Biden 2020: MAGA 2008–2016

Why nostalgia for an imagined America won’t save us

When was America great? It’s a question inked into the fabric of America since Thomas Jefferson first penned both the Declaration of Independence and a lesser known racist calculus of inequality. In a letter to Francis C. Gray in 1815, Jefferson suggested that black men could only be equal to white men on the 3rd generation of crossing blood with whites to clear “the issue of the negro blood”. Jefferson proposed a mathematical calculation which would mean his own children with Sally Hemings might live as free people — if they could pass for white.

Despite national nostalgia surrounding the founding fathers and their brilliance, great and terrible things have always together blotted America’s story, contradictions unseen by even the most visionary among us.

Most of us became familiar with the question of America’s greatness when it was explicitly raised with Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again”. Wrapped up in the catchphrase is the idea that America wasn’t great in 2015, under President Obama, and that if elected Trump would return the U.S. to its rightful place — first. Now in 2019, his opponents across the political divide agree that America isn’t great under a Trump presidency.

But if there is American Greatnessᵀᴹ in our past or future, it shouldn’t be reduced to the President being team blue or team red. Maybe we think a great America is connected to religious freedom, or civil rights advancements, or technological progress, or caring for the poorest among us, or a more just economy, or protecting the planet.

On these fronts and many others, things aren’t looking great. The U.S. has to contend with the planet’s climate causing catastrophic damage, the richest 3 individuals in the U.S. having the same wealth as the bottom 160,000,000 Americans, entry into the U.S. being denied based on religious beliefs, children being kidnapped, kept in cages, and dying within camps at our southern border, and American citizens being systematically kept from their democratic rights.

While in some ways Trump is a departure from how conservatives see themselves, his slogan represents an established, traditional platform. As historian Jill Lepore said, “MAGA is a historical argument in four words. It stipulates that the past was better than the present, and the only way the future can be better than the present is to return to the past. That’s what conservatism is.”

When pressed, Trump suggested that he thinks America was great around the turn of the 1900's and during the 1940’s and 50’s. Yet even in simplified terms of the perpetual fight for equality and opportunity, returning to the early or mid 20th century would be bad for people from any marginalized group. But Trump’s America isn’t meant for everyone. His nostalgia offers a return to American supremacy — America as a superpower, a beacon of technological progress, a rich country, a nation to be respected and feared.

Nostalgia coats our coarse past with a veneer of idealism, painting a smooth history that never existed. Desiring to retreat into a familiar, secure past is understandable, but the problems of tomorrow can’t be solved by returning to the world of yesterday.

Likewise, wishing to go back to the good old days when we didn’t all feel the need to be so politically conscious is enticing and common. Especially under the Trump Presidency, a return to normalcy offers easy relief. As Dana Schwartz said in the Hysteria episode “On Demand, Without Apology” when discussing threats to women’s reproductive rights, epitomized by the recent Alabama abortion law: “The silver lining of this issue is it makes me hyper aware. When Obama was president, I was like, he’ll take care of things. Things are fine, he’s pretty smart, I think things will be ok. Whereas now I’m hyper aware. I feel like I’m like a fox with my ears up, all the time.” If only Obama could run for a third term and our ears could go back down. Well, we can’t have that, so perhaps the next best (read: most familiar) thing would be for his Vice President to get a promotion.

Enter the current leading 2020 Democratic contender (in most polls at least) Joe Biden. In the dynamic climate we find ourselves in, what is he offering that Democratic primary polling participants find appealing? It’s Biden’s promise to Make America Great Again: 2008–2016 Edition.

Biden’s campaign seems to be relying on encouraging his persona as Obama’s Vice President and stirring nostalgia for those eight years instead of focusing on what Biden accomplished before that, or what he wants to accomplish now. This strategy was not-so-subtly demonstrated in the June Democratic debate when Biden played a quickfire round of name association while responding about gun control legislation: “We increased that background check during the Obama-Biden administration.”

Biden’s version of nostalgia offers a break from all the politics, returning to the days when civility was king and we felt an absence of tension. But that vision is an abandonment of the struggle for progress, and closing our eyes to suffering won’t bring about the presence of justice.

Before his greatest hits during the Obama Administration, Joe Biden was a US Senator for 36 years, giving him a lengthy career to fall back on as evidence of his public service. Yet that same lengthy career means being held accountable for 36 years of policies he proposed and public positions he’s held. Whether it’s Biden’s poor treatment of Anita Hill, voting for damaging immigration policies, pushing for anti-busing legislation that perpetuated segregation, voting for the war in Iraq, or supporting bills that escalated mass incarceration, it’s worth examining what he’s stood for during that long public career.

For the 2020 election, Biden’s policies aren’t distinguishing him as a standout from the other candidates. On one of the signature issues of our time, healthcare, Biden supported cutting Medicare and social security during the Obama (excuse me, Obama-Biden) administration and promoted it as necessary in 2018. As this policy visualization shows, Biden is one of the only bakers-two-dozen Democratic candidates who seems to be avoiding clear public stances on some of the biggest policy issues we face today. Maybe because he thinks it’s strategic to minimize the candidate he is now in favor of romanticizing the administration he vice-led.

Ultimately Biden may end up throwing his support behind Medicare for All, or abolishing ICE, or eliminating the electoral college in favor of the popular vote, or another key policy proposal championed by a different candidate. But his positions on these issues are just that — behind. Not ahead, not pioneering, not leading. Leaving voters with a vague reassurance that their fox ears can go down is a simpler program than plotting our course through an unknown future.

Even so, he’s electable; he could beat Trump. And in the end isn’t that what we want? Well, yes Biden would be an improvement over Trump, who has no interest in governing or policy or leading the nation. But it’s a mistake to lower our horizons to merely above Trump, or a hollow longing to Make America Great Again — whatever the era.

Our horizons need to be expanded for dealing with the problems of our times because the solutions won’t come from yesterday. More to the point those solutions won’t come from 2008–2016 because, however nostalgic, that got us here.

— Sincerely, a Democratic primary voter

take some lightning, a kite, and a fat brass key

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