Biden may have to choose between cultural and economic radicalism

Even the greatest democratic leader of the past century chose his battles. As Franklin Roosevelt shaped a New Deal in economics, he preserved much of the old deal in culture. The cause of civil rights was deferred for another generation. Tight immigration laws were retained, even as Europe’s huddled masses petitioned for entry. If there was a post-Jazz Age meanness in the air, it did not confine itself to Washington. Hollywood, the other capital, began to enforce its code against risqué themes.

It is hard to account for the blend of material reform and cultural retrenchment in those years. But one theory suggests itself. There is only so much change a society will bear at one time. If the rules of economic life are in flux, people crave stability and even regression in other areas. Seen from this angle, the strife of the 1960s might be read as the spasms of a nation attempting too much change on too many fronts in too little time.

The question is whether Roosevelt’s alleged heir accepts this constraint. A recent surge of inflation has fed the idea that a backlash to President Joe Biden’s Big Government is on the way. But it is not his economic boldness per se that is exceptional. It is its coincidence with so much other change.

Violent crimes have been going up in US cities for a while now, reversing the trend of at least a generation. At the same time, the country’s southern border has been the site of anguish and disarray for much of the year. Authorities had “encounters” with more migrants there in April than in any month since the start of the century. Then — a third source of cultural insecurity — there is the inchoate set of issues that come under the neologism of the day, “woke”, with all its implications for the first amendment right to free speech. 

Even taken together, these social rumbles hardly constitute a revolution. Nor can the president be said to be their principal author. The crime wave began under his predecessor Donald Trump. Identity politics has been gestating inside the western left since French philosophes took a postmodern turn in the 1960s.

But if the cultural upheaval is not all his fault, it is his problem. Americans are being asked to absorb a break in economic doctrine at the same time as the social context changes. As if to capture the problem in miniature, Congress is presently engaged with a tax rise and a reform to policing. These would be hard enough sells on their own. Biden is attempting both simultaneously. It is a lot to process from a man whom many will have envisaged as a breather after a high-drama president.

The idea that economic and cultural reform pair naturally is recent. History more often throws up welfare-state builders who are conservative to the point of nostalgia in their wider outlook. Clement Attlee in Britain, Charles de Gaulle in France and Otto von Bismarck in Germany are only the grandest cases. For them, redistribution was a national glue, not a source of abstract “justice”, and change something better done sequentially than all at once.

In other words, what Biden is attempting — change against the backdrop of even more change — is provocative by the standards of not just American but western politics. It helps that he is, by dint of age and voting record, an innately reassuring figure. Don’t expect that image to last if voters start to feel buffeted by events.

The easiest mistake in politics is to assume that ideas that poll well on their own terms aggregate into a popular whole. In reality, voters don’t hear the notes, they hear the chord. A pile-up of reforms can exhaust and unnerve even those who admire them individually. It is not Biden’s policies that invite midterm reprisals from the electorate, so much as their number, range and simultaneity.

Gustave Flaubert’s rule that a person can only take so much radicalism (“be regular and orderly in your life”, said the writer, “so that you may be violent and original in your work”) applies as much to the body politic. Had Biden won one of those landslides, such as 1932 or 1980, when the public audibly demands a new course, he might have the license for all-round change.

Instead he won in clear but not crushing fashion against a uniquely unfit opponent in an aberrant year in world history. Congress is only in Democratic hands by the thinnest of margins. It is a frail mandate on which to rest so much activity. Those who know him say the president has bucked the normal arc of life by growing keener on change over time. It is a noble shift, but not one he should assume is catching.

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