[Publisher’s Note] Hypocrisy | Harper's Magazine

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“I’m sure a good number of people found that scene to be amusing and saw Biden’s little doze as an apt illustration of the President’s difficulties in achieving his aims.”
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on December 6, 2021. Translated from the French by Elettra Pauletto.

As the moralist and writer La Rochefoucauld once said, “Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue,” a seventeenth-century maxim that still applies to American politics today. I’m referring to President Biden’s tactical maneuvers this past month, when he brushed aside the Democratic Party’s progressive bloc and still managed to pander to the environmentalists. Not that Biden is in the habit of citing great French intellectuals. Nor does his ordinary-guy persona belie a secret philosophical and self-reflective soul. Millions of people saw the videos of Biden, eyes closed, appearing to be asleep in his chair at the recent United Nations climate control conference in Glasgow. I’m sure a good number of people found that scene to be amusing and saw Biden’s little doze as an apt illustration of the President’s difficulties in achieving his aims.

But far from suffering from narcolepsy, dementia or simple old age, Biden was dreaming, I imagine, of the blow he was about to inflict on the progressive caucus in the House of Representatives, and especially on insurgents Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. I think he was silently savoring his imminent victory over his party’s rebel faction.

On November 5, in Washington, the Sanders “revolution” and the AOC momentum received their death blows. The Democratic Party’s established order returned in earnest. The party leaders put the junior leftist and reformist members in their places. Until then, the House progressives had resisted pressure from the White House to pass the $1.2 trillion bill for public infrastructure—bridges, highways, sewers, public transport—unless the Senate simultaneously approved their beloved social and environmental plan, “Build Back Better” (BBB), which, in its original form, earmarked $3.5 billion over ten years for programs to support the poor, workers, and the elderly, paid for in part by taxing the rich. The standoff between the ninety-five members of the progressive caucus and two “centrist” Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, continued for months, with the two centrists piously claiming to be outraged by the alleged dangers of inflation and the rising federal deficit. In fact, Manchin and Sinema were outraged that so much money would go to the poor without them having to work for it and that a good portion of the funds would come from the deep pockets of Democratic Party donors. Manchin, the darling of the coal industry in his home state of West Virginia, also wasn’t too thrilled to see so much money earmarked for non-fossil-fuel projects. Given the bare Democratic majority in the Senate, the ninety-five left-wing members were able to stymie Manchin and Sinema, since the Republican members of the House were almost unanimous in their opposition to the two bills. The progressives were adamant: no social project, no infrastructure project.

Despite their bravado, however, the progressives bent, little by little, to pressure from Biden, who has sought to appease Manchin rather than the party’s reformist left. During so-called negotiations between the party factions, the funds slated for the BBB were almost halved, down to $1.8 trillion. Why? Because Biden is neither the new Franklin D. Roosevelt nor a progressive—he’s a long-standing party apparatchik who instinctually gravitates toward Manchin’s cronyism. Their complicity culminated on November 5, when Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the house and a straight and narrow Democrat, convinced the fifty-eight members of the party’s black caucus, which since the murder of George Floyd holds a strong moral position, to pressure the progressive caucus to capitulate and pass the infrastructure bill unconditionally. The black Democrats followed chief Pelosi, and the infrastructure bill passed with 228 votes against 206. Of the Democratic caucus, only the six most radical (including AOC)—those known collectively as the Squad—voted no.

So there went the leverage over Manchin and Sinema. But then, on November 19, as if nothing had happened, the House voted for the BBB, 220 to 213, though Manchin and Sinema had already neutered it with the consent of the President and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, another loyal servant of the Democratic machine. In July, Manchin and Schumer signed a sort of secret contract for a BBB project that did not exceed $1.5 trillion. It seems as if everything had been arranged ahead of time—that Manchin had been the one determining the scale of the BBB from the start. It matters little that the House voted for a BBB of about $2 trillion, because Manchin holds all the cards. With the Senate split fifty-fifty between the two parties, his support is vital, and he will demand further significant reductions before a final version of the BBB can be put before both houses of Congress.

And Biden, the hypocrite who was sleeping so peacefully at Glasgow? Now the American President can boast of an alliance with a genuine coal baron—a nice tribute to the virtuous Greta Thunberg and the crusade against climate change.

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