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Biden’s Electrifying State of the Union, Why it Matters, Plus: Fascism vs Modernity

Biden’s Electrifying State of the Union, Why it Matters, Plus: Fascism vs Modernity

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Let’s not mince words. There are speeches and there are Capital S Speeches. Biden’s sensational State of the Union was one of the latter. It was visionary, historic, and startling. I didn’t know quite what to expect, and I doubt many did. Biden rose to the challenge of the moment—more on that in a second, and hit the ball out of the park.

By the way, if you didn’t watch it, do so, just even the first few minutes, because…

This speech was a special moment for America. I don’t know if Americans grasp that, but world leaders, starting this weekend, are going to be spending much of the year studying Biden’s words, ideas, and vision—because it set out sort of a new direction for America, as leader of a troubled world again.

Let me explain, on three levels, why this speech mattered so much: stylistically, substantively, and politically.

Being a Leader Versus Becoming One, or, Is Biden Fit for Office?

Lately, it’s become kind of cool to hate on Biden. I get that, though I don’t join in it. Young people will accuse him of everything from indifference to genocide, while the GOP’s attack line that he’s too old and frail to hold office again has registered, amplified by media.

The Biden we saw yesterday answered those concerns decisively. He was witty, sharp as a razor, intelligent, spry. He ran rings around the Republicans, weaving webs around them to entrap them in, leaving them bewildered and spluttering. So much so that by the end of the night, this whole business of image manipulation had been turned on its head: the new attack line was that Biden was too energetic, angry, and talkative. The irony was lost on no one, really.

This Joe Biden delivered, as many said, a masterclass. And that masterclass was in large part about what politics, unfortunately, begins with: style, “impression management,” “messaging.” Biden got his message across, in giant blinking neon letters. He roasted the Republicans, while outmaneuvering them, out-thinking them, easily outdoing them, as if they were amateurs and wannabes—and so this Joe Biden electrified people. In the media business, we track a thing called “sentiment,” which is how people talk about you on social media, and sentiment was off the charts. People were astonished, some, like the Republicans, overwhelmed, and the reaction was strikingly positive.

Those are all good things. Part of Biden’s challenge, if the goal is to avoid another Trump era, and the consequent end of democracy, more or less, was just to convince people that Biden was still in the game. After this, while, sure, you can still have doubts, if you’re fair, you’re going to have fewer and smaller ones, on the issues of Biden’s fitness and competence.

This Biden glowed, swaggered, and revelled, like a rock star.

Stylistically, the State of the Union was a devastating blow to the Republicans—think, again, how the erstwhile attack line had to flip from “he’s got one foot in the grave” to “Jesus! Why won’t he stop getting us!!” Funny—and telling.

We recently discussed the difference between occupying a leadership position—and being accepted as a leader. This Biden’s been hid away by the Democratic machine, it seems. Those roaring, electrified masses? Those surging positivity ratings? That’s a figure going from merely occupying the position, to being accepted as a leader.

That matters in a bigger way than you think, because…

What is America, Anymore?

But that was just the beginning of why this speech was so important, though it’s what the chatter has focused on. Punditry is missing the real reason this speech was made of fireworks—why world leaders are going to be studying it frantically and intensely, beginning this weekend, if not already, and continue doing so the whole year.

Beneath the swagger, Biden quietly proposed something very much like a new America. A new American social contract. The ideas came so fast and furious that they were almost easy to miss, sandwiched between philosophy and persuasion.

I’ll get to them, but first: most State of the Unions aren’t like that. They’re pretty boring, because Presidents tout their accomplishments. They’re backwards looking things, in other words, sort of performance reviews, if you like. This one really was different—profoundly different.

Here are just a few of the Big Ideas in Biden’s vision—and what their sort of link to the cutting edge of global thinking is.

—Taxing billionaires, which is part of a new movement, arising mostly in Europe, to reduce inequality, by having a global tax on the ultra-rich.
—Limiting executive compensation—this one in a soft way, not a hard one, salaries over $1 million no longer being tax deductible. This is linked, too, to recent moves by European nations to make economies more equal again.
—Giving home buyers tax credits. This is a first step towards fixing America’s badly broken housing market. The world’s is, in fact, and many European nations are trying to fix that through incentives like this.
—Lowering drug prices. One of Biden’s most revolutionary policy ideas was to let the government negotiate for far more drugs—this is a big, big deal, because of course Americans are ripped off incredibly badly by their version of “healthcare.” This is a way to modernize America and bring it in line with other Western nations.
—Freezing taxes on those earning than less $400K.

There were plenty more, in fact, than all this. The point isn’t just the “policy ideas”—rather, it’s the direction that Biden wants to go in, if you read between the lines a little bit. What is Biden really saying? He’s recognizing how badly broken many aspects of the American social contract—healthcare, housing, inequality, salaries, taxes—and how all that adds up to an incredibly precarious life even at or above the median.

Biden seemed to be channeling the ghost of FDR—and the spirit of Truman. The FDR aspect: he appears to be reaching for something like a new deal, or at least as close to one as America’s going to get in this tenuous situation. The spirit of Truman: he didn’t say this nicely, he roasted the Republicans as he said it, driving home the point how little they actually care about people’s lives, and simply rely on scapegoating, how empty of ideas their side really is.

This is a Big Deal. An American President doesn’t not just say this stuff lightly—they never say it at all. Taxing billionaires? Not taxing everyone else? Making corporations pay their fair share? Expanding the role of government? Reducing the drivers of inequality, from overblown exec salaries to a crumbled housing ladder? That’s…the stuff…much more aligned with…European social democracy…than American politics, which is usually anodyne variants of the same thing, aka, slightly different flavours of Coke versus Pepsi capitalism.

This isn’t two slightly different variants of capitalism, and if you read between the lines, meaning that it’s a first draft at setting out a vision, the end result will be even more radical. Taxing billionaires, limiting salaries, intervening in broken markets, giving people actual support—none of these are ideas we associate in the slightest with…American politics. They’re the stuff of social democracy, and Biden’s setting out a sort of lightweight-almost social democratic vision. It’s not quite one fully, but what it does, at last, is begin to put America on the path to becoming one, like the rest of the Western world.

The Transformation of Politics From Anti-Modern to Modern

And all that draws a sharp distinction between the two parties, at long, long last. I’ve been sharply critical of the Democrats in recent times. Who are they? What do they stand for? What’s the idea here? What’s their sort of theory of the world, of a just society, of a good life?

Now we know. We know that it’s something a lot more like lightweight European social democracy in nascent form—a good life comes from a just society, which is one that’s socioeconomically equal, not just “equal opportunity,” or what have you, yesterday’s nostrums—than yesterday’s tired neoliberalism. That said, of course, that a good life comes from being a survivor in a brutal game whose stakes are life or death.

But that’s just what the other side said, too. So all this finally draws the difference between the two parties into sharp, stark relief. Sure, one’s for democracy, and the other one’s for fascism—but the truth is to win just that political contest, you can’t just rely on that issue itself. You need to go deep into the issues people actually care about, which are always the economy, money, their property, stability, a sense of security, upwards mobility, etcetera.

Nobody ever really beat the fascists by saying: but we’re offering you democracy!

This is a breakthrough, and it shouldn’t be underestimated. For an American President to stand on the podium and say this stuff? The government should set prices, salaries for bigwigs are way too high, billionaires and corporations should be taxed—I scarcely thought I’d see that day happen, ever, period. America’s been incredibly resistant to these ideas, on both sides of politics. The GOP, of course, built its political fortunes around defending capitalism and individualism, from Reaganomics on, and then Clintonomics was a sort of thinly disguised variant of much the same thing.

In more prosaic terms, this is the sort of stuff that Bernie and Liz have long pleaded for, argued vehemently for, demanded. Where does it come from? Again, from European social democracy, but now let’s make that concrete. In France, the government negotiates everything from drug prices to waiter’s salaries. Executive pay is sharply restrained by both norms and laws. One of the ways in which, for example, smarter parties, like Spain’s socialists, stayed in power, was to give people more support precisely for basic necessities like housing.

So this is incredibly smart stuff—in the sense that we know it works. France is probably the world’s most successful society, by a very long way, right about now, and Spain’s not far behind. America, by contrast, is way behind. It needs to catch up to the rest of the Western world in basic political terms, and that’s by having it’s “sides’ not just be predatory capitalism versus slightly less predatory capitalism, but modern oppositions, like conservative versus liberalism versus green in social democratic terms, which are completely different from America’s. Nobody in Europe, for example, not even conservatives, would say that people deserve nothing, and government shouldn’t exist—but of course America’s do.

So this transforms America politically. It does something long, long overdue, and it does it in a clever way, which is that the people listening to it won’t even know about it. They’re not going to know that “oh, this idea comes from France, and this one from Spain, and this one from the EU itself.” It doesn’t matter, and of course, to make Americans, that’d make it a non-starter. It just puts these ideas front and center, and more importantly, the philosophies behind them.

Those theories of the world, of the good life, of the just society, and how they’re linked. Now, at last, there’s a variant of politics on offer that’s not just “life should just be winners and losers, and winners should take it all, and losers should basically be left to perish.” It’s incredibly important that this happen, for any society, not just America, this evolution of politics to what we call a modern level, not just a sort of still-trapped-in-the 19th century one. In America, the State of the Union is the last place I expected it to, if it ever did.

There’s plenty, plenty more to say, and we’ll discuss it soon. I just wanted to share some quick thoughts with you. Color me impressed. Mightily so. Is it going to be enough to beat Trump—remember, just before this, the risk of a Trump landslide was rising swiftly? That’s exactly what we’ll delve into shortly. Thanks for reading—and let me know your thoughts in the comments!!

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