President-elect Biden is already behaving like a president, speaking frankly about the health crisis facing the nation and appointing capable, calm and experienced people to a variety of positions. Let us all hope that he will be able to secure a relatively rapid distribution of the two new vaccines, halt the spread of the epidemic, and allow the economy truly to recover while we all resume normal life. Meanwhile, however, the nation will still face an unprecedented political problem. At no time in American history, in my opinion, has our political class and our journalistic and academic establishment been so utterly out of touch with large masses of the American people as it is today. That gulf, once again, allowed Donald Trump to win the Republican nomination and the election in 2016, with truly disastrous consequences that will be with us for some time. And the danger will persist as long as gulf lasts--and it is far from clear that a Biden administration will heal it.
The American people in 2016 rebelled against the polices of both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, policies which in many ways differed much less than political partisans realize. Let us begin with foreign policy. In the wake of 9/11, Bush, drawing on a momentary national consensus similar to the one that followed Pearl Harbor, found two new bases for American foreign policy. First, the United States would use military force to eliminate foreign regimes that were building weapons that the United States did not think they should have. That led to the invasion of Iraq--which turned out not, in fact, to be guilty as charged--and would have led, if the first invasion had gone better, to wars against Iran and North Korea. Under Barack Obama, that same principle very nearly led the nation to bless or join in an Israeli war against Iran, although Obama and John Kerry eventually managed to reach the Iran nuclear agreement instead. The second principle gave the United States a right and a duty to use military force against any radical Islamic political movement that threatened to take power on any continent. These policies have been disastrous economically and politically. Iraq and Libya, where Obama and Secretary Clinton revived the Bush policy, remain in a disastrous state. A new effort under Obama to topple the Syrian regime has also failed disastrously. We are carrying out military operations in various parts of Africa without result. Donald Trump has now made the proliferation problem much worse by repudiating the Iran agreement, but to his credit--yes, I said that--actually seems to understand that the second policy is worse than useless, and is trying even now to reverse it in Somalia and Afghanistan. Biden has chosen Obama Administration veterans to head his foreign policy team, and it is entirely possible that they, like Obama, will reverse course again and continue the endless struggles in Afghanistan and elsewhere. That will continue to produce no good results on the ground and continue to alienate large portions of the American people.
No issue seems to have done more to divide the establishment and much of the American people than trade and globalization. Trump made the impact of free trade agreements a key part of his platform, and took various steps aiming at reversing their effects. Those steps had at best a marginal impact, and they did not allow him to carry badly hurt states like Michigan and Pennsylvania again. Yet it remains true that globalization has been bad for many Americans, and that they will not support anything that smacks of returning to it. Immigration also divided the elite, which favored it, from many Americans (not all of them white, by any means) who resented increased illegal immigration. Thanks in part to the pandemic, the Trump Administration has reduced new entries into the nation to a very low level. In my opinion, we should now keep the level of new immigration low for some time, while simultaneously giving our millions of illegal immigrants legal status and the protections it provides, which they now desperately need. If instead the administration immediately rewrites the definition of asylum yet again, in ways that allow nearly Central American to enter the country, another severe political backlash is almost certain to follow.
While those issues seem to have hurt the leadership of both parties among the American people, a Democratic administration has particular vulnerabilities which may re-emerge. A number of important Democratic constituencies take positions on controversial issues, and use language, which have only negative resonance among many millions of their fellow citizens. The newest of these, of course, is "defund the police," which Biden has sensibly repudiated. Latinx, transgender [sic], and intersectional are examples of language that immediately persuades many Americans that the speaker lives in a different and hostile universe, especially if the speaker clearly characterizes anyone resisting such language as a "deplorable.". Perhaps most importantly, the strength and visibility of many minority constituencies with the Democratic Party, combined with the emphasis on diversity which Democratic presidents bring to appointments, has convinced many Americans that Democrats only care about those constituencies. This is the Democratic party's contribution to the great tragedy of contemporary American politics: that among the lower economic half of our population, white people vote overwhelmingly Republican while nonwhites vote overwhelmingly Democratic. President Biden will undoubtedly have many opportunities for a "Sister Souljah moment" in response to one or more shrill demands from various constituencies, but I am not confident that he will take advantage of any.
Nor is it clear that a Biden Administration will take any really effective steps to stop the march toward greater inequality. Biden recently remarked that there is no reason that the top income tax should not be what it was when George W. Bush came into office, that is, 39.8%. American society made the greatest progress towards equality from the 1930s through the 1960s, when the top rate was 90% (and it fell only to about 75% in 1964 and was still at least 50% when Reagan came into office.) In any case, even if the Democrats win both of the Georgia Senate runoffs, a 50-50 Senate will not pass sweeping progressive reforms to our tax system. The pandemic has led to an unprecedented expansion of government spending and government deficits in peacetime. Such an expansion in spending in the two world wars led to confiscatory marginal tax rates on very high incomes in the first place. Even in 1917, apparently, the nation understood that in a time of crisis, the richest had to make unprecedented sacrifices. I have seen no trace of that view today.
While part of me still yearns for a return to the principles that created the nation in which I was lucky enough to grow up, a larger part now believes that those principles will not return to favor in my lifetime. Perhaps Barack Obama in the midst of the great economic crisis of 2008-9 might have revived them, but he and his team chose not to do so. Several generations have now become accustomed to inequality. We may therefore have to focus on more immediate goals--such as the restoration of sanity to our political life, and at least a moderately effective attack on some national problems--for some time.