Biden faces difficult challenge to stir passion in old themes
Every so often, America's party of the left is seized by the fear that its platform of anti-militarism, sweet reason and communal progress just can't compete with the right's more emotional appeal to national pride, tradition and identity.
It was William James -- psychologist, philosopher and brother of novelist Henry James -- who gave this concern its clearest expression. James was one of the early 20th century's most prominent liberals. His support for what he called "the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium" might put him in the running as the 246th Democratic presidential candidate today.
But James, as a scientist, believed that evolution had left an indelible mark on humanity -- an appetite for heroic exertion and communal aggression that made history (in his words) "a bath of blood." According to James: "Showing war's irrationality and horror is of no effect ... The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis ... Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won't breed it out of us."
This, in James' view, presents liberals with a challenge. Denying this human reality is irrational. But the normal liberal agenda of anti-militarism and of "high wages and short hours" has limited primal appeal. The problem runs deeper than matters of war and peace. "All the qualities of a man acquire dignity when he knows that the service of the collectivity that owns him needs him ... but it has to be confessed that the only sentiment which the image of pacific cosmopolitan industrialism is capable of arousing in countless worthy breasts is shame at the idea of belonging to such a collectivity."
"Where," asked James, "is the savage 'yes' and 'no,' the unconditional duty? Where is the conscription? … Where is anything that one feels honored by belonging to?"
Liberalism, in James' view, needs "better substitutes" for "glory and shame." It must build "civic passion" on the ruins of "the old morals of military honor." It requires, in James' memorable phrase, "the moral equivalent of war."
If James is right, what light is thrown on our politics? There is little doubt that Trump has tapped into deep rivers of pugnacity and aggression. He is not, by ideology, a militarist (though his bluster and arrogance could easily lead America into the martial equivalent of war). Yet he has organized and weaponized resentments against outsiders in the manner of a militarist. He has conjured images of America being invaded by dark-skinned rapists and murderers. He has deployed the military to the southern border as a political stunt. He has summoned everything that is tribal, vindictive and irrational in the American character.
This has left his political opposition in a quandary. In the coming presidential election, will it be enough to oppose Trump's dark magic with a return to normalcy and sanity -- to a type of leadership that isn't racist, cruel and divisive? Or will the Democratic nominee need to equal Trump's emotive appeal with a fighting faith -- a message of civic passion, moral duty, shared sacrifice and national honor?
James would doubtlessly advise the second option. What does the Democratic front-runner, Joe Biden, aspire to be?
His announcement speech sent a mixed message. On one hand, Biden presented the highest of stakes for the country. He associated Trump's appeal (in rhetoric that briefly trespassed into the histrionic) with "crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging, and bearing the fangs of racism." He made a comparison between current events and 1930s Germany. He talked of a threat to America "unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime." He set out a "battle for the soul of this nation."
But his proposed answer was very much a return to normalcy: To demonstrate that Trump's four years are an "aberrant moment." To ensure that "everyone is treated with dignity." To reassert our "core values." To "remember who we are." Essentially, to make America decent again.
Any presidential candidate's presentation varies over time. But Biden faces a difficult rhetorical and substantive challenge. Can he find romance in a return to civic health and traditional norms? Or does a backward-looking theme emphasize his limits as a candidate?
And Democratic primary voters will face a test as well. Can their party win with the infectious decency of Uncle Joe? Or does it need to match Trump's primal appeal with the moral equivalent of war?
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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