Originally written for The Birmingham Perspective:
The US Presidential election result 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. They are 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 President-elect Joe Biden’s appeal in the run-up to the election. For the American electorate, according to both opinion pieces and reports, Biden was asking for a return to decency and emphasizing it in a “battle” for the national soul. Perceived as fundamentally decent, he would return the value 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 persona. Trump’s message – by tweet, by announcement, and occasionally by alleged physical act – is thoroughly indecent. The attraction for his supporters lies in the transgression – the permission to act out (in the place of dress-up) – with the get-out clause that he is not really serious. Yet all the while, the center of political gravity moves ever farther away from what is amiable and congenial.
Biden’s nomination to the Democratic Presidential candidacy was acrimonious. He was fought closely by progressive candidates, including Bernie Sanders, who amassed a vocal and fervent army of supporters. Decency, from this angle, is Biden’s offer to the electorate from the center as opposed to from the putative “radical left”. 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 World War II, 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 when applied to Biden’s presumed edge over Sanders. The latter’s vision might be more to some’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: adequate, acceptable.
There is a second important sense of decency for politics. This is where the center or “soft” left has something to recommend itself (and not by the default of what is and isn’t feasible): it knows a secret that the “hard” or ultra- left doesn’t know. If so, decency in the positive sense is the standard to which Biden in office should expect to be held, both by his own citizens and by the watching world.
Joe Biden comforts Corey Hixon, son of teacher Chris Hixon, one of the victims of the Parkland, Florida shootings, February 2018:
Character matters. pic.twitter.com/sId5jPIE6t
— Dean Haddix (@doctor_eon) October 21, 2020
An investigation of ideological history shows that decency’s covert history is on the social democratic left: in the 20th 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.
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 a “camp”). Nor is it just pragmatic “sufficiency”. Decency can also be compatible with a wide range of positive 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 seems to be the start of an era marked by so-called “national populists” claiming it for their own. (Nigel Farage, on the day after the UK’s Brexit referendum in June 2016, made a victory speech celebrating the triumph of “real people, ordinary people, decent people”.)
Decency needs reclaiming. Relating to what is best in people, it deserves better than misappropriation by those who would practice politics without the human warmth that matters. But where the “populists” were right was in recognition that political language needs to freshen up its egalitarianism. ‘Decency’ is readily intelligible. That is why newspapers converge on it as a descriptor of Biden’s offer.