Series: Presidential Photographs, 1/20/2009 - 1/20/2017Collection: Records of the White House Photo Office (Obama Administration), 1/20/2009 - 1/20/2017, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Everybody loves (to hate) the villain, and every actor wants to play one.

So in the U.S. melodrama about the peril to President Joe Biden’s worthy reform package of health care, climate initiatives, free college tuition, etc., the scoundrel role fell easily to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, of Biden’s own party. It was obvious even to Canadians. “Joe Biden’s progressive agenda is being gutted by a member of his own team,” wrote the Star’s Edward Keenan. “‘Torpedo Joe’ Manchin is blowing up Biden’s agenda,” said the Globe’s Lawrence Martin.

Let me respectfully differ. For 80 years, efforts to stifle even minimally “progressive” measures like universal public health care have been led not by individuals like Manchin but by the party establishment — including Biden himself for the last five decades. Come tiptoe through a few of the weeds on this with me.

  • FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s genuinely moved the U.S. leftward with its social programs. By 1944, when he was preparing to run for a fourth term, the party bosses pressured him to replace his vice-president, the left-wing Henry Wallace, with a typical “party machine” Democrat, Harry Truman. Wallace ran against Truman as the Progressive Party candidate in 1948 and lost.
  • In the 1960s, president Lyndon Johnson could’ve completed FDR’s New Deal agenda by finally confronting the racism issues that Roosevelt ducked. But Johnson was destroyed instead by another U.S. dilemma, its imperialist impulse, embodied in the Vietnam War. He flinched, backed the war and chose not to run for re-election. The party elites then beat back anti-war candidates for president and nominated a pro-war Democrat, Hubert Humphrey, who was defeated by Republican Richard Nixon.
  • In the 1980s, Arkansas Democratic governor Bill Clinton lost a re-election bid and concluded he’d been seen as too “progressive”; he became pro-death penalty and anti-welfare. He was elected president in 1992 with the same approach. He put his wife Hillary in charge of health-care reform. They refused to even consider a universal public program. Their project died inelegantly.
  • Barack Obama was seen as progressive when elected in 2008. But in his first crisis, the financial crash of that year, he bailed out banks and did nothing for people who lost their homes. He was absorbed into the party establishment.
  • In 2016, independent “socialist” senator Bernie Sanders ran for nominee against Hillary Clinton, surprising even himself with how well he did. In 2020 he ran again and held a clear lead, when the Clinton-Obama forces joined to defeat him in the South Carolina primary. Sanders graciously supported Biden for president in the hope of moving the party’s agenda leftward. He succeeded.

During that time, a sizable number of progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who overtly identify as socialists, defeated conservative Democratic fixtures, becoming a force in Congress and the party. Joe Biden recognized their centrality in formulating the reform package now under threat.

So no, folks, it’s not Torpedo Joe alone that they’re fighting. They continue to take on a party elite that has struggled against serious social change, going back to the years just after the New Deal and the Cold War’s onset. What’s impressive about such outsiders is how they keep regenerating and battling.

Let me take a final example to show how deep the rot within the Dems’ leadership runs. It’s happening just down the Queen Elizabeth Way from us.

Last June in Buffalo, India Walton, a 39-year-old Black nurse, beat the city’s four-term mayor for the Democratic nomination. The election is the week after next. Walton is a “democratic socialist.” The establishment response was to try and get the former mayor on the ballot anyway, and then to have the position of mayor itself eliminated. Last week, the party chair for the state announced they won’t support her, just as they wouldn’t support David Duke — the longtime KKK leader — if he won a primary in nearby Rochester. These are people who’d rather lose an election than lose control of “their” party, and they often get their wish.

Why are they regularly referred to in the media as “moderates,” instead of as the conservative elitist democracy-loathing reprobates they really are? Search me. It must reflect the power they have and continue to wield.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star. 


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.