Joe Biden has a lot going for him, or so we’re told. He’s got a compelling personal story. He’s got experience. He’s got blue-collar, working class, Rust Belt appeal. He’s got policy solutions for America’s most urgent problems – oh, wait, he hasn’t announced any of those yet. Well, I’m sure he will soon. But even if he doesn’t, it shouldn’t matter, because by far the biggest boon to Joe Biden’s prospects for winning the Democratic nomination is not any personal trait, resume point, or policy position of Joe Biden’s. Rather, it’s the insufferable weakness of the Democratic primary electorate.
That’s right. Democrats aren’t weak. You’re weak. And Joe Biden knows you’re weak. How do I know this? Biden, in his first days on the campaign trail, has repeatedly referred to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the subsequent years and months, as an “aberration.” Just a glitch in the system. A bug in the matrix, if you will. And, to milk the matrix analogy, this explanation he offers for Trump and Trumpism is as “blue pill” as it gets. Swallow it, and you get to believe that this has all been one big mistake. A mix-up. A fluke. A one-off. Hillary won the popular vote, plus the Russians interfered, plus Obama was a popular president, plus Trump’s negatives were high, plus Democrats won back the House, and so, really, America isn’t as troubled a place as we think it is. We just caught a bad break, and this “aberrant” national nightmare will soon be over, and normalcy will be restored.
That’s the sanitized version of the past few years that Joe Biden is peddling. And it’s no wonder that it appeals to a distraught Democratic electorate who’s in desperate need of consolation and reassurance. Of course, the only problem with it is that it’s fundamentally wrong.
The reality is that decades of systemic failures led to an increasingly disaffected working class, whose insecurities over immigration and other cultural issues morphed into resentments that were just waiting to be seized upon by a demagogue like Donald Trump. That’s the red pill version of America, in a nutshell. And Joe Biden offers no lasting remedies for it, and you know it.
You know it, but do you care? According to the recent Quinnipiac poll in which Biden opened up a commanding lead over his Democratic rivals, 38-12 over Elizabeth Warren, with Bernie Sanders finishing third at 11%, only 23% of those polled thought Biden had the best policies of any candidate in the race. 56% though, saw him as the most electable in a general election against Trump. This is not an outlier. In fact, poll after poll shows that Democrats are far less concerned with candidates’ policy positions than they are with their ability to defeat Trump in a general election. This dynamic is as lamentable as it is dangerous.
It’s lamentable in that party primary voters, supposedly the most engaged and astute members of a given party’s electorate, ought to care about the policies the party puts forward. The prevalence of the “blue no matter who” crowd this early on is evidence that little to no such concern exists within the party. What does it say about a political party when over half its members don’t really concern themselves with what it stands for? Rather, they only see their party as a necessary counterweight to the opposition party. What it says is that the party is weak, because its voters are weak.
The danger comes when this weakness can be exploited by a corporate media that’s been branded, mostly by the right wing opposition, as “liberal.” So for example, when Chuck Todd says on MSNBC’s MTP Daily that Bernie Sanders is unelectable because the right would “hammer and sickle him to death,” and that Joe Biden is the best bet for victory in November, his feeble, shallow audience of emotionally fraught Democratic primary voters listens, and votes accordingly.
Because it’s already born out in all of the polling data that most voters don’t even care what the candidates’ policies are, the task of the corporate media becomes extremely simple: convince the lemmings to follow the guy who they say is the most electable. There’s no need to parse the differences between Medicare for All and a public option. No need to discuss how and to what extent we can increase wages. No need to get into the nuances of environmental policy. Or student debt. Or immigration. Or anything, for that matter. They can simply show their viewers an early poll of Joe Biden defeating Donald Trump, and trust that they’ll fall in line. And they will. Because, once again, they’re weak.
Contrast this with the 2016 Republican nominating contest. Sure, Fox News is now a propaganda arm of the Trump White House, but during the primaries, they, like most conservative media, were intent on thwarting his path to the nomination. Except Republican primary voters didn’t give a damn what Chris Wallace, or Brit Hume, or Megyn Kelly, had to say about Donald Trump. They heard warning after warning from their media outlets, elected officials, and former presidential nominees, that Donald Trump was too far outside the mainstream to be elected, and that nominating him would all but hand Hillary Clinton the presidency on a silver platter.
Their voters, though, unlike Democratic primary voters, had the fortitude to buck the party establishment, defy conventional wisdom, and nominate the candidate whose policies they most aligned with, and who they felt would best represent them if elected president. And, of course, they won.
What will it take for Democrats to show the same strength? A Biden defeat to Trump, perhaps? After all, the “electability” strategy has a long history of backfiring, most recently in 2016 when Clinton was considered more palatable to the broader electorate than the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. Also in 2012, when the Republicans compromised on Mitt Romney, thinking he was the most “presidential” of the pack and the best to match up against Obama. Also, 2004, when progressives in the Democratic Party were ultimately abandoned in favor of the uninspiring “safe bet” John Kerry. Then there was Al Gore. And so on, and so forth. In fact, the most common example we hear of the opposite strategy backfiring, that is to say, nominating a firebrand and losing, is George McGovern in 1972 against Richard Nixon. 1972.
So if Biden’s “safeness” fails to ignite the base and drive turnout, and if his support for NAFTA, TPP, and permanent normalizing of trade with China spells doom in the Rust Belt, as it well could, since Trump will claim that he turned the corner on a stagnant Obama-era economy and that Biden would be a giant step backwards, and the Democrats’ reward for pragmatism and practicality is yet another defeat at the hands of the uncompromising Republican Party, will that change their approach next time around? Probably not.
Remember, we thought after 2016 that such a humiliating defeat would close the book on Clintonian neoliberalism once and for all. Surely, the verdict was in on the viability of uninspiring, vapid candidates and their listless, hollow campaigns. And yet, three years later, here we are. Joe Biden: front runner.
We can rail against the corrupt Democratic establishment all we want, and we will. But the reality is that this one’s on us, the voters, if we screw it up. We are now far beyond “fool me once” territory. We, as Democratic primary voters, are staring down a failure of Shakespearean proportions; indeed, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons