Joe Biden and the promise of decency

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“Biden’s decency stands at sharp odds with what we might call – with a nod to Susan Sontag – Donald Trump’s alt-Right-influenced inverted camp.”  


The US presidential election result called over the weekend has been met with typical lack of decorum on the incumbent’s part – a spectacle onlookers have grown used to. What could be in prospect going forward? The answer that anything is better – anything at all – has left some idealists dissatisfied. Quite understandably, such observers have been left underwhelmed, in policy terms, by the allegedly rudimentary package on offer, and equally non-enthused by the failure of the Democratic party to capture the Senate. But, in the immediate aftermath, perhaps it is worth focusing for a moment on the promise of decency. Decency was mentioned in many assessments of Biden's appeal in journalistic coverage in the run-up. For the American electorate (so both opinion pieces and news reports in this country told us), Joe Biden was asking for a return to decency, was emphasising decency in a ‘battle’ for the national soul, was being perceived personally as fundamentally decent, and would return it to both political and global discourse.

Biden’s decency stands at sharp odds with what we might call – with a nod to Susan Sontag – Donald Trump’s alt-Right-influenced inverted camp. In other words, the message – by tweet, by announcement, and occasionally by alleged physical act – is thoroughly indecent; but surely he can’t mean it, can he? The attraction lies in the transgression – the permission to act out (in the place of dress-up) – with the get-out clause that nobody, not really, is being serious. And yet, all the while, the centre of political gravity moves – has moved – ever farther away from what is amiable and congenial.

Decency, in attribution to Biden, has another edge, too. Biden’s nomination to the Democratic presidential candidacy was acrimonious. He was fought closely by more radical candidates, including Bernie Sanders, who had amassed behind him a vocal and fervent army of supporters. Decency, from this angle, is Biden’s offer to the electorate from the centre as opposed to from the putative ‘radical left’ (slightly histrionic in view of the national political culture): decency as sober; decency as pragmatic; decency that won’t have anybody raising up the barricades.

However, the promise of decency on the left is far richer than this simple split suggests. Partly the richness is in the covert history. Partly it is in the word’s ambiguity.

In the period after the Second World War – and with its lessons in mind – an influential strand of American political philosophy, following Judith Shklar, proposed that an elemental choice was decent politics versus deadly politics. That is decency in a first sense of the word: in essence, as an indicator of ‘sufficiency’ (with a hint of the scary bogeyman thrown in). This works in application to Biden’s presumed edge over Sanders, i.e. Sanders’ vision might be more to one’s liking because it is more reformist, but Biden’s politics ‘will do’ (meaning: is ‘up to reasonable standards’). Some thesaurus synonyms point to this meaning too: adequate, acceptable.

But it could be suggested that there is a second important sense of the word decency for politics. This is where the centre or ‘soft’ left has something to recommend itself by positively (and not by the default of what is and isn’t feasible): it knows, as it were, a secret that the ‘hard’ or ultra- left doesn't know. But this is the catch. If so, decency in the positive sense is the standard to which Biden in office should now expect to be held, both by his own citizens and the watching world.

Thorough investigation of ideological history would likely show that decency’s covert history is on the social democratic left: in the twentieth century, poised between the far left and the Anglo-American liberalism of those resembling Shklar; and passing – in notable encomiums – through George Orwell, Albert Camus, and Michael Walzer.

But, pushing partisanship aside, the key point is what it might do at the present moment. Decency is not only refraining from the unconscionable (Trump and Trump supporters under the cover of ‘camp’). Nor is it just pragmatic ‘sufficiency’. Decency can also be compatible with a wide range of positive acts (acts of the kind that ethicists tend to call ‘supererogatory’). The most ambitious thought would be that decency is generative: that is, capable of passing from person to person, of being reproduced by example, emulation and reciprocity, in an ever-expanding circle. At this point, the meaning borders on the meanings of kindness and generosity: concern for the well-being of others in senses both material and otherwise.

If we are to move out of an era of bigoted reactionary authoritarianism, then decency is important to re-capture because what, in Britain, seemed like the start of this era was marked by so-called ‘national populists’ claiming it for their own. Nigel Farage, on the day after the Brexit referendum, made a victory speech celebrating the triumph of ‘real people, ordinary people, decent people’. Decency needs claiming back. It relates to what is best in people; it deserves better than misappropriation by who would practice politics without the kind of human warmth that matters. However, where the ‘populists’ were right was in supposing that political language needs to freshen up its egalitarianism. ‘Decency’ is readily intelligible. That is why newspapers converged on it as a descriptor of Biden’s offer.

Richard Shorten has just finished writing a book on the reactionary right provisionally titled ‘The Ideology of Political Reactionaries’. In 2019-20 he was Leverhulme Research Fellow. His latest article on reactionaries is ‘Why bad books matter’ and his new project investigates aspects of ‘voice’ – partly in relation to decency – in the political writings of George Orwell, Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt.