In the opening act of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the ageing ruler announces his plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He asks each of them to declare “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” and promises to give the greatest share of the realm to that daughter. Cordelia, unwilling to describe her feelings towards her father, says: “Nothing.” Lear replies: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” Cordelia’s answer displeases the king, who divides his lands between the other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, setting in motion a series of events that concludes (spoiler!) with Lear dying from grief.
In the wake of Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election on 7 November, four days after the polls closed, I thought of Lear and his warning that nothing will come of nothing. I have also been thinking of that famous line uttered by Edgar in act five of the play, as the Democrats – both in the moderate and progressive wings of the party – now exist “’twixt two extremes of… joy and grief”.
The party may rejoice at having won the presidency, but it lost seats in the House of Representatives. And if it cannot win the two run-off Senate races in Georgia, and possibly another in Alaska, then the Senate will remain in Republican hands. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has reportedly already promised to block certain appointees he does not like, such as the former national security adviser Susan Rice or the voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, from assuming cabinet positions. Before the election, McConnell vowed to veto proposals such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All if the Democrats won. “If I’m still the majority leader of the Senate,” he said, “think of me as the ‘Grim Reaper’. None of that stuff is going to pass – none of it.”
The fear among Democrats is that Biden’s presidency will be ineffectual from the start, and that he will be unable to steer the republic out of the moral and political slump in which it languishes.
There is good reason for them to worry. A weakened House majority in 2020 bodes ill for the midterms that will take place in two years. Progressive members such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have already launched broadsides against the party, accusing it of lacking “core competencies” in its campaigning.
Biden may well dream of unifying a divided nation. But the more immediate question is whether he has the authority to bring together his party between now and inauguration day on 20 January 2021.
Without a majority in the Senate, progressive Democrats including AOC will be unable to pass the policies they believe the country needs, such as a Green New Deal or legislation that would end lasting racial injustice. It is all well and good for Biden to speak of “a time to heal” but the US is in desperate need of reform, and a Republican-controlled Senate will make it much more difficult for him to pass any legislature of note.
The president-elect, and the Democratic Party in general, also faces significant institutional challenges. The Supreme Court will continue to speak with a conservative voice; the electoral college will remain in place; and the filibuster, a procedural rule used to block decisions in the Senate, will survive (and probably thrive). Biden will be unable to reverse Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy, nor is he likely to have much success in expanding health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
Yet for all the challenges ahead, there are two reasons to believe in an effective Biden administration.
The first is the power of the executive: Biden can appoint people to cabinet positions in an “acting” capacity without having to get them confirmed by Congress (this is a tactic that Trump used). Even if Biden refuses to do this – he may see this sort of manoeuvre as contradicting the norms he has promised to reinstate in American political life – there are ways he can use presidential executive powers to implement policy.
Immigration reform, for example, cannot happen without approval from the Senate, but reversing some of the most dangerous elements of Trump’s immigration policies could be done through the office of the president. Travel bans from Muslim- majority countries could be lifted. A Biden administration could rejoin the Paris climate agreement and lead the world in tackling the environmental crisis. So, too, could it work with other nations on pressing issues such as human rights and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. On the domestic scene, a Biden White House could reinstate protections to civil servants, legalise marijuana and mandate that the government invests in clean energies.
The second reason not to write off a Biden presidency is that to do so demoralises a party that needs to be energised and organised if it is to overturn the disasters of the incumbent. If Democrats decide that things are lost before they have already begun, the chances are they will lose.
As the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger has put it, “as the experience of the spectator favours fatalism, so the experience of the agent produces hope”. Hope begets action and action begets hope. If progressive Democrats resign themselves to a mentality that “things won’t change”, and decide that there is no point in trying to convince Biden to adopt a more radical agenda, then Biden will stick to the middle ground. If Democratic centrists around Biden dismiss progressive ideas for change as “unworkable”, then Biden won’t be a lame duck so much as a sitting duck for another insurrectionist candidate like Trump – or even Trump himself – in 2024.
Nothing will come of nothing. It is time for the Democrats to try again.
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump