The current field of Democratic presidential candidates is no gift to the science of politics, but in some ways Joe Biden may be the most alarming of the crop.
The Democratic aspirants mostly want to invite government more deeply into our lives as arbiter of who gets how much money. Biden wants—or says he wants—to go to work on our souls.
“We are in battle,” said the former vice president, throwing his metaphorical hat into the metaphorical ring, “for the soul of this nation. If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation—who we are. And I cannot stand by and let that happen.”
After he chases the Trumpmonster out of public life, will he then and thereupon explain what politics has to do with human souls? That would be a start, and a challenging one. The notion that Biden or any other political figure, from far Left to far Right, will be shaping our souls as well as our economic prospects is ludicrous and, in many contexts, frightening. Therein lies the deep dark shadows of 1984: “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Not that citizen and government, in any well-run establishment, are apples and oranges, horses and cows: human categories dwelling in separate rooms of the same house. The character of citizens, also known as voters and taxpayers, determines in some measure the character of those who govern them. You cannot, for example, envision the Plymouth Brethren conferring power on Huey Long. Aristotle, in Book VIII of The Politics, reasoned, “The citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives…the better the character, the better the government.”
All the same, there are two large problems with Biden’s soul rhetoric. The first is that Biden professes to see Trump as “the soul” of contemporary America. Of course he’s not. He’s a pop-up figure viewed by most who voted for him as the logical response to woes that stalked America in 2016. At that, not a few of these voters, past and potential, yearn for the day they read their last Trump tweet.
Where is the enjoyment in listening to braggadocio, exaggerations, insults, and that which, in ye olden tyme, was known as bad language? I remarked to a friend the other day that mainline news outlets, by way of furthering moral debasement, now quote verbatim, and with no reddening of countenance, the president’s “bad words.” If he employs a smellier name for what was known in a politer time as “cow manure” or “b.s.,” that’s no skin off a copy editor’s nose. No expletives deleted in these here parts!
The second problem with the “soul” stuff is easily more important. It is the assertion that politics fundamentally shapes our souls. The truth is, our souls shape our politics, maybe more so than Aristotle anticipated in an era unblessed with talk shows and the internet. In any kind of democracy, the majority tends, over the long if not the short term, to get the kind of government it wants. That could be one of honorable men and women acting—to speak broadly, as you have to in politics—with honorable intentions for the sensible cure of public problems. On the other hand, you might get a coterie of mush-brained incompetents. You open yourself, in theory, to government by a gang of rascals and crooks and thoroughgoing immoralists.
You do the best you can. But everything depends on premises. With the right premises, the voters win; with the wrong ones, they lose. No politician can render it otherwise, not even Biden.
So what are premises? They are moral understandings—what else? It’s what’s stuffed in human heads and hearts at various levels of pre-political life. By preachers and priests. By good parents and grandparents. By good teachers and the authors of good books. I can’t refrain from mentioning, for that matter, a technicolor world that faded some time ago to sepia: the entertainment industry and its semi-commendable premises of wisdom and good taste.
From hereabouts come the ideals, the ideas, the assumptions that the voter carries to the polls. They guide the hands that shade in the ovals that register our choices on election day; they do so more tellingly, more lastingly, than all the solemn rants that pass for political wisdom on the talk shows.
Biden, the Moses who would straighten us all out if you take him at his word, has in mind a miracle nearly as large as the parting of the Red Sea. He would turn America into the first nation ever saved by the wringers of hands at election rallies; by the solicitors of campaign cash, the beady-eyed inquisitors at televised committee hearings. The most morally premised thing we can probably say to him is: good luck, Joe.
William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist and author, most recently, of The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.