What Joe Biden could learn from LBJ
© Getty Images

President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE faces a country devastated by the twin disasters of COVID-19 and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE’s destructive presidency. Americans have rarely experienced such a tumultuous moment as the one we are in now. During such times, it has taken national leadership to move past protest to governance. History unfolds in unpredictable ways, and great leaders are alert to these transcendent moments — is Joe Biden?

The president-elect could consolidate Democratic power for a generation if he moves on a modern-day Great Society program. By pushing an expansive progressive economic platform that moves jobs and the country forward, he could provide a road map for governance for our emergent multiracial coalition in the Southwest and New South that ushered him into power. To do this, Biden must draw upon historical lessons in how to bring a country together with hope.

The last time we faced an electorate as polarized and traumatized as this one was when then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson ascended to the White House upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Johnson was a Southern Democrat whose record on race, war, and women is one we should take care not to lionize. Yet, Johnson was a leader for his time. He used his bully pulpit to pass the bold agenda of the Great Society — a set of sweeping reforms to voting rights, civil rights, economic and consumer protections, education, and health care that reset economic and political conditions not just for Black and brown Americans, but for all Americans.

ADVERTISEMENT

A half-century later, not only are Democrats facing similar conditions — we are a nation stunned by trauma and longing for hope — but we are also facing the same foes.

Trump, like Nixon in 1968, relied exclusively on the Southern Strategy to win — dividing Americans along racial lines to distract us from seeing how the powerful are benefiting from the current economic order. In 2016, Trump pointed to foreign workers as the culprits for the decline in American wages; in 2020, Trump points to foreign viruses. It’s the same move to deflect attention from the real problem facing our country: his failed leadership and corrupt party.

Biden now has the opportunity to show he can govern by embracing the progressive policy demands of today’s youth movement leaders. Just as the Civil Rights Movement propelled Johnson toward victory by building a multiracial coalition to back his win — and then pushed him to enact civil and voting rights reforms — the current progressive movement has helped to elect Biden the leader they can move on major policy overhauls.

This is our opportunity to reject once and for all the race-baiting and grievance politics of the last four years. To get there, Biden must signal to the progressive, Democratic base that he is ready to lead. He can do that by embracing the priorities of the multiracial coalition of voters who brought him to power not just in blue states, but in places like Arizona and Georgia.

Pundits assumed Trump would win these states, because they’ve ignored the years-long base expansion work of progressive organizers on the ground. Now, Biden needs to deliver for the folks who sealed his victory.

ADVERTISEMENT

By putting forward a bold agenda — on racial justice, on wealth inequality, on universal health care, on climate — that speaks to the needs of working class people, Biden can turn the tide of the Trump era. There is nothing radical about policies that make people’s lives better, but the right wing has succeeded in cynically painting as “socialism” any measure that helps Americans without trust funds. The only way to move our country forward is to finally enact these broadly popular progressive policies; wannabe demagogues like Trump will have a much harder time breaking through with voters who can earn a living wage, afford their medical bills, get a college education without incurring a lifetime of debt, and trust that the planet will be habitable for their grandchildren. This is not a left-wing vision or a centrist vision; it is an American vision.

This election showed us how to win: invest in a multiracial coalition of voters who are demanding change. It is true that Biden has a mixed record on the issues that matter to these voters, but then, so did LBJ. And like our only Democratic president from Texas, Biden now has the chance to leave a legacy of progress on race, gender, and wealth that will benefit generations of Americans. It is enough that this is the right thing to do, but the Democrats can be assured that it is also the way to continue growing their base and flipping “deep red” states. If Joe Biden moves on a bold, progressive agenda now, then in four years we will be talking about Texas and North Carolina the way we are now talking about Arizona and Georgia.

Tory Gavito is president and Co-founder of Way to Win, a progressive donor collaborative.