Joe Biden might seem like the 2020 candidate of anachronism. He’s old in a party that skews young; a white, straight candidate courting an increasingly diverse electorate; an old-school liberal in a party moving to the left; and more conventionally credentialed than hot commodities such as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Biden isn’t entirely alone in these qualities. Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are old and white. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is running on competence. The bigger question for Biden is this: does the Democratic Party’s “Great Awokening” doom an admittedly handsy politician whose past positions on racial issues are decidedly outdated.
For the uninitiated (and for the purposes of this column), to be woke is to declare oneself alert to manifestations of injustice, particularly around identity politics. Broadly, wokeness might indicate a belief that problems such as mass incarceration, the racial wealth gap, the gender pay gap and unpunished sexual assault are features, not bugs, of our culture and institutions, and that collective action is necessary to dismantle the structures that promote and preserve these imbalances.
By this standard, many Democrats have quickly become increasingly woke over the last few years, but the party’s evolution isn’t universal. This state of flux actually makes Biden a potentially good fit for where the party is — even if he fails to represent its ultimate destination.
Both these shifts and the areas of remaining disagreement are striking. In 2010, Pew Research found that 28 percent of Democrats said that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days,” rising to 64 percent by 2017. That same year, though, 28 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners instead said that “blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for own condition.” In 2018, 29 percent of Democrats agreed that racial differences are due to lack of motivation or will power.
Democrats largely agree on some policy fixes to racial inequality — including affirmative action, which 84 percent of them see as a good thing. But less than a quarter of Democrats said that the level of government spending on assistance to African Americans is “about right,” in contrast to rising support for increasing spending in this area. And according to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll, 59 percent of Clinton voters from 2016 said that slavery is a major factor in the racial wealth gap, but only 33 percent wanted the government to make cash payments to the descendents of slaves (another third said the government shouldn’t, and a third were unsure).
Crime and policing issues, an area where Biden’s record in the Senate diverges from contemporary conversations in the Democratic Party, also provoke division. YouGov found that 81 percent of Democrats believe that discrimination against blacks by the police and the criminal-justice system is a problem. But Pew found that most Democrats feel warmly towards the police, and that a quarter of Democrats felt that police were doing a good or excellent job of “treating racial and ethnic groups equally” in 2016.
Democrats have also moved on gender and sexuality, but this transition in public opinion isn’t unanimous. Almost no Democrats believe that men are better suited to politics than women, and almost all would vote (and more than 90 percent have voted) for a female presidential candidate. But Democrats aren’t unified on abortion, with about 1 in 5 saying abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Democrats have quickly moved left on LGBT issues, as well. Overwhelming majorities of Democrats support marriage equality and would vote for an lesbian or gay presidential candidate, but a quarter of Democrats still think it’s wrong for two adults of the same gender to have sexual relations, according to the General Social Survey.
These numbers pose a real conundrum for Biden. The less-woke constituency of the Democratic Party isn’t big enough for Biden to guarantee a majority or even a plurality. And he’d likely flop — and would certainly undercut his claims of experience and provoke cries of expediency — if, like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), he chucked his old record and ran hard to the left.
Instead, Biden’s strength could be in his status as a bridge between the past and the present. Biden opposed busing during the 1970s, but was vice president to the man who broke the Oval Office’s color barrier. Biden (intentionally or not) forced President Barack Obama to support marriage rights for LGBT couples ahead of the 2012 election by announcing his own change of heart before Obama did. He’s also in the habit of making not-great jokes about Asian Americans and getting way too physically close to female politicians and supporters — though he has pledged to be “much more mindful” about touching women in what he says he intended as gestures of support.
Joe Biden doesn’t have a spotless record and hasn’t been perfectly liberal on race. Neither has his party. The former vice president probably isn’t the future of the Democratic Party but, for better or worse, he could end up becoming its present.