On Contact: Don’t be fooled by Joe Biden
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to history professor and author Paul Street about the Biden administration and its continuity with the Democratic and Republic administrations’ policies and programs to benefit the elite and corporate interests, rather than working-class Americans.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today we're going to discuss why Joe Biden is not FDR with the historian and author, Paul Street.
Paul Street: We want to look back at the '30s and the New Deal and how they happened. They happened because there was thunder on the Left. There was dissent in the streets, right before the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act. Probably the two key progressive linchpin measures. Far from perfect. And they excluded much of the minority and Black population from their coverage, incidentally. We should not romanticize the New Deal. But they were breakthrough pieces of legislation for much of the working class population, old age pensions and the legalization of union organizing and collective bargaining. The year before those happened, there was--there was a gigantic longshoremen strike all across the Western Coast. There was a general strike led by Trotskyist Teamsters in the Twin Cities. There was a national textile strike. There were hunger marches from coast to coast. And every major city in this country had a resurgent Left. Up in the Twin Cities, it was often syndicalist, IWW, and Trotskyist. In Chicago and Detroit, it was communist. Probably the dominant tendency was the Communist Party. A lot of issues with the Communist Party but also a lot of great organizing.
CH: Don't be fooled by Joe Biden. He knows his infrastructure and education bills have as much chance of becoming law as the $15 minimum wage or the $2,000 stimulus checks he promised as a candidate. He knows his America Jobs Plan will never create, as he says, millions of good-paying jobs, jobs Americans can raise their families on, any more than NAFTA, which he supported, would, as was also promised, create millions of good-paying jobs. His mantra of Buy American is worthless. He knows the vast majority of our consumer, electronics, apparel, furniture, and industrial supplies are made in China by workers who earn an average of one or two dollars an hour and lack unions and basic labor rights. He knows his call to lower deductibles and prescription drug cost in the Affordable Care Act will never be permitted by the corporations that profit from healthcare. He knows the corporate donors that fund the Democratic Party will ensure their lobbyists will continue to write the laws that guarantee they pay little or no taxes. He knows the corporate subsidies and tax incentives he proposes as a solution to eliminate the climate crisis or deal with it will do nothing to halt oil and gas fracking, shut down coal-fired plants, or halt the construction of new pipelines for gas-fired power plants. His promises of reform have no more weight than those pedaled by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who Biden slavishly served, and who also promised social equality while betraying working men and women. Joining me to discuss the Biden administration and it's continuity with the Democratic and Republican administrations that preceded it is history professor and author, Paul Street. So, Paul, I know you, like I, have been stunned at the response by Liberals and Progressives endowing Biden with a kind of radical agenda that's just not there. Explain to me what this is about and why it's happening.
PS: Well, some of what it's about is branding. Nothing new. You may recall when Obama was elected in 2008, there were all kinds of frankly absurd analogies, the FDR and the New Deal being made. I came to New York to sell my book, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, and just received all kinds of pushback from Progressives. Not just from Liberals who wanted very badly to believe that this was a New Deal moment. So this is kind of a recurrent theme. Christopher Hitchens once described the essence of American politics as the manipulation of populism by elitism. I don't know if the word is populism here. But fake progressivism in the claim that there are all these things happening or that might happen that really aren't happening and aren't going to happen. And they're certainly not the kind of things a New Deal progressivism that one would have any reason to expect from Biden and the basis of his very long-term political career in Washington DC. They used to call this guy the senator from Mastercard. He rolled back bankruptcy protections. He backed corporate price fixing as a senator. He helped Coca-Cola avoid antitrust prosecution. He was a champion of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He helped champion financial deregulation in the 1990s and got behind the so-called Welfare Reform, in other words the elimination of family--basic family cash assistance for very poor families. And I could go on. It's all rather silly but it's part of the sales job, right? And it made, to some extent, also express a desire on the part of certain commentators and [INDISTINCT] something right. That we are, after all, in a period of just absurd income and wealth inequality which is intimately related back to rampant insecurity and the--and the problems of the ecocide and excessive corporate control and oligarchy and all those things. So perhaps there's some wishful thinking involved in all of this as well.
CH: Let's talk about his address to the nation because he acknowledges social inequality. He acknowledges the climate crises. And then you have a response by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, Jonathan Alter, and others. But let's look as I know you have, let's look at that speech itself, because there, in fact, are some very disturbing, I think, trends within that speech or--especially in terms of foreign policy. But let's go through the talk.
PS: Well, you know, I've glanced at it a couple times, and one thing that really leapt out at me was the embrace of the notion of competitiveness, American competitiveness and American competition. Also jobs. But, I mean, I actually wrote down. "America is rising a new," he said. "Ready to take off. On the move again." And then, of course, vis-a-vis, who else, China. So this embrace of competition, which is really the embrace of the core anarchy and insecurity of capitalism. Competition means insecurity in the lives of most American and most global people. But everything--when you're speaking the language of competition and competitiveness, which to me is also following Marx's analysis, the language of anarchy and chaos. You are sort of saying that everything's going to be subordinated to profit, be subordinated to profit rates and to international imperial competition and realpolitik. And that means that all the other things that you purport to be for, rolling back inequality and increasing labor rights and social justice and all that, are probably going to go by the wayside because it's all about making America great again. When you think about it, he wouldn't have used that language. They'd be afraid of it. But really how different is America is rising anew? America is ready to take off again? It's just sort of a more sophisticated neoliberal Democratic way of saying, "We're going to make America great again." And it's--how different is it? And, in fact, in some ways, on the foreign policy level, it's actually more aggressive and more imperial-sounding than Trump who was no isolation. There's a--there's a bit of a myth--mythology about that. But--yet, for whatever reasons, have a kind of less imperial take particularly on Russia. And, yeah, some of that language was very disturbing, to say the least.
CH: What's your response to the people who are trumpeting Biden as the new FDR? People like Kristof, Alter, and others.
PS: I'm just kind of amazed by it, and yet I'm not surprised by it. It's just sort of stunningly inappropriate. I mean, FDR got to the point by the--by the mid '30s, when he was going for reelection, he would repeatedly say he would denounce the economic royalists. You know, it was right to do. And he cleaned up at 1936 with his second election, in part because he did, because that's how Americans felt. And he--and he actually said, "I welcome their hatred. I welcome the hatred of the economic." And, of course, he was from the economic [INDISTINCT] it was just part of why he could get away with it as much as he did. Biden said to Manhattan donors in 2019, he said, "I have no interest in demonizing millionaires and billionaires. I don't think they're the problem. And nothing will fundamentally change when I'm elected president. No one's standard of living will ever change." FDR, to some extent, pushed a very real public sector job-creating interventions in the economy, the CCC, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority. I don't want to exaggerate how much of that there really was, but there was some of that. I regularly use parks that were built by the CCC, you know, in the Upper Midwest that's really neat. There's no--there's no actual job-creating direct public sector infrastructure building in Biden's agenda that I can see, and so this infrastructure plan, if it gets through, of course it's going to be watered down by Joe mentioning the Republicans, does not involve direct, you know, public jobs. Biden, even in his--in his speech, claiming to be sort of progressive, is only talking about bringing tax progressivity back to the era of George W. Bush. He wants, I think, what, 40% tax on the upper income bracket. That's George W. Bush. Before Reagan, it was in the 70s, the top--the top tax bracket. And under FDR and during World War II, it was in the 90%. So it's nothing remotely close to that. Probably the most remarkable thing that came out of the New Deal, from my perspective--in a previous lifetime, I was labor historian. And there was this really critical piece of legislation called the National Labor Relations Act, the Wagner Act. In many ways, it was the Magna Carta of the emerging industrial workers, mass production, industrial union movement. And I didn't hear one reference, maybe I missed it, to this--to a bill that would essentially relegalize union organizing that has been passed by the House, the PRO Act. And then you pass by the Senate--I mean, if he was really--if we were talking about Joe Biden as being a reincarnation of the New Deal, that would have been highlighted front and center in his speech. And, you know, it has problems in the Senate but it doesn't have to if he would go energetically and aggressively after the filibuster. The filibuster has to go. He hides behind these archaic eighteenth-century senate rules in this ridiculous body, the upper chamber of the US Congress, where Wyoming has as many representatives as California even though Wyoming has less than six hundred thousand people and California has almost four hundred million people. It's an open rejection of the core democratic principle of one person, one vote. And anyone who's serious about moving forward on a progressive agenda, in a New Deal kind of way, if he's anything like Jonathan Alter and Nick Kristof of the New York Times want to think he is, he'd be going after the filibuster. He'd be pushing for Washington DC statehood. Quite frankly, if I was in the White House, I'd be raising the issue of the apportionment of the senate, which is absolutely ridiculous. He would be doing something that FDR did. FDR wielded the threat of expanding the Supreme Court. That is how the Wagner Act was ultimately ruled constitutional in 1937. The Magna Carta of the labor movement. And all Biden has, he had some redirect about expanding the Supreme Court, which, you know, is absurdly to the right of American public opinion. It's a six-three majority. Super majority, right, in the Supreme Court, in a majority progressive nation. It's preposterous. It needs to be expanded. He recently just appointed a Blue Ribbon commission to, you know, do a study of maybe if sometime we ought to expand this currently sort of neo-fascistic far right Supreme Court which appears to be positioned to invalidate Roe v. Wade. So, I mean, these are the kinds of things a real Progressive would do. Now, the other thing that they leave out and--that they won't--that they don't seem to be capable of saying or want to say is that it isn't just about who the president is. It isn't just about who's sitting in the White House. It's who's sitting in the streets and sitting on the shop floors and engaging in direct…
CH: We're going to come back…
CH: …to that, Paul. We're going to come--we're come back exactly to that point. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the proposed reforms of the Biden administration with history professor and author, Paul Street. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the proposed reforms of the Biden administration with history professor and author, Paul Street. So before the break, you mentioned quite correctly that it matters far more who's in the streets. And this was true for the New Deal and for FDR as well. So proclaiming that Biden is going to somehow deliver the New Deal is at fault as the notion, historically, that FDR didn't deliver the New Deal without serious kind of pressure, sit-down strikes in Flint, farm--farmers revolts. But lay out that historical period because it shows how progressive legislation actually comes about.
PS: Yeah. Well, so in his New York Times piece, Jonathan Alter actually has this line. It's just a piece in mid-April. Jonathan Alter, a Liberal Biden-Obama analyst, actually has this line that, "Well, we're going to find out if Biden,"--you know, if we're really going to get the New Deal that Alter thinks that Biden wants to do, the supposed transformative break with neoliberalism. "We're going to find out if Biden can do it because we're going to find out if he has that smooth factor." That's what he said. "You know, to bend the people's arms in Congress because that's how stuff gets done." We want to look back at the '30s and the New Deal and how they happened. They happened because there was thunder on the Left. There was dissent in the streets, right before the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act. Probably the two key progressive linchpin measures. Far from perfect. And they excluded much of the minority and Black population from their coverage, incidentally. We should not romanticize the New Deal. But they were breakthrough pieces of legislation for much of the working class population, old age pensions and the legalization of union organizing and collective bargaining. The year before those happened, there was--there was a gigantic longshoremen strike all across the Western Coast. There was a general strike led by Trotskyist Teamsters in the Twin Cities. There was a national textile strike. There were hunger marches from coast to coast. And every major city in this country had a resurgent Left. Up in the Twin Cities, it was often syndicalist, IWW, and Trotskyist. In Chicago and Detroit, it was communist. Probably the dominant tendency was the Communist Party. A lot of issues with the Communist Party but also a lot of great organizing. And they were on the ground and they were present, and when there were issues in the city like Chicago and people got evicted because they couldn't pay their rent because they lost their jobs and the cops would come and evict them, a Black woman on the South Side would say, "Quick, go get the Reds." And people knew where they were, and they went and got them. And the Reds came with loud speakers and organized a mass resistance. And this was true all over America. And this thunder on the Left shows up in the congressional debates that lead to the passage of a lot of progressive legislation in the mid '30s. If we don't do this then we're going to get revolution. And, of course, there's the Soviet Union at the time and there's fear of revolution elsewhere in the country. So there's that global kind of stance of threat of the Left. And that's not happening. That's always been one sort of kind of thing. You know, another piece that's missing historically too is what the late political economist, Giovanni Arrighi, called workplace bargaining power. There were these remarkable capital-intensive industries that could be shut down, that could be crippled by a stoppage in a Body plant in Flint, Michigan or in--or in the Chicago packing houses at an Armour or a Swift plant. A bunch of Left militant Black workers could stop the killing floor, and a huge, whole gigantic 10,000-worker plant would go down. The whole continuous flow of production. The foundries of the River Rouge Plant and Ford. All that kind of ability, this capacity to disrupt capital-intensive industry was a really big part, and it's--and its ability to potentially undo a recovery from the Great Depression was a big part of what happened in the 1930s. Stoppages, direct actions, and all that. A lot of that--since that time, a lot of those jobs have left this country. Production has been offshored. That kind of capacity doesn't exist. That doesn't mean direct action is irrelevant, but anyone who is really serious about calling for progressive changes would be--and this is something--even Bernie Sanders barely did. I--I've seen a number of things on the Left, including Noam Chomsky, who I have a lot of respect for, excessively claiming that Bernie Sanders was a strong advocate of social movements, beneath and beyond electoral politics. That's what we need. You know, it's what Piven and Cloward wrote about in their book, Poor People's Movements. This continues. This isn't just the '30s. This is true in the '60s. It was true in the Progressive age. It's true in the 19th century. Stuff happens when you have social movements beneath and beyond these quadrennial candidate-centered major party electoral extravaganzas that are sold to us as the only thing. You know, but politics--you know, Bernie, at the end of the day, was really ultimately about these quadrennial extravaganzas. And, you know, AOC and him say things that sound different every once--but it's really--they're really enmeshed in this corporate captive realm of electoral politics. So if he was serious about all of this, he'd be coupling it with a call for people in the streets. I thought, under Trump, that if Democrats were serious about getting Trump out of--I thought Trump deserved mass movements in the street. I'm glad that Trump is gone. It's very important to me that Trump is gone. But he's not gone the way I think he should have been. He should have been forced out by mass action. And the Democrats never called for it. They--it's just--their job is to keep--one of my jokes is always one of their top job is to keep people off the streets, right? When people occupied all over this country in the fall of 2011, Obama made sure to subtlety work with Democrats in cities, coast to coast, to infiltrate and dismantle the Occupy Wall Street rebellion, which was a actual populous rebellion for a while.
CH: I want to talk about the consequences. So most of this money that Biden has proposed will go either to corporations or to the states with just a tiny, miniscule amounts, one-time checks of $1,400…
CH: …of unemployment benefits which are about to expire, tax credit for children. But really just, you know--it doesn't in any way deal with the structural assault…
CH: …on the working class. What are the consequence--most of this is going to run out by the end of the year. What are the consequences of that, politically?
PS: Well, I think they--you know, they say there's a tendency almost always. 1934 and Roosevelt was an exception for the party of power to lose the House of Representative. The party and presidential power usually loses the midterm elections. There are rare exceptions when that doesn't happen. 1934 was one because of the total discrediting of the GOP by the Great Depression and Herbert Hoover and FDR's pretty sophisticated public relations and promises of a New Deal, and George W. Bush because of 9/11 and all the sympathy he got after the jetliner. But typically the party comes back, and I would--I would think that that's slated to happen again. And it's a strong possibility. Also given the fact of the incredible right wing gerrymandering of our House districts in this country. There is a bill that came out of the House that's an election reform bill, that targets gerrymandering in hopes to undo them. And also it targets all this racist voter--Republican voter suppression that's going on in the states. But it can't get past the Senate until we get past the filibuster and "Sleepy Joe" Biden and "King" Joe Manchin who's just an absurdly powerful man because of his position, have voiced their opposition to getting rid of the filibuster, so it won't get passed. So the threat is the standard Democratic Party, Inauthentic Opposition Party demobilization of their own base, opening the door for electoral triumph of the--of a--of a Republican Party that isn't just my grandfather's Republican Party anymore. Sort of White nationalist and neo-fascist. It has been for a while. This happened in 2010. I mean, this is the story of George in many ways, along with the absurdities of the electoral college. The stories of George Bush's two elections, to some extent, the story of--that's a big part of the--the Democrat's demobilization of their own base, the big part of Trump's initial election in 2016, it's a part of the Tea Party midterms in 2010. I--I'm not a prognosticator or an electoral 538 guy, but my sense is that the experts are giving a very strong chance for the GOP getting in the House. And I imagine that could involve some revenge impeachments of Joe Biden. So, you know, the S show deepens, and it could potentially bring a Republican back, God forbid, maybe even Trump himself, in '24, unless Biden and the Dems were to get really serious. And to get serious would mean, among other things, embracing structural and institutional change in the policy system itself. They're scared to get rid of the filibuster. "Because then the Republicans will get in, and then they'll,"--well, guess what? We don't have--we can't move forward without things like Green Deal and like a real federal minimum wage or the relegalization of union organizing. Don't be scared. You know, they're not going to do this. You know, I'm not trying to go into a mindset of, "If I was a Progressive Democrat," but I'll do that for a second. Don't be scared. Then jam the stuff through that has majority support in such a way to guarantee that the Republicans can't come back. This is a--the Republicans are a power that should--or a party that needs to be swept into the dustbin of history anyway. Do it. But they won't. They don't actually want to. They're caught up in a codependent, mutually reinforcing relationship with an increasing White nationalist, neo-fascist GOP. And it's a very sick game, and it's being played on all of us. And the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The top one percent have ninety percent of the wealth before Trump was even elected. God knows what the maldistribution is now after COVID. I did hear Biden say something to the effect that 643 rich people became a trillion dollars more wealthy during COVID. What are you going to do about that, Joe? Probably not much if anything.
CH: Well, the Democratic Party works for Goldman Sachs and Citibank and--that's who they work for, and that's who Biden has always worked for.
PS: You bet.
CH: And that is the fundamental structural problem with American politics. Thanks. That was history professor and author, Paul Street, on how Joe Biden is not FDR.