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Joe Biden Needs a Kshama Sawant Moment

Biden must show he can stand up to the toxic wokeness that dominates elite institutions—including a significant segment of his own party—in order to unite the country

James Kirchick
September 24, 2020
David Ryder/Getty Images
Kshama Sawant speaks as demonstrators hold a rally outside of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct, on June 8, 2020David Ryder/Getty Images
David Ryder/Getty Images
Kshama Sawant speaks as demonstrators hold a rally outside of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct, on June 8, 2020David Ryder/Getty Images

In the 1992 presidential campaign, presumptive Democratic nominee Bill Clinton clearly and unreservedly denounced a Black rapper named Sister Souljah who had called for the killing of white people. Moreover, Clinton did so at a gathering of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, where Souljah herself had spoken the previous day. Jackson was furious at Clinton, but the incident reassured voters that the Arkansas governor wasn’t beholden to the furthest left elements of his coalition. Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” became political shorthand for having the courage—and basic tactical good sense—to call out lunatic extremism on one’s own side.

Today’s Democratic presidential nominee faces a similar conundrum, though on a far larger scale. The past three months of urban unrest across America—the cost of repairing the destruction, mostly to small businesses, is currently put at $1 billion—has placed Joe Biden and the party he leads in a difficult position, which they seem eager to evade and deny. The early and unquestioned embrace by Democratic Party elites of Black Lives Matter, as well as the broader, inchoate movement seeking what is invariably described as a “racial reckoning” across all sectors of American society, has left many of the party’s spokesmen and elected officials unable to delineate where legitimate protest against police brutality ends and violent anarchism led by black-clad antifa rioters begins. This predicament is worse in cities where Democratic mayors and city councilors sympathetic to BLM and antifa have not only praised the rioters, but in some cases endorsed demands that the police be defunded.

Last month, Biden sought to address the unease many Americans have been feeling with what his campaign presented as a major address. “I want to be clear about this: Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting—it’s lawlessness—plain and simple,” he said. “And those who do it should be prosecuted. Violence will not bring change, only destruction. It’s wrong in every way. It divides instead of unites.”

While repeatedly denouncing “right-wing militias and white supremacists and vigilantes,” however, Biden declined to call out the far-left groups that have caused the vast majority of the destruction, nor the figures in the media, academy and entertainment worlds who have provided the anarchists and violent looters with ideological air cover.

One of the cities worst affected by a summer of chaos was Seattle, where Police Chief Carmen Best—a 30-year veteran of the force and its first Black woman leader—resigned earlier this month after the city council moved to strip her department of 100 officers and slash her salary by 40%. The Seattle chapter of BLM, with whom Best had developed a positive working relationship during her tenure, decried the top cop’s departure as a “loss” and the council’s effort to undercut her as one that “prioritize[ed] performative action that solely suggests the appearance of change.”

The main driver behind the effort to expel Seattle’s first Black woman police chief was City Councilor Kshama Sawant. A member of the Socialist Alternative party and supporter of Bernie Sanders in this year’s Democratic presidential primary, Sawant was one of the most prominent public officials to embrace the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone, Seattle’s brief experiment in police-free, utopian living—that Seattle’s Mayor Jenny Durkan originally defended as having a “block party atmosphere” and compared to “the Summer of Love”—and whose signal legacy was the murder of Black teenagers. “Two African American men are dead, at a place where they claim to be working for Black Lives Matter,” Best said at the time, lamenting how the city’s politicians were preventing her from doing her job. “But they’re gone, they’re dead now.”

Kshama Sawant enunciated a different view. “Though we await confirmation of the details of the killing, there are indications that this may have been a right-wing attack,” she said in a statement after the first shooting, which authorities have since pinned on another Black teenager. Alongside President Donald Trump, Sawant alleged, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Chief Best also “share responsibility for having portrayed our protest movement as violent.” Best and her stormtroopers better keep away, the city councilor warned, for the denizens of CHOP had discovered a new and better way of governing humanity. “Elected committees of self defense have historically played vital roles during general strikes, occupations, and in mass movements,” she declared. After the second murder of a young Black man in the “peaceful Capitol Hill occupation” in as many weeks, Sawant blamed the killing on “capitalism’s brutality & endemic violence.” Meanwhile, when an Asian American constituent initiated a petition to recall Sawant, whom he decried as “the leftist version of the right-wing version of Trump,” the cinema where he worked fired him.

Herewith, then, a modest proposal for the man seeking to defeat Donald Trump: Direct your campaign plane to Seattle, call a press conference with Carmen Best at your side, and unreservedly denounce Kshama Sawant in a speech to the people of Seattle, and to the rest of us. Show America that the choices we face are not between hateful, deranged ideologues on the left and the hateful, obsessive president in the White House. Show us Carmen Best, a Black cop who did her best to protect the people of her city only to be kneecapped, humiliated, and defunded by a Marxist ideologue who couldn’t care less when Black teenagers are murdered.

If he can pull it off, Joe Biden’s Kshama Sawant Moment would be far more powerful than Bill Clinton’s rebuke of Sister Souljah nearly three decades ago. In 1992, Sister Souljah was well outside the mainstream—an entertainer babbling incoherent revolutionary slogans. There was no critical mass of officials within elite institutions backing her call to kill white people. It was political theater—meant in part to reassure frightened people that bad things they feared wouldn’t actually happen.

Today, however, bad things are happening—and there are countless Kshama Sawants occupying positions of power and influence in American life. These petty tyrants run entire departments at some of our most prestigious universities, dictate the ethical standards in critical government agencies, and control the curriculum for millions of students in the country’s public school systems. Sawant’s votaries have taken over what used to be the country’s paper of record (where Dwight David Eisenhower, the original anti-fascist, is now referred to as “yet another white male figure from an era dominated by white men”) and rule the roost at most other well-funded media outlets. Corporate titans tremble at their feet; U.S. senators bow down to their will. Next time you’re walking down a deserted downtown street and espy the BLM signs dutifully pasted over the boarded-up store windows, ask yourself: Do those really look like the expressions of solidarity they’re purportedly meant to be?

When Sawant likened Carmen Best’s Seattle police force to one in the Jim Crow-era South—“where law enforcement across the country did not lift a finger to stop the KKK’s lynch mobs, and often participated in them”—it read not only like the musings of a collegiate Marxist, but The New York Times op-ed page on any given morning. A few weeks ago, a journalist at National Public Radio interviewed the author of a book in favor of looting as if she had written about hot yoga or any other bourgeois-bohemian hobby. But this was no more ridiculous than the NPR contributor who, earlier in the summer, urged listeners to “decolonize your bookshelf,” a process of “actively resisting and casting aside the colonialist ideas of narrative, storytelling, and literature that have pervaded the American psyche for so long.”

Only five years ago, most observers rolled their eyes when a mob of Yale undergraduates surrounded a renowned professor in a courtyard and hurled verbal abuse at him for over two hours, all because of an utterly innocuous email his wife had composed questioning the university’s intrusion into the all-important matter of Halloween costumes. “What privileged brats!” seemed to be the broad consensus at the time. Two years later, however, only a handful expressed concern when the Yale administration awarded the mob’s ringleaders prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” upon their graduation. Today, the screaming student in the Yale quad is the screaming reporter in the American newsroom. The foisting upon the entire country of crackpot texts like White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist, the abject terror of academics that their careers will be destroyed should they question any aspect of these poisonous bromides, the cynical and transparent efforts by the mass media and leading Democratic politicians like Jerry Nadler and Nancy Pelosi to downplay the rioting (when not ignoring it entirely)—all stand in the way of what should be an easy victory for the former vice president.

Biden needs to assure the country that the past four months of cancellations, forced confessions, efforts to revise American history as if it were akin to Nazi Germany, and other attempts by the woke left to coerce ideological conformity within every institution it’s allowed to control, will not be welcome under his presidency. Of course, the president of the United States has no ultimate power over what private actors can do, but the example set by the occupant of the White House certainly matters—and federal policy can tweak incentives in ways that have far-reaching consequences. It would send an important signal to the country’s “exhausted majority” that the leader of the political party that used to stand for the common man and woman indeed stands with them against the woke ascendancy.

Contrary to the Russiagate dead-enders who have become the Democratic Party equivalent of the QAnon cult, insisting that half the country was duped into voting for Donald Trump in 2016 by a secret conspiracy involving a few hundred thousand dollars of Facebook ads and therefore his entire presidency is “illegitimate,” the millions of undecided voters who will determine this election are not actually stupid or deranged: They see with their own eyes how leaders within liberal institutions have wilted when confronted with mau-mauing from the woke left. In June, when a group of Times reporters seized upon a bit of Marcusian jargon that, if implemented in newsrooms, would spell the death of journalism as we know it—the notion that “speech is violence”—and leveraged this against an editor along with the extortionist claim that his publishing a piece of writing they did not like “put black lives in danger,” nothing was stopping Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger from defending the principle of open debate other than his own fear of being called a “white supremacist” by some of the people whose paychecks he signs. Sulzberger’s cowardice was par for the course among the liberal establishment, whose leaders have repeatedly shown what happens when progressives confront them with such tactics: They surrender.

That anyone should have to call on Joe Biden to denounce the crazies in an election year itself seems crazy. The vast majority of Americans, including racial minorities, believe political correctness is a problem. Majorities across racial and ethnic groups oppose the consideration of race or ethnicity in college admissions. Only 22% of Blacks think abolishing the police is a good idea. So, Joe, stop listening to the blabbering heads on CNN and MSNBC, stop reading the bloviators on the op-ed pages, ignore the toxic psychobabble on the bestseller lists, get off of Twitter, and answer the question: Is the Democratic Party the party of Carmen Best, or Kshama Sawant?

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.