Updated: Sep 22
Both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who are about to become President and Vice President of America, have a history of malleable ideology. And that is a good thing.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on campaign trail.
There is no running away from it – Donald Trump, even in defeat, won the votes of around 70 million Americans. But in the end, as many voters were turned off, it seemed, by the poor handling of the Trump administration of the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more Americans than the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf War combined, as the endless juvenile and anger-filled rhetoric. Trump led a buoyant economy that brought back jobs and did not, to his credit, start any new war despite considerable pressures, but his words, his everyday diatribe, divided America in countless ways.
In comparison to the Republican incumbent, Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger, had one definitive virtue – he refused to be polarizing. One of his most astute moves during his campaign was to keep away the extreme Left. He will rejoin America to Paris Agreement, and has promises of spending around $2 trillion to fight climate change but, at the same time, during his campaign, distanced himself from the Green New Deal, pitching instead his own more moderate plan. It softened the blow on many voters who worry about an environment versus economy scenario.
In Kamala Harris, Biden not only chose a multi-cultural candidate as a running mate, but also someone with a Jewish spouse, and who not only gave a rousing speech at the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2017 but also co-sponsored a Senate resolution in the same year against President Barack Obama for abstaining in a vote on a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlement policies of Israel.
Harris has been described as “tough to pin down ideologically”, something apparent from the controversies about her record as attorney general, and something that can be said about Joe Biden, who has, in his long and distinguished career in American politics, rarely ever found a fashionable, and popular, cause that he could not support. In fact, Biden has even been described as a European-style Christian democrat. His primary concern is a sort of homely propagation of good values, eschewing radicalism at either end, focusing on everyday living and making its trials easier through somewhat welfarist public policy, and fundamentally recognizing that the task is a constant compromise to find middle-path solutions.
There is a fundamental thing that the Biden-Harris combination offers which is, in recent times, easily forgotten in all the quest for ideological purity: politics is rarely, if ever, about rigid stances and penalties for changing one’s mind. Politics is about context. Things that seem unacceptable at one point in time could well have been unavoidably popular at another time. This is not something the everyday judgement of social media understands.
Also, in order to get your views heard and accepted by a wide variety of people across large diverse populations, extreme points of views are unhelpful. Politicians and political ideologies have core constituencies – but core constituencies alone are rarely able to sweep elections.
Both the extreme Left and the extreme Right no longer recognize complexity or nuance. They only understand blind loyalty, a sort of dumb allegiance to the mob that needs to find new enemies every day. Social media has fuelled this kind of ignorance to dangerous levels, and is now acknowledged to be a “serious challenge to the earlier tradition of political debate”.
This kind of relentless ideological purity checks, and purges, have led to a cancel culture that frightens every sensible, middle path person today. It has reduced space for the tough business of negotiations that constitute everyday policymaking.
Both the Right and the Left now has mobs, online, and sometimes even offline, to enforce strict standards of purity and adherence to what they believe is the ideological standard. Any compromise or negotiated nuance is considered heresy with blasphemers condemned to instant death by tweet-stoning.
This has degraded language at both ends with an inability to access anyone but the most ardent ideological devotees. Surely today Donald Trump must wonder how many voters he lost not so much by what he did but what he said and the way he said it.
In contrast Joe Biden kept away the extreme elements on his party far away from his campaign, and indeed forced politicians considered the hard Left (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, leading light of the New Green Deal movement) to, instead, back his plans, and his candidature, on his terms of moderation. Once the hard Left in the Democratic Party were seen as one of the key elements for the defeat of Hillary Clinton against Trump in 2016.
Biden ensured that they feared repeating such a move, and derailing his campaign.
There is a lesson in this for both the hard Left and the hard Right. Most ordinary people are not ideologues, and they never will be. To win over most people is to ensure that they are not perpetually caught in a civil war between two extreme sides. Populism – both on the Left and the Right – could do well to understand this.