Why a Joe Biden election loss will mark the end of the 1968 generation’s influence on politics

As yesterday’s radicals retire or bow out, it seems the long march of that age is coming to its natural end

Denis Macshane
Tuesday 03 November 2020 16:36
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The first votes are cast on US election day

A few years ago at some boring international politics conference held at Lake Como, I skipped the five-course lunch to go for a swim. There at the infinity pool, I found Joe Biden, looking neat and trim in his swim shorts. He is a modest and easy man to talk to – and his life story is as “1968” as they come. His political awakening was as a student and young political activist in campaigns against the Vietnam War, for civil rights, against both Presidents Johnson and Nixon, for the early moves on women’s rights, for fair pay and trade union rights for workers in the tradition of Roosevelt.

He was no radical but he was fixated on mainstream politics from an early age and talked the talk of social justice. It was the big divide in the 1968 generation. Some like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn kept the faith over decades for the possibility of major, abrupt political transformation.

Like the Gordon Browns or Bill Clintons of the world, however, Biden decided to swim in the political mainstream. He himself entered into top flight politics at a remarkably young age.

He explained to me how he defended Black Panthers and African Americans who faced the usual police brutality and judicial hostility of the time if they organised protests or were targeted by the police.

As a result, he had the support of the local Delaware black caucus in the Democratic Party when he sought the nomination at 29 years old to run for the senate in 1972. It was a Republican-held seat but Biden ran a 1968 generation campaign against the Vietnam War, for public transport, higher taxes on the rich, first-generation green issues, civil rights and affordable health care.

He won by the narrowest of margins and told me how he had to wait a few weeks to reach the age of 30 to become a member of the US Senate.

Once there, he followed in the footsteps of presidents Johnson and Roosevelt and became a fixer, a can-do politician reaching out across the Democratic-Republican divide to cut deals to promote legislation he supported.

That is why the US left has never liked or trusted him. Just as the British and European left found fault with other 1968 generation democratic-left politicians like Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Felipe Gonzalez, Joschka Fisher or George Papandreou, who decided to commit to mainstream politics and leave behind their early radicalism of sit-ins and demonstrations, if Joe Biden becomes president, it will be the last outing of the 1968 generation whose impact on politics in many countries has been remarkable.  

Biden is above all a practitioner of foreign policy – both as chair of the Senate’s foreign affairs committee and then Obama’s vice president. It is hard to think of a country or capital Biden has not visited. True to his 1968 generation instincts, Biden voted against the Iraq war but in his 12 years as chair of the Senate foreign relations committee and vice president, he has visited more foreign leaders than any current top politician alive.

When I talked to him in 2004, he said he wanted America and Europe to come together but it was going to be genuinely difficult under George W Bush.

“Condi Rice will be the new secretary of state. But she will take all her orders directly from Dick Cheney. They will be worse than the first Bush administration. Colin Powell has lost all influence with the president. He never gets to talk to him and Bush just isn’t interested in listening to him any more,” he told me.

He added that Powell could have had a restraining hand on the administration’s rush to military action in 2002 and 2003 but that the four-star general, the first black American to command the US military, was too much of a loyal soldier to challenge the elected president.

Biden is also a specialist on Europe as chair of the Senate’s foreign relations sub-committee on Europe. He went to difficult regions of Europe like the west Balkans where his son Beau Biden served in the US army in Kosovo before succumbing to cancer. Biden has described Boris Johnson as “the physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump and the current British cabinet stuffed full of elite public-school-educated rich men is not where the Irish-American Biden will see many friends.

He has called China’s strong man Xi Jinping a “thug” and said he would support the democratic opposition in Turkey to Erdogan and insist on fair treatment for Kurds inside Turkey.

If he wins, Biden is likely to be a natural partner for Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in restoring the Euro-Atlantic axis which Britain has now walked out of following Brexit. He is naturally polite and won’t dismiss Britain despite the widespread sense in the foreign policy community in many countries that Brexit is a form of auto-isolation that weakens the UK’s standing and influence.

The long march of the 1968 generation through politics is coming to its natural end. Those who marched or took part in sit-ins 50 years ago as young radicals and self-proclaimed revolutionaries are now retired, or like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, irrelevant. Biden is the big exception and if elected, he will be 1968’s last hurrah. If, on the other hand, Trump wins, it will be time to draw the curtain permanently over the 1968ers.

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