September 13, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Trust Black Voters
The party's transformation will go on even if Biden is president.
I had a conflict last night so could not watch the third Democratic debate. But I did read the news coverage this morning, and as I did, I was struck by something I hadn’t felt before: I’m torn between my desire for victory in 2020 and my desire for the party to take the next step in its slow evolution into a fully democratic-pluralist party.
Part of me is like you: we must to win no matter what. That’s how bad the president is. Part of me is also like you: Do we have to settle for Joe Biden? I mean, I love the guy! But his time has come and gone. Anyway, Biden believes “economic anxiety” is why Hillary Clinton lost. He’s that blind to the socially accepted sadism that put Donald Trump in power. The reasons for that are the reasons why he’s a mediocre choice.
Biden is also the candidate, if he won the presidency, most likely to forgive and forget Trump’s criminality. I believe we need a new president who at least elevates the ideals of public trust, institutional integrity and accountability. As Jennifer Mercieca wrote, that’s missing from the debates so far, and that’s partly I think due to Uncle Joe.
But then I catch myself.
There is no division between “moderates” and “liberals” to those with the most skin in the game.
These debates are about a party working out who it thinks should be the standard bearer (temporarily), how and for what reasons. These debates, in other words, are just a more visible iteration of patterns always already underway behind the scenes. I said I want the party to complete its long transformation into a fully democratic-pluralist party. But if I stand back and look close, that’s what happening, election or not. That transformation will go on even in the shadow of a mediocre Democratic president.
Never in my lifetime have Democrats talked so openly about such a range of issues long debated among Gen-X and younger left-liberals but deemed verboten by hoary establishment figures—donors, party leaders, the cognizanti but especially the white male boomers who still wake in a sweat at night fearing another Reagan Revolution. The old liberals, to paraphrase Robert Frost, did everything they could to avoid taking their own side in a quarrel. The new liberals, though, are just itching for a fight.
I have been arguing for some time now that the Democrats—all Americans, actually—are in the bad habit of focusing too much on campaigns and elections, treating them as zero-sum games in which you not only lose a contest, but lose yourself too. That suggests our society’s moral compass is broken, which is why we’ve lost our minds. We do not focus enough on the power all Americans retain even in the wake of defeat, for instance local grass-roots activism, engagement and deliberation but especially the power to build a bottom-up democratic culture in which civic virtues can flourish.
I still believe that a President Trump would not have been possible had not conservative elites surrendered to the racists, and had not liberal elites doubted the whole truth of their professed convictions. I still believe that he would not have been possible had the middle class, but especially white Americans, taken their citizenship, their privileges and their obligations seriously. Socialism is what many people are now talking about but what we truly need is a spirited revival of liberalism. As historian Deirdre McCloskey once wrote (via Adam Gurri in an article in Liberal Currents):
We need to revive a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and agora. We need to get beyond the project of damning a man of business because he is neither an exalted aristocrat nor an unassuming peasant-proletarian. The conservative program of handing things over to a class of pseudoaristocrats trained at Andover and Yale or the radical program of handing things over to a proletariat-friendly party of bourgeois-born young men has not worked out very well. We need an ethical bourgeoisie.
Biden once said any one of the Democrats could beat the president. He’s right. Given Trump’s polling recently, there may in fact be no floor. All a Democrat must do in 2020 is what Democrats did in 2018 when they took the House by historic numbers—just brush your teeth, comb your hair, stand up straight, and be a tolerable alternative to a horrible incumbent. The former vice president has many assets, but honestly, being tolerable is his true strength, and why black voters are stubbornly behind him.
It should be said voters most aligned with a mediocre candidate are the most invested in seeing the party take the next step into becoming a fully democratic-pluralist party. In pointing this out, I’m suggesting there is actually no division between “moderates” and “liberals,” not to those with the most skin in the game. The choice before black voters is pragmatic, which is say moral, which is to say difficult, but a choice that must be made if only because the status quo under Donald Trump is nearly intolerable.
Black voters, in other words, are showing the party the way if only unconsciously. That’s my sense of things. If another candidate wins them over, that’s where the party will go. If not, Biden’s the one. In either case, the party’s transformation will go on.
We can trust that much.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.