Washington – As racial unrest has spread to more and more cities following the police killing of George Floyd, the far left has been busy devising excuses for riots.
These progressives have frequently quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment that "a riot is the language of the unheard,” with less attention to his simultaneous insistence that "riots are socially destructive and self-defeating.” Property is less important than people, they proclaim on Twitter, as though damage to the one offers protection for the other — and as though violent crowds are fastidious in observing the distinction.
Thankfully, some Democrats have repudiated this dangerous sophistry. Even better, one of those Democrats is the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. In a speech in Philadelphia, he proved that it is entirely possible to view Floyd’s killing as a wake-up call about racism and police brutality while also condemning violence. Some communities, he said, "have had a knee on their neck for too long. But there is no place for violence. No place for looting or destroying property or burning churches, or destroying businesses — many of them built by people of color who for the first time were beginning to realize their dreams and build wealth for their families.”
Biden went on to say, "We need to distinguish between legitimate peaceful protest — and opportunistic violent destruction.”
It’s a view that puts him in the center of public opinion. A Morning Consult poll this week found that 54 percent of the public supports the protests while only 22 percent opposes them. But 70 percent of the public supports curfews and 66 percent support calling in the National Guard to ensure public safety. (Even deploying the U.S. military, as President Donald Trump has suggested, gets 55 percent support.)
The presidential primaries may have freed Biden to take this stance. He won the Democratic nomination over the opposition of most progressives. As late as the March 17 Arizona primary, he was losing voters who consider themselves "very liberal” to Bernie Sanders by more than 2-1. Criticism from the left did nothing, however, to dent his support from African-Americans, even when the criticism concerned racial issues. On such issues, white progressives are well to the left of most African-Americans. The latter group’s strong support enabled Biden’s victory.
Biden now seems to assume that condemning lawless violence, even when it is done in the name of racial justice, will not jeopardize that support — and that it would be a mistake to try to placate people who turned out to be louder on social media than they were numerous in voting booths.
His speech harked back to an older liberalism, one that was committed to racial equality but not to the shibboleths of wokeness. Conservatives will find much in it with which to disagree. Biden took the opportunity to call for expanding Obamacare and to condemn Trump for undermining it, a topic that has at best a highly attenuated connection to the brutalization of George Floyd. Biden has the old liberal confidence that federal laws — he called for national police reform to be passed into law this month — are likely to yield broad social progress.
That confidence has often been misplaced. But there was a decency to that liberalism, and a faith in the decency of America and Americans that today’s progressives often don’t share and sometimes even deny. It’s a way of thinking that has long been dismissed as out of date but still has appeal, which makes it a perfect fit for the Democratic nominee.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.