“Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.”
That’s the line that an alien imposter who comes to America to run for president on The Simpsons (10/27/96) came up with after realizing any firm position on reproductive rights would draw some opposition, but a lukewarm compromise coupled with a sentimental devotion to the flag would get people cheering. Corporate media seem to be having a reaction similar to the cartoon alien as they opine on the nomination of former Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential candidate, with Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate.
The Daily Beast (3/18/20) heralded Biden’s liberal “patriotism” as an antidote to “uber-nationalist” Trump and “uber-internationalist” Sen. Bernie Sanders. At the Washington Post (8/21/20), columnist Michael Gerson praised Biden for trying to “build a centrist coalition in favor of political sanity.” Also at the Post (8/16/20), Jennifer Rubin hailed the Biden/Harris ticket’s centrism because it has “deprived Trump of the ‘socialist’ target Republicans yearned to confront”—as though Trump’s attacks were wedded to reality and facts.
The Los Angeles Times (8/12/20) shared that optimism, with political reporter Janet Hook reporting that the Biden/Harris ticket has “a center-left brand that steers clear of the most far-reaching progressive demands,” which “has complicated the Trump White House’s efforts to portray the ticket as ‘dangerous radicals’”:
Harris, like Biden…has rebuffed some demands of the party’s rising progressive wing. That’s a profile that could help Biden appeal to moderate swing voters he needs to win in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.
(As an example of how clear of progressivism the Biden team intends to steer, see Biden’s transition director’s promise of economic austerity if elected, telling the Wall Street Journal—8/19/20—“We’re going to be limited.”)
Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos (Twitter, 8/20/20) cheered that the Democrats were “now objectively the party of faith, family values and national defense,” while the Intercept’s Lee Fang (Twitter, 8/20/20) praised “Biden’s plainspoken patriotism” (along with a supposed “embrace of popular social democratic reform”).
Prominent Republicans spoke repeatedly at the Democratic National Convention, signaling that Biden was firmly committed to the political center; some of his GOP backers wrote a piece for Foreign Policy (8/20/20) declaring that “Biden has far more in common with the other Republican presidents we worked for than Trump does.”
This might all sound familiar. Vox’s Zach Beauchamp (7/27/16) heralded Biden’s speech in support of Hillary Clinton at the DNC four years ago under the headline, “Joe Biden’s DNC Speech Made Patriotism Liberal Again.” “For once, the liberals are the ones casting themselves as the ‘real Americans,’” Beauchamp wrote, outlining the often-mocked “American is already great” response to Trump’s “Make America great again.” Such a response not only didn’t work, it allowed Trump to set the terms of the discussion.
And there have long been calls by various liberal writers for a kind of liberal patriotism as the answer to right-wing nationalism, pivoting away from multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism (Politico, 9/5/18; CNN, 7/2/17).
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At first glance, this is a victory lap for the corporate press and the Democratic establishment against the party’s left flank. For all the work of Sanders and the left-wing “Squad” in Congress, the Overton Window has barely budged at the presidential level. As Newsweek (8/4/20) pointed out, Biden is going against 87% of his party’s members by opposing Medicare for All.
Branko Marcetic, author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, told FAIR:
By and large, most of the unity task force recommendations were things Biden already supported in his primary platform, such as abolishing private prisons, or much, if not all, of the immigration policy in the platform. It seems like they successfully resisted getting too many other Sanders planks into the platform: They reportedly whittled down a demand for a federal jobs guarantee to a mention of New Deal-style jobs programs in the task force recommendations, and then even that didn’t make it into the platform. And Medicare for All and a host of planks introduced by Palestinian activists were famously defeated.
Coverage of Biden’s patriotism tends to center on non-issues: Saying someone loves their country doesn’t outline a real policy proposal or provide a plan to improve conditions for the average voter. Vague gestures toward loving American greatness can sound nice in a speech, but are substance-free, and media that focus on such overtures are moving the conversation away from real issues.
Perhaps the worst iteration of this issue-free theme came from Vox (8/21/20), with its convention takeaway that “Joe Biden likes you if you’re a Democrat or a Republican…. He likes you even if you don’t like him.” How do we know this about Biden, who regularly insulted skeptical voters and told them to vote for someone else on the primary trail? Because he said so at the convention, and that’s good enough for Vox.
Part of that discoursal discontent is the fault of the Democratic Party’s confused convention rhetoric, which can steer the media narrative. Marcetic, again:
The Democrats’ incoherent strategy was best displayed on the first night [of the convention]. First you had John Kasich telling conservative voters Biden wouldn’t actually turn left, as he’s been hinting he would the past few months; then the night ended with Michelle Obama admonishing voters to feel the same enthusiasm for Biden as they did about Obama in 2008 and 2012, and to get ready to stand in line for hours and hours in November. A similar dynamic played out the other three nights.
And there’s no mystery about what the issues are to the hoi polloi. Before the pandemic, Gallup (1/13/20) said “healthcare, national security, gun policy, education and the economy” polled as major issues for presidential voters, while Pew Research (8/13/20) showed that more recently the economy, healthcare and the Covid-19 crisis dominate voters’ minds. Unemployment, the stress of school reopening plans and fears of new coronavirus spikes are the issues facing the people.
Media must concentrate on describing how candidates are going to tackle these issues. And if the candidates don’t want to talk about issues, and instead wax about generalities, media have to redirect the discussion back to the genuine calamities facing the nation.