Part I – the American Election: The Enlightenment versus Populism

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Partnership

Yesterday evening Joe Biden addressed the people of the United States as well as the world. He claimed that the clear majority of at least four million votes and a majority of the electoral college “made it clear they [the voters] want the country to come together – not to continue to pull apart.” He continued: “we have to remember: the purpose of our politics isn’t total, unrelenting, unending warfare. No. The purpose of our politics, the work of the nation, isn’t to fan the flames of conflict, but to solve problems, to guarantee justice, to give everybody a fair shot, to improve the lives of our people. We may be opponents – but we are not enemies. [my italics] We are Americans.”

Then he called for healing a deeply divided nation. “No matter who you voted for, I’m certain of one thing: The vast majority of the 150 million Americans, they want to get the vitriol out of our politics. We’re certainly not going to agree on a lot of the issues, but we can at least agree to be civil to one another. Let’s put the anger and the demonization behind us. It’s time for us to come together as a nation and heal.”

No! A significant minority of voters do not want the country to come together again. No! A significant minority of American voters do not want the government to solve problems; for them, the government is the problem. No! You are not Americans; only we are Americans they claim. Only we wave the flag in pride. You, we dare say, are our enemies. You are the devil incarnate. The vast majority in the heartland make up the real America  

If Joe Biden does not recognize that there is a real and deep-seated war, if he tries to paper over differences with an appeal to the existence of a common faith, then he does not recognize who he is fighting. But perhaps he does. Perhaps offering an olive branch in one hand is part of a strategy that includes carrying a big stick in the other. Or else in his partners’ hand.

But I doubt it. Joe Biden is a man of faith. He is a true believer in the common good. Read Pope Francis’ social encyclical, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship released last month. It too is addressed to the world and not just Catholics. It too is addressed to people of good will. Why? Because all people of good will are concerned with the common good. All people have an aspiration towards fraternity and social friendship.

Yesterday, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory died. He was a wonderful and wise spiritual leader and insightful interpreter of Torah. He too was an ecumenical moralist. He too accepted the Roman Catholic doctrine of the common good even as he espoused a covenantal religion as an orthodox rabbi. (See his 2020 volume, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.) He too advocated a shared framework of virtues and values.

But he too erred. Even though he was a small “c” conservative, he saw the source of modern evil in the elevation of self-interest over the common good. He claimed that morality had been privatized, outsourced to the market and made into a transactional enterprise instead of a binding moral framework that put limits around the operation not only of the market but the state as well. And although he addressed the evil of populism, and viewed (mistakenly, I think) Korach as its exemplification, he never recognized it as a religious cult, but rather just a power grab by a rabble rouser.

What were the clues for Rabbi Sacks?

  • Korach claimed the establishment was a swamp; Moses and Aaron were corrupt.
  • Moses was guilty of nepotism; he appointed his brother as High Priest.
  • Korach advertised himself as the people’s champion.
  • Korach insisted that holiness was communal and not a characteristic of one individual, even as he expected to be idolized by that community.
  • He posed as a true democrat so that he could act as an autocrat.  
  • He claimed to be purer than anyone else, not because he paid his fair share of taxes, but because he did not ask for anything material, not even a donkey, as he prepared to fleece the pockets of the people just as he promised to lift the economic burden of temple sacrifices from them.
  • And the biggest lie of all: he was chosen to assume his role; it was not a matter of personal ambition.

Certainly, as Yasmeen Serhan wrote in his essay in The Atlantic (5 November 2020), “Populism Is Undefeated: The U.S. election proves that this divisive style of politics is still viable.” The 2016 American election was a ‘populist earthquake.’ “Donald Trump demonstrated that an iconoclastic anti-establishment style of politics was possible in the United States.” However, the 2020 election was not a reset, as Joe Biden claimed. Trump received over 70 million votes and perhaps as many as 75 million when all ballots are counted. Next to Joe Biden, no presidential candidate had received as many. Serhan claimed that the 2020 election was not just a referendum on Trumpism – it was that – but a test for the viability of populism worldwide against the nightmare of a plague devastating the population.

Donald Trump may have been defeated, but populism was not. Trumpism lives on. That is because it is not dependent on the emergence of a single charismatic leader. That is because it is not just a product of resentment at the maldistribution of wealth. That is because it does not abhor self-interest so much as the rule of reason, the rule of elites and the rule of dominant norms that threaten their own values and virtues. That is because populism is engaged in a religious and not just an economic and political war. Populists, even if they are like Korach and gain political power by presenting themselves as anti-establishment leaders, are not the essence of populism.

Immigrants are not rejected because they are economic threats but because they are viewed as aliens. Experts are not rejected simply because they speak a foreign language but because they propose rules and norms which undermine the people’s communal practices. Even if Korach failed in his rebellion, the spirit of populism and rebellion lived on. Trumpism will survive Donald Trump’s defeat. The “real” people will continue to oppose the purveyors of “fake news,” that is news that must be fake because it conflicts with what they have been taught to believe.

The election must have been manipulated, must have been stolen. After all, they are the real America. The arrival of all those newcomers has shifted the power balance and threatened their survival. And the truth? It has. Why then would they agree to accept a belief in the common good? Why would they accept a return to civil discourse among groups that simply failed to accept the same policy nostrums? This was indeed a war for the soul of America. And although Donald Trump may have lost the battle, the war for the soul of America will continue. Joe Biden has to take his own rhetoric seriously.

Donald Trump was a clumsy oaf, a bull in a china shop. “An ideologically aligned leader who is less brash and more polished than he is,” could assume his mantle and become a much more effective leader of Trumpism. He could play the same role as St. Paul did for Jesus, propagating the brand while turning it inside out.

Again, perhaps Joe Biden recognizes this. Just as Barack Obama delegated to him the problem of saving the economy when he first was elected vice-president, perhaps Kamala Harris will be assigned the role of killing the dragon and not simply dousing the fire and flames that issue from its throat. As Vice-President-elect of the United States, Kamala Harris, as the first female VP, the first Black VP, the first VP of South Indian descent, addressed the nation and the world. Although Joe Biden shared the stage with Obama at Grant Park in Chicago and embraced his boss in 2012, and although this was also the case on the red-curtained utilitarian warehouse stage in Chicago in 2016, Biden was not invited to address the nation on victory night either before or after Obama spoke. Nor do I recall a Vice-President-elect sharing the stage on victory night ever before. Kamala Harris sharing the limelight in Delaware adumbrated an even truer partnership than Biden had with Obama.

Harris said to her audience, “For four years, you marched and organized for equality and justice, for our lives, and for our planet. And then, you voted. You delivered a clear message. You chose hope, unity, decency, science, and, yes, truth.” The quest for victory did not begin in 2020 but in 2016 when Donald Trump won. And what was at stake was both a morality of decency and a respect for truth.

Joe is the healer. Joe is the uniter. And herself? She indicated by her words that she would be the warrior. She would be the fighter. For what was at stake was indeed the soul of America. What was at stake was truth. Joe will exude empathy. I offer harsh judgment, she told her audience with a broad smile. For women have become the guardian class, “women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty and justice for all, including the Black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.”

They do not symbolize an offer of an olive branch, but strength and struggle. They are not like Lot’s wife who looked back nostalgically on the destruction of her heartland of Sodom, so pained at loss that her tears fell in such quantity that she turned into a pillar of salt. Instead, women warriors look to the future. Look to the little girl watching tonight who envisions her country as a realm of possibilities rather than lost causes. Dream not of what has been. “Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see, simply because they have never seen it before.” Dream an impossible dream and make it possible.  

As Kamala Harris said in the opening of her speech, “Congressman John Lewis, before his passing, wrote: ‘Democracy is not a state. It is an act.’ And what he meant was that America’s democracy is not guaranteed. It is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it, to guard it and never take it for granted. And when our very democracy was on the ballot in this election, with the very soul of America at stake, and the world watching, you ushered in a new day for America. America’s democracy is not guaranteed — it is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it.”

Women are the shock troops in the war underway. Joe Biden may engage in cross-cultural discourse in the name of the common good with “the opposition”, but women recognize that their good is not our good. Our truth is the truth and not the expression of a false consciousness. Their claimed truth is fantasy. Looking back at a mythical past is at war with looking forward to a future that belongs to those women of valour who fight for it.

One comment on “Part I – the American Election: The Enlightenment versus Populism

  1. Cornelia Baines says:

    Fascinating insights into Biden and Harris compared to Biden and Obama.

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