I understand that Time magazine has a long history of making Presidents-Elect their “Person of the Year.” This tradition started in 1932, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected on the promise of a New Deal to rebuild America’s economy. To this day, FDR has been named Person of the Year (at the time, “Man of the Year”) more than any other individual.
But 2020 is no ordinary year, and Joe Biden is no FDR, and so the editors’ decision to award Biden and Kamala Harris their joint Person of the Year may be predictable, but it’s still laughable. And it was the editors’ decision: Biden ranked 5th in the reader poll, in which essential workers came in first with 6.5% of the vote to Biden’s 3.8%.
The case for essential workers as Person of the Year is open and shut: these are the people risking their health and safety every day in order to keep the world running. Performing their daily duties puts them at constant risk of exposure to COVID-19, and their sacrifice extends beyond their time on the job. In the early days of the pandemic, when PPE was in limited supply, a friendly acquaintance and on-and-off colleague of mine, a bus driver who I got to know from my seasonal job as a New York City tour guide, posted that when he came home from work, he would have to quarantine, away from his family, in case he was an unwitting, asymptomatic spreader. Their sacrifice is 24/7, and often involves not merely themselves, but their loved ones as well.
2020 also saw the largest protest movement in American history take shape organically and spontaneously in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police. Black Lives Matter’s calls for justice did more to move public opinion on racial issues than any direct action campaign in generations. As a movement, they more than doubled their overall support from 2016 (57% now, just 27% then), and as a result, overwhelming majorities of Americans are now acknowledging the realities of systemic racism in policing, up from just 43% in 2014. Activists in cities large and small throughout the country risked being tear gassed by cops, thrown into unmarked vans by federal agents, attacked by counterprotestors, and, of course, being infected with COVID-19, in order to do what this historic moment demanded of them.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, on the other hand, did less than any other candidates in modern history to win these offices. Biden himself was gifted the nomination by a last-minute reshuffling of the deck in which the entire Democratic establishment, including two of his toughest competitors, coalesced behind him, and a 72-hour nonstop media tongue bath from South Carolina through Super Tuesday, after performing miserably in the first three primary contests. Harris, who went into the 2020 campaign the establishment favorite to win it all, dropped out a month before voting started to avoid embarrassing single-digit finishes in every state, including her home state of California.
Biden’s strategy as the Democratic nominee was then to do as little as possible, and let Trump implode. His longtime ally Terry McAuliffe said as much during a Zoom conference of Virginia Democrats. Though the times certainly call for a “New Deal” type of agenda to pull us out of the COVID economy and right the systemic wrongs that led to Trump’s election in the first place, Biden offered no such vision. And on election night, we waited with bated breath for the results of a race that was embarrassingly close, considering the incumbent president’s abject failure to even attempt a proper handling of the most dire public health and economic crisis in over a century.
Biden and Harris lost the critical swing states of Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Iowa. They performed dismally among African American voters, Latino voters, and even white suburban women, who were ostensibly the backbone of the Democratic establishment’s #resistance. They barely won Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia, by an average margin of 0.6 points, which is how they secured enough electoral votes to win the election. This is after Trump got Covid himself, received supplemental oxygen for it, and still tried to gaslight the country into not worrying about it. I wrote at the time that Trump’s personal diagnosis and subsequent response was the tipping point of the campaign; it was only after that piece of news that I felt comfortable predicting his defeat, and it appears, based on the results, that my analysis was correct. Biden and Harris’ margins of victory in critical Electoral College states were so minuscule that had any other major development broken against them (or not broken against Trump), they’d have certainly lost. Instead, they won by default, after a singularly lackluster effort, and by the skin of their teeth.
In a year when so many ordinary people performed with such valiance, courage, and selflessness, Time magazine still felt it necessary to overturn the will of their own dwindling readership and name these two would-be losers were it not for the once-in-a-lifetime apocalyptic circumstances under which the election took place, their “Person of the Year.” In a way, it makes perfect sense. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the creations of traditional establishment media institutions whose influence, though still unfortunately sufficient to anoint their chosen candidates, wanes with each passing day. The people are turning on them, and they know it - in this case, they could see it in their own polling - but they cannot and will not give up and give in. They simply must, perhaps for their own sanity’s sake, maintain their veneer of prestige as long as possible, even as their once distinguished “magazines” are reduced to glorified brochures that can barely pay for their own production.
For “tradition’s” sake, they just had to crown Uncle Joe and Queen Kamala. But Black Lives Matter and frontline essential workers are the real heroes of 2020. To quote our outgoing president, We know it, They know it, Everyone knows it.
Photos: AP / Milwaukee Independent