Sometimes history is made by the most unlikely people. Joe Biden ran an apparently effective but programmatically listless primary campaign. But if he wins the general election, reality will dictate that he act with a boldness and ambition not seen in American politics since the 1960’s, if not 1933.
It’s Biden’s nomination, but Bernie’s agenda — not simply because of his powers of persuasion and his movement, but because the ground has shifted under our feet. Biden has been smart, both to cover his left flank, but also to give assurance to the public that he is coming to the rescue.
It’s either Medicare For All and a Green New Deal — and more — or it’s disaster capitalism all over again, which is fascism by another name.
In a somewhat discordantly optimistic piece for The Atlantic, historian Rebecca Spang of Indiana University writes that in revolutionary times, “everything is up for grabs”:
That comparisons can so easily be made between the beginning of the French Revolution and the United States today does not mean that Americans are fated to see a Reign of Terror or that a military dictatorship like Napoleon’s looms large in our future. What it does mean is that everything is up for grabs. The United States of America can implode under external pressure and its own grave contradictions, or it can be reimagined and repurposed. Life will not go back to normal for us, either, because the norms of the past decades are simply no longer tenable for huge numbers of Americans.
“Everything is up for grabs” — but some people are better at grabbing. The Trump administration is not wasting the crisis; it is enabling looting on a massive scale. Already the Trump administration and supine Senate Republicans are using the crisis to completely shut down the EPA: Now there is no environmental law enforcement. Massive businesses are getting bailouts with little accountability. He is firing Inspectors General for various agencies, opening the door for massive corruption in all areas of government. The disaster is already being used as an excuse to shut down abortion clinics.
But as someone once said about the stock market, “That which cannot go on forever, won’t.”
As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in the New Yorker, “Reality has endorsed Bernie Sanders”:
A society that allows hundreds of thousands of home health-care workers to labor without health insurance, that keeps school buildings open so that black and brown children can eat and be sheltered, that allows millionaires to stow their wealth in empty apartments while homeless families navigate the streets, that threatens eviction and loan defaults while hundreds of millions are mandated to stay inside to suppress the virus, is bewildering in its incoherence and inhumanity.
Naomi Klein has written about how the political class has used social catastrophes to create policies that allow for private plunder. She calls it “disaster capitalism,” or the “shock doctrine.” But she has also written that, in each of these moments, there are also opportunities for ordinary people to transform their conditions in ways that benefit humanity. The class-driven hierarchy of our society will encourage the spread of this virus unless dramatic and previously unthinkable solutions are immediately put on the table. As Sanders has counselled, we must think in unprecedented ways. This includes universal health care, an indefinite moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the cancellation of student-loan debt, a universal basic income, and the reversal of all cuts to food stamps. These are the basic measures that can staunch the immediate crisis of deprivation—of millions of layoffs and millions more to come.
There will simply be an immense amount of work to be done, which can’t be done while Trump and the Republicans are in power.
In addition, the Green New Deal solves many problems for Biden, even if Republicans imagine that it provides a big target. The climate crisis justifies its ambition, simply by working backwards from the goal of a net-zero emission economy by 2050 (which may even be too late). Fortunately, Biden has appointed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement’s Vashini Prakash to his climate task force. This is extremely hopeful news: Again, it shows that he understands the importance of consolidating the left, but it also will show a credible way forward out of economic devastation that the GOP Senate and President simply will refuse to address.
Fracked gas was already a dangerous investment, and now the economic crisis has to a continuation of that price slide. Communities in Pennsylvania that depend on fracking will need a “just transition”. There will be plenty to do, plenty of jobs in overhauling our economy in fighting unemployment and poverty, inequality, and climate change all at the same time. The integrated approach really is the best one; it is better to bite off the biggest chunk one can. There was never a real practical question as to whether it can be paid for; but in the light of current stimulus spending, there can no longer be any political question either. Debt is cheap if not nearly free; the ultra-rich still have absurd fortunes to be taxed away.
The question is the politics. In 2016 Trump won voters in some industrial regions that had been suffering for decades. Maybe most of those voters will cling to Trump and his promise of bringing back coal and manufacturing, but Biden doesn’t need all of them. If Biden can peel off some Trump votes with the promise of durable jobs with benefits, he can not only implement a Green New Deal, but consolidate a progressive majority for years to come. Republicans know this, and that’s why they’ll try to stop him, not whatever justifications they’ll toss into the air like so much sand: Deficits! Big Government! America! or something.
Biden should take the Green New Deal right to de-industrialized voters. They may be ready to hear about it. As Trump might say, What have you got to lose?