ELECTION 2020: Biden Will Fail to Bring Back ‘Normal’ Politics

There’s no going back to the neoliberal consensus, writes Jonathan Cook. We have entered the age of political populism – a natural response to burgeoning inequality. 

Joe Biden in Dallas, Pennsylvania, Oct. 24, 2020. (Adam Schultz, Biden for President, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Jonathan Cook

Analysts are still grappling with the fallout from the U.S. election. Trumpism proved a far more enduring and alluring phenomenon than most media pundits expected. Defying predictions, President Donald Trump improved his share of the overall vote compared to his 2016 win, and he surprised even his own team by increasing his share of minority voters and women.

But most significantly, he almost held his own against Democratic challenger Joe Biden at a time when the U.S. economy – the incumbent’s “trump” card – was in dire straits after eight months of a pandemic. Had it not been for Covid-19, Trump – not Biden – would most likely be preparing for the next four years in the White House.

Of course, much of Trump’s appeal was that he is not Biden. The Democratic Party decided to run pretty much the worst candidate imaginable: an old-school machine politician, one emphatically beholden to the corporate donor class and unsuited to the new, more populist political climate. His campaigning – on the rare occasions he appeared – suggested significant cognitive decline. Biden often looked more suited to a luxury retirement home than heading the most powerful nation on earth.

But then again, if Trump could lead the world’s only superpower for four years, how hard can it really be? He showed that those tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorists might be right after all: maybe the president is largely a figurehead, while a permanent bureaucracy runs much of the show from behind the curtain. Were Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush not enough to persuade us that any halfwit who can string together a few cliches from a teleprompter will suffice?

DuPont Circle, Washington, D.C., Nov. 6, 2020. (Elvert Barnes, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

No Return to ‘Normal’

 The narrowly averted Trump second term has at least prompted liberal pundits to draw one significant lesson that is being endlessly repeated: Biden must avoid returning to the old “normal,” the one that existed before Trump, because that version of “normal” was exactly what delivered Trump in the first place. These commentators fear that, if Biden doesn’t play his cards wisely, we will end up in 2024 with a Trump 2.0, or even a rerun from Trump himself, reinvigorated after four years of tweet-sniping from the sidelines. They are right to be worried.

But their analysis does not properly explain the political drama that is unfolding, or where it heads next. There is a two-fold problem with the “no return to normal” argument.

The first is that the liberal media and political class making this argument are doing so in entirely bad-faith. For four years they have turned U.S. politics and its coverage into a simple-minded, ratings-grabbing horror show. A vile, narcissist businessman, in collusion with an evil Russian mastermind, usurped the title of most powerful person on the planet that should have been bestowed on Hillary Clinton. As Krystal Ball has rightly mocked, even now the media are whipping up fears that the “Orange Mussolini” may stage some kind of cack-handed coup to block the handover to Biden.

These stories have been narrated to us by much of the corporate media over and over again – and precisely so that we do not think too hard about why Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. The reality, far too troubling for most liberals to admit, is that Trump proved popular because a lot of the problems he identified were true, even if he raised them in bad faith himself and had no intention of doing anything meaningful to fix them.

Screenshot, Jan. 20, 2019.

Trump was right about the need for the U.S. to stop interfering in the affairs of the rest of the world under the pretense of humanitarian concern and a supposed desire to spread democracy at the end of the barrel of a gun. In practice, however, lumbered with that permanent bureaucracy, delegating his authority to the usual war hawks like John Bolton, and eager to please the Christian evangelical and Israel lobbies, Trump did little to stop such destructive meddling. But at least he was correct rhetorically.

Equally, Trump looked all too right in berating the establishment media for promoting “fake news,” especially as coverage of his presidency was dominated by an evidence-free narrative claiming he had colluded with Russia to steal the election. Those now bleating about how dangerous his current assertions of election fraud are should remember they were the ones who smashed that particular glass house with their own volley of stones back in 2016.

Yes, Trump has been equally culpable with his Twitter barrages of fake news. And yes, he cultivated rather than spurned support from one of those major corporate outlets: the reliably rightwing Fox News. But what matters most is that swaths of the American public — unable to decide who to believe, or maybe not caring — preferred to side with a self-styled maverick, Washington outsider, the supposed “underdog,” against a class of self-satisfied, overpaid media professionals transparently prostituting themselves to the billionaire owners of the corporate media.

Once voters had decided the system was rigged — and it is rigged towards the maintenance of elite power — anyone decrying the system, whether honestly or duplicitously, was going to prove popular.

Indebted to Donors

Trump’s appeal was further bolstered by styling himself a self-made man, as his campaign riffed on the long-standing myths of the American Dream. The U.S. public was encouraged to see Trump as a rich man prepared to gamble part of his own fortune on a run for the presidency so he could bring his business acumen to USA Ltd. That contrasted starkly with Democratic party leaders like Clinton and Biden who gave every appearance of having abjectly sold their principles — and their souls — to the highest-bidding corporate “donors”.

And again, that perception — at least in relation to Clinton and Biden — wasn’t entirely wrong.

How can Biden not end up trying to resurrect the Obama years that he was so very much part of during his two terms as vice-president and that led directly to Trump? That was why corporate donors backed his campaign. They desire the kind of neoliberal “normal” that leaves them free to continue making lots more money and ensures the wealth gap grows.

It is why they and the media worked so hard to pave Biden’s path to the presidency, even doing their best to bury political stories embarrassing to the Biden campaign. Maintaining that “normal” is the very reason the modern Democratic Party exists.

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden on his right, during a meeting on Dec. 12, 2013. (White House, Pete Souza)

Even if Biden wanted to radically overhaul the existing, corporate-bonded U.S. political system – and he doesn’t – he would be incapable of doing so. He operates within institutional, structural constraints – donors, Congress, the media, the supreme court – all there to ensure his room for manoeuvre is tightly delimited.

Had his main rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, been allowed to run instead and won the presidency, it would have been much the same. The important difference is that the existence of a President Sanders would have risked exposing the fact that the “world’s most powerful leader” is not really so powerful.

Sanders would have lost his battles trying to defy these structural constraints, but in the process he would have made those constraints far more visible. They would have been all too obvious had someone like Sanders been constantly hitting his head against them. That was precisely why the corporate class and the technocratic leadership of the Democratic party worked so strenuously to make sure Sanders got nowhere near the presidential race.

Resistance Posturing

Biden will do his best to achieve what his donors want: a return to the neoliberal “normal” under Obama. He will offer a sprinkling of initiatives to ensure progressive liberals can put to rest their resistance posturing with a clear conscience. There will be some “woke” identity politics to prevent any focus on class politics and the struggle for real economic justice, as well as some weak, corporation-friendly Green New Deal projects, if Biden can sneak past them past a Republican-controlled Senate.

And if he can’t manage even that … well that’s the beauty of a system tailor-made to follow the path of least financial resistance, to uphold the corporate status quo, the “normal.”

But there is a second, bigger problem. A fly in the ointment. Whatever Biden and the Democratic Party do to resurrect the neoliberal consensus, the old “normal” it isn’t coming back. The smug, technocratic class that has dominated western politics for decades on behalf of the corporate elite is under serious threat. Biden looks more like a hiccough, a last burp provoked by the unexpected pandemic.

The neoliberal “normal” isn’t coming back because the economic circumstances that generated it – the post-war boom of seemingly endless growth – have disappeared.

Mobilization event for Joe Biden, Dallas, Pennsylvania, Oct. 4, 2020. (Adam Schultz, Biden for President, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Plutocracy Entrenches

A quarter of a century ago, the Cassandras of their day – those dismissed as peddlers of false conspiracy theories – warned of “peak oil.” That was the idea that the fuel on which the global economy ran either had peaked or soon would do. As the oil ran out, or became more expensive to extract, economic growth would slow, wages would fall, and inequality between rich and poor would increase.

This was likely to have dramatic political consequences too: resource wars abroad (inevitably camouflaged as “humanitarian intervention”); more polarized domestic politics; greater popular dissatisfaction; the return of charismatic, even fascist, leaders; and a resort to violence to solve political problems.

The arguments about peak oil continue. Judged by some standards, the production peak arrived in the 1970s. Others say, with the aid of fracking and other harmful technologies, the turning-point is due about now. But the kind of world predicted by peak oil theory looks to have been unfolding since at least the 1980s. The crisis in neoliberal economics was underscored by the 2008 global economic crash, whose shockwaves are still with us.

On top of all this, there are looming ecological and climate catastrophes intimately tied to the fossil-fuel economy on which the global corporations have grown fat. This Gordian knot of globe-spanning self-harm urgently needs unpicking.

Biden has neither the temperament nor the political manoeuvre room to take on these mammoth challenges and solve them. Inequality is going to increase during his term. The technocrats are again going to be exposed once again as impotent – or complicit – as plutocracy entrenches. The ecological crisis is not going to be dealt with beyond largely empty promises and posturing.

There will be lots of talk in the media about the need to give Biden more time to show what he can do and demands that we keep quiet for fear of ushering back Trumpism. This will be designed to lose us yet more valuable months and years to address urgent problems that threaten the future of our species.

The Age of Populism

(H. Michael Karshis, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The ability of the technocratic class to manage growth – wealth accumulation for the rich, tempered by a little “trickle down” to stop the masses rising up – is coming to an end. Growth is over and the technocrat’s toolbox is empty.

We are now in the age of political populism – a natural response to burgeoning inequality.

On one side is the populism of the Trumpers. They are the small-minded nationalists who want to blame everyone but the real villains – the corporate elite – for the West’s declining fortunes. As ever, they will search out the easiest targets: foreigners and “immigrants.” In the U.S., the Republican Party has been as good as taken over by the Tea Party. The U.S. right is not going to repudiate Trump for his defeat, they are going to totemise him because they understand his style of politics is the future.

There are now Trumps everywhere: Boris Johnson in the U.K. (and waiting in the wings, Nigel Farage); Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil; the Le Pen dynasty in France; Viktor Orban in Hungary. They are seeding the return of xenophobic, corporate fascism.

The corporate media would have us believe that this is the only kind of populism that exists. But there is a rival populism, that of the left, and one that espouses cooperation and solidarity within nations and between them.

Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. and Sanders in the U.S. are the first shoots of a global reawakening of class-conscious politics based on solidarity with the poor and oppressed; of renewed pressure for a social contract, in contrast to the worship of survival-of-the-fittest economics; of a reclaiming of the commons, communal resources that belong to us all, not just the strongmen who seized them for their own benefit; and, most importantly, of an understanding, lost sight of in our industrialized, consumption-obsessed societies, that we must find a sustainable accommodation with the rest of the living world.

This kind of leftwing populism has a long pedigree that dates back nearly 150 years. It flourished in the inter-war years in Europe; it defined the political battle-lines in Iran immediately after the Second World War; and it has been a continual feature of Latin American politics.

Warped Logic

As ever, the populism of the nationalists and bigots has the upper hand. And that is no accident.

Today’s globalized wealth elite prefer neoliberal, technocratic politics that keep borders open for trade; that treat the laboring poor as human chattel, to be moved around on a global chess board as a way to force wages down; and that ensure the elite can stash its ill-gotten gains away on island sanctuaries far from the tax man.

But when technocratic politics is on its death bed, as it is now, the corporate elite will always settle for the populism of a Trump or a Farage over the populism of the left. They will do so even if rightwing populism risks constraining their financial empires, because leftwing populism does much worse: it upends the warped logic on which the corporate elite’s entire hoarded wealth depends, threatening to wipe it out.

If the corporate elite can no longer find a way to foist a neoliberal technocrat like Biden on the public, they will choose the populism of a Trump over the populism of a Sanders every time. And as they own the media, they can craft the stories we hear: about who we are, what is possible and where we are heading. If we allow it, our imaginations will be twisted and deformed in the image of the deranged totem they choose.

We can reclaim politics – a politics that cares about the future, about our species, about our planet – but to do so we must first reclaim our minds.

Jonathan Cook is a former Guardian journalist (1994-2001) and winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. He is a freelance journalist based in Nazareth. If you appreciate his articles, please consider offering your financial support.

This article is from his blog Jonathan Cook.net. 

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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16 comments for “ELECTION 2020: Biden Will Fail to Bring Back ‘Normal’ Politics

  1. Sam F
    November 22, 2020 at 18:36

    Very good summary. The real left and right are all populists, deceived by MSM narratives to be climate-above-all gay-rights promoters, or anti-immigrant militarists in hope of jobs. What they need are populist leaders to point out that the underlying problem is that economic powers control our former democracy, and no amount of identity politics, conservation-speak, militarism or border control will change that. Until they see that, the kleptocracy will pit fake-right against fake-left under false narratives to retain power.

    Until we have amendments restricting political funding and mass-media funding to limited individual contributions, we cannot elect officials who will downsize the military to increase foreign aid, purge the corrupt judiciary, protect minorities properly, or tie tariffs and aid to stabilize domestic industry.

    But we cannot get those amendments precisely because oligarchy controls the institutions of democracy. The turning point will be a low-tech rebellion infiltrating the police and military to deny force to the kleptocracy. So we await such squalor that the poor attack the mass media and the rich directly.

  2. Mark Thomason
    November 22, 2020 at 10:37

    While Trump did not end any of the wars started by Dubya and then Obama, he did not start any new ones either.

    Obama did not end any of Dubya’s wars, and he started many more: Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen.

    So would Hillary have started more new wars than Trump did? Certainly. She did as Sec of State.

    Will Biden start new more new wars from which Trump shied away? Probably. He was the “foreign policy expert” helping Obama start so many wars. He helped end none for those 8 years, only started more.

  3. November 22, 2020 at 09:42

    One of the few things Trump might do before leaving office to really upset there neoliberal apple cart and possibly provide him with anything positive about his legacy in office would be for him to pardon Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and allow them to testify to congress. That would assure no more wars of choice no matter how much Susan Rice and Michelle Flornoy and certain members of congress want one.

  4. bardamu
    November 21, 2020 at 22:47

    Ah, but how much force might be brought to bear in the attempt?

  5. Rose-Marie Hegedüs
    November 21, 2020 at 20:46

    Hej, Jonathan Cook!

    Jag uppskattade verkligen din artikel ovan!

    Med vänliga hälsningar,

    Rose-Marie Hegedüs
    SE-165 64 HÄSSELBY

  6. Ash
    November 21, 2020 at 18:39

    Hi Jonathan,

    Regarding peak oil, there is really no way to argue that the 70s were the production peak unless you’re talking about US domestic production; conventional US oil peaked in 1970/71 and declined for decades before ramping back up over the last 10 years due to tight/unconventional oil. Rather, the 70s were when the global supply went from exponential growth to geometric growth, which of course had major economic implications, but the raw number of barrels per day continued to grow for decades (just more slowly). For various reasons the current all time peak, I hear 2018, will be very difficult to exceed but far more importantly the gist is true, this is about as much as the world will ever produce and a society built on growth is entering uncharted waters.

    • November 22, 2020 at 08:52

      You are assuming that going forward petroleum and fossil fuels will continue to dominate. Wrong, fossil fuels have a lower energy flux density then the emerging energy technologies of hydrogen fuel cells, advanced hydroelectric and nuclear power based on thorium fuel and in the not too distant future nuclear fusion. Of course most mainstream so called environmental groups will fight against these new technologies in favor of ineffective wind and solar which will only prolong our addiction to fossil fuels.

  7. Flyover Frank
    November 21, 2020 at 16:03

    Great article! This writer gets it.

  8. Nathan Mulcahy
    November 21, 2020 at 15:44

    “Normal” is in the eye of the beholder. I fully expect the Biden-Harris administration to continue illegal wars, unconditional support of Israel’s apartheid-colonialism, prosecution of whistleblowers including Assange , bailing out Wall Street while screwing main street, continued astronomical incarnation for profit, etc. Sounds like “normal” to me!

  9. Anonymot
    November 21, 2020 at 13:56

    From a long-standing tin hat:

    Consider that we have no problem understanding “endless wars”. Now also consider that what we have just witnessed is a new endless: “Endless Hillary vs Trump”.

    The demise of America is due to a flaw in our system. That flaw is the two-party aspect of our political setup wherein both parties have failed to propose candidates who represent the entire public rather than the narrow interests of the Party itself and its leaders. Biden, like Hillary, is a presentable, non-intellectual, person capable of enunciating what the MIC/WallSt. tells them to say and do via the voice of the CIA/FBI. Neither Biden nor Hillary have the intellectual wherewithal to think up what is really in the best long-run interests of the 99% so they are totally dependent on the Mindset of their advisors. What this article expresses well is that those advisors and the Mindset plays the tune of corporate interests, not that of the public. Yes, but that is what we tried to call Deep State.

    Now what everyone keeps forgetting is that Hillary’s Party-proper neurotic was far outplayed by Trump’s psychotic, but he was a renegade who took over the candidacy of the Republicans by being a mafioso bully so beyond the tame Party-proper rules of the game that his Republican opponents ended just sitting there with their mouths open (which they have continued to do for 4 years.)

    Hillary was the Deep State candidate and her handlers were as shocked as you and I, but they slowly made some successful level of inserting their interests in Trump’s programs. That’s why, in the end, Trump successfully fulfilled his idea of negotiating- divide your opponents to conquer: bully tactics. So now we have all of our screaming victim groups. Walk into the very proper Board room meeting and on the way to your chair rumple the hair of the CEO and you have gained power.

    Trump has not fulfilled his everyday promises to his everyday public, but he dwells on the successes he’s had: by giving massive increases to the MIC he kept them new-toy happy without a new war. The public was delighted with his show of grossly humiliating the system and the Democrats with it. His mentality is that of a child playing computer war games: destroy the system and you’ve won the game. He will continue to do that for 4 years of an ineffective Biden and he or his cronies will be back. Pence, a real dullard, will take over the act or maybe they’ll put up McConnell for President. And don’t forget the Bushes and Cheney mob, the Republicans without Trump are pure, distilled Deep State. Who knows, if he stays out of jail or gets a mousey Biden pardon, Trump may be back.

    In the end there is a deeper level of explanation, but I don’t know how to express it in Comment space. It has to do with a speciational flaw in areas such as communication and competition. Someday I’ll write a book and entitle it Tin Hat.

    The end-of-oil game Jonathan Cook talks about was enunciated in 1967 or ’68 by The Limits To Growth from The Club Of Rome that was both brilliant and correct about oil and many other things. Everyone should read it. I think it’s still in print.

  10. Arlene Hickory
    November 21, 2020 at 13:08

    There is one great big BIG elephant in the room….what do the WOMEN want to do?…Forget about the male dominated structural restraints that are in place. I want all women to look at the part they played in the recent vote. Did you really vote for your interests…..or more importantly the interests of the next generation of women? We are still waiting on the ERA ! It is not about making it into the Boardroom, achieving “success”….that is a different game. #1 it is about having dominion of your own body…and we build from there. What did Trump represent? Whichever way you voted. Supporting an abuser puzzles me greatly, and I am going to dedicate some time to exploring that issue, it scares me. I hope it doesn’t take too long to find answers….before you know it the next election will be here.

    • VallejoD
      November 22, 2020 at 14:26

      Excellent point.

      And remember: Neimuller was wrong. The fascist don’t “first come for the socialist.”

      Fascists first come for the WOMEN – the original “means of production.” Once women are enslaved by forced child-bearing, limited opportunities and gagged from speaking out, the rest is easy.

  11. DH Fabian
    November 21, 2020 at 10:56

    I wonder how many more years we’ll be hearing about “the new populism.” It doesn’t exist because the “consensus” (as created by media) is for maintaining and ignoring our intense class divisions. Joe Biden is president because Trump didn’t make a pretense of loving the media. Four years of media fear-mongering have been quite effective at bringing down Trump, and an utter failure at addressing the issues that have been bringing down the country. Of course, every day that liberal media feign concern for low-wage workers while ignoring the masses left jobless, with $0 incomes, they confirm their support for this system.

  12. November 21, 2020 at 07:39

    I agree.

    But what is “normal” for America?

    Slaughtering three million in Vietnam with another million in Cambodia?

    Raging through the Middle East, destroying several societies and creating tens of millions of hopeless refugees?

    What is called “populism” now has always been present, too, under different names. All kinds of hateful movements mark its history, from the Know-nothings and the Klu Klux Clan to private militias and Aryan churches and the Bund.

    It is more virulent today because of unbelievable deliberately-created disparities in wealth through terrible taxation policies.

    The great divide in wealth is exacerbating all the other divisions in America, from race to social status.

    America is simply not a normal country in any sense of the word.

    • DH Fabian
      November 21, 2020 at 11:05

      Exactly. But a key factor of this era is that a generation were “educated,” by media, to “care” about low-wage workers and no longer regard those millions left jobless as humans at all. Does anyone expect a “revolt” of any sort, when those who have the means to be heard simply disappear the consequences of today’s capitalism — growing poverty?

    • robert e williamson jr
      November 22, 2020 at 15:58

      Right you are John!

      Normal: adjective, comforting to a standard, usual, typical or expected

      Normal: noun, the usual, average, or typical state or condition.

      In short America has always been abnormal. The government sanctioning the murder of all perceived to be enemies of the capitalist democracy (?) as the normal desire of those who buy the congress of the U.S..

      Continuous efforts by those in power to divide the masses in efforts to undermine cohesiveness of the masses.

      The murder of JFK by a group of very dangerous government connected actors who were, as now been exposed, a plot completely derail American politics. The CIA was an abnormal aberration as a government entity and still is.

      abnormal: deviating from what is normal or usual, typically in a way that is undesirable or worrisome.

      So to those who say that now as a nation we have once again picked the lesser of two evils and we can relax I say “HOG SLOBBERS”, we are simply back to abnormal.

      Trump drove the deviation from the continuous abnormal state of the U.S. government and moved on to further pervert the already abusive dishonest process of the rich politicians abusing the American public.

      As a nation we are getting by right now by the skin of our teeth and no one should fool themselves otherwise.

      Biden has four years to get is right! I’m not very encouraged so far. Instead of building a stage and such for the inauguration building gallows would send a much more fitting message to all the rich in D.C.

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