Sorry Joe, Countries Don't Have Souls

Joe Biden has framed the election as a battle for “America’s soul.” But what we need are politicians who will fight for the material needs of the people.

Joel Bleifuss

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden delivers a speech as he accepts his party's nomination in Wilmington, Del., on the final day of the Democratic National Convention, August 20. Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Twenty-two speakers took to the virtual stage of the Democratic Nation­al Convention (DNC) and fretted about the state of America’s soul.” Hillary Clinton wants to redeem” it, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) to heal” it and Pete Buttigieg to contest” it. Kerry Washington and Jill Biden wanted to fight for” it. Five others, Andrew Cuomo, Colin Pow­ell and Sally Yates among them, want to restore” it. And another five want to battle” for it, in­cluding Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Joe Biden, who, when accepting the nomina­tion, asked Americans to join him in the battle for the soul of the nation.” 

Our national heritage of white supremacy and chattel slavery has been on full display since the murder of George Floyd.

Claims of American exceptionalism to the contrary, countries don’t have souls. They do, however, have collec­tive histories. Historian Jon Meacham used his time at the DNC podium to describe two Americas. Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall dwell in the American soul,” he said. But so do the impuls­es that have given us slavery, segregation and sys­temic discrimination.” He asked that we confront our history. Often we’d prefer to hear the trum­pets rather than face the tragedies, but an honest accounting of who we’ve been can enable us to see who we should be.” 

Who we’ve been” — our national heritage of white supremacy and chattel slavery — has been on full display since the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd. Yet, as the Republican Nation­al Convention neared, the Republican Party ap­peared to celebrate the legacy of what some have called America’s original sin. In his RNC accep­tance speech, Vice President Mike Pence ridiculed Biden for saying that systemic racism exists in America and that the police had an implicit bias against minorities.” Said Pence, The hard truth is, you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” 

Accepting the GOP nomination for president, Donald Trump did what he does best: gin up hate, sow fear: 

If the Left gains power, they will demolish the suburbs. … We have to give law enforcement, our police, back their power. … We can never allow mob rule. … During their convention, Joe Biden and his supporters remained completely silent about the rioters and criminals spreading may­hem in Democrat-run cities. 

Trump said he is there to help: We will take care of your problem in a matter of hours.” As for the white supremacists who can’t wait that long, they know they will receive not condemnation but praise from Fox neo-fascists like Tucker Carlson. 

Are those fireworks we hear … or gunshots from Kenosha, Wis.?

The soul-invoking DNC speak­ers — who ranged from democratic so­cialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to conservative former Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) — framed the 2020 election as a moral choice. They called upon all Americans to let their better natures shine.

Given the horrors of the Trump era, that pitch for a return to decency may be enough to secure a Biden victory in November. But we are embodied beings with material needs, and we need not only roses for the soul but bread for the body. Progres­sives must insist on old-fashioned material objec­tives like Medicare for All, relief from student debt, universal child care, a Green New Deal and work­ers’ rights. We need concrete measures to protect Black and Brown citizens from state violence. 

In a 1967 speech at Stanford University, Martin Luther King Jr. said: 

[A] riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more con­cerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity. 

In 2020 and beyond, we need a Democratic Par­ty that hears the unheard and fights for justice and humanity — a party that speaks to the pain so many are feeling, not one that quiets them with bromides for our collective soul. 

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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