Biden cares about America. Can Democrats show they do too?
"Happy days are here again."
"A time for greatness."
"It's morning again in America."
We remember campaigns with clear, timely themes because they come to define their times. They don't necessarily win — "In your heart, you know he's right" and "Come home America" were clear, timely failures — nor are they always necessary — Carter made it to the White House on the questionable strength of "Not just peanuts" and "Why not the best?" But we know it when a theme feels right, and it's clear Joe Biden thinks he's found just such a theme.
What is that message? To quote a former president who had memorable difficulty with the "vision thing," it is: "Message: I care."
Over and over during the first two nights of the Great Democratic Infomercial that serves as this year's substitute for a convention, that theme was reiterated, in speeches and in visuals. The family of the slain George Floyd led a moment of silence for him and others wrongfully killed by police; Biden sat down to commiserate with and promise to help those falling through the cracks in our health-care system. The very structure of the digital event, which (particularly on its first night) strongly resembled a telethon, reinforced the impression that this was less a campaign to win political office than to eradicate some disease — and in America of 2020, that isn't just a metaphor.
Democrats generally try to portray themselves as the more caring, "mommy" party, while Republicans try to portray themselves as the stricter "daddy" party (never mind that these stereotypes are frequently inaccurate; they are widely believed). But the "I care" theme is particularly suited to Biden for reasons authentic to him. Biden's life was famously marked by personal tragedy, and he has always found his greatest joy and purpose in personal relationships with everyone from train conductors to world leaders, a fact attested to by numerous testimonials. Biden in this regard makes an exceptionally potent contrast with Trump, notwithstanding that the president ran in 2016 as, in his own peculiar way, a candidate who cared.
In 2016, a significant number of voters turned out for Trump because they thought he was the first candidate in a long time to care about them. He may not have showed that he cared the way that Democrats generally do, but he talked directly to their concerns. And with some constituencies — like white evangelical Christians — he was explicit about promising to take care of them, be their special protector and their champion.
Now, though, the "American carnage" that Trump talked about has gone from being the dark side of the Bush and Obama years (deindustrialization, the opioid epidemic) to something truly ubiquitous. And Trump isn't merely hapless or foundering in the face of the pandemic; he's utterly disengaged from it, going so far as to actively undermine the very people charged with addressing the virus' spread, and ultimately concluding with a shrug, "It is what it is." Further, in the face of the extraordinary protests over police brutality and systemic racism, Trump was not merely incapable of finding language to help heal the breach and thereby restore both order and justice. His instinctive goal was to do the opposite, to exacerbate divisions in the hope of achieving personal vindication.
Trump's pitch in 2020 can't be, "I'm the only one who really cares about you." And while cruelty can be popular when the object is widely loathed, when the object is everybody, "caring is for sissies" will have a pretty narrow niche appeal. Which leaves Trump only one option: convincing enough people that the Democrats don't really care about them either. And that's a very hard argument to make about Joe Biden personally.
All of these are reasons why "I care" is a great theme for Biden to run on. The principal danger to the Democrats as a party, though, is precisely that these virtues come to be seen as entirely personal to Biden, a quaint relic of a bygone era, disconnected from the party as it is. That perception could have electoral consequences if it takes hold. Sure, Joe may be a good egg, but his party is increasingly radical — or, even if it isn't, they don't really care about the likes of me, a rural voter, a white male voter, a small business-owner, a religiously conservative voter. And Joe's old. If you vote for him, who are you really voting for?
The Republicans are already making these arguments, and various speakers at the convention have addressed it, Ohio's former Republican Gov. John Kasich most directly and ham-handedly. Others have played into it, most notably former first lady Michelle Obama, whose widely-praised speech felt to me like a distinctly backhanded compliment to the nominee and a master class in negative partisanship. If "I care" comes to be understood to mean "I know what's best for you," the Democrats won't make much progress healing the great rifts tearing this country apart.
So is "I care" a message that can be broadened beyond a single man's virtues, and in a way that can't easily be characterized as just warmed-over client-service liberalism or newfangled social justice lingo? I believe it can. The question is whether anyone in the Democratic Party wants to do it, because it means shifting their language somewhat from one of demand for rights and for equality to the more conservative and religiously-inflected language of inherent duties and mutual-responsibilities.
Hidden in the shadow of our predominantly rights-based discourse, there's a whole philosophical tradition organized around the idea of care, rooted in a deeply social conception of what it means to be human. Rights are, as the poet Matthew Arnold noted, really just the reciprocals of duties, and it is the duty that is the active, social side of the coin, the side with real substance. It is not hard at all to conceive of very nearly all of those social duties as matters of care — indeed, "duty of care" is a phrase Biden used in one of his convention videos.
Many of the core issues that the various Democratic contenders were fighting for could be readily reframed, and made if anything more compelling, under such a "duty of care" rubric. Doctors, nurses, and hospitals already have a duty to provide care for those in urgent need; that's why they kept working through the early weeks of the pandemic without adequate PPE, the lack of which was a brutal sign of America failing in its duties to them. But if they have a duty to care in an emergency, don't we still have a duty to care when it's not an emergency? And if we do, how can health care not be provided for all, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigned for tirelessly?
Similarly, do corporations only have a duty to care for their investors? Do they not also have duties to their customers, employees, communities? If so, then isn't Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's plan for codetermination basically just a way of instantiating those duties in law? And what about anti-racism? Doesn't the idea of an affirmative duty to undo the legacy of America's history of white supremacy make more sense within a rubric of a duty of care than within a rubric of rights?
Meanwhile, the idea of a duty of care has a basis for self-limitation that rights language does not have to the same degree, and that can give comfort to those concerned about the radical scope of possible change. Rights tend toward the absolute, and when they come into conflict, some authority has to adjudicate whose rights have precedence. But duties by definition cannot be unreasonable; you cannot have a duty to do more than you reasonably can. Moreover, a social duty, if it really is a duty, must by owed by individuals, because that's what society is made of. It may make sense in some cases for us to discharge that duty collectively, through government, and in other cases not. (For example, we may say that all have an affirmative duty to wear a mask to prevent the spread of disease, even if it isn't sensible to have a national mandate to do so with criminal penalties for non-compliance.) In other words, a framework of care and its duties is a philosophical big tent under which fairly sweeping, radical ideas and cautious, pragmatic implementation might readily find common ground.
The Democrats have rallied behind Biden substantially because they want a win; the threat of a second Trump term is great enough to unite the fractious party (and some disaffected Republicans) behind the man they believe to be their best shot. It behooves them to ask themselves: Why did they conclude he was their best shot? What has he got that the rest of them don't yet have in such abundance. Or have they got it already, but haven't fully realized how potent it is?
Americans, after all, have been taking extraordinary care of each other through this terrible period. It isn't asking too much to want a government that operates in the same spirit.
If that's what Joe Biden and his party are offering, I think they might have quite a lot of takers.