17. A Guide to Joe Biden


August 4th, 2020

1 hr 5 mins 14 secs

Your Host

About this Episode

Regardless of whether I agree with Joe Biden’s politics, after reading about him in depth I really like Joe Biden. I did not expect to like Joe Biden. I expected to find him to be an acceptable alternative to Donald Trump. But now I have real hope that a Biden presidency could transform our nation. Hear me out!

In 2010 Jules Witcover published an excellent biography of Joe Biden entitled: “Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption.” If you can only read one book about Joe Biden, that should be the one. Biden’s 2007 autobiography “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics” give a little more detail about his motivations at key moments. His 2017 book “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose” is Joe Biden’s telling of the year his son Beau died of cancer and how Biden managed being the Vice President through that. Joe Biden is like FDR in that they both suffered great hardship, and that personal tragedy drove them to seek out compassionate policy. But we should start from the beginning.

Joe Biden’s childhood was idyllic. Joe was a star athlete throughout childhood, and apparently a fearless little dare devil. He did stunts, like Jackass, except he never got hurt. He had a community that rallied to him and lifted him up. His family was not wealthy, but they were not poor. They were upper middle class, though his Father Biden Sr. suffered a series of business failures and periodic unemployment throughout Joe’s early childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The family is Irish Catholic, and so Biden had temperance drilled into him at a young age. It’s possible Joe Biden has never had an alcoholic drink. His parents seem to have succeeded in instilling in Joe Biden a basic optimism about human nature: the idea that people don’t mean to harm each other really, but they end up doing it on accident seems to be something Joe Biden fundamentally believes in. When Joe was 10 his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware where Biden Sr. got work cleaning boilers. Joe’s family couldn’t afford to send him to private school, but the young athletic teen had ambitions so he did a work study program. He worked as a janitor at the school so he could attend Archmere Academy (Witcover, p. 21). Joe Biden has a stutter, and he was made fun of by other kids and even one of the nuns who taught at his private school. That first experience of being humiliated for something he had no control over seems to inform the rest of his career: it’s probably why he became a civil rights activist.

Teen Joe Biden hung out at a burger joint called the Charcoal Pit. I just imagine the typical 50s pharmacy hang out where kids would go to have milkshakes after school. Joe Biden was a football star who wanted to become a priest. His mother insisted that he go to college first. The Archmere football team, the Archmere Archers, ended a long losing streak in 1960 thanks in part to Joe’s talents at playing half-back. Wilmington was not as segregated as much of the United States, and the football team had a Black player, Frank Hutchins. One day the owner of the Charcoal Pit refused to serve Frank Hutchins, and in response Joe Biden led the team in a walk out in protest. I’ve been around activist culture for a long time, but I haven’t met anyone who led a protest against racial discrimination in High School. That’s who Joe Biden is. Around this time is when Joe Biden became a lifeguard at a public swimming pool in the Black part of town. Ta-Nehisi Coates was recently interviewed by Ezra Klein. One of the things Coates mentions that makes him optimistic about the current moment is that white people seem to be aware of the racial discrimination that Black people face in America, an awareness that was missing in ‘68. It’s no small thing that Joe Biden was aware of racial discrimination in ‘61. Though he was not throughout his life big on going to protests, he did march in the sixties in support of desegregation (Witcover, p. 31).

In 1969 Joe Biden was a lawyer working at a fancy law firm Pricket, Ward, Burt and Sanders (Witcover, p.51). It was his first job as a lawyer. One day that year Biden helped write the defense of a company, Catalytic Construction Company. A welder had been badly burned and crippled, but because the worker had not been wearing protective gear the lawsuit failed to get him compensation. Biden decided he didn’t like practicing that kind of law, so he quit and took a much lower paying job as a public defender. Most of his clients were Black. His first case was a robbery, and the defendant, Mr. Earl Larkin, confessed the crime to Biden. Biden had been given one day to prepare to defend Larkin and lost the case. Several years later Biden, then a Senator, was touring a state prison with a reporter. All these inmates recognized Joe Biden, and the reporter quipped that Biden must be a helluva lawyer or something like that, making fun of the fact that many of Biden’s clients were behind bars. Witcover describes what happened next: “an arm reached out and grabbed the reporter, telling him ‘I’ll tell you one thing. Biden will stand up for a black motherfucker, unlike you!’ The inmate, Biden said, was none other than his first client, Earl Larkin.” (p. 55). In 1970 Joe Biden successfully runs for a county council seat. He won by 2,000 votes in an election where Democrats suffered big losses statewide (Wicover, p. 59). Biden made a name for himself on the council for fighting corporate developments, particularly in the oil industry, that threatened the local environment, taking on Shell’s attempts to set up refineries along Delaware’s coastline. (p. 62).

In 1972 Joe Biden ran for Senate. He was running against a three term incumbent. Delaware is a small state, so Joe Biden was able to engage most of the electorate in a street fight, going door to door. He ran against the Vietnam War, though not against any and all American intervention overseas. He was also against granting amnesty for people who had dodged the draft, and against legalizing marijuana. In other words, there has always been in Joe Biden’s platform something for everyone to hate. But Joe Biden was never able to lie to people for political advantage. He never pandered to the public for personal gain. This will come up again and again in the discussion that follows: you may not like what Joe Biden is saying, but you can be sure he means it. One thing that forces itself on you when you investigate Joe Biden’s political career is that he was in the fight for racial equality before he was a politician, all the way back to High School. It was his strong stand for desegregation that earned him the support of Sonia Sloan. She passed away this past October at the age of 91, and according to her obituary she “was an advocate for Planned Parenthood in Delaware, the ACLU and the YWCA. She also opposed the Vietnam War” (https://www.delawarepublic.org/post/delaware-democratic-activist-sonia-sloan-dies-age-91). Sloan supported every one of Joe Biden’s campaigns over the years, and that started in 1972 when by her recommendation the Council for a Livable World invested $25,000 in Biden’s longshot Senate campaign. They are taking a bet on desegregation, because that’s what Joe Biden is about. Biden was running on a platform of voting rights, civil rights, calling for a national health care program for families in need and a capital gains tax. Regarding his fund raising efforts during that campaign he wrote this: “when I began to show strength adn it looked as though I might win, thirteen multimillionaires from my state invited me to cocktails. The spokesman of the group said, ‘Well, Joe, we would like to ask you a few questions. We know that everybody running for public office feels compelled to talk about tax reform, and we know that you have been talking tax reform, particularly capital gains and gains for millionaires by consequence of unearned income.’ Then one man -as if to say it was just among us- ‘Joe, you really don’t mean what you say about capital gains, do you?’ Again, I knew what the right answer to that question [and it] was worth $20,000 in contributions. I did not give the correct answers… and accordingly I received no money.’” (Wicover, p. 79).

He won that first senate bid, and before he was even sworn in he suffered a terrible tragedy. His wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident. He almost didn’t serve as Senator, but people convinced him that his country needed him and that diving into the work would help him forget. He kept his house in Delaware, and his sister Valerie moved in to help him take care of his two remaining sons Beau and Hunter. This is when he became notorious for taking Amtrak trains every day early in the evening, around 4pm. He had to get home to be with his family. It meant he didn’t socialize with the other Senators. It meant he wasn’t as popular personally. He would often miss votes on the Senate floor. This is part of what I meant earlier when I said that Joe Biden is someone who has suffered terribly in life, and that this is part of where his compassion comes from. That compassion isn’t fake. It’s not political theatre. Again, you may disagree with him on policy, but I don’t think anyone who looks at Joe Biden’s life can really claim he isn’t motivated by a real desire to serve the public and to be a comfort for those who suffer.

Before we get into Biden’s political career is as good a moment as any to address the accusation of corruption. It’s a banal commonplace on the left today to call Biden a corporate Democrat, to casually assume that Biden’s political judgements are controlled by corporate interests. We’ve already discussed the David v. Goliath struggles of Biden as a county councilman, and his refusal of quid pro quo arrangements to fund his campaign in 1972. But what about Biden the full grown Senator? Delaware experienced a boom in its banking sector after some key deregulation at the state level in 1980 (Witcover, p. 292). Biden has never served on the Senate’s Banking Committee, though he is obligated to provide constituency services to some of the biggest financial institutions in the world. David Bakerian, the president and CEO of the Delaware Bankers Association describes Biden this way, from Witcover: “we have upward of thirty-five thousand people working in the banking community in Delaware, a very large employment force in a state this small, the largest non farming industry in Delaware. People would say Biden was close to the industry because we were such a large constituency, so whether we were banking or autos, depending on what state it was, he would listen to our concerns and he would vote with us sometimes and not vote with us other times. Joe was always fairly evenhanded. In the same vein, he would not be what I would call an overly probusiness legislator. He was supported generally by the banking industry, but that had more to do with his seniority than with his voting record.” (p. 295). In Biden’s 1996 bid for the Senate Biden’s opponent claimed that the Maryland Bankers National Association had overpaid when Joe Biden sold his house in Wilmington. Biden released the financial records of the deal showing the appraised value was about the same as the price paid (p. 295). Ok, so we don’t have any proof of financial wrongdoing over the span of a 36 year career in the Senate. That doesn’t prove 100% that there never was any. Well, consider that according to the required public statements regarding personal finances, again from Witcover, Biden is “among the least financially secure of all members of the Senate. His home was his most valuable material possession, and he and Jill were living off his Senate salary of about $166,000 a year in 2006 and her smaller salary as a community college teacher” (p. 299). If Biden is bought by corporate interests, then he’s doing it wrong. Let’s talk about Biden’s political career, starting in 1972 as the young civil rights activist and former public defence attorney is beginning the healing process from having lost his wife and child and his first term as a Senator at the same time.

Within the civil rights movement there was a split about how to desegregate. In an earlier episode we discussed how in 1972 Amiri Baraka and Julian Bond and too many others to mention all met in Gary, Indiana to work out a united political front to advance the interests of Black people at the National Black Political Convention (NBPC). Richard G. Hatcher had become the first Black mayor of Gary in 1967. Hatcher was a lawyer who won a landmark desegregation case in Gary in 1962 (Johnson, p. 102). There were lots of different ideas about how to desegregate. One of these ideas was to take school busing, which in many places was in place to enforce school segregation, and to use busing instead to desegregate schools. The Black Agenda that came out of the 1972 NBPC rejected busing as a tool for desegregation stating that busing was “a bankrupt, suicidal method of desegregating schools, based on the false notion that black children are unable to learn unless they are in the same setting as white children.” (Delmont, p.1). The anti-busing part of the 1972 statement was publicly denounced by many Black leaders including the Congressional Black Caucus (https://www.nytimes.com/1972/05/20/archives/black-convention-eases-busing-and-israeli-stands-but-the-guidelines.html). The civil rights movement was split. Joe Biden opposed busing as a tool for desegregation, preferring progressive measures to help Black people get access to quality housing. To be clear, Biden was for busing to desegregate schools wherever a court mandated it: wherever a court could prove that public policy was creating segregated schools, Biden was all for the courts ordering an end to those policies. But when people were trying to make busing a method to try and desegregate places that were de facto segregated, not by any government policy but just because of history, Biden thought some other kind of policy should be used, namely housing policy, which he thought would get at the root of the matter. He also thought that busing would make white flight worse: that turned out to be true. In ‘72 Biden could see that the public housing blocks that the previous generation of liberal politicians had built were a poverty trap. In his first term in office Biden pushed for housing reform, specifically urban homesteading. He wanted the Federal Housing Administration to take over abandoned homes and sell them cheaply to low income households. In other words, he didn’t want to just bus a lucky few token Black children to another school district, he wanted to give Black families a chance to move into better neighborhoods. It’s a more radical kind of desegregation. The old Democratic establishment, people like Hubert Humphrey, felt that Biden was attacking their accomplishments and feeding the right wing narratives that public housing was a failure. But public housing in the form of large block house tenements was a failure: it’s just that Biden recognized it before any of the old guard democrats. (Biden, PTK, p. 108).

Much has been made lately of Biden’s friendly relationship with segregationists. Biden wasn’t friends with segregationists because he shared their racialist philosophies. He was friendly with them because that helped him beat their segregationist policies. I’ll talk some about what his approach was and what it accomplished, but first I have to speak with woke white people for a moment. Here’s another PSA:

Dear woke white people,
When you block an old friend or family member for saying something racist, you make sure you can never help that person grow or change. You can never convince that person to be even a little less racist. You are claiming the privilege to be able to not have people you know who are racist. But if you can’t have that conversation with them, no one can. You’re letting us all down. Setting boundaries because someone is abusive is one thing, but blocking someone because you get embarrassed by what they say is failing to engage the fight against racism. White people have got to challenge the racism of other white people. Stop blocking people for being racist and start challenging them in a consistent and friendly way, and stop shaming each other for having racist friends. How is racism ever going to be challenged if racists don’t have any nonracist friends? White people, we need to do better. End of PSA.

Over the course of this podcast I have regularly recalled to the listener that the task of government is to promote the well being of the people and to negotiate differences of opinion. Where governments have failed to represent the will of the people they have suffered illegitimacy, for instance the managed democracy of Germany after 1871, or they have devolved into civil war as in Spain in the 30s. Joe Biden has one political value that is stronger than any other: that is that government shouldn’t represent the interests of any minority but should reflect the consensus opinion of society so far as that is possible. That’s why when he describes his first term in the Senate he describes so emotively how his desk sat between those of the radical Democrat Webster and the state’s rights Calhoun. After 30 years of these two men debating the issue the nation broke out in Civil War. He then discusses how one day in that time he had badmouthed Jesse Helms as heartless, and how Mike Mansfield took him aside to inform him that Helms had several years back adopted a child with cerebral palsy. Mansfield suggested Biden would be more productive as a Senator if he tried to find the good in everyone. Biden: “There was nothing difficult about taking Mansfield’s advice. In the Biden family, even as children, there had always been an assumption of good intentions… Never once has a member of the Biden family purposefully inflicted pain on another. We start with an assumption of goodwill toward one another. The same should hold true in the Senate family, Mansfield was reminding me. It’s probably the single most important piece of advice I got in my career.” (p. 111).

As for what we gained from the work Democrats did in the 60s and 70s in coalition with people they radically disagreed with on segregation? Well, segregationist Dixiecrats, while they were alienated from the Democratic party at large, remained a powerful force in the Senate through to the 90s. They had seniority, which we discussed the importance of previously in the episode on Black Power. The civil rights Democrats were fighting asymmetric warfare against an entrenched enemy (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/06/28/why-joe-biden-was-right-work-with-segregationists/). When the majority Democrat Senate Chairman Mike Mansfield moved the Civil Rights Act to the floor for a vote in 1964 he was bypassing the dixiecratic Judiciary Committee. That, along with Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the bill was thought of by the Dixiecrats as a betrayal, and so the southern chairmen afterwards formed a bloc that wouldn’t allow the chairman to wield power in that way again. The Civil Rights Act wouldn’t have passed, by the way, if it had not been for the fact that 27 Republicans voted for it. In 1975 when the Civil Rights Act came up for renewal, Eastman appointed Senator Hart to head the Judiciary Committee to review it, knowing Hart would pass the bill to the Senate for a vote (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/06/biden-segregationist-eastland-talmadge/592228/). Another segregationist Talmadge helped pass food stamps and supported the Watergate investigations. Dixiecrats helped elect Jimmy Carter. And finally, without Biden having made a personal friendship with segregationist Senator Eastland, Biden could not have come to chair the Judiciary committee where as we shall see he likely saved Roe v. Wade by shutting down the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. This was the nature of politics in the 70s: segregationists had seniority and had to be engaged. When Biden was invited to give the eulogy for Strom Thurmond, he was surprised but he went and eulogized Strom Thurmond. In that eulogy, which I link to in the transcripts, Joe Biden declares that Thurmond had sincerely left his racist opinions behind, citing how Thurmond had voted against poll taxes, for the extension of the Voting Rights Act and for the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. day as a national holiday (https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/joebidenstromthurmondeulogy.htm). I think you can try and criticize Biden about whether he made the right trade offs in particular instances, but you cannot fault him for playing the game. The worst outcome would have been to leave the field to the segregationists.

Biden’s abortion stand is not perfect, but it’s honest. He became a Senator right after Roe v. Wade, and so right away he had to cast votes regarding abortion. He took the stand that women had a legal right in accordance with Roe v. Wade, based on their right to privacy, but he didn’t want public funds going to abortion services. It’s a political stand that he takes on moral grounds, being a devout Catholic, and it was guaranteed to upset everyone. At the same time, you know he means what he says. Throughout the 70s and 80s Biden voted against federal assistance to health insurance that could fund abortions, even in the case of rape and incest. Recently he reversed this stand, and I think it’s of a bigger ideological change in Joe Biden that has been a long time coming. There is a common ideological thread that runs through Biden’s thinking on all of these issues from busing to the Vietnam War to Abortion access: all of these positions imagine that the government should play a small role in peoples’ lives. Government should protect people from corporate abuse and from being forced into unjust wars (more on that later), should ensure equal access to services regardless of race, but shouldn’t try and force people to not be racist (in the case of busing). If people were making morally bad choices, then government could help make drugs illegal or try and improve education and opportunities so women would be less likely to want an abortion. But government wouldn’t make it illegal, or help fund it. I have a criticism of this philosophy, but it’s worth understanding because Biden is going to be our next President, and this seems to have been his philosophy especially early on. The assumption is that if government just makes sure that people aren’t being actively harmed that people should be able to thrive, but offering a helping hand risks playing favorites, which is harmful. The clearest expression of this ideology came out when Biden, as head of the Judiciary committee headed up the hearing to confirm Justice Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. I think it’s around the time of Bork’s nonconfirmation and then Justice Thomas’ confirmation that Biden’s thinking shifts and then we get the Violence Against Women Act. But first let’s talk about Bork.

In 1987 Joe Biden launched his first campaign for President, and a few days later Justice Powell Jr. announced his retirement from the Supreme Court. President Ronald Reagan put forward Justice Robert Bork to replace Powell. Bork had been Nixon’s solicitor general, the guy who agreed to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Bork was replacing Powell, who after he was appointed by Nixon ended up ruling in favor of liberal causes like abortion rights, affirmative action and the separation of church and state (Witcover, p. 171). All kinds of special interest groups wanted to testify against Bork, but Biden wouldn’t let any of them testify. The nomination process was focused primarily on privacy rights. Biden got Bork to say that because an explicit right to privacy wasn’t written into the constitution that Bork might not have to uphold it on the Supreme Court. Biden was making the point that we all have natural rights, given to us by God. Bork thought we only had rights that were explicitly granted in the constitution. Biden became obsessed with Bork’s nomination to the point that his presidential campaign suffered and failed. It’s clear that at some point Biden made a conscious decision to focus on the Bork nomination and to sacrifice his presidential hopes. Biden argued that if Bork were appointed, with his strict construction of the constitution, that it would change the nature of our government. It was essentially a conservative argument about not making big change happen, but in this case it was being made to guarantee privacy rights, and of course one thinks of Roe v. Wade at this point. Roe v. Wade doesn’t rest on a woman’s rights over her body, but on her right to privacy with her doctor. Struck v. SecDef was the case to take to the Supreme Court to argue that lack of access to abortion impacted women’s equal protection, but it never went to the Supreme Court. It would have been a stronger protection, but instead we have Roe that is based on privacy rights. It’s a whole thing, and I’ll link to a good podcast explaining it (https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/on-the-media-body-law-beyond-roe). Biden succeeded in getting Bork’s appointment denied, and in doing so he saved Roe v. Wade and much more. The spot on the Supreme Court was taken later by Justice Kennedy, who is a wild mixed bag of a Justice who deserves his own podcast, and then later because Bush senior had learned from this not to try and appoint justices from the far right, the next vacancy went to Justice Souter. Souter voted in the minority to allow a recount of that election in 2000 where the court let Bush Jr. take the Presidency from Al Gore despite irregularities in Florida, and then later Souter retired basically in protest of how Citizens United was decided. Anyway, Biden’s fight to defeat Bork’s nomination was a major victory for progressives, and it really made Biden develop his political thinking. After Bork, Justices became very tight lipped during their confirmation hearings, with Justice Thomas for instance famously saying during his hearing that he had no opinion about Roe. But in between time Joe Biden began championing a law that addressed women’s oppression as if it were a matter of civil rights. That was the Violence Against Women Act.

Between Bork and the VAWA the question screams at us: what if formally equal protection under the law were not enough? Bork’s point, that government didn’t have a responsibility to uphold any rights that weren’t explicitly guaranteed in the constitution, was pretty close to the way that Biden had legislated up to that point. The Biden who opposed busing would have had to agree with Bork: maybe it is racist where people live but that’s not for the government to say. Biden opposed de jure racial discrimination, explicit legal discrimination, but not de facto segregation: he thought that if government could level the playing field, but not by much, that racial inequality would go away on its own. But the Violence Against Women Act was different. What I think has shifted is an awareness that, as the recent protests over George Floyd have shown, a majority now have that if government does nothing, then existing inequalities get worse. People who are socially forced into unequal relationships, via systemic racism for instance, when they are treated formally and legally the same way means that those institutional inequalities only get worse. With the VAWA Biden showed that he was coming to this awareness, and that where he could he would want to stand for equality.

In December of 1989 a man walked into a college classroom in Montreal, separated the class by sex, and shot fourteen women saying that they were all feminists. The event had a deep impact on Joe Biden, whose daughter Ashley was passionate for the cause of abused women, later becoming a social worker (pp. 309-310). Though it had been brewing since the early seventies, the movement against domestic abuse and violence against women had not found its way into meaningful legislation. Right around this time crime was rising precipitously, and it peaked around 1991 (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/crime-trends-1990-2016). At the time, of course, society at large was very concerned about crime (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/6/20/18677998/joe-biden-1994-crime-bill-law-mass-incarceration). In response, the Senate was working on a crime bill, which finally passed in 1994. Crime has fallen every year since. Bernie Sanders supported the Crime Bill. A majority of the Congressional Black Caucus supported the crime bill. Joe Biden, it is said, wrote the crime bill, because Joe Biden oversaw the committee that wrote the crime bill. But contrary to what some people might think, the crime bill didn’t happen because patriarch Joe Biden forced his will on the nation. Everyone supported the crime bill, and it would have happened even if Joe Biden had opposed it. But in that case someone else would have written the crime bill. Joe Biden even opposed the three strikes rule, but Biden couldn’t make just any law he wanted to: this is a democracy. The law gave the states increased funding for police and prisons. But Joe Biden didn’t disengage from the process either, and he was honestly a candidate who had always believed in the fair and firm application of the law, championing the war against drugs through the 70s and 80s. We note in passing that because Biden engaged with the process of passing the crime bill it included a ban on assault weapons, support for addiction treatment and a “safety valve” that would let off first time offenders. But more importantly, Joe Biden decided this was his opportunity to do something about violence against women.

The Violence Against Women Act provides resources for women suffering from domestic violence and rape, with temporary housing assistance and rape crisis center funding. It’s renewed every 5 years, and the version in 2019 if renewed would end impunity for non-Native perpetrators of violence against Native women. The bill classified violence against women as a hate crime and therefore a civil rights offense. It correctly recognized that the oppression of women by patriarchal violence robs them of equal status with men. In 1995 the Rehnquist Supreme Court struck down that part of the VAWA, which is tragic and something we should fight against by putting a president in the White House who will appoint more enlightened Justices. That being said, let’s focus just for a moment on what Joe Biden’s law meant philosophically. It meant that he saw that if the federal government was going to credibly claim to stand for equal rights for all, then it would have to intervene to stop the behavioral paths, to borrow a concept from Acharya et al (see episode 3), to stop the cycles of violence against vulnerable and oppressed groups. And he was ready to enforce the ending of those patterns of inequality with a large police force. Again, I welcome you to have a philosophical difference with Joe Biden, but I think we have to understand his political work as it is. The 1994 Crime Bill was going to happen with or without Joe Biden: he chose to use it as a vehicle to fight patriarchy. In so doing he was making a strong philosophical break with his previous political path of just keeping the state out of private affairs. These are important changes in political philosophy, and they go a long way to explaining how Joe Biden came to his 2020 platform. Before we talk about that platform we have to talk about his experience in foriegn policy.

Though Biden sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I want to focus on his work after he became the Chair of that committee in 1987.

In May of 1980 Yosip Broz Tito died. He was the authoritarian ruler of Yugoslavia: he had led his country on a path independent of the United States and of Soviet Russia. In 2018 Jasmin Mujanovic blessed the world with his book entitled: “Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans.” The book describes the Balkans as a region that has historically been ruled by local dictators who negotiated their rule with some foriegn power or other, first the Turks and then the Russian. The book stands as a challenge to American and European powers in the region to promote democracy there, and not just repeat the old model of local client to global patron that existed continually in the past. It is also mainly a history of the struggle for democracy there starting after WW2. Quoting from Nick Miller, Mujanovic describes the situation in Yugoslavia after 1980 in these terms: “In short, economic criminality in the 1980s, war crimes int eh 1990s, and contemporary corruption in the Western Balkans should be understood as points along the same continuum. The most recent instances were and remain only the most extreme versions of processes begun in the 1980s and are in many cases perpetrated by exactly the same people. Earlier, when some semblance of a principled democratic opposition still existed, these practices could have been challenged, perhaps even reversed. But by the 1980s the entire structure of the Yugoslave state was beset by the competing, autarchic, and corrupt interests of the various republcian cliques: ‘More devastating for the specific ideology of Yugoslav socialism was the fact that the economic crises of the 1980s provided fuel for increased regionalism (often ethnically constituted) and a further weakening of the federal centre as a decision-making force… By 1986 federal policy-making had essentially ceased.” (p. 65) In the vacuum left by the death of Tito, and in the absence of a strong government response to the democratic will of the people, the people turned to ethno-nationalism and mafia style patriarchs to solve their problems. It is easy to see the resulting wars of the 90s as inevitable, but surely they were not. I highly recommend Mujanovic, and I wish I could spend several podcasts lifting up his work. Here I just wanted to recommend him and us his insight to frame US involvement in Yugoslavia.

Mujanovic goes on to describe how the US and European powers, when confronted by the social chaos brewing in the former Yugoslavia, decided to negotiate partitions between various ethnic zones. The problem is always that populations are always mixed ethnically, and so polities based on ethnicity immediately confront competing claims over which bits of land belong to whom. Because the premise of ethno-nationalism is that people of different ethnicities shouldn’t have to work together and live together in the same state the whole enterprise finally depends upon ethnic cleansing. Slobodan Milosevic rose to power by being better at consolidating Serbian nationalism than anyone else, and with the help of US Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman.

As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden was present for disarmament talks in the late 80s that included Tito himself as well as American cold war diplomats like Biden’s foriegn policy mentor Averell Harriman. The priorities then for the US were nuclear disarmament, a mutual drawdown of forces, and keeping Yugoslavia independent of Soviet Russia. Tito cared about Yugoslavian independence, but didn’t have much invested in disarmament. Biden later recalled: “Harriman was teaching me two lessons. One, never accept received wisdom about a foreign country or a foreign leader when you can go and see for yourself. Tito might be a ‘Communist,’ but not all Communists were the same. And two, Harriman wanted me to see the benefits of constant engagement, even with avowed enemies. Don’t trust, he’d say, but engage. Be tough, but engage. By keeping up relations with leaders like Tito, we could nudge them toward change.” (p. 249).

Biden stood out among his fellow Senators in 1991 when he sounded the alarm about the potential for ethnic violence in Yugoslavia, and because his summary of the situation is so clear and truthful I will quote it at length here: “When I told Senate hearings on the Yugoslav problem in 1991, most of my colleagues thought I was being alarmist. There were small skirmishes breaking out back and forth among the Croats, Serbs, and Muslims, but most folks in the U.S. government insisted this was nothing to get worked up about. Slovenia managed to slip out with its independence. Croatia, with support from its old allies, the germans, declared independence, and in seven months of war that left ten thousand dead, it fought Milosevic to a rough stalemate, although ethnic Serbs held onto the Krajina region and part of eastern Croatia. The situation seemed manageable, though by September 1991 the United Nations was sufficiently concerned that it institute an arms embargo in all of Yugoslavia. Leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina decided to play by the international rules. After consulting with the United Nations and the European Community, the Bosnians held a referendum in march 1992 and voted overwhelmingly to secede from Yugoslavia. Many of the Bosnian Serbs, led by a churlish demagogue named Radovan Karadzic, boycotted the vote- because they hadn’t sufficient numbers to change the outcome-and set up their own rump state within Bosnia. In early april 1992, when the international community officially recognized the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milosevic and Karadzic decided it was time to scrub Bosnia of the Croats and, especially, the Muslims.” (pp. 253-254).

America was painfully slow to respond to reports of a genocide against Albanians by Milosevic. Everyone who wants a better world, or who wants a world where genocide is abolished, should be reading Samantha Power’s 2019 “The Education of An Idealist.” In it she discusses her work trying to shift American policy from one of accommodating to Milosevic as a reliable partner in the region to a vigorous diplomatic and if need be military intervention to halt the ongoing genocide. Here is how she describes the argument in the State department over the Bosnian war, and over America’s passivity in the face of an evolving human rights catastrophe: “The war raged unabated. Four US diplomats -- George Kenney, Marshall Harris, Jon Western, and Stephen Walker -- had already resigned to protest what they saw as the weakness of the US response to the Bosnian war, the largest wave of resignations over US policy in State Department history… Western and other US officials who resigned had initially tried to change policy from within, but having made no headway, had finally quit. They felt they could no longer be part of a US government that wasn’t doing more, reasoning that they could at least draw media attention to what they saw as America’s moral abdication.” (pp. 60-61).The fact is that at the beginning of the 90s a shift was happening in US policy away from tolerating authoritarian governments that they could work with and towards a more robust advocacy of human rights. Clinton’s failure to intervene in Rwanda changed a lot of peoples’ opinions about American nonintervention. When America finally began bombing Milosevic’s forces in 1999 they were acting against one of their clients a decade too late, but they were stopping an ongoing genocide. That’s what it looks like when an imperialist power, waking up from the cold war, makes an effort to promote democracy and human rights, in part against its former clients. It’s remarkable that Biden was ahead of the curve on America’s responsibility toward the peoples of these countries where the US had helped to lift up tyrants.

Each country is different, and we could discuss what went right and wrong about the United Nations backed effort to rebuild the Balkans after the wars of the 90s, but I think we have to discuss the successful American intervention in the Balkans, along with the September 11th attacks, to understand why America invaded Iraq in 2003. I would suggest that the relative success of the international community rebuilding states in Croatia and Slovenia (Mujanovic, p.100), is a stark contrast to the failed Bush policies in Iraq. Usually the failure in Iraq is blamed on the invasion itself, but it’s closer to the truth to say that the failure in Iraq was caused by policy failures after the invasion and unforeseeable events in those first years of the American occupation. What matters to us is why Biden supported the invasion of Iraq, and I think there are two main reasons that are not entirely unconvincing. First of all Biden had the example of the successful humanitarian intervention in the former Yugoslavia fresh in mind as a good example of America breaking with a former client state in a progressive way. Secondly, the idea of invading Iraq was incredibly popular after the attacks of September 11th. The tragedy of Iraq did not begin with the American invasion, and the American invasion didn’t mean that subsequent tragedies were inevitable, though it provided an opportunity for bad actors.

It’s easy for us today to forget the situation the world was right after 9/11. Peter Beinart in his 2008 book “The Good Fight” gives an almost perfect explanation for how the Democrats got suckered into authorizing Bush’s war in Iraq. “For the first year after the attacks, the anti-imperialists wielded little influence. Liberals overwhelmingly backed Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan. Polls showed that Democrats were nearly as likely as Republicans to consider terrorism a ‘very serious’ problem, and to consider the United States in a state of war. And in Congress, Democrats backed the Bush administration’s military buildup and urged even greater spending on homeland security and foreign aid. But Democrats were operating from a position of weakness. Although Clinton had shifted liberal views ont eh use of force, he had not erased the GOP’s post-Vietnam advantage on national security. And when foreign policy retook center stage after 9/ll, Americans picked up where the cold war had left off. They not only rallied around their Republican commander in chief, they told pollsters they trusted his party far more to keep them safe. Once Bush successfully overthrew the Taliban, his clout only grew. In the fall of 2002, Bush took his considerable political capital and put it behind an invasion of Iraq… The Clintonites were deeply concerned that any U.S. military action enjoy international support, and their public comments were generally more muted than those of liberal hawks in the media who urged outright war. But on September 12, 2002, when Bush announced he would take Iraq to the Security Council and seek new resolutions requiring it to disarm, he temporarily allayed the Clintonites’ concerns. So when Iraq came up for a vote in Congress a month later - and Bush said he needed congressional support to gain leverage at the UN - the Democratic foreign policy brain trust was broadly sympathetic. And since few congressional Democrats had much national security expertise of their own, the views of that brain trust loomed large… the polls in late 2002 showed Democrats with an edge on domestic issues like health care and Social Security, and Republicans with a massive advantage on national security. With the midterm elections looming, party strategists yearned to remove foreign policy from the campaign. And the only way to do that was to agree with President Bush on Iraq and then change the subject. As Democratic pollster Mark Mellman put it, ‘we’d rather have the newspapers filled with discussions of pensions.’ So while Democrats with safe seats mostly voted against the war, the party’s congressional leaders, its vulnerable incumbents, and its likely presidential candidates generally voted yes.” (pp. 173-174). When Witcover interviewed Biden for his biography which appeared in 2010, Biden confessed that he was fooled by the Bush administration, particularly Colin Powell who had convinced him that Bush would likely not go to war so long as Saddam Hussein cooperated with the Security Council. We now know that key advisers to Bush had made up their mind to invade Iraq immediately after 9/11. In that biography we find Biden scrambling to rally the Senate to pass legislation that would allow Bush to go to war to disarm Saddam Hussein only after all options had failed. But such a measure met with opposition from Bush, opposition from House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt and even from the usually antiwar Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone, who refused to vote for it in committee. Biden was in the same position that Kautsky was in back in 1914: sitting high enough up in the hierarchy to be responsible but not having any power to shift the course of events. He could only hope that by authorizing the use of force that the Security Council could be leveraged to take real steps to avoid war, and that the Bush administration was not lying when it said that it could still be convinced to try peace. We like to blame the Democrats especially for their votes supporting the war, but that’s only because we forget how many of us Americans were much like them. The war was at the height of its popularity before it began. I happen to think that the worst thing that happened in Iraq was not the invasion, but the subsequent bungling of the state building function. The occupation of Iraq deserves it’s own podcast series, but I think Bush made the same mistake the antiwar movement made: they both thought that a hands off approach would let the Iraqis build their own state. It turns out that was not the case. It turns out that laissez faire was a terrible mistake. Once we were in Iraq Joe Biden had the good sense to support a marshal plan style development project. Instead Bush disbanded the Republican Guard while Iran’s Qassem Sulleiman was transporting his longtime enemy Alqaeda from Afghanistan to Iraq, with lots of Iranian money in their pockets. The resulting civil war was a foregone conclusion at that point, but no one in the Bush administration had a clue. Joe Biden criticized the Bush administration’s lack of planning to rebuild Iraq before, during and after the invasion. At any rate, what’s important about this record is that Biden’s vote to authorize Bush’s war in Iraq doesn’t mean that Biden is a war hawk, it means he responds to the public will, and the more accurate measure of his propensity to engage US troops should be the eight years he spent as Obama’s Vice President. He’s no warmonger, though as in Kosovo I could see him intervening to stop genocide. And I think that’s a good thing.

That seems to bring us up to the present, and if we can judge from Biden’s platform we can say that his experiences have shifted his politics considerably. One big change that happened recently is that Biden came out against the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment would make it illegal for federal funds to help someone get an abortion. Young Biden would have 100% been for the Hyde Amendment. 2020 Biden is against it. What changed? The common thread in Biden’s ideology is that everyone deserves equal protection under the law: that’s what the 14th amendment says. But Republican trap laws have aimed at making abortion clinics satisfy an impossibly high standard to remain open. The argument then is that poor people are discriminated against because their access to the same care as wealthy people is shut down. Does Biden get that? Does Biden understand the deeper point: that formal legal equality isn’t enough to ensure equal protection? Well, here is how he explained his new rejection of the Hyde Amendment: “If I believe healthcare is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code,” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/06/us/politics/joe-biden-hyde-amendment.html). And he’s right. The same shift in Biden after the Bork hearings that brought him to the Violence Against Women Act has worked on Biden. The oppression of women in domestic issues impacts their civil rights, their right to equal protection under the law. It’s not enough to have colorblind law. The state has to intervene to stop parts of society from oppressing other parts of society. That basic idea is carved deep into every aspect of Biden’s 2020 platform. Before I list off some of those policy proposals, I want to remind everyone that Biden doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean, ever: he’s the guy who in the 70s wanted to end the Vietnam war but not grant amnesty for draft dodgers, wanted to improve public housing to desegregate but didn’t support busing. He still doesn’t support busing for de facto segregation. He doesn’t change his position on issues to pander for votes. You might notice that some of these policies are not the most radical, but they are all things that Biden, as a career politician with 36 years of experience in the Senate, believes can be accomplished. As one should expect from the fact that Biden has brought much of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, like AOC, into working groups to develop policy, Joe Biden’s platform leans far to the left (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/05/21/joe-biden-bernie-sanders-work-together-bring-progressives-board/5155900002/). Here is what Biden will do in office.


Biden wants to abolish the death penalty and end cash bail. He wants to put an end to higher penalties for crack versus powdered cocaine. He wants to end minimum sentencing and eliminate private prisons. Taken together these policies represent an end to mass incarceration.

Joe Biden wants to set up a committee to investigate how to implement reparations for slavery, jim crow and mass incarceration.

Biden wants to offer two years of free college to everyone, make teacher’s salaries competitive to other professions, fix the loan forgiveness program and close down private charter schools, i.e. private schools that get public funding.

Biden wants citizens united overturned, and since 1974 has pushed for campaign finance reform.

Biden wants the government to enforce the Affordable Care Act and provide a public option for healthcare, the next step towards single payer.

Biden is for the Green New Deal. He wants to fund programs that incentivize farmers practicing soil conservation. He wants to tax carbon emissions. He wants to end federal subsidies to oil and gas companies in the form of leases on federal land. Biden wants to modernize our nuclear industry so that it is safer and produces less waste.

Biden wants to start a program to buy back automatic weapons, wants universal background checks for firearm purchases and a federal firearms registry. This puts Biden firmly to the left of Bernie Sanders on gun control.

Biden supports paid family and sick leave, something no other Democratic candidate supported. Joe Biden wants a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour, something every Democratic candidate supported.

If anyone was wondering, Joe Biden is still fighting for desegregation. That’s why his platform includes such far reaching reform of housing, attacking red lining and encouraging quality low income housing, specifically working to make sure the poorest no longer pay any more than 30% of their income on housing. It’s not busing, but it takes aim at the root causes of generational inequality. (https://joebiden.com/housing/)

In this illuminating conversation with Andrew Yang Biden says we need “revolutionary Institutional change.” (minute 17, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/on-the-economy-with-andrew-yang/id1505238447?i=1000474319469). Joe Biden is right about that. In this conversation with Reverend Barber, Joe Biden says that the experience of Covid has shifted peoples’ appreciation for low wage workers, and that this shift has prepared us to address “the underlying fundamental causes of poverty.” (min. 11:30, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/heres-the-deal/id1505238447?i=1000471239570). Joe is right about that. Listen to how Joe Biden opens space for Reverend Barber to talk about his poor people’s campaign: after pointing out that COVID has disproportionately targeted Black people, Joe says: “Why don’t I hush up, as my mama would say.” (minute 2:30) Isn’t it time for a President who models listening to black people? I’ve linked to multiple campaign ads where Biden centers Black voices.

Like he does here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZuxk-tPLmA

And like he does here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBOJg_xvJk0

And like he does here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_uYieJFYcI

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there are no angels or devils in power. In power there are only imperfect people making tradeoffs with limited knowledge. But if you ever said that the Democratic party was the party of the ruling class because it had a pro-business agenda, then you have to now say they are the party of the working class because they all support a $15 minimum wage. It’s more accurate to say that the Democratic Party is not the party either of the ruling class, nor of the working class. They are a liberal party trying to help, not to save, the world. They are not saviors, but neither are we socialists. Having investigated the matter, I find that Joe Biden is not the lesser evil: Joe Biden is a necessary good.


Beinart, Peter. The Good Fight: Why Liberals, and Only Liberals, Can Win the War on Terror. Melbourne Univ. Publishing, 2007.

Biden, Joe. Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose. Macmillan, 2017.

Biden, Joe. Promises to keep: on life and politics. Random House, 2007.

Cedric Johnson. Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2010.

Delmont, Matthew F. Why busing failed: Race, media, and the national resistance to school desegregation. Vol. 42. Univ of California Press, 2016.

Rothstein, Richard. The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright Publishing, 2017.

Witcover, Jules. Joe Biden: a life of trial and redemption. Harper Collins, 2010.




Music: Cassandra by Fabian Tell, Answers Lie Within by John Bjork, else Harry