Build Back Better/Reconstruir Mejor - Joe Biden's Historic Opportunity

In the fall of 2012 I wrote an essay warning about what I felt was becoming a serious, and worrisome, drift of the Republican Party into something which felt more reactionary than conservative for the influential Spanish language journal, Letras Libres

Today, they're publishing what in my mind is an "Afterward" to that piece, one where I lay out what Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the Democrats can do to repair the damage the Republican Party's enthusiastic embrace of illiberalism and extremist politics has done to America, and more broadly, the West. 

You can read the essay in Spanish here on the Letras Libres site.  For English speakers, I offer an edited version of what I sent to the journal for translation below (and yes it was translated - I am not a Spanish speaker!). 

Reconstruir mejor: la oportunidad histórica de Joe Biden

Build Back Better – Joe Biden’s Historic Opportunity

If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win the US election in November, they will inherit a country badly damaged by two concurrent failures – our response to COVID-19 and the breakdown and radicalization of one of its two major political parties. 

In a 2012 Letras Libres essay (English/Spanish) I warned that the Republican Party rather than re-inventing itself to meet the challenges of globalization and the post-Cold War era was fighting these changes, increasingly drifting into an anti-modern, reactionary force in American life. The results of the GOP’s ideological journey from Reagan to Trump have been disastrous for the United States.  At a geopolitical level America’s standing and influence in the world has never been lower.  Republican Presidents have ushered in three consecutive recessions and left the nation more indebted than any time since WWII.  COVID confused our current President, and his refusal to tackle the pandemic head on has done lasting harm to the American economy and the health of its people. A malevolent white supremacy has been revived, creating searing divisions in a very diverse society, making millions of immigrants feel unwelcome in their new home.  But the most consequential failure of the Republican Party in this era has been its allowance of Trump’s descent into a Putin-inspired illiberalism, at home and abroad.  For that endangers more than America – it endangers the centuries old, American-led effort to spread democracy across the world.

A President Biden would have an extraordinary opportunity to do what he calls “build back better” here in America, and around the world.  It would be wise for Biden to view this moment as the beginning of a new era, a generational long project to reset America and the world after a collective trauma.  Perhaps the most analogous moment in our history would be the years after World War II in which new institutions were established around a new vision for humankind.

What does “build back better” mean, in practical terms?  Here in the US it means defeating COVID, rebuilding our economy, tackling climate change and embracing a low carbon future, improving our health care system and preparing for future pandemics, modernizing our immigration system, reforming our criminal justice system and adopting smart gun safety laws, and renewing our own democracy.  In each of these efforts, adopting strategies to address accumulated racial and economic inequities will be of paramount importance – for in a now very demographically diverse America, the challenge of making “e pluribus unum” (from many one) after Trump may be Joe Biden’s greatest domestic challenge of all.

This agenda of course is very big, and will take many years, even perhaps many Administrations, to achieve.  It is perhaps best understood as a blueprint for a new generation of domestic politics here in the US, one yet without a name.  Implementing it all will become the life work of the three emerging American generations – Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z – who are now a majority of the US population, and it will require the new thinking, ingenuity and commitment they will undoubtedly bring.   

Globally, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the Democrats should focus on three big tasks – defeating COVID and helping lead the rebuilding which follows; winning the fight against climate change; and renewing the global liberal order and fashioning a clear, steely counter to the rising illiberalism we see across the world today.

To be successful at the last two of these great global projects America will need to focus very intensely one the first one - conquering COVID and leading the rebuilding which follows.  This daunting global challenge will give the Biden Administration an un-paralleled opportunity to show the world who America is now, through deeds and determined leadership.  Despite the work which must be done at home, we cannot continue Trump’s isolationist turn, and should mount a truly significant effort to help fashion the post COVID world.  President Biden should consider appointing a team of very prominent Americans to lead this effort – Pete Buttigieg, Susan Rice, Cory Booker, Michelle and Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Laurie Garrett for example – and ensure that America be very present at every gathering, every discussion, and follow through with money and American ingenuity to ensure we come out the other side better than before.  Vice President Kamala Harris can also play a very important role in this critical work, as her life story, from a child of immigrants to the White House itself, is a reminder to the world that this can be a time once again of extraordinary possibility. 

The new President should also take great care in his appointment of Ambassadors, making the most important – UN, NATO, EU, China, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Canada - have the weight of a domestic Cabinet position, and also draw from prominent Americans ready to sell our great country to the world again.  We are only get one shot at this moment after Trump, and we need to make it very clear that America is going to try really hard to once again play the role that has done so much good, for so many, for so long.

When WWII was coming to an end FDR forged a comprehensive plan to “build back better.”  It was based on the inspiring and universal principles found in the Four Freedoms – freedom from want and fear, freedom of speech and religion.  So simple, so powerful.  From these words came the post WWII global order, the building of institutions like the UN and the WTO, the ending of colonialism and the institutionalization of the fight against authoritarianism through the building of NATO and the prosecution of the Cold War.  We did big things, and did them over a long period of time. 

Of all the big things we have to do in the coming years there is one more – to honor and build on the work of FDR American leaders should forcefully denounce white supremacy in all of its forms.  We have to make clear that American, Western, liberal, Four Freedom values are universal values, values of all people everywhere, regardless of race, religion or country of origin.  They belong to all of us.  White supremacy is not just a malicious legacy belief system from our racist and colonial past, it’s also profoundly anti-modern; for who could, after seeing the advances and potential of the people all over the world over these past fifty years ever believe that any race or religion or culture was somehow not capable of extraordinary things, and the people of all nations not deserving of the opportunities and freedoms we cherish.  Trump’s white supremacy must be returned, aggressively, to the dustbin of history, where it belongs. 

If victorious this fall Joe Biden and the Democrats will have an historic opportunity to “build back better” here in the US, and abroad.  Let us hope they find the right mix of vigor and pragmatism that will allow them to meet the moment.  What happens to the party of Trump, if defeated, is far less clear.  Ideally, a reform movement would seize control, and help fashion a modern center-right party which repudiates Trump’s illiberalism.  But that is not a likely scenario in my opinion; meaning that America and the world may have Trumpism to reckon with for many years to come.