If there is one thing we can take away from the first two weeks of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, it’s that the former vice president is feeling nostalgic. Uncle Joe is longing for the good old days, before President Trump happened and before the Republican Party went completely off the rails. The days when Democrats and Republicans could be friends, when compromise wasn’t a dirty word, and when civility prevailed. The days when the center held strong, and pragmatic statesmen like him and his friend Dick Cheney could cut deals behind closed doors. The days, in other words, when things were normal.
As some have already pointed out, Biden is essentially running a backward-looking campaign of restoration based on Democratic nostalgia for the Obama years, which in itself will get him a long way in the polls (at least in the Democratic primaries). But it is also clear that Biden’s nostalgia goes much further back than the heyday of the Obama administration.
The former VP embodies a kind of baby boomer nostalgia for the era during which what is now called neoliberalism prevailed. That period started around the time Biden was elected to the Senate as a young man in 1972 (technically, Biden is a few years too old to qualify as a boomer, but he fits right in with that generation). That he harbors a certain romantic longing for the days of old, when the best and the brightest acted like adults and bipartisan centrism was the only game in town, is all one really needs to know about Biden in order to get an idea of how he will govern if elected president. Those who thought Barack Obama was too much of a centrist will miss him once Biden becomes president.
According to Biden’s own rhetoric, once he is elected, all will basically return to normal and, after a period of healing, the country will continue on its previous course. “Limit [Trump’s presidency] to four years,” he recently said in Iowa, and “history will treat this administration’s time as an aberration.” For good measure, Biden went on to defend Republicans from their own president (which they seem unwilling to do themselves): “This is not the Republican Party,” he remarked, before pointing to his “Republican friends” in Congress.
It is hard to imagine that the man who served as Obama’s second in command for eight years can’t seem to grasp that the current GOP is now, in fact, the party of Trump (and has been for a long time). Yet we have to remember that Biden served close to four decades in the Senate before he became Obama’s VP. Biden’s time in Congress obviously shaped who he is today far more than his time in the White House, and, contrary to what his apologists now say, that aspect of his background does matter. As a senator, Biden frequently sided with his Republican colleagues on major issues—from his championing of NAFTA, welfare reform and financial deregulation to his support for the Iraq War (and the war on drugs). Admittedly, Republicans and Democrats agreed on far more than they disagreed on during the ’90s, but this is exactly the problem that progressives are trying to correct today.
When we consider Biden’s neoliberal legacy in full, his current restoration campaign makes perfect sense. His nostalgia is ultimately based on the idea that, all things considered, we were headed in the right direction before Trump came along. He seems to believe that his generation (with the leadership of great individuals like him, of course) achieved unparalleled progress over the past 40 years, right up until the Orange Menace appeared out of nowhere and threatened to reverse it all.
This attitude was evident in a 2018 video clip that recently went viral, in which Biden criticizes millennials for complaining too much, while discussing the brave activism of his own generation. “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are—give me a break. No, no, I have no empathy for it, give me a break.” The clip didn’t fully show what Biden said next, which is, in some ways, even more revealing: “Because here’s the deal, guys. We [the boomer generation] decided we were going to change the world, and we did. We did. We finished the civil rights movement to the first stage. The women’s movement came to be.”
This isn’t just a classic case of an older, out-of-touch person disparaging youths and condescendingly telling them to toughen up without hearing a word they say. Biden goes further than that, essentially telling millennials to be grateful to members of his generation for all they did to make the world a better place. While there has obviously been progress in many areas over the past few decades, one has to be remarkably obtuse not to see how the past 40 years of neoliberalism have hurt the younger generations and left the very future of the planet in jeopardy (as David Wallace-Wells documents in his brilliant but depressing new book, “The Uninhabitable Earth”), and no generation bears more responsibility for this state of affairs than Biden’s does.
The real irony of Biden’s boomer nostalgia is that Donald Trump, that great enemy of progress, is the ultimate product of the self-absorbed boomer mentality that flourished in the late 20th century, concurrent with the rise of neoliberalism. Trump encapsulates all of the worst qualities of the Me Generation: his narcissism, his greed and crass materialism, his selfish disregard for posterity, his shallow hedonism. Contrary to what Biden says, Trump—the man and the political phenomenon—is not an aberration, but the natural outcome of political, economic and cultural trends of the past half-century.
Of course, focusing too much on Trump as an individual distracts us from the reality that his election was part of a much larger trend that has engulfed the entire planet over the past decade. It is no coincidence that the explosion of populism took place in the decade following the Great Recession, when the gaps between the rich and poor have grown even wider and the dire effects of climate change have become clearer. Populism is a direct response to the growing contradictions of capitalism and the failures of the status quo, and only those who have greatly benefited from this status quo can possibly think that Trump came out of nowhere (then again, Biden has never been much interested in causes, only in symptoms).
According to the latest polls, Biden has a strong lead in the Democratic primaries, and there’s no doubt that partisan nostalgia for the Obama years is the main reason for this. To take on Biden, the other candidates will have to make the case for why returning to the way things were is neither a viable nor desirable option. Currently in second place is Bernie Sanders, who has directly challenged the notion that Trump is some kind of anomaly. In a recent campaign email, Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, wrote that it is a mistake “to think that this election is simply about beating one man—an aberration of a president—and that everything will simply return to ‘normal.’ ”
“The reality,” Shakir continues, “is that ‘normal’ in our country before there was a President Trump still meant an immoral lack of health care, unlivable low wages, rampant corporate greed, a racist criminal justice system, and a corrupt political system.”
The rise of populism in America and elsewhere over the past decade represents a clear rejection of neoliberalism, but among many liberals and Democratic voters, there is a strong desire for normality. Political nostalgia, however, is ultimately a conservative and even a reactionary yearning, and while it may be true that the previous state of affairs was preferable to the current state, the latter would never have been possible if it weren’t for the failures of the former.