As the beneficiary of simultaneous attacks by both President Donald Trump from the right and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from the left, former Vice President Joe Biden could not have orchestrated it better. The good fortune of being caught in the crossfire of the polarized partisans defines Biden for who he is—the real progressive, just as he claims. And this may explain why Biden, with his unique reach across constituencies, towers over rivals in the latest polls.
To the consternation of Trump’s advisors, his made-for-TV taunts have accelerated Biden’s transcendence over his two dozen Democratic primary rivals as Trump seems fearful Biden is the sole candidate who can beat him. When Trump targeted Biden during a rally in Pennsylvania, asserting that Biden had abandoned Pennsylvania for Delaware, Biden responded that he had to move from Scranton at age 10 because his father needed to find work. “I’ve never forgotten where I came from,” Biden wrote in a fundraising email, adding that Trump “doesn’t understand the struggles working folks go through.”
Days earlier, Ocasio-Cortez seemingly blasted Biden for being too centrist on climate change, charging, “I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then are going to try to come back today and say we need to find a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives.” This 29-year-old freshman Democrat helped market the Green New Deal and celebrated helping to drive Amazon HQ2—with its 25,000 new jobs—out of New York. She decried the $3 billion in tax incentives, insisting that money should be spent elsewhere (perhaps not realizing that such funds were not cash piles to Amazon but rather projections of tax reductions in anticipated future revenues from Amazon). A survey of 700 voters in New York showed that more than a third of New Yorkers polled blamed her for this needed lost investment with the so-called progressives behind her truly being the minority.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens suggested that Biden should welcome such attacks from Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and the voters supporting them. Stephens identified such opportunities as Sister Souljah moments—harkening back to when candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 rebuked singer and activist Lisa Williamson (Sister Souljah) for reverse racism. As Stephen writes, Clinton seized this opportunity to distance himself from his party’s fringe and win the election, including with 83% of the African American vote.
While Biden is neither a Trump Republican nor an Ocasio-Cortez Democrat, is it fair for him to claim he is genuine progressive? Yes, because the term is often misunderstood and misused. New age Democrats cannot simply redefine the term “progressive,” an existing political brand. The Progressive movement in American politics, which grew out of the Progressive Era a century ago, was defined by centrist unifying social activism across communities—and it spanned Republican and Democratic parties.
In examining Biden’s record as a senator from 1973 to 2009, Biden was consistently ranked among the 25 most liberal senators and in the middle of the Democrat’s ideological spectrum. His progressive initiatives have had a lasting impact: Biden promoted the first bills fighting climate change and supported clean energy investment, authored the Violence Against Women Act, triumphed over the NRA with an assault weapon ban, and provided the diplomatic skill to get the Affordable Care Act ratified. While he has been widely decried for his Judiciary Committee chairmanship of the Clarence Thomas hearings, Biden expressed regret for how Anita Hill’s case against Thomas was handled.
Progress through common ground is real progressivism and, most importantly, Biden knows how to bring disparate parties together to achieve progress. In 2011, President Barack Obama and Senator Mitch McConnell were in a stalemate over debt financing with the government approaching default. Just as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner prepared for the certain market crash to follow from the breakdown, Biden was called in to triumphantly negotiate the deal.
When Bernie Sanders criticizes top performing Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger over executive pay standard for his industry, what progress does that grandstanding produce? And when media darling Ocasio-Cortez drives away coveted jobs and prestige from her own district, what does that accomplish except more personal media attention?
At best, when we move beyond the grandiosity, there is a social change agenda of today’s self-styled progressives. They often address virtuous workplace, education, healthcare, and income disparity concerns, but then indiscriminately finger corporations and government as villains, over larger structural issues in society. This parallels the early 20th century institutional attacks by Eugene V. Debs, a proud socialist—not a progressive. Trump’s base also channels anti-institutional themes laced with racism, isolationism, anti-northeast, and anti-intellectualism in what echoes Millard Fillmore’s xenophobic No Nothing political party and the agrarian populism of Georgia’s Tom Watson of the same period.
Authentic 20th century progressives, by contrast, were centrist reformers and included moderate Democrats and forward-looking Republicans like Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollett and Democrats like Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler. They were running mates as President and Vice President candidates nominated at the Progressive Party’s first national convention in 1924. As progressives, they transcended party differences to champion the construction of highways and bridges while protecting forests, cleaning up pollution from cities, improving unsafe workplaces with efficient factories and scientific management, and celebrating technological inventors. This was done while also welcoming new immigrants, offering settlement houses to orient them, and giving new arrivals a shot at the American dream. Rather than drive wedges between groups based on their backgrounds, the progressives stood for national unity and shared values.
Biden is neither socialist not populist. He is the true American progressive.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the senior associate dean and the Lester Crown professor of management practice at the Yale School of Management.
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