The Formidable Candidacy of Joe Biden

Is Joe Biden beatable in 2024? Forget the gnawing apprehension on the right that the Democratic Party has figured out how to bend election results in its favor. Ignore the looming question of who is to be the Republican Party nominee. All else being equal, is Joe Biden too formidable a candidate for conservatives to defeat?

The 2022 midterm election was not a fluke. Conservatives were caught off guard and, to this day, do not really understand what happened. The lesson of the midterm election—to invoke Orwellian language for the now-Orwellian world in which we live—is that apparent weakness turned out to be real strength. Joe Biden, the shadow of a president, held the Democratic coalition together, not through his strength, but through his weakness. Weak poll numbers for Biden? They work in his favor. His relative popularity does not matter; what matters is that through his weakness, the identity politics coalition holds together and marches forward.

To understand and grapple with this paradox, conservatives must jettison old paradigms. The presidential election is right around the corner. The Right is not ready for it. Their ideas are outdated, suitable for wars past but not present. Tired proclamations about the long march of cultural Marxism through our institutions and about the evils of Progressivism may fill the coffers of conservative think tanks, but they misread the current moment. They cannot help us understand why, appearances notwithstanding, Joe Biden is a formidable candidate, and why he is likely to win a second term. Joe Biden is neither a Marxist nor a progressive, nor are many members of the Democratic Party. 

Some may still call themselves Marxists or Progressives, but these familiar markers obscure a new and dangerous project that has been gestating in the womb of America’s once-beloved universities for several decades, and which has spilled over into politics. To prepare for the upcoming offensive, conservatives can start by declaring that the Left is pouring new wine into old bottles, and that the new wine is poisonous to our body politic. They must stop talking about the old bottles of cultural Marxism and Progressivism. Immediately. Otherwise they will continue to look positively Jurassic, and painfully behind the times. 

The future has arrived, and American citizens know it. We have entered a new moment in American history. The enemy is not Marxism abroad and Progressivism at home. The enemy is identity politics, which the Biden Administration is exporting abroad and consolidating at home. Identity politics shares with Marxism the proposition that the world is differentiated along one axis, namely, the oppressors and the oppressed, and it shares with Progressivism the idea that the state must reorganize society from above. 

It’s the Identity Politics Moment

What is new with identity politics is how oppressor and oppressed are understood—not in terms of economic class, as in Marxism, but in terms of your identity victim status, which has little to do with how wealthy or poor you are. You can be fabulously wealthy and still claim to be oppressed, say, because you are a victim of climate change, or of toxic masculinity. However twisted his ideas may have been, Marx cared about economics. In the identity politics world, the only economy that matters is the spiritual economy that measures your victimhood points. The more points you have, the more you have a right to speak, and to expect others to shut up and listen. The more points you have, the more your fellow citizens must defer, and the more the government owes you

Gone is the economic pricing signal that once indicated to entrepreneurs where resources should profitably be allocated. Marx thought that the ruthlessness of the pricing signal would advance capitalism to the point where the problem of scarcity could be finally solved and communism could be instituted. Identity politics short-circuits this long historical march. In an identity politics world, we have arrived at the end of history. The only thing that matters now is squaring up old debts—say, historical wounds from hundreds of years ago—between so-called identity groups. Therein lies real profit. Marxism looked to a future redemption from necessity and from alienation. Identity politics looks to past wounds to calculate current retribution. 

What is new with identity politics is the implasticity of groups. In Marxism, you can one day be an oppressor and the next day be oppressed, depending on your changing economic fortunes. Not so with identity politics. In the identity politics world, if you are white, you are forever white. Identity categories, moreover, do not admit of variance. White is one. Black is one. If you are white, unless you publicly demonstrate that you are not a racist—more on this shortly—you are a racist. If you are black and conservative, you are not really black. You are a category that has no public standing, hence the need, within identity politics, to erase Justice Clarence Thomas and every other black conservative. 

What is new with identity politics is the special standing of the white man. In Marxism, the capitalists were of every nationality and color. Wherever money became the singular measure of value, there you found a capitalist. Identity politics does not care about capitalists. It cares only if you are an innocent victim, which is why capitalists around the planet are wrapping themselves in the mantle of victimhood, and getting a pass on the extraordinary wealth they have amassed. As long as you feign solidarity with so-called victims, you, too, can be a one percenter. Bud Light, anyone? The whole of identity politics holds together only through the presence of the white man. He is the prime transgressor, on the basis of which every other innocent victim establishes his or her (their?) standing. Your intersectional victim score is determined by the extent to which you are not white, heterosexual, male, and Christian. Do you wonder why a disproportionate number of Gen Zs declare themselves to be “gender fluid”? In a world where only victims count (and that has been what they have been taught), everyone must become a victim. Once only citizens had standing in America; now only victims do. 

What is new with identity politics is the basis of social solidarity. In Marxism, solidarity of the right kind involved opposition to members of the bourgeois class. Solidarity was economic solidarity. In the identity politics world, members of different economic classes can commingle and pretend they have common cause. Against whom? Against the broad swath of what used to be called “Middle America.” Against fly-over country, and all it represents, namely whiteness. Hence, the sick rituals on college campuses across the country where, if you are white, you must admit your “privilege,” swear allegiance to DEI, to green energy, to “sustainability,” and appear to repudiate “toxic masculinity.” If you do all this, you graduate into the inner sanctum; you get to join the ESG team at Blackrock, the wealthiest holding company in the world, with $10 trillion under management. Marx thought that money would become the singular measure of all things in the capitalist age; in fact, victimhood has become the singular measure. If you have it (or can feign it, as Blackrock does), then you get the money. Welcome to the identity politics economy, where your victimhood points in the spiritual economy entitle you to wealth in the monied economy.

What is new with identity politics is its anti-egalitarianism. Marxism saw in feudalism a vast hierarchy of classes that capitalism had reduced to two: the oppressors and the oppressed. The cruelty of capitalism, nevertheless, was comprehended within a larger theodicy, according to which gross equalities would be overcome in the end, and man would achieve the perfect equality of communism. A nice dream. Identity politics does not attend to inequality, as Marxism did, but rather to inequity, which is to be redressed by reconfiguring the entire social hierarchy according to how many victimhood points each monovalent identity group deserves. The goal is not equality; the goal is a new social ranking, which will be achieved through spiritual eugenics that sorts out the pure from stained. In this world, the irredeemables have no legitimate place. Equal protection under the law? A white prejudice. Free speech guarantees under the Constitution? More white prejudice, inscribed into a white document. It’s payback time. Justice equals retribution. 

Joe Biden as Prime Transgressor

Identity politics needs the prime transgressor, for without him there is no scapegoat against which all the innocent victims can measure themselves. But it tolerates him only so long as he is addicted to pornography or to drugs, works in the analog world that will soon be superseded by digital technology, and is willing to play the evil villain or the wimp who gets beaten up by girls on Netflix. Every sick society needs its Emmanuel Goldstein—the hated phantom who brings a measure of order to citizens who are themselves deeply disordered. To be a successful white heterosexual man today, you must actively encourage that hate, not least through self-loathing, which you are taught from an early age. Little wonder so many of our young men today suffer depression and ponder suicide.

What is new with identity politics is its fixation on stain rather than on scarcity, as was the obsession with Marxism. Speaking biblically, the account given in the third chapter of Genesis is that man’s stain—his transgression—occurred first, and scarcity (Gen. 3:19: “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread”) came second. Marx reversed that formulation: scarcity is the first problem of man, from which arose the second problem, namely, man’s pride and cruelty. Solve the problem of scarcity and you solve the problem of man’s inhumanity to man. We know how that worked out. Identity politics returns us to the first problem, the problem of stain, and tries to rid the world of it entirely, whether by purging the irredeemables or by spending $50 trillion dollars to transition to a so-called Green Economy. In this sense, identity politics is closer to Christianity than is Marxism, but that is a matter to be treated elsewhere.

Now turn to politics. What is new with identity politics is the central role a neutralized or self-neutralizing white heterosexual president must play. Under Progressivism, the president presided over an ever-expanding national bureaucracy. Under identity politics, the president must advocate for every innocent victim’s cause, while at the same time appearing to be neutral. The only person who can actually do that is a neutralized or self-neutralized white man of the sort that Joe Biden is. The innocent victims know that he will be their dauntless and unqualified defender. Ice cream is not the only thing to which Joe Biden cannot say no. The cost of not defending every identity victim group—cancellation—is too high for him not to endorse everything they think they want. 

That is why they will vote for Biden. Innocent victims feel safe having him as president because they know he cannot advocate on behalf of his own identity group, which he must publicly renounce as racist. Whoever the Republican candidate is, Biden will denounce him as a racist, in order to indicate that he, unlike, say, Donald Trump, is the right kind of white man. And because he is the right kind of white man, his purported family corruption racket will be downplayed and ignored. Legal injustice is a small price to pay for the deeper spiritual reckoning identity politics seeks to achieve. Our legacy media agree.

If innocent victims feel safe with Joe Biden as president, we might ask what would make them feel unsafe? Here we get to the central problem that identity politics cannot resolve without a neutralized or self-neutralizing prime transgressor as president. Consider the identity politics term, “people of color” (POC). In what consists their unity? Is there a natural affinity between them, or is their affinity contrived? The latter, of course. The history of the world consists of violence between all peoples, whatever their color. The contrived unity of POC consists in the fact that they are not white, and that therefore they are, together, innocent victims. The same may be said about the growing letter alliance of LGBTQIA+. Their unity consists in not being a combination of white, male, heterosexual, and Christian. Is that an adequate basis of unity? Certainly not. 

This lack of unity is what makes it unlikely—nay, almost impossible—for any member of any innocent victim group to become president during this identity politics reign of terror. Hillary Clinton? Kamala Harris? Pete Buttigieg? 

Forget the general election. Because of their identity group standing, they will have trouble enough getting their own party’s nomination going forward, because no other identity group will see them as a neutral—or rather a neutralized—arbiter. The identity politics coalition is held together, and rendered momentarily harmonious, I repeat, only because of the headship of the prime transgressor, through whom each identity group can position itself, without internecine contestation, as a legitimate recipient of government largesse. The state-of-nature struggle between identity groups is kept in abeyance only because there is, so to speak, an outsider-insider—a figure who is above the fray and whose position within identity politics is the precondition for its coherence: a very weak, white, male, who is nominally Christian. Joe Biden, and others like him who head up our corporations and universities, are, we might say, the last legitimate white men. They alone make possible the intersectional spiritual eugenics that identity politics promotes. No other kind of white man can have standing in American society today. That is why, for the Left, Donald Trump is literally an existential threat. 

Do not, then, underestimate the candidacy of Joe Biden. His weakness, as I have said, should not be construed as weakness, but rather as strength. For through his weakness, the identity politics coalition becomes strong. To paraphrase St. Paul, its power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

Identity Politics Antichrist or American Pragmatist?

A final word, which decency demands. It is with revulsion that I have offered what I have written here. For our beloved and wounded American republic to survive in anything like its historic form, this grotesque chapter of American history, in which we are fixated on “white,” “black,” “POC,” “LGBTQIA+,” etc., must be brought to a close. I am under no illusion that groups are irrelevant to the past, present, and future of our country. America is the land of just-enough liberalism, the land where we step away from our ethnic and racial inheritance just enough to be liberal citizens. But we now live with the delusion that groups—and the purity-and-stain-hierarchy that supposedly obtains between them—are the only things that matter. The president of the United States cannot be the identity politics presider-in-chief, which is how the Biden Administration proceeds, and will proceed, if reelected for another four years. The cost of this arrangement is literally and figuratively too high. 

Is the Republican Party up to the challenge? Based on its current self-understanding, no, it is not. We are not dealing here with normal politics, nor are we dealing with old enemies. We are dealing with something more akin to a spell that has been cast over a vast swath of America, which can only be dispelled by an anti-identity politics candidate who can convince the electorate, even those now in a stuporous condition, that far from delivering us from an impure world, identity politics presides over world that entails the permanence of irredeemable stain, from which there is no redemption, save by elimination. Our families? Impure. Christianity? Impure. Our history? Impure. Our monuments? Impure. Like Marxism of the 19th and 20th century, identity politics seeks a purified world. Unlike Marxism, identity politics will leave us with nothing to have or to hold. That is because man’s world is itself impure, and always will be. Christianity gives man a way to live in the impure world that his sin has created—through Divine grace and forgiveness. Not so with identity politics, which is America’s latest Great Awakening unto man’s irredeemable impurity, this time without God and without forgiveness. 

I do not believe that the spell of identity politics can be fully broken without a reinvigorated Christendom, by which I mean here a civilization in which a preponderance of its peoples understands that the purification for which man longs can only be achieved through divine grace rather than through the mortal scapegoating that identity politics practices. Short of that redevelopment, whose future contours no one can see, and which no mortal effort, alone, can manufacture, the spell can begin to lose its power if an identity politics anti-christ candidate, like Donald Trump, elicits such cathartic rage on the Left that conservatives and moderates, and even some on the old Left, awaken to the danger that identity politics increasingly poses to our country, and vote for him—not because they love him, but because they fear spiraling further into oblivion without him. 

Alternatively, the spell can begin to be broken if a less incendiary candidate emerges who can tap into the deep reservoir of pragmatism—America’s only philosophical tradition—and demonstrate with hard evidence that identity politics, far from bringing about “social justice,” as it claims, benefits only a narrow band of elites who are fixated on victimhood rather than on competence and harms everyone else. 

In short, this candidate must reveal that identity politics simply does not work for and in our American democracy. As things now stand, that candidate is Ron Desantis. 

The identity politics antichrist or the American pragmatist: soon we will see if one of these two Republican candidates can weaken the identity politics spell that makes an otherwise weak Joe Biden into a truly formidable contender for reelection.

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About Joshua Mitchell

Joshua Mitchell is a professor of political theory at Georgetown University, and a Senior Fellow at the Common Sense Society. His books include Tocqueville in Arabia: The Anxieties of the Democratic Age (Encounter Books), and American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time (Encounter, 2020). He lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Photo: Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images