The Left Has Valid Criticisms of Biden’s Appointments But Centrists Won’t Listen

The incoming Biden administration’s spate of establishment-friendly appointments has been met with criticism, if not surprise, from left-leaning politicians, commentators and organizations. As they challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s assignation of top roles to corporate allies, a predictable backlash has ensued, with liberal and center-right mouthpieces urging passivity and a disavowal of left ideas under the pretense of “unity.”

The real party unity on display is the lockstep vilification of the left. After the election, moderate Democrats reflexively blamed left-wing rhetoric and policy proposals for down-ballot losses — against evidence, and while declining to reflect on the party’s strategic failings. Now, power’s apologists in the mainstream media are working to nullify critiques of Biden’s appointments. It’s part of an effort to shore up consent for an administration that largely amounts to a perpetuation of the corporate oligarchy. But the indefensible status quo, of course, counts many of the loudest voices among its defenders.

Running Cover

In one ham-fisted missive, The Washington Post editorial board decried the mere possibility that any less-than-fawning appraisal of Biden’s corporate appointments might be warranted. The editors, declaring their intention to “stand against a simplistic anti-business mentality,” offered that Biden, already stocking his administration with emissaries of the tech industry and finance, should go further still. Perhaps he could “cast his net wider, beyond the Democratic-leaning parts of Wall Street and Silicon Valley,” since “[l]eaders in manufacturing, transportation and commerce often have the most informed perspective on how the ‘real economy’ operates.” Given that the “real economy” is engineered for corporate dominance, this is truer than they let on.

To substantiate their impression that there’s a “push on the left wing of the Democratic Party to exclude some potential nominees because they have spent too much of their careers in for-profit businesses,” the editors point to the Revolving Door Project’s report on multimillionaire executive Jeffrey Zients, a former director of Obama’s National Economic Council.

In The Washington Post’s disingenuous framing, it’s as though the Project is insisting that Zients be disqualified for having worked a job. Rather, director Jeff Hauser notes potential conflicts of interest that may arise in Zients’s upcoming role as COVID-19 response coordinator, especially due to his involvement in surprise medical billing. Zients also boasts a history of deficit hawkishness, a cozy relationship with the owner of the predatory for-profit Kaplan University (a scion of the same elite family that owned The Washington Post), and a recent position on the board of the insidious Facebook.

The New York Times similarly remarks: “Now, business and finance experience can turn otherwise qualified White House candidates into pariahs for progressives.” Deservedly so, if that experience was in outfits like investment giant BlackRock Capital, as in the case of Biden pick Brian Deese, a defender of financial deregulation and a fossil fuel greenwasher. Some also might perceive an issue with moves like appointing a Facebook executive to an ethics oversight transition team, a former pharma lobbyist as a senior counselor, or a top oil money recipient as a climate liaison. But be warned, financiers, lest you find yourself on the totalitarian blacklist, branded a “bogeyman of the far left.” This kind of portrayal is intended only to defang trenchant critiques.

Yet The Post editors, feigning ignorance, throw up their hands: “We’re struggling to understand what’s wrong with pursuing worthy objectives in the most cost-effective manner.” The intransigent and irrational left simply opposes efficiency and progress! The Post then proceeds to roll out the lazy “corporations create useful products and jobs” canard. Of course, the point of the editorial isn’t to proffer a measured refutation of the left’s claims. That would require substance. It’s instead to push a line of facile pro-business ideology that isn’t far off from how the right insisted that Trump’s supposed business acumen would translate to effective governance.

Explicit aggrandizement of big business isn’t the only tack that’s been taken by establishment commentators. In The New York Times, investment manager and Obama Treasury Department alum Steven Rattner warns against “letting perfect be the enemy of the good” and chides progressives to “check ideological purity at the door.” Condescending and dismissive, he asserts that “friendly fire” is uncalled for, since, “All committed Democrats agree that Black lives matter, that every American is entitled to good health care and that climate change represents our greatest existential threat.”

Even crediting this claim at face value, it’s a meaningless construction that presupposes that rhetorical advocacy should suffice. How, exactly, will they go about acting on these stated principles? That Rattner is so quick to blithely handwave away the details should tip us off to the likelihood that the details are not in his argument’s favor.

To Rattner’s last point: Biden has refused to ban fracking, and his incrementalist climate plan is catastrophically inadequate to the scale of the problem. Any contestation that such facts might portend a failure to treat the crisis with due seriousness is, apparently, immaterial. The left is attempting to mitigate the president-elect’s considerable deficiencies by influencing appointments. Rattner has the gall to insinuate that it is the left’s “dogma” that is divorced from “political reality” and lacks “sound analytical footing.”

Also lashing out with haughty indignation was inveterate war propagandist Max Boot, who sneered at the “leftist groups” launching an “assault” to “torpedo” the potential nomination of military-industrial insider Michèle Flournoy for secretary of defense. The application of martial metaphors to the critics is ironic given that it’s Flournoy, along with secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken, who has profited from private consulting for the defense industry. As glorified arms dealers and prominent jingoists of the foreign policy “blob,” they backed the criminal bombing of Libya and agitated for an interventionist posture that risks escalating global tensions to drum up support for more obscene payouts to the arms industry.

Boot heaped praise upon Flournoy’s qualifications and dismissed objections to her warmongering record from groups like CODEPINK. (A Politico newsletter also characterizes CODEPINK’s “vocal” opposition to Flournoy as coming from the “extreme left.” The newsletter is, naturally, “Presented by Northrop Grumman.”) Despite the enthusiasm of Boot and others, in the end, Flournoy didn’t get the nod. But the defense industry was still right to rejoice at Biden’s election. Biden trumpeted his final pick, retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, as a win for diversity. Austin is a Black man — who sits on the board of Raytheon.

Criminality With Competence

We can see similar contrivances in the general lionization of the Biden team’s “competence.” Part of the process of calcifying support for whatever lackeys Biden wishes to install is to impress upon the public their expertise and “credentials.” Many proponents have praised the “hypercompetence” of these appointments as heralding a return to a dignified liberal order that can be safely ignored, trusted to hold the reins of the state apparatus and administer the empire.

Such an emphasis may prove particularly persuasive this year, with the flailing ineptitude of the Trump administration to serve as a foil. But this tendency to revere credentials over conduct, this fetishization of “competence” for its own sake, obscures the obvious consideration: competence in what?

Biden’s appointments have so far demonstrated their formidable prowess in expertly facilitating drone killings (Avril Haines and Michael Morrell), skillfully turning the screws of the deportation machine (Cecilia Muñoz) and promulgating investor-friendly non-solutions to climate change (John Kerry) with consummate professionalism. (Less professional, perhaps, is austerity advocate and faux-progressive think-tank head Neera Tanden.) Far be it from the left to question such paragons of proficiency.

Thankfully, Biden’s “sleepily reassuring” choices exude an aura of “dutiful competence” and promise to “make foreign policy boring again.” We may assume that those who have had their families slaughtered by drone missile might choose many adjectives to describe the experience, but “boring” would not be among them. This meritocratic charade conflates achievement with moral rectitude, valorizing the competent execution — sometimes literally, as many people in the Global South can attest — of abhorrent policies.

The administration is coalescing. Time is running out to exert pressure on personnel decisions — and personnel, as they say, is policy. We’re witnessing a full court press by establishment Democrats and elements of the media to lock in choices friendly to corporate power. It appears that they’ll get their way; although the appointments could have been worse, the actual left has been shut out nigh-completely.

Capital knows that it has an ally in Biden. By various means, its interests are reflected in the corporate media. Evidence notwithstanding, criticism of the president-elect and his cronies is deemed uncouth, the bitter cry of jilted ideologues. The childish demands of an irritating, hectoring left, which the Democrats claim cost them so dearly in down-ballot races — “ponies” like, say, lifesaving health care — have been cast aside.

Sufficient surface-level representation has been secured. The adults are back in the room, applying the balm of a comforting, paternalistic professionalism to the national psyche. In their competent hands, it is soothingly intoned, we will return to normalcy. Left unconsidered is that this normalcy might be utterly intolerable.