Joe Biden, Penitent

November 18, 2020 Updated: November 18, 2020


Joe Biden is a straight white male. He’s also a Catholic. That means he has a lot to answer for. In the identity politics that have captured the Democratic Party, he stands at the center of guilt.

He’s old, too. Millennials such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can believe in their own innocence because they weren’t alive during the days of Jim Crow. They didn’t come up through institutions that didn’t admit women or accept blacks and Hispanics. They needn’t feel any complicity with the evils of an earlier time, especially as their identity group was a target of those evils.

But an 80-year-old man today was already in his twenties when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were passed. Who knows how he might have participated in the oppression? He certainly profited by it. He’s tainted.

So how did the Democratic Party end up with the wrong identity at the top of the ticket? How did such an Establishment guy, a standard D.C. insider, a politician with no noteworthy legislative accomplishments, no oratorical talents and a complicated family situation, the object of allegations of harassment, and most of all a very white skin—how did he become the one chosen as head of a party that should despise him?

The question is misguided. Oh, we could talk about Biden as a way to keep Bernie Sanders out (because Sen. Sanders threatens the Swamp more than Donald Trump does), or the prospect that Biden would draw black votes in swing states, or some other electoral calculation that prompted his ascent. They may be relevant. If those reasons let the premise of Biden’s incorrect identity stand, however, they are misleading. For, in the Great Awokening now under way, the aged straight white male plays an essential role.

He is, of course, the cause of injustice, the source of victimization. But he also has a functional role in the implementation of Woke mandates. In the rituals of apology and reckoning and confession running through major institutions in the United States—the acknowledgements of systemic racism, removal of names from buildings, fervent pledges to do better, etc.—the guilty white man is just as necessary as the innocent non-white-male sufferer. These rituals are incomplete without a culpable white male perpetrator there to express his guilt and begin his penance.

This is critical. The dramaturgy of identity politics is a disappointment without him. There he is, the man of power and prestige, the winner, the boss, up at the podium or behind the massive desk as he’s always been, but a change has come over him. The privilege he’s enjoyed since birth no longer fortifies him. It embarrasses him. He doesn’t boast of his successes. He regrets the inequities he’s witnessed along the way. In the presence of his victims, the women and minorities in the room, he’s submissive (as you can see from the deferential posture Biden has relative to Sen. Kamala Harris).

Indeed, in spite of Woke talk about a woman president, especially a woman of color, a President Biden would serve Woke ambitions much better than a President Harris would. Precisely because of his guilt, he must be pliable in a way she doesn’t. He has penance to do. She doesn’t owe anybody any penance at all. If you run a Woke activism organization that serves favored groups, you know that a President Biden owes you—he owes you big time. It’s personal. As for a President Harris, the guilt trip won’t work one bit; she owes you nothing. She, herself, is the result of an act of penance, Biden selecting her even after (or because) she accused him during the primary debates of racist behavior in the past.

This would be the psycho-political fuel of the Biden administration should the media’s eager declaration of him as the winner hold up. It would last for as long as he was in office, for the penance of the white male never ends. The Awokening doesn’t work that way. Christianity offers forgiveness at a certain point, but Woke religion doesn’t allow it. Do you see any generosity of spirit in the eyes of social justice warriors? No, they savor the confession of the privileged man too much to let it go, to stop demanding apologies and concessions.

Not only that, but they can make him do their political bidding and back Woke policies in immigration, education, employment, etc. He has to comply in order to demonstrate his ongoing sincerity. If he doesn’t, if he discontinues his penance, well, that puts him closer to the greatest impenitent of all, President Trump.

Biden would be the perfect Woke president. He appears a bit frail, physically and mentally, but that’s a plus. His weakness contradicts the fantasy of white male power, and that’s good. His white skin shows the persistence of white privilege, too, his sex the persistence of male privilege, and so he must undo that privilege every day while in office by words and deeds.

A Biden presidency would rehearse this grotesque psychodrama again and again. The young warriors in the Democratic Party would treat him like a man on parole, watching him for signs of recidivism. The most powerful man in the world would feel himself always under identitarian scrutiny, trying to please and pacify, a leader with no moral authority, ever fearful of the censure of historically disadvantaged groups. President Biden, guilty until proven innocent.

Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.