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Turning back Reaganism is Biden's great challenge

Comparisons of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill to the New Deal are flourishing. They obscure the fact that Biden’s achievement — passing reform legislation against an intransigent opposition — is very fragile.

Republicans are already waging an extensive culture war on issues cherished by progressive Democrats, starting with freer immigration. And though Biden and his colleagues have taken to the road to sell the administration’s plan, victory in what he calls the “battle for the soul of America” will require much more than vigorous messaging by politicians.

What’s really needed is a massive cultural and intellectual shift in perspective, one that entrenches the new Democratic narrative of collective welfare in American hearts and minds.

It is worth remembering that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who came to power in 1933 with a small and unflattering reputation, reshaped, during his 12 years in power, not just the politics and economy of the U.S. but its culture. FDR succeeded because he saw the birth of a spacious moral imagination as vital to his task — and recognized that his own rhetorical gifts, though impressive, were not strong enough to achieve it.

He added to that voice by channeling millions of dollars through the Works Progress Administration to writers, artists, musicians and actors. Among the beneficiaries were Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who took moving pictures of poverty-stricken Americans; Zora Neale Hurston, who traveled to Florida to record the experiences of workers there; and Orson Welles, whose production of “Macbeth” with an African-American cast toured the country.

While creating some of the most powerful art of the 20th century, these artists made concern for the poorest and weakest members of society seem like common sense. Their efforts evoked an American citizenry united by empathy as much as distress.

It was not until the 1980s that the tremendous spell of the New Deal was broken by another concerted ideological and cultural effort, this time by a Republican Party under Ronald Reagan committed to redistributing upwards.

Reagan’s movie-actor persona and gripping anecdotes about “welfare queens” greatly helped in this counter-revolution against the New Deal and the civil rights movement. But he was also vigorously supported, as the critic Alfred Kazin pointed out as early as 1983, by an intellectual “avant-garde” with “personal and political ties with the Reagan administration.”

This “astonishingly wide” right-wing coalition included a range of individuals and institutions: magazines (Commentary, The National Review), think tanks (the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute) and an assortment of Moral Majority evangelists and libertarians opposed to gun control.

So complete was Reagan’s triumph as a propagandist for the “magic” of the marketplace and the evil of government that successive Democratic leaders, from Bill Clinton − in 1996, Clinton campaigned on a promise to "end welfare as we know it" − to Barack Obama, felt compelled to embrace his verities about the free market and small government.

It is this landscape fundamentally altered — ravaged, some might say — by nearly four decades of unchallenged right-wing hegemony that Biden seeks to reshape with an FDR-like vision of government as the protector of ordinary citizens. But he faces much more adverse circumstances and insidious political enemies than those confronted by FDR.

A slower than expected economic recovery might alienate present Republican supporters of Biden’s plan. Right-wing cultural warriors will no doubt ramp up allegations that the Democrats favor minorities and foreigners over white Americans.

Moreover, Biden lacks the panache with which FDR welcomed the enmity of his enemies and a grinning Reagan quipped, “There you go again.”

He can improve his chances of success by mobilizing his own army for a culture war whose terms are defined by progressives rather than right-wingers.

An important step in this direction is the $470 million earmarked for cultural organizations in his relief bill. As in the 1930s, job creation or salvaging imperiled art forms such as theater and dance cannot be the sole aim of such subventions. Traumatized by Trumpism, the monstrous culmination of everything that went wrong in the 1980s, and then the pandemic, Americans need, more than ever before, unifying narratives of compassion and solidarity.

And the examples of his hegemonic predecessors — Reagan as well as FDR — confirm that Biden can win the battle for the soul of America only by waging a long culture war on his own terms.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His latest book is “Age of Anger: A History of the Present.”

 

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