the body politic

America Is Back, Indeed

With Biden we’ve restored our country’s favorite tradition: basic, middling, white patriarchy.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As Joe Biden was sworn in on Wednesday, many reveled in how normal it felt to hear him speak, how utterly ordinary. This celebration left me feeling suspended, wondering whether we were cheering for the future or the past, progress or regress.

Many wanted this week’s inauguration, the first energetic days of the new presidency, to catapult us forward, out of the nightmarish morass of the Trump administration and into a brighter future in which wounds will be stanched, money will flow to those long starved, vaccines will be distributed to the vulnerable, and violent agitators might (or might not) face consequences.

I find myself more hopeful about the progressive potential for the new administration than I expected to be. Many of Biden’s appointments have been great; his opening economic salvo includes urgent and overdue efforts to hike a minimum wage, increase federal unemployment insurance, fund paid leave and childcare—stuff the Democratic Party has been too reticent in fighting for for decades.

But I have been unable to feel true relief. As time has looped vertiginously in this prolonged season—scary days stretching into sleepless nights and hopeful mornings; pandemics and insurgencies returning us to earlier moments that might help us feel our way forward: Reconstruction, 1918, AIDS—I can’t stop thinking of the moments at which we could have avoided this pain but didn’t.

I remain gutted that this nation elected Donald Trump—ushering in an era of families sundered and 400,000 needlessly dead—because it could not bring itself to elect his female opponent, and even more furious that many people are still trying to explain why that preference was rational. I am all too aware that Trump built his murderous power on the politics of white resentment, and that, in turn, the man we have elected to get us out of this mess was put forward in part because he conforms to the very racial and gendered expectations of American power that ultimately delivered us Trump’s ghoulish authoritarianism.

“America is back,” Biden has assured us repeatedly, always promising—including in his Inaugural Address—that his work will be to “restore the soul and to secure the future of America.”

It is this promise—not of something new but of restoration—that characterizes his ascension. And part of what is being restored, what so many are taking grateful refuge in, is an abiding strain of America’s national disposition, one of its most soothing and anesthetizing forces, a kind of power for which Joe Biden very efficiently stands in: extremely basic white patriarchy.

When I say that Joe Biden is basic, by which I mean 100 percent medium grade, I don’t intend it as an insult. I mean it as an honest description of everything he seems to want to assure us he is: ordinary, relatable, comforting in the lack of intellectual, ideological, or political threat he poses.

Biden looks and talks like presidents have looked and talked—before the election of Barack Obama and his bilious cartoon inversion, Trump—since forever. But more than that, like the country itself, Joe Biden’s power has been made possible by all kinds of people whose efforts have regularly been democracy’s salvation but who themselves have rarely (or never) been chosen to wield real power within it.

Biden had a long and largely unremarkable political career as a senator from Delaware, elected in 1972 partly on a civil-rights platform that he would later complicate by siding with segregationists on school busing and co-authoring the 1994 crime bill. Prior to 2020, he had made two unsuccessful tries at the presidency, in 1988 and again in 2008, when he lost the Iowa caucuses well behind two historical firsts, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

During his primary contest against Obama, Biden had made gently racist comments about his opponent, noting the “storybook” qualities of “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” With this paternalistic appraisal, and its lightly resentful affirmative-action framing of Obama’s success, Biden had projected attitudes so familiarly American that they perhaps sealed his deal as Obama’s running mate—the strain of average white masculinity he radiated would calm the nerves of some who might be discomfited by the meteoric rise of a Black man.

Unlike Obama, or Clinton, who had to stand out, then blend in; excel, then concede, defend, and contort, Biden could just be. Himself. A literally regular Joe.

That he would be willing to subsume his own power as the second-in-command to Obama was, ironically, the thing that made Joe Biden most remarkable in my eyes. But it was one of the oldest stories in America’s book: the white man who gains stature and credibility when the far cooler Black guy calls him brother.

Here is how time, and politics, has looped for me: Since this summer, I have been living with my family at the northern Maine potato farm where my mother grew up with her staunch Republican parents, potato farmers who had hated Franklin (and, even more, Eleanor) Roosevelt, worshipped Ronald Reagan, and been distressed by my mother’s marriage to my father, a Jew from the Bronx, the son of a communist turned socialist mother whose brother had been jailed for his involvement with the Communist Party.

The last time I was at the farm during the autumn was in high school, for a long weekend in 1991, when I sat at the kitchen table and my grandparents turned on the small kitchen television so that we could watch Anita Hill testify that her former boss Clarence Thomas, whom George H.W. Bush had nominated to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her.

I remember being fixed on Hill and her careful, painful testimony, while my grandfather radiated silent distaste and my grandmother tsked sadly about what that woman was doing to poor Thomas. Perhaps my earliest experience of political fury was toward the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee who were insulting and demeaning Hill and at the eight Democrats, all white and all men, led by Joe Biden, who were just … sitting there, doing nothing.

A year later, in the fall of 1992, a record number of women — four Democrats — were elected to the Senate. They included Carol Moseley Braun, who had run because she’d been mad at her senator, Alan Dixon of Illinois, for signaling that he’d vote to confirm Thomas and who had once described to me how 1991’s view of the “tired, old white men” on the Judiciary Committee was “the wind under the wings of my candidacy.” Moseley Braun became the first Black woman ever elected to the Senate. She was joined there by Patty Murray, who ran for her Washington seat in part out of anger at Hill’s treatment. In California, Barbara Boxer (who has said “the only reason I got elected … is because of the courage of Anita Hill”) and Dianne Feinstein together became the first all-female Senate delegation from a single state.

After the 1992 election, Biden would ask Feinstein and Moseley Braun, who was initially not interested, to become the first women to serve on the Judiciary Committee, a move that was understood then and now as one that would help him recover from some of the reputational damage he did to himself during the Hill hearings.

New kinds of politicians begat more kinds of politicians. Moseley Braun served one term, but six years after her departure, her Senate seat would be won by Barack Obama. When Boxer retired in 2016, she was replaced by Kamala Harris, the second Black woman elected to the Senate, who was sworn in as the nation’s first female, first Black, and first Asian-American vice-president on Wednesday.

So much has happened in the years since that October 1991 weekend; so much has happened because of it.

Yet this summer, in this same farmhouse, I watched the Democratic convention and a peppy video about women’s growing place within American politics. A voice-over stated, “She makes trouble, the good kind,” over video of Nancy Pelosi ripping up Trump’s State of the Union speech and “She knows that to change the world, you need to change the idea of power,” after a shot of Moseley Braun campaigning to be mayor of Chicago (she lost to Rahm Emanuel). There were Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Maxine Waters and Pramila Jayapal and Lucy McBath and Stacey Abrams and Elizabeth Warren. A clip of Shirley Chisholm showed her wondering, in 1972, “What’s wrong with my running for president of this country?” while one of Clinton was taken from her 2008 primary concession speech: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” Then the video moved to Biden. “Joe Biden knows a stronger America is one that works for women. So go ahead and celebrate, you rabble-rouser, you rule-breaker, you force of nature. Our country, our world needs you.”

The story of women’s progress in American politics culminated, somehow, with Joe Biden. It did not include even a single shot of Anita Hill, whose testimony sparked so much of that progress.

And of course it didn’t — it couldn’t. Because what Hill provoked was dissatisfaction with the governance of men like, and actually including, Joe Biden. I don’t know whether Biden has ever really absorbed lessons about the way he failed Hill 30 years ago; what I do know is that he is far from being some apotheosis of feminist political progress. The role he played in drawing more women into politics was as the kind of guy they wanted to replace. And the progress that those women made laid the groundwork for more diverse representation that has, ironically, wound up working to the benefit of Joe Biden: His relationship with Barack Obama propelled him to the presidency; in becoming his running mate, Kamala Harris helped him gain feminist credibility after he’d beaten her and five other female opponents in the 2020 primary; Moseley Braun who’d helped him fix the optics of the Judiciary Committee and would become one of his early backers in 2020.

As it turns out there is nothing—not even the complete electoral rebuke of his leadership—that is impossible for a powerful white man to find a way to eventually profit from.

This October, I watched the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, who will join Thomas on the hard-right wing of the Supreme Court. She’ll be just the fifth woman to serve on the Court and, along with Thomas himself, is a reminder—though none should be necessary—that a change in representation alone doesn’t mean much within a white capitalist patriarchy, a system that elevates those willing to support it, to bend to its contours and occasionally submit to its humiliations in exchange for power within it.

Indeed, I sat in this house this fall and watched with horror as Dianne Feinstein, elected to office in 1992, concluded Barrett’s hearings by hugging Republican Lindsey Graham and telling him, “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.”

Things fall apart and yet the center can hold. It holds and holds and holds.

When Biden ran for president in 2020, I wrote about the many reasons he was my last choice. In part, my fears were practical: I worried he wouldn’t fare well in a nation more awake to gendered and racial inequities than I had ever known. I thought his centrist approach offered no solution to the problems in front of us. The 2020 primary included several candidates whose ideas and talents were so obviously superior to the wan sameness of Biden. It’s not that the greatness and mediocrity fell along gendered or racial lines; the bursting field included inspiring white men and some grimly crappy women. But the thing is, none of those people won. Biden did. By a lot.

Black Democrats put Biden over the edge in the primary and, more arguably, in the general-election contest. Many liked him, trusted him, felt they had long relationships with him, valued his relationship with Obama. Many in the most vulnerable populations in this country looked at this guy and saw the best chance at safe deliverance from a Trump administration in part because they saw in him America and a clear-eyed realism about its lack of capacity for alteration to its power structures, the ones that so often have left average white men at the top.

The vampiric dynamics of capitalist white patriarchy are clear: the labor of the enslaved, of domestic laborers, of wives, of workers producing profits in which they do not share; the power is all accrued by the owner, the boss, the patriarch.

To his credit, Biden has publicly recognized some of this dynamic. “Black voters had my back,” he said in his speech on Election Night, promising in turn to have theirs. It was on one level a welcome acknowledgment, but it also recapitulated a slight misreading of the dynamics of inequality. In Biden’s locution, the efforts of Black and brown voters and organizers had been deployed on his behalf; it did not acknowledge that voters had also had their own backs.

Enough of them had surmised that the surest path out of a Trump administration, which fed on the resentment of challenges to white patriarchy, was more white patriarchy.

Biden won the presidency because voters of the Navajo Nation organized and turned out, enabling him to flip Arizona for the first time in decades. He won because Black, Asian, Latino, and white suburban voters in Georgia, activated and organized over years by leaders including Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown, flipped Georgia. He won because llhan Omar, a leftist Black woman who is regularly targeted (by Trump and by leaders of her own flaccid party) as un-American, secured 88 percent turnout in her district and helped him win Minnesota. He won because Kamala Harris, a woman he had beaten in the primary, made his ticket historic and therefore more exciting and because her presence as his running mate helped him rake in absolute fuck-tons of money.

He won because in a pandemic that curtailed in-person campaigning, only Biden — a man who could just be — had 100 percent name recognition, didn’t have to persuade millions for the first time that they could turn the country over to him, and could still be lauded for running a smart campaign.

But, to paraphrase what Elizabeth Warren once said about America’s roads, our infrastructure, the mechanisms that permit the wealthy and powerful in America to become wealthy and powerful: Biden didn’t build this. It was built for him.

And now he is received as a balm. For what injury? The one caused by the spasm of violent revulsion and resentment millions of voters and politicians felt after having elected a single Black man to, and considered a single white woman for, the American presidency. Of course, neither of those people—Obama or Clinton—fully challenged the system of white capitalist patriarchy that Biden is a neater symbol for. Had they presented more substantive rebukes to that system, they never would have made it as far as they did.

Yet even as parts of the system, they were so brutally objectionable that entire politically influential fictions were built around them: fake birth certificates and pedophilia rings run out of pizza parlors. Their comparatively brief grip on power provoked people to shout “You lie” during their formal addresses and “Lock her up!” at the rallies of their opponents.

Those sentiments have broken loose from their original tethers, are now directed at white men too, even Republican white men like Mike Pence, the model of brutal white hetero patriarchal governance from Indiana, now the subject of chanted threats of hanging, incantations of a strain of American power that wants to violently punish anyone perceived as being outside its control.

It was hard watching what an easier time than Hillary Clinton Joe Biden had — within his own party and outside it — running against Donald Trump. It wasn’t just about the fact that he was a white man and she was a woman, I know. Trump had been a reality for four years, not a theoretical threat. There was a pandemic. But it would be dishonest to take gender and race out of it, to not acknowledge, that in running against a white man, Trump lost some of his most effective rhetorical tools: the demonization, diminution, and delegitimization of those who were not white men.

When it came to Biden’s relatively warmer reception, the political writer Matt Yglesias got depressingly close to the truth when he observed, in tweets that have since been deleted, that Clinton’s “weaponization of identity politics” had “engendered ill will” and noted that relations between left standard-bearer Bernie Sanders and Biden could be more peaceable because they could simply agree to disagree, while “Clinton seemed invested in implying that it was sexist and even racist to prefer the more left-wing candidate.”

In this analysis, Yglesias might have been summoning Biden himself, who used to describe how well he’d gotten on with segregationist Dixiecrat James O. Eastland. “You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them,” Biden had said of Eastland. “Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked.”

Here is the neat thing about a power structure built around and for mostly one kind of people: Your disagreements with them cannot be taken, or mistaken, for bias. You can criticize them, hate them even, and no one is going to call you racist or sexist, which are epithets still understood as more damaging to political prospects than actual racism or sexism. When you remove the possibility that your hostility will be taken as bias, everything gets so much easier. You can fight like cats and dogs, real Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote stuff, and still clock out and have lunch after. The system works.

But as soon as you add an opponent who is part of a group that has systematically been barred from the kind of power you’ve had relatively unimpeded access to, then things get trickier, uglier, more loaded and fraught. Because you could be arguing with them about ideology or policy, but if you light into them from a certain angle, with a degree of extra intensity or disrespect, if your supporters hate them with a little extra oomph, then questions of systemic discrimination and how it has shaped every American system will come into play.

Biden promised early on that he wouldn’t be plagued by the sexist challenges faced by Clinton, and he wasn’t wrong. In his contest, questions not just of identity but of ideas were put to the side. Even Sanders, Biden’s leftist challenger, who got closest to beating him in the primary, said that the general election would not come down to issues, rather the fact that Trump was a threat to democracy. Sanders was correct: Trump was a threat to democracy, summoned because a white patriarchy would rather destroy the nation — smash its control panel to smithereens — than see it governed by people who present any form of challenge to it.

This is why we didn’t get Sanders (an old white guy, but one whose ideas that would have significantly loosened the Establishment’s hold on power) or Elizabeth Warren or Julián Castro or Jay Inslee or any of the candidates who were running with serious ideas about changing policy around climate, health care, housing, child care, education, immigration, or policing.

The final move of an embattled system: elevate a leader who is such a pants-on-fire emergency that all you can think to do is reach for water to throw at him.

Back when I first started writing about politics, older women, veterans of feminism’s Second Wave, used to speak to me about how when they’d been my age, they’d imagined we’d have had a female president — or several — by now. Lately, they feared, they’d never live to see one.

I used to listen and quietly roll my eyes a bit. Why on earth had they believed that their generation’s movement, beset by its own internal inequalities and hypocrisies, would have managed to reverse centuries of bias in the span of their lifetimes?

I still don’t think the presidency is the most crucial measure of feminist progress. And we now have a female vice-president; she is a Democrat; she is Black; she is of Indian descent and the daughter of immigrants. On balance it seems very possible that she may become president. Things can be unchangeable and then they can change.

Yet it is hard for me to shake the notion that Kamala Harris’s historic shoulders are ones on which Joe Biden stood in order to get hired for the job — the presidency — that she had really wanted. And thinking of those Second Wave women now, I understand better how much our view is shaped by accumulated data points. And that year after year of watching smart, inventive, leaders — some radical, some not so much — lose again and again to watery white guys will lead to an anxiety about the future, about the possibility of ever really getting to choose leaders who are not those white guys.

I see future presidents everywhere. Of course I see AOC; how could anyone not? I see Speakers and governors and party leaders yet to be: Ayanna Pressley and Stacey Abrams and Jamaal Bowman and John Fetterman and Pramila Jayapal and Julián Castro and Katie Porter and Lauren Underwood and Cori Bush.

I see a lot of mediocre women too, plenty of corrupt, milquetoast, regressive leaders who are not white men, because white men have no special claim on mediocrity or malevolence. Mostly, I see this hugely expanded pool of future possibility and all these excellent people — not just the politicians but the doctors and economists and activists and lawyers he’s putting on his team — whose real role, right now, is to make Joe Biden better.

And I am glad. I want him to listen to them, to do what they urge him to. He’ll probably be disappointing, but perhaps less so because of them. Or maybe he’ll be great, because they push him to be.

Back in 2019, I was nudging my brother to tell me who he supported in the primary. “Who I want can’t win,” he told me. “So I want whichever white guy can win to steal all her ideas, like Al Smith and FDR.” Back then, I was maddened by this: No, we determine who is electable, we drive against the notion of impossibility.

Now, I am upset by my own naïveté. Today, what my brother foretold is all I want. I want Biden to have his FDR-size presidency, to take the best ideas, the smartest people, the propellant energy they provide, to make this nation better, more just, more equitable; to provide more dignity and opportunity and protection for more people. And then what I want to give him credit for is stepping aside to let them take us forward. I want to believe that this could be what’s ahead: a remaking and not a restoration. I need to believe in a future in which the real drivers and laborers and perfectors of our democracy actually become its leaders.

But … we’re not there yet. So in the meantime, I guess this is my dream: the American Dream. In which the video ends with the ordinary white guy as the hero of the story.

America Is Back, Indeed