Ironically, President Joe Biden’s post-election progressive turn seemed to inspire many people to reject far-left policies. Who would have guessed on the eve of Biden’s inauguration that, one year later, parents across the country would attend local school-board meetings to challenge critical race theory? Or that, sensing their constituents’ anger at progressive spending proposals like the Build Back Better bill, a record number of Democrats would be retiring from Congress?
Only months after the end of the 2020 campaign, medical researchers who had previously deferred to government Covid guidance began confessing their long-held reservations. At the same time, academics like Williams College political scientist Darel E. Paul and NYU Stern professor Jonathan Haidt began ramping up their attacks on “woke” ideology. And though a fearful MIT administration still withdrew its invitation for geophysicist Dorian Abbot’s lecture on the excesses of diversity policies, he gave the same talk at Princeton, where thousands eagerly registered to hear it.
Even within the notoriously liberal entertainment industry, entertainers’ reluctance to sound politically incorrect has softened considerably since Biden’s sharp left turn. While comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Mel Brooks, and Chris Rock had previously concluded that woke culture made it all but impossible to poke fun at progressive sensibilities, Bill Maher has done just that on his nightly Real Time show, to the apparent delight of studio audiences.
To give President Biden sole credit for growing public defiance of progressive thinking would, of course, be an exaggeration. Any self-righteous political philosophy held by only seven percent of registered voters will inevitably inspire popular pushback, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. But by promoting left-wing economic and environmental policies from the very beginning of his administration, Biden effectively, if unintentionally, exposed their harmful consequences to even the most casual observers.
Take the president’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which even some liberal economists now concede has contributed to an inflationary outbreak not experienced since the late 1970s. Similarly, Biden’s forceful clampdown on fossil-fuel production, supposedly aimed at sparking a compensatory increase in green energy, only jacked up the price of gasoline, all the while funding the ambitions of petro-dictators like Vladimir Putin, the Iranian mullahs, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.
Combined with foreign missteps—a botched withdraw from Afghanistan and a failure to either prevent Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine or adequately arm the resistance—Biden’s domestic policies produced poll numbers that made it easier for critics to overcome their fear of being “cancelled” as a racist or climate-change denier if they spoke out. At the very least, risk-averse conservatives, disillusioned independents, and even many traditional Democrats had the assurance that a great majority of Americans agreed with their rejection of far-left ideas.
It also has not helped progressivism’s cause that, from the very beginning of his administration, the president’s instinctive response to any policy failure has been to fabricate blatantly transparent lies, like the claims that Build Back Better is completely paid for, our Afghanistan withdrawal was a great success, spending more on social programs will tame inflation, and Russian sanctions were never meant to deter the country from invading Ukraine.
Whatever progressivism’s shortcomings before Biden’s support, it at least benefitted from the appearance of being an idealistic crusade—a sincere, if misguided, attempt to compensate for past racial injustices and to preserve the natural environment for future generations. But once a prevaricating president became the movement’s best-known advocate, its standing with the public inevitably suffered.
As Larry Kudlow recently put it, “What the President is doing is devastating…. the collapsing popular opinion of Biden’s character and honesty [has completely undermined] confidence in his agenda.”
The interesting question now is what Biden’s presidency will do to the long-term prospects of the progressive movement, which, not that long ago, seemed to be riding high in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests. Has the unpopularity of the president’s policies and the mistrust of his character delivered a temporary setback to left-wing ideology, or is it on its way to becoming an historical footnote?
The left seems fated to take a major—perhaps even historic—blow in the November mid-terms. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, Republicans enjoy an unprecedented 10-point advantage among registered voters on the so-called “generic ballot,” which indicates the party respondents prefer to represent them in Congress.
Some observers, like Hudson Institute senior fellow Arthur Herman, believe that if the president remains as committed to a left-wing agenda as he sounded during his State of the Union address, two decades of partisan political wrangling could finally end with a definitive shift to the right. Just as the Great Depression destroyed the electorate’s faith in free markets, putting pro-regulation and redistributionist Democrats in charge of Washington, so Biden’s policies may precipitate a once-in-a-century political reversal.
On the other hand, as George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen recently argued, numerous institutional imperatives will continue to provide the progressive movement with safe spaces from which it can theoretically rebound. Fear of employment lawsuits, for example, will make most companies reluctant to abandon their risk-averse policies and pro-diversity rhetoric when it comes to hiring.
Similarly, the tenure system at U.S. colleges and universities means that today’s younger faculty, who tend to be more left-wing than their older colleagues, will retain control of their schools’ academic programs for some time to come. “The simple march of retirements is going to make universities even more left-wing—and even more out of touch with mainstream America,” says Cowen.
One factor that will clearly determine progressivism’s influence between now and the end of Biden’s presidency is the extent to which the far left feels embarrassed by him. For if there is anything liberal elites value more than their policies, it is the ability to parade their sense of wisdom and moral superiority.
To be mocked on Saturday Night Live, have eloquent attacks on critical race theory come from black and Hispanic parents, or have panicked Democrat politicians concede the need to start drilling and stop spending would at least require progressives to pursue a time-consuming face-lift of their agenda.
Whatever the future of progressivism, Joe Biden has clearly become its greatest present liability. We may never know the real reason for his abrupt turn from a campaigning moderate to a committed leftist—his debt to Bernie Sanders’s supporters or genuine conviction—but the president has politically damaged the progressive brand in a way that no other public figure could.
Lewis M. Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy from 1999 to 2009. He is author of the new book Living Spiritually in the Material World (Fidelis Books).