Joe Biden and the limits of NYRB liberalism

I get e-mails from a long-time friend in south Texas in which he shares his thoughts about politics and the passing scene.  With his permission, here is one of them.  I’ve added a couple of illustrations and a link.

The New York Review of Books was launched in 1963, during a newspaper strike (remember unions?) that temporarily shut down the anodyne New York Times Book Review, a feature of the Sunday Times.  

In high school, I read the electrifying first issue of the NYRB in my hometown public library.  It featured in-your-face, hyper-literate take-no-prisoners review-essays two or three thousand words long, written by the best writers in New York.  

One early review of a biography of Patton used the word “fuckings-up.”  A letter to the editor in the next issue pointed out that the correct plural is “fuck-ups.”  I was hooked.

It’s now more than half a century later, and I’m still reading the NYRB—after a lot of twists and turns, on their part, and on mine.

Their NYRB editor before this one, Ian Buruma—who got bumped after a couple of issues for printing something by some Canadian guy with #MeToo trouble—promised “a wider range” of authors.  I took this to mean: more conservative authors, more often—and I think I was right.

But the word “conservative” here needs a gloss.  NYRB authors are never hard-shell conservatives—like some of the reviewers (e.g., Edward Luttwak) who turn up occasionally in the Times Literary Supplement to give readers a bracing glimpse of how things look from the other side.

No, NYRB essayists are conservative only in the sense of wanting to get back (in the WayBack Machine?) to where we were on the Monday afternoon before Election Day 2016.  Let me explain:

The current issue, for instance, features an article on “rebranding” the Democratic Party by one Joseph O’Neill, a novelist who teaches at Bard College, an upstate-New-York haven for rich hippie-kids. (Bard art majors are provided with their own studios.)

O’Neill’s thesis is that the Republicans and Democrats are like Coke and Pepsi, or Bud Lite and Miller Lite–which makes sense to me.  But O’Neill DOESN’T MEAN, as I would, that they’re two essentially identical products.  (Have you actually looked at the stuff Joe Biden has supported—and opposed—during his long career?)

No, O’Neill means instead that Pepsi can gain market share only by getting Coke drinkers to switch, and vice versa.  So, according to O’Neill, what the Democrats need to do is REBRAND themselves (he quotes legendary Mad Man David Ogilvy from the 50s, a candid, entertaining writer) so as to pull over low-info, “ideologically squishy” swing voters. It’s all a question of PR.

O’Neill goes into the tall grass here, talking in considerable detail about how the Democrats need to devalue the GOP “brand,” with its connotations of strength and patriotism, rather than just attacking Trump.  

Not everything O’Neill suggests is dumb, I’d say.

But O’Neill starts from what he takes as a self-evident premise: that the Democrats would be any rational person’s no-brainer choice, and that while George W. Bush’s second term was a train-wreck, Obama’s two terms were successes: that Obama “saved” the economy after 2008, and that although Obama’s intervention in Libya was a disaster, at least the US didn’t stay.

(This might be news to friends of mine who lost their houses post-2008 to foreclosure, or families I know who had their kids come back from the Middle East, during the Obama years, in a box.)

For O’Neill, the Democrats don’t need a course-correction, new POLICIES. What they need instead is better PR, a new “narrative” to lay on dumb prole voters.

Speaking for myself, I don’t regard O’Neill’s premise as self-evident.  In fact, I don’t even think it’s true.  Leaving aside voter suppression, half of this country’s potential electorate doesn’t vote–by choice.  Why is that?

One common presumption in the MSM is that these people are “low-information” voters, a euphemism for dumb—as opposed to political junkies who have their TVs on 24/7, a sign of being smart. (MSM is “mainstream media”—although for a close friend of mine, now no longer with us, MSM meant “down-low brothers,” or “men who have sex with men.”)

But is O’Neill’s model really accurate?  My sense of it is that most of that non-voting 50% (these are the kind of people I hang out with; it takes $ to attend O’Neill’s Bard College) don’t think that casting a vote will have any cash-value in their lives.

Imagine you’re in an elevator with a couple of these non-voters, non-threatening variety.  What’s your “elevator pitch” to these voters about why they should vote for Joe Biden, the Man in the Basement?

Will Joe get them health-care?  No. According to Joe, he’d veto a Bernie-style M4A bill if it somehow magically showed up on his presidential desk.

Will he cancel student debt?  No. Joe is ALL IN for the banks and the credit-card companies.  Besides, the young people need to pull up their socks.

Will he tax the billionaires to help the little guy?  No. Joe is OKAY with billionaires.  They’re sitting on the $ this country needs, but some of their $ has corrupted the democratic process, so these billionaires will NEVER have to cough up the $ that could help this country.  A bought-and-paid-for Congress will never vote the necessary taxes.

Well, will Joe Biden at least NOT EMBARRASS US, the way Trump does?  I don’t know about this one.  Speaking for myself, I DON’T “feel embarrassed” about Trump.  I didn’t vote for him myself, but I feel that SOME of those who did, did so out of desperation.

NYRB portrait of Joe Biden

A character in a charming Robert A. Heinlein Y/A novel (“Have Spacesuit, Will Travel”): “When a situation becomes intolerable, introduce a variable.”

And WHAT ABOUT Tara Reade? The women who MIGHT be a Biden VP pick are lining up to say the “know” Joe Biden, and support him. This isn’t QUITE the same thing though (former English teacher here) as saying they “BELIEVE” Joe Biden.

Speaking of embarrassment: I’m 73 myself, and sometimes I misplace things—although I seem to recall that I also regularly misplaced things when I was 19.  I haven’t watched any of the Joe Biden greatest-glitches tapes on the internet.  I’d be too embarrassed—for Joe.

In a recent Nick Kristof column in the Times, touting how well things are going in Denmark, I clicked on a link‚and wound up on Joe Biden’s website.  The big photo of Joe looked to me like a death’s head.

For Times columnists, incidentally, Joe Biden was the “change candidate”–even though we all know who supported Denmark-style policies in his 2020 campaign. And it wasn’t Joe Biden.

In his NYRB article, O’Neill includes a passage, truly mind-bending for me, about the Bernie Sanders “brand.”  What the Democrats need, O’Neill maintains, is something SORT OF LIKE the Sanders movement, only without its “charismatic” (= for O’Neill, I gather, “authoritarian”) leader.

Wait, stop!  Flag on the play.  I happen to have attended a Sanders Rally on the peak night of his campaign, the night Sanders crushed his opposition in Nevada.  I was in the huge Cowboys Dance Hall here in San Antonio, in an SRO crowd of thousands and thousands of young people (including former students), few or none of whom could afford tuition at Bard College.  With the exception of Sanders himself, I MAY have been the oldest person in the place.

Look, I remember John Kennedy, okay?—perhaps the best-looking American president ever, with the possible exception of Warren Harding (who got elected the year women got the vote).  Although he never appealed to me personally, I remember Ronald Reagan.  I watched him on “Death Valley Days” on TV, back in the 50s.

I’ve heard Obama speak, in person–AND Dr. King.  Look, I met THE BEATLES, okay?  (This was back when the world was scared of brash young people who claimed to be journalists. If you’re a young person, DON’T try to get in to talk to Taylor Swift.  Trust me: you’ll regret it. It’s a different world.)

Sanders—I was about, what, 40 or 50 feet away from him—is the ANTI-charisma candidate.  He has, seemingly, ONE blue suit.  Reportedly, it has dandruff on the collar.  He knew zilch about the Tejano-punk band that opened for him, and although he thanked them, he didn’t pretend otherwise.

I was THERE, and I’d say, after talking with many of them, that the thousands of young people present that night were perfectly familiar with Sanders’s POLICIES.  They KNOW about not having health care–or (like me) HAVING health care that, when the chips are down, doesn’t cover anything.

They KNOW about student debt.  They BELIEVE the waters are rising–and not just metaphorically, as in Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are a-Changing” (from circa 1963).  They KNOW ABOUT xenophobia and racism and homophobia.

Obama sought to play, cautiously, the cards he was dealt.  Bernie Sanders wants to send out for a whole new deck.  The NYRB—O’Neill—doesn’t.  For O’Neill, it’s either Team Red or Team Blue.  If you think otherwise, you’re playing Trump’s game.  Well . . . maybe.

Still, there’ at least one thing that I think O’Neill IS right about, and that’s the Catch-22 we face in this country.  There are BIG things that need to be done: comprehensive health care, a Green New Deal (to put people to work building infrastructure, and to mitigate the climate catastrophe bearing down on us).

Successfully accomplished, such big-deal projects would generate social trust.  But, as O’Neill says, the Catch-22 is: seemingly, it would require social trust even to move in the direction of such projects.

It’s rough times in 2020 in America.  In the MSM, the supposed “Resistance” to Trump represented by people like O’Neill and other NYRB writers, who are literate and well-informed and above all tasteful men and women, are the “left.”  To hard-heads like me and my friends, they’re representatives of the “professional-managerial class,” or PMC.

(On left-wing blogs, I’ve also seen them referred to as “faux-gressives,” or “the Vichy left.”  For young people, I should explain: after France fell to the Third Reich in 1940, France’s Marshall Petain set up a collaborationist regime, based in Vichy, France, that cooperated with the Nazis.)

I see a bad moon a’risin’.  MAYBE this country will catch a break, somehow.  But even if so, I DON’T think it would be enough to get back to 2016, even if we could, let alone to the Clinton years.

In her just-published collected essays, I read in a recent Times review, Barbara Ehrenreich (coiner with her then-husband John of the term “the PMC”) refers to the 80s and the 90s as “the Fat Years.”  Even though I wasn’t exactly skimming off the cream during those years myself, I think I know what she means.

Unlike Elizabeth Warren, I DON’T have a plan that I think will pull things out for us.  But I think that, to borrow some language from Lincoln, that what we all need to do right now now is “disenthrall” ourselves, because, as Lincoln said way back when, “our case is new.”

Over the long decades, I owe a lot to writers for the New York Review of Books for getting up in their readers’ faces, in my face, and forcing them, forcing me, to confront unpleasant facts, and THINK.  

With all due respect to the NYRB’s current roster of writers, this is no time to punk out on this honorable heritage.  Today, being book-smart isn’t enough.  It never was.


Brand New Dems? by Joseph O’Neill for The New York Review of Books.

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