Biden's self-imposed ceiling
Why "wokeness" is hurting the Democrats
Joe Biden is doing fine. But he should be aiming for better.
Just past the 100-day mark, Biden's approval sits at 54 percent. That's quite a bit better than Donald Trump's anemic 42 percent at the equivalent moment of his presidency. But as FiveThirtyEight notes, Biden's approval is nonetheless "lower than any other newly elected president's going back to Dwight Eisenhower's in 1953."
Yet Democrats seem increasingly willing to accept that this might be the best they can reasonably hope for. The country is sharply divided, they say, and so is Congress. Democrats control both chambers, but by the narrowest of margins. Given that underlying reality, the president and his party have no choice but to try and ram through their agenda any way they can. Maybe legislative achievements and the enactment of new programs that benefit ordinary Americans will change the dynamic and get people to start switching sides. But other than that, there's no hope for breaking through the ceiling that caps support for Biden and limits possibilities in Congress.
I usually appreciate a willingness to accept the constraints that reality imposes on political actors. But in this case, I think Democrats are giving up too easily because they'd prefer to avoid the internal arguments that would be provoked by trying to break out of the electoral cul-de-sac in which they find themselves.
The truth is that Biden and his party have placed a ceiling over their own heads by choosing to talk about the country in specific, unpopular ways. Their position seems to be: This is what any progressive must say and stand for, even if it limits our own popularity and therefore decreases the likelihood of enacting policies that will benefit a large swath of the country, because inviolable moral principles demand it.
Those principles all have to do with American national identity.
Consider the Department of Education's proposed rule for the teaching of American history and civics education. In keeping with the priorities of Black Lives Matters activists, the rule builds on the arguments of author Ibram X. Kendi and others to advocate the teaching of "antiracism" in schools, in part through the use of The New York Times' "landmark '1619 Project'" to explain American history.
If the idea were merely to incorporate slavery and its myriad legacies — and the contributions of Black men and women to American history — into classroom learning, there would be nothing controversial about the proposal. Indeed, both have already been done for decades. Yet the proposal has drawn fire from, among others, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell because Kendi and the "1619 Project" do not merely aim to direct attention to racism and the legacies of slavery. They aim to place racism and slavery, in the words of New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein, "at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country." The idea is to view American history entirely through the lens of racial oppression and conflict as a necessary precondition of the country redeeming itself through an act of reckoning with its enduring embrace and systematic enforcement of white supremacy.
Now consider the seemingly unrelated criticism Biden has faced from activists and progressive journalists for failing to break more radically from Trump administration policy on immigration. As The Washington Post's Greg Sargent has explained, many politically engaged progressives affirm a form of "cosmopolitan" liberalism that presumes "serious moral duties to those outside our borders rooted in the inherent moral worth of all humans." In order to fulfill these duties, some are convinced, the Biden administration should be more aggressively welcoming to would-be immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers massing on the southern border.
What unites the proposed rule from the Department of Education and progressive efforts to more widely open the country's border with Mexico is discomfort with defending American national identity. The antiracism agenda actively opposes the country as it is and has been in favor of a morally purified America of the future. Moral cosmopolitanism inclines toward placing the interests of American citizens ahead of, or at least treating them as equal to, duties to an abstract humanity that lies beyond mere national attachment. Both positions have the effect of making Democrats seem squeamish about forthrightly standing up in defense of the political community as it actually exists — and inclined to denounce as "racist" anyone who favors such a defense.
There's a reason why Republicans continually revert to attacking "woke" trends and the new president's irresolution on immigration. They do so because those positions are unpopular. A Quinnipiac poll from mid-April found that just 29 percent of the country approves of how Biden is handling the southern border, and a Pew poll released on Monday contained many additional signs of discontent on the issue. (Yes, some of those unhappy about it could be cosmopolitan liberals wishing the president would admit many more immigrants, but there's no reason to think that such progressives outnumber those who are unnerved by what appears to be a highly chaotic and volatile situation on the ground.)
Polling on hard-to-define and often locally proposed antiracism initiatives is harder to come by, but as Clinton administration veteran James Carville put it last week in a widely discussed Vox interview, "wokeness is a problem and we all know it." It certainly seemed to be a problem in a wealthy suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth that voted last Saturday by a lopsided margin of 70-30 for school board members who opposed the imposition of diversity and inclusion training requirements for all students and teachers in the district. Just a conservative town in Texas with no implications for the rest of the country? Maybe. But in the words of author Kevin Drum, "one thing that's clear is that Republicans sure think that attacking wokeness is a winning strategy."
This doesn't mean Biden and his party need to sound like Tucker Carlson on race and immigration, or that such concerns need to inform the electoral calculations of office holders from the most progressive districts. But it probably does mean that Democrats would be much better positioned both nationally and in numerous districts and states if they combined their newly assertive economic liberalism with a generous and unapologetic helping of civic nationalism.
I have no illusions about Biden's ability to reach levels of approval that past presidents sometimes enjoyed, or his party's capacity to dominate Congress in the way that Democrats did during liberalism's past high-water marks under FDR and LBJ. But 60 percent approval and margins in the House and Senate to rival what Barack Obama enjoyed early on in his presidency just 12 years ago? That might well be possible.
Of course far-left factions would make a big, angry racket, particularly online, if Biden distanced himself from them. But how many votes would be put into play by the ruckus? I suspect far fewer than the party loses by associating itself with activists who affirm views of the country, its history, and possible future that diverge so sharply from mainstream opinion.
Yes, racism is a part of America. But it is not the whole of America. Yes, immigration policy must acknowledge cosmopolitan moral duties. But they cannot be the only, or even the primary, consideration. A Democratic Party (and president) that let the country know that it affirms such principles unambiguously and combined that affirmation with an economic agenda firmly aimed at bettering the lives of all Americans — such a party and president just might be able to crash right through the ceiling that's currently keeping it stuck around the 50-percent line.