Joe Biden is a conservative. Amid anxious speculation about what kind of a President he will turn out to be, this crucial point has often been overlooked.
For some, the lower-case “c” in conservative will be unsatisfying. But for many American voters it was and is profoundly reassuring.
It would be idle to pretend we can know with precision how far those Republicans who voted for Biden were repelled by the uncouth behaviour of Donald Trump, and how far they were attracted, or reassured, by Biden’s conservative demeanour.
The two motives are not mutually exclusive: for most of these voters, both were in operation.
Trump is a reality TV star who has again and again yielded to his own worst instincts, and for this reason his performances possess a certain horrific authenticity. No one, surely, could behave that badly without being in some way genuine.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign against him in 2016 failed in part because she sounded so hypocritical. For while she claimed to be on the side of ordinary Americans, anyone could see she preferred the company of her billionaire friends in the Hamptons. Her grand liberal condescension was for many voters at least as off-putting as Trump’s unabashed sleaziness.
Biden’s campaign has succeeded, not exactly because he is old, but because he is old-fashioned – a manner which comes more easily and naturally when one has lived for a long time, so his advanced age is not necessarily the drawback which the media assume it to be.
He takes trouble with ordinary Americans: his courtesy and warmth of feeling are authentic, attested by among others the people he got to know on his 8,200 train journeys between Washington and Delaware, during which he travelled a total of over two million miles.
That is a conservative thing to do. He found a routine, a rhythm, which suited him, and he stuck to it. Each night he went home, and he speaks of home with unfeigned emotion.
Loyalty to existing institutions is a conservative characteristic. Biden is loyal to his family and his church, and to a certain idea of his country, expressed in his victory speech:
“I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, but the United States.”
George Washington, President from 1789-97, would have agreed with this. Washington was a gentleman of the 18th century who refused to turn himself into a party politician, and in his Farewell Address delivered this solemn warning to his compatriots:
“I have already intimated to you the danger of Parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on Geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally…
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty…
“It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions…”
Many Americans have feared in recent years that “the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension” would end by tearing the country apart, with each side justifying its excesses by pointing to the excesses of the other.
Biden offers himself as the President who can avert this disaster by governing as an American, and not just as the leader of a faction.
This idea of rising above faction is old-fashioned, but America is an old-fashioned country, with attitudes on such matters as the right to bear arms which are no longer found in Europe.
It is the oldest republic in the world, an eighteenth-century nation with deep roots in the English common law and a proper reverence for Magna Carta, a document more honoured now in Washington than it is in Westminster.
James Madison and the other drafters of the American Constitution did not only look to England. They pored over the history of the Roman Republic as they sought to devise a form of government which would endure.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers, but since men are not angels, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” by means of a system of checks and balances.
And this is what has happened. The system does not work perfectly – no system can – but neither Trump nor any of his predecessors has attained the despotic power against which Washington delivered his solemn warning.
In March this year (though so much has happened since that it seems longer ago) I brought out a volume called Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump.
While writing it, one could not help but notice that many of the presidents were tawdry, third-rate figures, a point from which the undoubted greatness of a handful of them can distract one.
And yet the republic has endured, and has shown a capacity, albeit at sometimes terrible cost, to correct its own most grievous faults.
Biden is already coming under fire from various factionalists on the Left of his own party, who want him to adopt their partisan opinions.
He knew this would happen, so took the precaution of declaring in his victory speech:
“Folks, I’m a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American President.”
In that speech, he quoted from the Bible, in its best and most traditional version: yet more evidence of his own conservatism, and his determination to appeal to the conservatism of millions of Americans who are fed up with the party-political dogfight, and want a President who will put the national interest first.
During his 36 years in the Senate (1973-2009) Biden generally sought to work with Republicans, rather than pick fights with them.
He will now draw on that experience. He is not a man of brilliant intellectual gifts – few presidents are – and he is also a dull speaker, who if anything will sound duller as he becomes better known.
But unlike Trump, who in 2016 reaped the electoral reward of being an angry outsider, Biden is trusted in Washington, knows who everyone is, is supported by a tried and tested team of advisers who have been with him a long time, and has already appointed a panel of public health experts to advise him how to tackle the pandemic with an altogether unTrumpian seriousness.
Biden intends to draw on the rich American tradition of pragmatic, unglamorous, bipartisan work. And since to work within a tradition, rather than attempt to make things up from first principles, is yet another conservative characteristic, conservatives could well end up approving of President Biden.