By Sean Fischer – Associate Dean for External Affairs, Rowan University
James Carville, the veteran political strategist and noted commentator, has recently opined on the subject of “woke culture” and its short comings. In essence, he suggests that this style of public discourse embraced by the progressive Left is responsible for the mediocre performance by Democrats in the 2020 election, including losing seats in the House of Representatives and marginal gains in the Senate. His working assumption seems to suggest that Biden’s more moderate tone—as evidenced by his commanding popular vote victory—is better received by the electorate than the gristly tone and style of progressives who embrace cancel culture and are champions of “wokeness.”
Carville is not alone. Former President Barack Obama made similar overtures and President-elect Biden had systematically worked to present his nomination as the Democratic Party’s standard bearer as evidence that “radical leftists,” “socialists,” or some other specter of dangerous agents were not in control of the Democratic Party. Many other Congressional Democrats made similar statements.
Rhetoric of the Left
Nevertheless, others, including Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, have suggested that Democrat’s election day losses stem from a lack of full-throated progressiveness. Some debates revolve around rhetoric. Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez desire to see the concept of “democratic socialism” better understood, for example. However, the Left has done little favors for itself with its embrace of cleverly developed, yet ambiguously framed, movements. As Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger suggests, if we do not mean to literally “defund the police,” we should not be using the term. The advice behind this is simple: Be clear. There is no prize in being the cleverest or in presenting goals through abstraction.
Other debates revolved about civility. As President-elect Biden was so mindful to note, being on opposite ends of a political position does not indicate enemy status. Within our republic, such disagreements are commonplace and we’ve long been able to meet those disagreements with civility and legislative compromise. Indeed, it is through our commitment to the peaceful transition of power and the protection of unalienable and civil rights that we reveal our national exceptionalism. Thus, however the “woke” (or anyone else for the matter) choose to express themselves, if the goal of that expression is to motivate progressive change, the recommendation to shift that tone is a good one.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, Biden was able to maintain the diverse democratic coalition including the most Left-leaning, progressive populations and large, if not majority shares, of multiple cultural and ethnic demographics. At the same time, he made gains in suburban areas and pulled a considerable number of self-styled Independents and Republicans who had soured on Donald Trump. That last point is important as the numbers presently suggest that the Republican Party, absent the loss of the presidency, had a decent overall Election Day. Gains were made by Republicans in House races and the GOP is well positioned to retain control of the Senate. The precariousness of the coalition that defeated Trump needs to be strengthened with measured appeal, which does not suggest the selling-out of principle. It suggests an opportunity to expand the base of the Democratic Party. While this may or may not be the end goal for hardnosed progressives, without them, goals toward progressive policy will be hard to fathom, much less be achieved.
Biden’s Progressive Efforts
It is also worthy to note that in Joe Biden, a white man in his late 70s, with as lengthy of a Washington-based resume as you might find, is arguably one of the most “woke” individuals in Washington if you look at his actions. As a Senator, Biden labored toward progressive gains in gun control and violence against women. He was responsible for pulling Obama left on marriage equality, was a key negotiator of legislation that delivered a massive expansion to affordable healthcare, and stewarded the economic relief effort that pulled the nation out of the great recession. Let us also not forget that Biden—older, seasoned, and ambitious—agreed to serve as Vice President to the first Black President in American history and selected the first Black, female, South Asian Vice President in American history. These are not the actions of a mealy-mouthed moderate content with the status quo.
This should not be taken as an argument that incrementalism is the true way forward. Progressive leaders within the deep-blue Left are right to recognize that incrementalism is a method that is best tolerated by those with socioeconomic privilege, which all too often depressingly correlates to racial and ethnic systemic inequality. With Joe Biden, however, we find a figure that has throughout his career made America more equitable, invited more voices to participate in the conversation, and maintains an indefatigable belief in the goodness of Americans and the capacity of a united America. Progressives would be wise to follow his lead on how to build a broad coalition that can be harnessed to achieve progressive gains.
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Sean M. Fischer, Ed.D, has taught and currently teaches American History & American Government at a number of colleges. He's previously produced a public affairs radio show (Spotlight on Atlantic City, 96.1 WTTH) and is a veteran of numerous political campaigns.