Joe Biden Isn’t a Liberal or a Moderate. He’s a Christian Democrat.
The Democratic front-runner’s ideology has less to do with Obama or the Clintons than a distinct style of European conservatism.
Joe Biden is nothing if not familiar to Americans. After watching him in the spotlight of U.S. politics for more than four decades, there’s a natural tendency to assume one already knows the former vice president—not just his personality and biography but the character of his political ideas. It has become second nature to describe his politics with such ready-made labels as “centrist” or “moderate.”
None of these labels is entirely false. But they also obscure much of the specific content of Biden’s platform and worldview. Biden is, in fact, a moderate—but he’s of a type that will likely be less familiar at first glance to American voters.
Biden’s campaign has thus far been very different from those of recent Democratic presidential nominees. Hillary Clinton embodied a form of technocratic liberalism based on a deep-seated faith in data, free markets, and the benign nature of U.S. military hegemony abroad. None of these is prominent in Biden’s current platform, which is much more about restoring a lost unity and civility at home than pursuing a forward- or outward-looking agenda.
Similarly, there was a charge of idealistic progressivism in Barack Obama’s two successful bids for the presidency that is entirely absent from Biden’s mode of self-presentation. In fact, the most obvious reason why Obama chose Biden as his running mate on both occasions is precisely that he was intended to function as a counterpoint to Obama’s own disruptive appeal, complementing the overall message of “Change!” with a more familiar and reassuring under-melody. It is therefore a mistake to assume that Biden merely stands for “Obamaism without Obama”—and even more so to think that his campaign constitutes a reiteration of Clinton’s failed bid for the presidency in 2016.
A more fruitful comparison emerges from the obvious fact that Biden seeks to trace a middle path between Donald Trump’s far-right nationalism and Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism. Long before the notion of a “Third Way” was appropriated by British Labour Party leader Tony Blair in the 1990s, this was a staple talking point of a specific strand of continental European conservatism, which sought to distinguish itself from both fascism on the far-right and revolutionary socialism on the far-left during the interwar and immediate postwar years: the political tradition of Christian democracy.
This is the family of political parties that came to power in most continental European countries in the aftermath of World War II under the leadership of such figures as Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi, and Robert Schuman. But it also remains prominent today in Germany under the chancellorship of Angela Merkel and in the European Union’s Parliament and Commission, with Ursula Von der Leyen at the helm.
Biden’s two main political rivals at the moment are routinely thought of in reference to European political traditions—social democracy in the case of Sanders and far-right nationalism in the case of Trump. It’s time to do the same for Biden. The Democratic front-runner’s political ideology isn’t a watered-down version of his rivals’ or even his predecessors’. It is best understood as approximating a distinct European tradition—one that may indicate Bidenism’s ultimate legacy in the United States.
Stemming out of a 19th century intellectual endeavor to reconcile Catholic social doctrine with modern democracy, the Christian democratic ideology can be characterized in terms of three core principles: a morally tinged conception of the “natural order” as a harmonious and organically integrated society; a remedial conception of the welfare state as a way to protect social unity and stability from the threat of radical takeover; and a conception of democratic practice as a constant process of compromise and reconciliation between conflicting social interests.
Each of these three features finds a powerful echo in Biden’s current political stance and rhetoric. Consider his campaign’s constant claim that it’s involved in “a battle for the soul of America”: This points to the idea of a spiritual and ultimately existential threat against which Biden presents himself as a bulwark. The threat in question is evidently the divisive politics and abrasive style of the current U.S. president. In standing against him, Biden therefore claims to be restoring national unity and a sense of mutual civility.
This concept of America’s “soul” is given further substance by Biden’s frequent references to notions of “dignity,” “honor,” “decency,” and “hard work.” All these terms point to an idealized vision of American society as a harmonious and organically integrated order, one that rests on a foundation of mutual cooperation and a shared set of moral values—and, crucially, is temporally situated somewhere in the past. “This is not how our parents educated us” is a frequent refrain in Biden’s stump speeches.
This is the deeply conservative dimension to Biden’s promise to “heal” the divisions that cut across American society—one that is reminiscent of European Christian democracy’s historic emphasis on the values of “national unity” and “restoration” of the social order in the aftermath of World War II. Alcide De Gasperi, for instance, used to describe the Italian democrazia cristiana of the 1940s and ’50s as a “party of the nation,” since he thought of it as a mechanism to reconcile the country’s conflicting social groups and interests.
Biden has a similar view of the Democratic Party’s role in the contemporary United States. Given the way in which the Republican Party has been transformed under the leadership of Trump, Biden seems to think it’s now the role of the Democrats to reunite the whole nation under the banner of its traditional moral and political principles of inclusiveness and civility.
The same organic conception of society also underpins Biden’s main social and economic policy proposals. In contrast to Sanders’s advocacy for universalist welfare entitlement programs such as “Medicare for All” and free public college tuition, Biden thinks that the role of state intervention in the economy should be focused on the protection of socially disadvantaged groups. This is evident in his proposed extension of Obamacare “for those who need it” (e.g., the uninsured and the “left behind”) and free tuition for community colleges “in the most disadvantaged areas.”
This approach is justified with reference to another classically Christian democratic idea: that everyone should contribute to the best of their ability to the well-being of society as a whole. While this involves some measure of socioeconomic redistribution, it steers clear of the more radical idea that society should aspire to some form of substantive—as well as formal—equality. Indeed, Biden has explicitly presented his socioeconomic policy platform as a way of making sure that everyone has a “stake” in the capitalist economy and implicitly as a way of protecting it from the perceived threat of radical takeover by either the far-left or the far-right.
This closely resembles the logic of the Christian democratic parties in Europe that supported welfare-state policies in the aftermath of World War II as explicitly anti-revolutionary measures. Their intuition was that improving the conditions of the worse-off through targeted aid measures, such as cash transfers or benefits-in-kind, was bound to undercut the case for more radical transformations of the existing socioeconomic order by giving them something to lose. Thus, for instance, throughout the 1950s and ’60s, it was Christian democrats—not social democrats—who pushed forward many policies incentivizing homeownership for the working classes in both Germany and Italy.
Finally, the signature feature of Biden’s political style is his commitment to social reconciliation through political compromise. From the beginning of his political career, Biden has cultivated an image of himself as a “bridge-builder.” Indeed, this is arguably the main reason for his now-disavowed but nonetheless long-standing support for a variety of “tough on crime” legislative bills as a senator throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
Even if those bills are now widely perceived as having had an overwhelmingly negative effect, especially on African American and working-class communities, it should not be forgotten that during the 1980s and ’90s, they enjoyed widespread support among both African Americans and working-class whites and Democrats and Republicans. Biden supported these policies before they fell out of favor precisely because they sought to bring together the various components of American society while “reaching out” across the political aisle.
Biden’s approach to such law-and-order questions again parallels the thinking of Christian democratic parties in Europe. For instance, during the 1960s and ’70s, both Italian and German Christian democrats took a very firm stance against the so-called “Red Terrorism” of far-left revolutionary groups such as the Brigate Rosse and Baader-Meinhof—in some cases going as far as reviving extraordinary criminal justice procedures that hadn’t been used since the end of the fascist and national-socialist regimes. These measures were justified precisely as a compromise between the far-right’s demands for a complete suspension of the democratic order and the center-left’s calls for a more lenient approach.
For Biden, just as for European-style Christian democracy, such acts of compromise and reconciliation are not merely tactical political tools. They are elevated to the status of moral principles in their own right.
Of course, there are also aspects of Biden’s platform that fail to overlap with the historical experience of continental European Christian democracy. Although Biden is a devout Catholic (one who has apparently been wearing a rosary under his sleeve since the death of his son Beau in 2015), he remains firmly within the American tradition of secularism, which posits a strict “wall of separation” between politics and religion. Europe’s Christian democracy, by contrast, is partly rooted in an attempt to directly translate principles of Catholic social doctrine into a democratic political platform. In this sense, Biden is a distinctly Americanized version of this European strand of political conservatism.
A less persuasive objection to this comparison would be that comparing Bidenism with Christian democracy overlooks the simplest ideological motivation for Biden’s candidacy: that he merely represents the American political and economic establishment’s desperate and internally incoherent grasping for any palatable alternative to Trump. In other words, if you scratch the surface of Bidenism, it reveals nothing more than anti-Trumpism.
There may be some truth to the substance of this critique—yet it hardly negates the comparison with European Christian democracy. The latter succeeded in the postwar years not least because it was propped up and held together with material support from American political, economic, and military actors. The U.S. establishment was attracted to Christian democracy less by the substance of its philosophy than by the perception it was the safest bet to stave off the risk of both fascist resurgence and communist revolution.
The comparison with Christian democracy can also help shed light on Biden’s future prospects as both candidate and president. On one hand, his promises of moral restoration, social protection, and political reconciliation constitute a formidable electoral weapon. Christian democrats succeeded in keeping both the far-left and the far-right out of power for several decades after the end of World War II precisely on the basis of a coalition that united social elites, the urban middle classes, and the rural poor against the perceived threat of radical takeover.
The same insight also suggests that, if he is indeed elected, Biden is likely to be far more open to political influence than either Clinton or Sanders would have been as president. His presidency would likely leave ample space for the two main factions within the Democratic Party—the Clintonian liberal wing and Sanders’s democratic socialist one—to continue shaping policy in important ways, even though neither is likely to get all of what they want. In this sense, the result wouldn’t be very much unlike the constant struggle for compromise between the center-right and the center-left wings of continental European Christian democratic parties during their period of political hegemony in the postwar years.
On the flip side, however, Biden’s conservative pragmatism is likely to leave him without any clear sense of direction beyond the defeat of the more radical political forces he is standing against. As the prospect of both fascist resurgence and communist revolution began to wane in postwar continental Europe, Christian democracy lost its way, falling prey to widespread clientelism and corruption. Ultimately, this is what brought down the Italian democrazia cristiana at the beginning of the 1990s and has also weakened the German Christian Democratic Union and other continental European Christian democratic parties’ political identities ever since.
Seen in this light, Biden might succeed in defeating both Sanders and Trump. But his presidency would probably end up being rather weak and aimless, without doing much to address the United States’ deeper social and political problems. For this year’s voters, however, that may well be enough.