administration, your tax dollars will be diverted to federal priorities specifying in writing that the 1619 Project along with the work of Ibram Kendi are exemplary sources for the teaching of American history to your own children. Welcome to the revolution.
When first running for president this time around, Biden made young leftists wince. After all, he is old, male, white, and not obviously fanatical on matters of ideology. But as it turns out, he’s exactly who progressives needed to push through their agenda at the top. Those South Carolina grandmas who voted for him in droves during the February 2020 Democratic primary knew exactly what they were doing. Here, as with Harding, boring is good. To say that his domestic policy agenda is “centrist” or “moderate” would be absurd. But he is personally innocuous to many voters otherwise skeptical of left-liberal truisms.
Joe Biden is the perfect front man for the most left-wing administration in American history. He is political chloroform, a soothing sedative should the nation resist extreme surgery. His confused congeniality, his normalcy of personality, his apparent mediocrity, help smooth out the rough edges around an obviously left-wing domestic agenda. And like Harding, Biden outlasts a long list of politicians who thought they were smarter than he is. Understanding all this, savvier progressives are now awfully happy with him. And whenever they feel uncomfortable defending the latest radical policy proposal, they can always change the subject to Donald Trump.
H.L. Mencken suggested that “democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Last November, the voters chose Biden’s new normalcy. And as has been the case more than once in our lifetime, after electing a president who was clear on what he had to offer, the country is getting it good and hard.
Colin Dueck is a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism (Oxford, 2019).
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