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Politics in the Age of Collapse, Biden’s Vision for American Reinvention, Plus Social Democracy on the Brink

Politics in the Age of Collapse, Biden’s Vision for American Reinvention, Plus Social Democracy on the Brink

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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  1. Why the world cannot afford the rich (Nature)
  2. American dream of owning a home is dead, majority of renters say (Guardian)
  3. Is This What Happens When You Build a Real Social Safety Net, Then Take It Away? (NYT)
  4. What’s the Price of a Childhood Turned Into Content? (Cosmopolitan)
  5. What to Do About the Junkification of the Internet (The Atlantic)
  6. Donald Trump’s Mob-Like Takeover of the RNC (Vanity Fair)
  7. Why Is It So Hard to Make Good Clothes in America? (GQ)
  8. Portugal’s electoral outcome sparks concerns over right-wing populism in Europe (El Pais)

Politics in the Age of Collapse

Today, America’s future—and the world’s.

Let’s begin with what we discussed yesterday.

President Biden laid out an election-year blueprint Monday for sweeping new federal spending to lower consumer costs for health care, child care and housing — and enough new taxes on the wealthy and major corporations to pay for those proposals and still shave $3 trillion off the national debt over the next decade.

Biden would have Congress offer universal prekindergarten education, provide 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, expand anti-poverty tax credits, and create a new tax break for first-time home buyers

That’s a hint of Biden’s vision for his second term in office. It’s remarkable, because it’s visionary. An America President calling for…more, better public goods? Like universal childcare, for example? Having the government negotiate the price of drugs, which at this point are fictions created by MBA beancounters to line the pockets of hedge funds? That’s practically revolutionary.

Biden’s vision is different. Budgets in normal times are staid documents that don’t reveal much. But budgets like this one reveal the outlines of a vision, and in this case, it’s becoming clearer and clearer to see just what that vision is, and where it comes from too. Universal childcare? That comes from Liz Warren, one of her principal ideas. The government negotiating drug prices? That’s a nod to Bernie, who’s long called for universal healthcare. This isn’t the same old politics the Democrats have practiced for too long—freezing out the best ideas in their own party, just because they’re too “radical” or “progressive” or what have you. This is a budget that’s incendiary because it reveals a firestorm of a vision.

What is that vision, exactly?

Social Democracy on the Brink

This is not a normal moment in global political economy. It’s a dire one. Democracy, as we should all know, is imploding globally, more than halving form over 40% of the world to less than 20% in just two decades—one of the key macro trends shaping this age in history.

And in this grim period for democracy, there’s perhaps little bleaker than seeing Europe, the bastion of social democracy, begin to give up on it. European nation after nation has been swept by the far right, from Sweden to Finland to Italy. The latest was Portugal, where the far right party skyrocketed to power, supported by a “youthquake.” 

It’s this context that’s particularly troubling about democratic implosion. Democracy’s not just collapsing from the bottom-up, that is, in poorer nations that failed to really ever become democracies—it’s also collapsing from the top-down, even in the most sophisticated and mature forms of it that there are, like social democracy. It should give all of us pause who are on the side of democracy to see even mature social democracies fighting for their lives, because they are democracy’s greatest accomplishment of all.

That’s what makes Biden’s vision for a renewed America all the more remarkable. While the world’s giving up on democracy, and while even Europe’s giving up on social democracy, Biden’s offering Americans something that’s almost unique and singular in the world today: a way forward.

Biden’s Vision and American Reinvention 

What is Biden’s vision? It’s not quite full-blown mature European style social democracy in one fell swoop. Let’s be pragmatic—that’s just not realistic, almost anywhere, ever, period. But what Biden’s vision does offer is the broad outlines of a path towards becoming a modernized nation, a truer democracy, a way towards, ultimately, something very much like American social democracy. Now not, let me be clear, not overnight—but I teach you to think in terms of macro trends so that you can see directions, not just datapoints. And the direction Biden wants to take America in couldn’t be clearer.

What is a social democracy? Universal public goods. Advanced human rights. Equality—not just of “opportunity,” but in a material sense. A guarantee, if you like, that everybody will enjoy at least some minimal set of living standards, a floor below which things shouldn’t fall. Collective investment in all that, which keeps social classes stable, social groups together, and social bonds tight, all of which lead to far more happiness, stability, security, and cohesion than in purely capitalist societies.

Biden’s vision puts America on that path. In case you don’t see, let’s just take the simplest contours of his budget. Higher taxes on the rich and corporations, invested back in public goods, or at least quasi-public goods, and that word just means, things like tax credits that benefit most people. It should be eminently clear why that makes so much sense…

Living standards are stuck or falling. That’s true at a global, civilizational level, and it’s true in America. The average person around the globe is now getting poorer, in real terms, and so, in many ways, is the average American. That is an incredibly dangerous place to be, for a civilization, or a society, because of course, the resulting feelings of neglect, distrust, and rage are precisely what lead to self-destructive turns to fanaticism and empower demagogues.

The Political Economy of Renewal

The way that we fix that, and the only way we fix that, is through the logic in Biden’s budget. More must be invested in the median, by and from the very top. The top has grown too wealthy, has too many resources, is hoarding what societies need to progress, and until some of that is reclaimed, and invested in actually beneficial things, activities, purposes again, living standards will stay stuck or falling. 

That logic, at least in America, is practically revolutionary. The last half century of American politics has flatly rejected the idea that the top should pay more so that there’s more to invest in the average, at the median, in the things that benefit everyone most. Instead, what America’s had is wave after wave of privatization, financialization, deregulation—because the consensus governing political philosophy was “trickle down” economics, aka neoliberalism, which basically said: nobody should have anything, and everybody should have to pay for everything, and markets are the only way to organize a society, not public institutions, goods, or investment.

Biden, in other words, is breaking with the logic of half a century. That’s a remarkable thing to see, because he’s not exactly a spring chicken. He was one of the guys practicing, believing in, this logic of neoliberalism, for a very long time. And credit should be given where it’s due. To see someone in their 80s still learning, growing, maturing—that’s an amazing and wonderful thing. That’s a demonstration of courage, to admit one’s mistakes, and wisdom, to learn from them. And that sort of thing adds up to character.

I’m not a raging Biden fan—I disagree with him on many things, like I’ll often say, from Gaza to debt and beyond. But it’s be unfair of me not to note the above, and how precious it is, really, in a world that’s absent of leadership. Biden is beginning to electrify people because this is what leadership is in an age of collapse—it begins with just this sort of common-sense wisdom, which is in such short supply.

America the Laggard—and America the Leader

I was recently watching Ken Burns’ magisterial The Vietnam War. I watch it every so often—an amazing chronicle. And one of the points that Ken makes, implicitly, is that the war cost America much more than anyone thought it would in the beginning. In the end, it cost Lyndon Johnson his Big Idea, which was the Great Society. 

Having had to throw so much money, so many resources, and so many lives at the war, America riven, divided, traumatized, Johnson stepped aside, gave up on the Great Society—if you don’t know what it was, I’m about to come to that—and Nixon came into power. The rest is history, as they say.

The Great Society was a kind of mirror of the New Deal. Johnson wanted America to be a society that was more socially democratic, in key ways, even if it wasn’t quite called that.

The Great Society was a set of domestic programs in the United States launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and 1965. The term was first referenced during a 1964 speech by Johnson at Ohio University, then later formally presented at the University of Michigan, and came to represent his domestic agenda. The main goal was the total elimination of poverty and racial injustice.

New major federal programs that addressed civil rights, education, medical care, urban problems, rural poverty, and transportation were launched during this period. The program and its initiatives were subsequently promoted by LBJ and fellow Democrats in Congress in the 1960s. The Great Society in scope and sweep resembled the 1930s New Deal domestic agenda of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Johnsonian vision was that America could be a more equal society, with a bigger government, that would invest more in public goods for everyone, from healthcare to transportation to education and beyond. 

Now let’s think of history. What was happening in Europe at just that time? Precisely the same sorts of ideas and currents were arising. By the 1970s, social democracy had become a movement proper in both Canada and Europe, the way we think of it today, in contemporary terms, and great institutions were built, to provide people all those things that today, a whole lot of American envy, as basic human rights.

The failure of Johnson’s Great Society was no small thing, in other words. It had a cataclysmic effect, echoing down history. It put America on a very different trajectory than its peers. Europe and Canada would go on to mature into social democracy proper, people enjoying vastly higher living standards, while America would…founder. 

If you think I’m kidding, or exaggerating, remember that by 1971, American real incomes had flatlined, and didn’t rise again…ever. To this day, they’re more or less stagnant. And all of that, ultimately, is what created the conditions for Trumpism. By 2010 or so, the once-vaunted middle class was a minority, and the working class was in ruins. The Great Society might have averted all that. Instead, America paid a steep price for the Cold War: it never modernized as a society.

Biden, in other words, is picking up the mantle of history. He is trying to pick up, in a way, where Lyndon Johnson left off, picking up the mantle of modernization, in turn, from FDR. Since then, though, America’s stagnated precisely because…America’s stagnated. It’s fortunes have flatlined and declined because there has been no growth and maturity of democracy in these historical terms, from liberal democracy to social democracy, if you like, or just from the antiquated notion that nobody should have anything much as a basic right, to the modern notion that, yes, of course they should. 

America’s Choice Couldn’t Be Clearer

All of that brings me to this choice, this moment. The choice facing America has become clearer and clearer over the last few months, and by now, it’s snapping into sharp relief. It’s as stark as they come. Trump isn’t yesterday’s Trump—now, he’s an openly aspiring dictator, who revels in vengeance, trumpets authoritarianism, and has a plan for a totalitarian society ready to go from day one. Biden isn’t yesterday’s Biden, either, though—this vision is for America to change course, at last, and follow the direction that FDR set, and Johnson tried to go in, but ultimately failed at. It is to renew the thinking behind the New Deal and the Great Society, and modernize America, with renewed investment, which leads, as we know from history, to far greater prosperity and stability.

The choice America faces now is crystal clear. Trump offers every flavor of implosive politics in one poisonous cocktail: authoritarianism, fascism, theocracy, totalitarianism. Biden offers America a chance, at last, to get back on the road to modernity, the road not travelled, but the one that should have been trodden, all along. And lead the world back onto that path, too.

I don’t know what Americans will choose. History is watching, and the world is waiting. Let us hope that they consider all this, and take a moment to reflect, on the mistakes that have already been made—so they don’t add to that tally and burden, with the greatest one of all.

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