Joe Biden’s radical compassion

August 21, 2020 7:45 am
Joe Biden Former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden speaking with supporters at a town hall hosted by the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition at Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 33 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Joe Biden by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0 Former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden speaking with supporters at a town hall hosted by the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition at Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 33 in Des Moines, Iowa.

On the closing night of the Democratic convention, the whole four-day, stations-of-the-cross march through COVID, climate catastrophe, family separation, gun violence, hatred, bigotry and injustice finally made sense.

This was not  “a normal convention,” as President Obama put it, but then, “It’s not a normal time.”  There was very little levity, and a whole lot of mourning in America. By the final night we were all ready for some redemption. And we got it, in the run-up to Joe Biden’s acceptance speech. An extraordinary tribute brought together all the candidates from the 2020 Democratic primary to tell stories about Biden’s moments of compassion and friendship toward his rivals.

“In Joe Biden,” Bernie Sanders said, “you have a human being who is empathetic, who is honest, who is decent. And at this particular moment in American history, my God, that is something that this country absolutely needs.”   

The biographical video introduction of Biden broke the mold.

Instead of a heroic account of youthful promise fulfilled, we heard about the tragedy and suffering that made Biden into someone who can understand the pain so many people are living through today. Lingering shots subtly emphasized Biden’s Catholic faith, showing him in a meeting on Ash Wednesday, his forehead smudged with ashes, and sitting in church, his hands gripping a rosary.  This is a man who has been tested by the trials of life, the whole presentation implied, and who has emerged ready to do what has to be done — to fight for America, as he put it in his acceptance speech, as “ an ally of the light not of the darkness.,

It was a good speech, and good choreography, emphasizing the reasons people will vote for Biden, whether he was their first choice or not — in order to get rid of the sociopath currently occupying the White House, and to try to recover a sense of decency, hope and humanity that our nation has lost under Donald Trump.

After days of contemplating the depths to which we’ve sunk, it was a relief to hear Biden talk about how “we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America. We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.”

Humility and compassion are not qualities you expect to hear extolled in a candidate for president in the United States. 

But four years of Trump’s nihilistic leadership — and the disaster he helped bring down on us — seems to have jolted America into a different way of looking at things.

The argument for Biden is an argument for someone who is everything Trump is not — a leader who treats people with empathy and respect, who puts others ahead of himself.

“It’s about winning the heart, and yes, the soul of America,” as Biden put it, extending the religious metaphor.

In the way he has chosen to contrast himself with the current bully-in-chief, Biden exposes Trump’s venality in advance of the next round of attacks.

One of the last primetime speakers at the convention was a little boy with a stutter who was encouraged and inspired by Biden, who had told him about his own struggles with stuttering when he was a child. You can easily imagine Trump doing a cruel imitation of the boy. You cannot imagine him taking the time to comfort or inspire a child.

As Sen. Tammy Baldwin put it, the choice in this election is “what kind of country do we want to be?”

On Thursday night the Democrats made a powerful case not just for choosing to get rid of Trump, but for choosing the kind of leadership represented by Biden.

There are plenty of young people and progressives who remain unconvinced that Biden was the right candidate to beat Trump, or to solve the deep, systemic problems the DNC spent the last week dwelling on.

There is reason to be concerned. Not just, as Henry Redman reports, because the Democratic establishment has still not figured out how to connect with young voters and maintains an awkward relationship with its base.

There are real issues of substance to be concerned about, including a top Biden advisor’s comments this week indicating that now might not be the time for ambitious government spending on healthcare or green jobs, and hinting that deficit-reduction through austerity measures might turn out to be a Biden administration priority.

There is no doubt that the grassroots activists who are leading the movement against Trump in the streets, from the Women’s March to Black Lives Matter to Fight for $15 are going to have to keep on pushing during the Biden administration. 

But there is also reason to believe that Biden is inclined to be pushed to do the right thing 

Here in Wisconsin, there are signs of hope.

Not long ago, an older, white, male candidate with a gentle, folksy demeanor managed to defeat an aggressive, right-wing governor who had mobilized the worst impulses of the citizens of our state, turning neighbor against neighbor, and pursuing both a tone and a policy agenda of meanness and destruction. That candidate, Gov. Tony Evers, who won in the Blue Wave election of 2018, was accompanied on the campaign trail by a young, dynamic African-American running mate, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, to whom he graciously ceded the spotlight.

It’s a different kind of politics that genuinely appeals to people’s better nature.

In the face of brutality, it is a radical response to exemplify kindness, graciousness and optimism, to turn the other cheek.

But it just might work.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.