Recent years in American politics have brought into sharp focus the divides that now characterize American society, from rural vs. urban to gender, race, and class. It seems that our age is characterized by disunity, and with President Trump making moves to accentuate the chasm between the left and the right, the prospects of bringing the two halves of the American electorate into any sort of communion with each other grow dimmer by the month. The divide is reflected especially in the voting patterns of both elected officials (who these days tend to vote strictly along party lines in Congress and state legislatures) and the general populace, millions of whom voted earlier this month to elect Joe Biden by a margin of just 81,000 votes in a few swing states (as of November 13th). We are a nation as divided as ever, and neither side has shown any willingness to come together again.
Into this mix steps Joe Biden, the ultimate centrist, and champion of compromise. Biden’s commitment to compromise as a political principle stems as much from his personality as a realpolitik strategy for negotiations in a democracy. As Evan Osnos, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now, tells the story, Joe Biden grew into the man he is because the Senate nurtured him after the devastating loss of his first wife and a daughter in a car accident soon after he won his first term as a senator. Broken and suicidal at the age of 29, Joe Biden’s new colleagues in the Senate took care of him and, knowing that Biden had to raise his two young sons in Scranton, Pennsylvania, they struck a compromise with him. In return for continuing to serve as a Senator despite his difficult personal circumstances, he was given special treatment. Unlike other Senators, Biden was not expected to participate in Washington’s vibrant social scene; instead, he spent the time we would have otherwise given to socializing commuting back to Scranton to be with his children. Concessions were made on both sides of the aisle to facilitate this deviation from the “business as usual” status quo of Senatorial life. The support Biden received from his colleagues was both bipartisan and universal, and it taught him something that came to shape the way he approached politics in general - whether he was dealing with old-guard Republicans like Orrin Hatch or Segregationists in his home state of Delaware, Biden learned through his time of grieving and rehabilitation in the Senate that there is something truly decent about every human being and that if a politician takes the time to understand what someone needs on their own terms, a compromise can usually be found and a deal can be struck. With this sacred truth as his foundation, he matured as a politician through the 1980s and 1990s, coming to idealize the Senate as an institution of compromise and dignity. Biden’s attitude toward the Senate is essential to understanding who he is as a person and a politician. In Joe Biden’s worldview, the greatest thing a person can aspire to be in life is a great legislator, and especially a great Senator - and the key to achieving that is a steadfast commitment to compromise.
Today’s Senate is nothing like the Senate Biden grew up in, and neither is the political climate in Washington or America in general. These days, brinkmanship and pyrrhic victories are preferred over deal-making that could give one’s opponents any positive outcome, no matter how meager. In relation, Biden is a politician from a bygone age. Biden’s role in Obama’s failed attempt to compromise with Republicans in the House during the early 2010s is a clear example of his antiquation. In 2012, Obama failed to deliver the so-called “grand bargain” with the Republicans on taxes and the National Debt, and Biden, for once wary of deal-making with the Republicans, was in the room when negotiations fell apart. At one of the most important moments in American political history, a principled commitment to compromise was not enough. It was a harbinger of things to come.
The rest of the 2010s were characterized by the deeper entrenchment of conservatives' refusals to compromise with liberals. President Trump’s victory in 2016 was both a symptom and a cause of this division. But the latter 2010s saw a new phenomenon develop in reaction to Republican brinkmanship: the rise of cancel culture during the #metoo movement and a general disillusionment with compromise on the Left. Cancel culture is especially caustic and antithetical to Biden’s liberalism, but its values are now mainstream in leftist circles. While it would be inappropriate to give too much credence to the charge that cancels culture has come to represent the core values of the left – cancel culture is more like the frothy white cap at the top of a blue wave of liberal discontent – it is the most visible form of disillusionment with the principle of compromise that has come to challenge the core values of those old senatorial center-left politics of which Biden is perhaps the greatest champion. In this sense, Biden is not just ill-equipped to deal with Trump-ified Republicans in the same way Obama was during the early 2010s, but he is also badly out of step with the new wave of hardened leftism that has come to define the politics of left-of-center democrats.
For Biden, the current climate of division almost guarantees failure. On the one hand, if Biden seeks to make policy deals with Republicans, as he is most likely to do, he will either most likely fail to move the stony heart of Mitch McConnell in the Senate and/or be canceled by the newly ascendant left. On the other hand, if Biden abandons the values he has stood for his entire life, namely a deep and abiding commitment to centrism and the deployment of a patient, compassionate strategy of compromise and mutual benefit, he will alienate his liberal base who voted for him mostly out of a desire for politics to go back to normal, i.e., to return to the way things were before Trump and before compromise became a thing of the past.
The question now is this: can Joe Biden convince America that compromise is both possible and worth pursuing again? Joe Biden thinks the answer is ‘yes.’
“I know some of the smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity,” Biden said during his speech announcing his run for president in 2019. “The angrier a candidate can be, the better chance they have to win the nomination. I don’t believe it. I really don’t. I believe Democrats want to unify this nation.”
Political messaging based on the theme of compromise, a version of classic messaging based on the theme of unity, has certainly won the hearts and minds of Americans in the past. Exactly one hundred years ago, Warren Harding successfully ran for presidency with the slogan “a return to normalcy” and a staunch commitment to unifying the nation, saying: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” Harding won handily with 60.3 percent of the vote and 37 states.
But that was a century ago, at the start of the roaring ’20s. Biden’s Harding-esque message of unity seems a century old, and Biden’s salesmanship seems to have stagnated as well since the days of his youth when he was known as an overly confident loudmouth in the Senate. “Consensus is not weakness,” Biden said in his announcement speech. “It’s the only way our founders down the road there thought we could govern. It was necessary. It was designed the way the Constitution sits. It requires consensus. I did it as a senator. I did it as your vice president, working with Barack Obama. It’s what I will do as your president.” To this, the left may respond: "Consensus with our enemies is not possible, and while you did find consensus with racists as a senator, you did not find consensus with Republicans under Obama. If the Constitution requires it, then perhaps the Constitution must be rewritten." Meanwhile, the over 70 million Americans on the right have already responded: "We want Trump, not you. Go home, Joe."
For the sake of the world, it would be good if Joe Biden, against all odds, somehow succeeds in the task he has set for himself to heal the divisions within this great nation. It is safe to say that all Americans, right and left, would welcome deals that benefitted themselves; the problem is that we also want those deals to hurt the other side. Biden’s quest is to convince us to put away our anger toward each other and give up the second half of that deal-making attitude. For many Americans, the principle of compromise is dead and gone. But there are still enough people who believe in a compromise that trust in it as a foundation of democracy could be renewed. And people change. Biden has changed. Biden knows what personal growth is as his career in the Senate demonstrates, and in that regard, he may end up being just the right man for this job. Only time will tell.