Biden's Revolution Takes Shape

If you ever believed he would govern like Obama, it's time to rethink.


The past year has been a bewildering period in American political and social history. We are in the last, maddening stages of a year-long pandemic that forced deep changes in everyone’s lives. In the middle of it, we saw a sudden mass movement emerge around the policing of black America, pioneered by the young, a movement that now sees any difference in outcome between various identity groups as completely intolerable. We saw American cities in flames. We had an election with a massive, historic turnout, even as the plague was about to hit its peak.

We then witnessed the first violent transfer of power in American history, in which a sitting president falsely insisted he had won the election in a landslide, tried to rig the results in his favor, and then whipped up a crowd to storm the Capitol Building to prevent certification. And then we got the Democrats in tenuous control of the White House, House and Senate — despite doing rather poorly in the Congressional vote.  

To make understanding all this even harder, we are also in the death rattle of a liberal democratic culture, where reasonable debate in any one venue is much rarer, reality is bespoke, and “news” is being replaced by “narratives” brimming with moral clarity. To see how this all shakes out is now impossible. Are these fads or enthusiasms manifestations of the wildness that plagues often bring — soon to subside? Or a permanent, seismic shift toward a very different America? 

I suspect the latter. This seems to me to be a sea-change in American history and politics, greater than any since the 1970s. The most centrist candidate the Democrats put forward in early 2020 has, in his first fifty days, become the most radically progressive president since LBJ.

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The Covid19 plague, in other words, has done what many others have in history. By shaking the society up in so many ways, by suspending it in mid-air while forcing the population into mass and fearful isolation, by shattering so many familiar patterns, it has blown the future wide open. And the conservative tendency in America, the usual brake on this kind of revolutionary change, is nowhere to be found. It was killed by the GOP many, many years ago, and in so far as it exists at all, lingers in a tiny, traumatized fragment of the Democrats or in a political party that is now an authoritarian, profligate cult wrapped in a con-man’s conspiracy theories.

And, unusually, the Democratic Party, given the slimmest of margins by Georgia’s Senate seats, has seized the day. They have actually grasped their opportunity and maintained impressive discipline! The American Rescue Plan is the first move of an administration that is proving to be everything the Republicans once falsely claimed about Obama: this administration really seems dedicated to a fundamental transformation of America. Biden is doing what Obama never could (or wanted to). Uncle Joe’s reputation for moderation, his old white-guy familiarity, his past centrism, his age and working-class affect, his confused senior stare and stuttering speech, has become a brilliant frontman for intensifying left-radicalism. 

The nearly $2 trillion now being printed and borrowed and delivered directly to Americans is not about “rescuing” the economy. Pent-up demand, a big transfer of resources to ordinary people under the CARES Act, and an end to lockdowns will do that anyway. This package is about artificially super-charging the economy in the short term, while maximizing its redistributive effect. It’s a demonstration of the Democrats’ historically strongest argument: vote for us and we’ll take care of you.

It “slashes” poverty the easy way: by giving everyone who earns less than $75,000 a check for $1400, and by creating a new, no-strings subsidy for every child, in a direct repudiation of the welfare reform of the Clinton era. The goal is to make the subsidy permanent (and it sure will be hard to repeal). The ARP bails out union pensions; it expands access to Obamacare significantly; it creates generous spending programs for Native Americans, and even offers reparations to Latino, Asian and black farmers.

Eric Levitz excitedly lists all the left policy triumphs in the bill here. Jamelle Bouie can barely contain himself here. And it seems to me they have every reason to celebrate. Just six months, or even six weeks ago, much of this was a leftist pipe-dream. Now it’s reality. And the Republicans have failed to make it even faintly unpopular.

But wait, there’s more. The Biden administration sees this $2 trillion as a mere hors d’oeuvre for a possible $4 trillion more in infrastructure and green investment. A few trillion over the last year; and a few trillion in the ARP; even more trillions for infrastructure. After a while, we’re talking serious money.

But don’t worry. No new taxes will pay for it. Cakes will be eaten and had too. The government will either borrow these trillions, or just print them, and the Federal Reserve itself assures us that there will be no consequences to this, and that a bigger debt than any since the Second World War for the foreseeable future is no problem. Interest rates will not rise, they assure us. Inflation will, at worst, nudge above 2 percent. Just as Trump pumped a trillion into an established recovery, so Biden will up the ante and pump trillions and trillions more into an already surging economy. 

Step back some more, and look at the rest of the Biden agenda. It’s pretty similar in scale and ambition. HR1 — reforming democracy — has some good parts, but it is also a Christmas tree of hyper-progressive goals. On “social justice” questions, Biden mandates “equity” as a core principle in all policy-making, and Ibram Kendi indoctrination sessions for government employees; he is likely to end due process for college men accused of sexual assault or rape; he wants to legislate that sex-based rights are trumped by gender-based rights, and to repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when it comes to gays, lesbians and transgender people. After a lifetime of opposition, Biden now backs full public funding of abortion. On immigration, Biden’s goal appears to be facilitating as much of it as possible, while granting a mass amnesty. Am I missing something? Is there a policy area where the left is not in control? (Seriously, if you can find an area where they’re not, I’ll post it, and recalibrate.)

But don’t fucking tell me I should have voted for Trump. He’s insane. And he made this left triumphalism possible, by destroying the vestiges of fiscal conservatism in the GOP. It is so telling that Republicans have barely made any of the fiscal arguments I just cited — because they don’t have a leg to stand on. If they bring up the danger of debt, they deserve to be laughed and/or booed off the stage. 

And the GOP beyond and before Trump made this sharp left turn possible by their long refusal to see how dangerous the soaring inequality of the neoliberal era actually was and is; by choosing a vast transfer of wealth to the already rich as their primary goal in the last two GOP administrations; and by fumbling the immigration question, when they could have made a deal under Trump. And in that respect, Biden’s radicalism is not without reason. Or purpose. We desperately need a correction.

Liberal democracy itself is threatened by the extreme gulf between rich and poor — and rebalancing this is vital. The lack of real economic gains for the vast majority for decades requires a major adjustment — and if sending people checks is the easiest way to do this, so be it. The resilience of low inflation and the persistence of a financial crisis recession suggests that a bigger stimulus in 2009 would have been preferable. Finding a way to support greater inclusion of minorities and women in every sphere of life and work is the right thing to do. Expanding healthcare to those most excluded it from it should not be a controversial question. In all these areas, the Democrats have their hearts and minds in the right place. A shift to the left in 2021 is completely defensible. Even the British Tories are economic lefties now. My 1980s self would look at my 2021 politics and be amazed how far I’ve come.

But a capitulation to the far left is something else.

What I fear is that economic history has not ended, and that uncontrolled borrowing, spending and printing will lead to inflation that destroys people’s savings and livelihoods. What I fear is the next recession, when our staggering debt could render the government incapable of mitigating it. What I fear is an assault on the very ideas of individual freedom, merit, objective standards, hard work, self-reliance and free speech that have long defined the American experiment — in favor of crude racial engineering.

What I fear is a generation’s rejection of limited government, and color-blind liberalism. What I worry about is a press whose mission seems increasingly devoted to enforcing elite orthodoxies, rather than pushing back on all forms of power. I fear an educational establishment that instills critical theory’s racism and sexism into the hearts and souls of children from the start, an establishment that regards the very idea of America as indelibly evil, and its founding ideals a myth and a lie.

I voted for Biden because the alternative was madness in every respect — and sure wasn’t conservatism in any recognizable sense. And the sheer, amazing relief of living without the former guy’s unhinged, all-pervasive id remains. No regrets. And I didn’t expect Biden to be a moderate, because he has always operated with an acute sense of where his party now is — and it is now controlled by the far left.

Still, I allowed myself to hope that, in some respects, Biden might temper the zeal of his base; that he would remember that black voters backed him in part because he wasn’t as radical as his fellow white liberals; that he could see something more than bigotry in people’s defense of their religious freedom; that he understood that the pace of demographic and cultural change was too fast for America to avoid a serious white nationalist backlash; and that he still saw a nation’s borders and sovereignty as worth defending.

It’s early. We’ll see where this goes. I’m open to changing my mind. But all the signs point to a revolutionary moment, enabled by an economic boom. The Democrats have seized the day. And maybe the decade.

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. If you’re not subscribed and want to read the whole thing, and keep independent media thriving on Substack, subscribe now!

This week’s full version includes: a post on the unintended, cruel consequences of Biden’s immigration policy; a long conversation with Sally Satel on addiction and depression; reader dissents over my SAT piece; the latest disturbing results of “defund the police”; an assortment of good quotes; both a Vox correction and Mental Health Break involving non-racist ink; a bunch of recommendations for good reading on Substack; an especially stirring window view from a hospital in Palo Alto; and the results of the View From Your Window contest in the city of … ? Subscribe for that answer and the full Dish experience!)


New On The Dishcast: Sally Satel

Sally Satel, the author of many books, is a psychiatrist and journalist who just came back after spending a year with opioid addicts in Ironton, Ohio. She writes about that experience, and her views on addiction — that it’s not as simple as a “brain disease” — for the journal, Liberties. We also discuss depression, mental illness, and modernity.

To hear two excerpts from my conversation with Sally — on the story of how Nixon got Vietnam vets off heroin; and on the tragic impact that meth has had on too many gay men — head over to our YouTube page. Full episode here. That link also takes you to the latest smart commentary from readers on our episodes with Glenn Greenwald, Mara Keisling, and Michael Anton. As usual, Dishheads have a lot to say.


The Dawn Of Mass Child Migration

A Central American immigrant at a migrant camp waits for entry into the United States as military police stand guard in Matamoros, Mexico, on February 22, 2021. (By John Moore/Getty Images)

The Biden administration tried to end this cruelty immediately, in part by making minors an exception to the 2020 Covid border closure, housing them humanely, and processing them as fast as possible. The result, however, is perverse.

(Read the whole post here)


Dissents Of The Week: Killing The SAT

In last week’s lead item, I noted a study showing that test prep only improves scores “on the order of 5 to 20 points.” A reader pushes back on that point here, where I respond to that dissent and a few others. This next one just came in:

I’m a little late in sending a comment about this, but there is one thing you omitted in your article on the war on the SAT/ACT: the practically unlimited time that some students can get on these tests.

This is a game that’s less about race and more about class and wealth. It goes like this: if you can afford it, you can get your child evaluated by a child psychologist, and that psychologist will almost always come back with a diagnosis of ADD or something similar. That results in extended test-taking times in school, and that courtesy also extends to standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.

These evaluations typically cost between $5k and $6k, and they are usually not covered by health insurance. If you can afford it, you can get your child extra time on these tests, along with the tutoring that will probably cost about another $10k. So, when combined, these are pretty serious advantages.

A general dissent comes from this reader:

The Daily Dish was my favourite when it was a blog and I miss it still. Your book club coverage of How Jesus Became God and the coverage of the Iranian revolution were amazing to go through with you. What I loved was the diversity of subjects you covered. Unfortunately I’ve found that I’ve stopped reading your Substack articles. I’ll see from the headline that it’s you giving out about the Woke yet again, and it feels like a chore to read through. I know I’m in the minority, but I’d prefer you to branch out to other topics again, maybe introducing Montaigne to your new audience or what you think of the job Pope Francis is doing. 

I take your point. But when you believe, as I do, that this is a deep threat to liberal society, I can’t go AWOL. And I used to get the same complaints when I blogged other obsessions: marriage equality; Obama; torture; Christianism; and yes, the Green Revolution.

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As always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (don’t forget the window frame), a Mental Health Break suggestion, or an Yglesias Award: dish@andrewsullivan.com. Please try to be concise with dissents: the new format of The Weekly Dish is much more constrained than The Daily Dish, so it’s more difficult to include your smart criticism when it stretches into many paragraphs. We try to respond to all the email, but rest assured we read everything.


The View From Your Window Contest

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The results for the last week’s view are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.

Please send us the view from your own window (just remember to note the location, time of day, and include part of the window frame — and horizontal photos are preferable): dish@andrewsullivan.com. If we post your photo, we will send you a free six-month subscription or an extension to your current one.

See you next Friday.

(Top photo of Biden by Al Drago/Getty Images)