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. 

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.

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