WASP Nostalgia and the False Promise of #BidenBeto2020
By Sam Russek
Here in Central Texas there are still BETO signs in almost every front lawn, BETO bumper stickers on every other car, BETO t-shirts, BETO tote bags, BETO pins on purses and backpacks—and it’s clear as of now that no one is ready to let go. O’Rourke’s senate run revitalized the liberal voice in Texas and many are still enamored with his campaign. Beto’s dueling march and rally in opposition to Donald Trump’s rally in El Paso served as a reminder of the sway he continues to hold in the liberal political space. So much so that now, as the country gears up for its next big election, local, state-wide, and national media are reporting that he’s polling just barely behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
The same day that poll came out, tweets poured in with the hashtag #BidenBeto2020. Everyone—from Texas natives to the New York Post to Cher—threw their support at the mere prospect of the duo. Seeing how and why people have begun tying the two together isn’t difficult. They both have name recognition. BETO the campaign in itself has practically subsumed Beto the name and become more of a brand, an icon, at least, in Texas. But more than that, both potential candidates call in their rhetoric for a return to “civility,” where two sides could come together and find common ground, compromise, and work as non-partisan representatives of the people for the greater good.
It’s a tradition harkening back to the time of the WASPs’ post-World War II political establishment, whose virtues according to Ross Douthat’s now infamous op-ed, “included a spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety that went beyond the thank-you notes and boat shoes and prep school chapel going—a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success … a cosmopolitanism that coexisted with white man’s burden racism but also sometimes transcended it.”
Except that’s never been entirely true—and it isn’t the case for Beto or Biden either. It’s impossible to fully conceptualize the WASP years without understanding the inherent lack of civility both at home and abroad. The nostalgia held for the WASP era is a false memory held largely by white centrists—of which Douthat should be included—in a time where the government hardly tended to the well-being of anyone else. There is now more than ever a greater representation of backgrounds and voices in our Congress. No longer are there exclusively WASPs. Nevertheless, that nostalgia remains and guides our current politicians in their actions, including Biden and O’Rourke.
In recent years, Biden has been referred to as the anti-populist candidate, the “Third Way” Democrat with “common sense” solutions. But solutions for whom? During his 36 years in the Senate, he helped the soft-drink industry dodge anti-trust laws, voted against consumers’ rights to sue over price-fixing, worked closely with credit card lobbyists to ensure anti-consumer legislation, and, at the beginning of his career, even opposed the school-bus program that would have helped to desegregate his district—not to mention his tone-deaf, offensive line of questioning in the 1991 Anita Hill hearing. There is a dissonance between his personality, what he says, and the policies he’s promoted and fought for. Despite his record, “Good old Joe” according to the Atlantic is still somehow everyone’s dad. His homely attitude in front of cameras has inspired tons of memes, but to confuse him with his outward persona is a mistake.
O’Rourke’s career tells a similar story, albeit a shorter one. As a city councilman, O’Rourke voted in favor of a plan to use eminent domain to “redevelop” downtown El Paso by replacing centuries-old, primarily low-income and Latinx neighborhoods with restaurants and shops. In the House of Representatives, he voted to give Obama the power to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. He voted repeatedly to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act, triple the size of institutions eligible to be considered small banks and supported the largest aid package to Israel in US history, going as far as to write, “The UN is dangerously preoccupied with Israel… and clearly biased against her.”
Despite all of this it is easier to find footage of O’Rourke skateboarding in a Whataburger parking lot or people talking about his old punk-rock days than it is to find him answering why, as a progressive, he chose to support big banks and the TPP. You can watch a video of O’Rourke explaining why he supports NFL players’ right to protest set to dramatic music, which landed him on Ellen and a slew of other talk shows, but not why he voted to gut the Dodd-Frank Act—simply put, big banks are allowed to make speculative investments with regular people’s money because Beto voted to revoke important rules made after the 2008 financial crisis. And on the campaign trail, he dragged his feet in supporting the popular Medicare for All bill, explaining that while he supports universal healthcare he feels that the current proposal should include higher copays and premiums for low-income families. He is, in short, a centrist in populist’s clothing.
He was appealing to many because he went to such great lengths not to alienate anyone. His website touts “bipartisan” solutions and “meeting the small, petty and divisive politics of this age with a confidence, courage and strength that could only come from Texas.” His message is WASP “civility” by another name. The same person lauding people of color for peacefully protesting for their right to live called the low-income barrio in his hometown “one piece of El Paso that was missing on the road back to greatness,” and voted to have it torn down and replaced.
There is no problem with civility in itself. But when it hides an overzealous will to compromise on issues that are a staple of the progressive platform—things like curbing Wall Street and advocating for immigrants and the working class—then it becomes predatory. It’s a neoliberal practice to lean toward the status quo, and obscure one’s true political intentions in the name of cordiality and fairness. “Mr. O’Rourke is basically the pretty face of this very ugly plan against our most vulnerable neighborhoods,” said David Dorado Romo, local El Paso historian. It seems O’Rourke may find himself in that same role again, this time on a national stage.
Personality by itself is not a platform. “Civility” and promising bipartisan solutions without defining and then defending a position of your own (e.g. something you’re not willing to compromise on), or, on the flipside, professing to combat injustice while signing into law additional barriers on the road to achieving justice, comes at the expense of authenticity. It works more to uphold the existing conditions created by the exact circumstances politicians claim to be fighting. To this point, Mark Fisher maintains that neoliberalism “surreptitiously relie[s] on the state even while it has ideologically excoriated it.” There is a disconnect between BETO the brand and Beto the Congressman, between “Good old Joe” Biden the public figure and Joe Biden the centrist. The scission lies between their professed values and the system they aim at upholding.
As such, it should come as no surprise that most of Biden’s public comments against Trump have been with regards to his choice of language, echoing Clinton’s ‘Love Trumps Hate’ campaign in that his criticism is less aimed at the policies he’s putting into place and more to do with the way he speaks about different groups of people.
In a rally before the midterms, Biden proclaimed, “the forces of hate have terrorized Americans for their political beliefs, the color of their skin or their religion.” In this case, Biden brushes upon the greater effect of the Trump administration on American life, mainly in how it has emboldened the far-right--many times to the point of violence. Yet he remains vague and only obliquely references the administration’s policies in tandem with these acts of terror. While criticism of Trump’s divisive language is certainly valid, to focus on his lack of decorum without acknowledging and pushing back against the policies directly affecting immigrants and the working class is inherently limiting, and suggests he has less of a problem with what he’s saying and more with how he’s saying it.
The WASP era in American politics may be over, but its traditions—its false civility, its hidden intentions, malignant centrism and willful disregard of the truth—remain intact. If and when Biden and Beto enter the upcoming presidential race it is important to keep in mind the long tradition from which they come. While both are still a better option than Trump, neither are as progressive as they make themselves out to be. Both candidates look and act like the WASPs that came before them—which should make most people wary—and both should be held accountable, with the same level of scrutiny that one would hold a centrist Republican.
Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ is perhaps a more direct way of lionizing America’s ugly legacy. But to make the claim that “we weren’t always like this” and that a “return” to good manners is needed is no less insidious. They’re both implicit expressions of nostalgia for the system as it was—that is, an exclusionary, elite political class maintaining bipartisan control of the government—and rely on a common myth of a once-perfect United States which has only recently been turned afoul.
The myth of America relies on false memories of egalitarianism weighed on pragmatics. Regardless of where these sentiments reside, in the Republican or Democratic camp, they both illustrate white nostalgia for a past that was never as good as it was made out to be, particularly for those in the margins. Immigrants, people of color and the working class were hardly allowed a voice at the time our American myth was supposedly made. And they stand to lose the most if we return to our 20th-century monolithic style of governance.
A “white moderate,” to borrow the words of Martin Luther King Jr., is particularly dangerous due to the fact that, for them, there are no sides, no good or bad. There is only “common sense,” which usually comes at the expense of the people’s struggle for justice, or “compromise” at the expense of human rights. Of course everyone wants to feel their politics are “common sense.” But too often is the phrase used to veil an unwillingness to enact change of any consequence. A white moderate candidate—of which there were many in the 20th century and many more still in the 21st—may speak well or to allude to “common sense,” and culturally held nostalgia for simpler days but “common sense” is that which maintains the status quo. Their campaigns may therefore sing promises of progress, but they can never be, in actuality, both progressive and moderate.
A real progressive candidate, if there is one at this point, will not have to hide their voting record because they will act in the same way that they speak. They will be forthright in their support for left wing policy, supporting Medicare for All and a Green New Deal without batting an eye or tiptoeing around exactly how much or to what extent they can muster their support. They will not hinge their campaign on their identity, their civility, their business acumen, or their ability to work in non-partisan settings because their policies will speak for themselves. It’s too early to say whether there is a “true” progressive candidate at this point in time. In any case, one would do well to examine what potential candidates have already done before taking them at their word for what they say they will do.