Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden participates in the 11th Democratic Party debate on March 15, 2020.(Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
The Democratic Party is decadent, its future stillborn as its past seizes ownership of its backward-looking present. In 2020, the party is set to nominate for president a man who wasn’t good enough for the nomination in 1988 or 2008. Has he acquired a new vision or new vigor? No, but his party has run out of options.
Joe Biden is the candidate of old age and fear. Nostalgia for the Obama administration has been his prime selling point in the Democratic primaries, and it certainly helped him to win the support of African-American voters. But Biden is Barack Obama’s antithesis. In 2008 Obama truly was the candidate of “hope and change,” in the sense that he did represent a new page in American politics—he was a one-term senator, not mired in the ways of Washington like his rivals Hillary Clinton and John McCain (or Joe Biden, for that matter, who also ran for president that year); he was to be the first African-American president, providing hope that racial division could be overcome and inspiring young people of color to the highest aspirations; and his policy agenda seemed to be a break with the low expectations of what could be achieved at home and the excessively high expectations of what force could achieve abroad. However poorly the hopes panned out, and what little change succeeded, there was no doubting what Obama symbolized when he was first elected.
And Joe Biden? He’s a symbol that people as old as the Baby Boomers—or, in fact, a few years older—can still dominate national politics, especially in the Democratic Party. Though the 77-year-old Biden is a year younger than Bernie Sanders, he was the old man of the Democratic race in two senses that count for more than his birthday. First, Biden, not Sanders, was the candidate of experience, the one who made his pitch based most of all on his biography, not his plans and policy dreams; Sanders was the candidate of the dream, despite his own decades-long tenure in public life. Second, Sanders was the candidate that young voters preferred; Biden needed not only African-Americans but older Americans in order to become the party’s presumptive nominee. The problem for Democrats here is not necessarily what happens in November 2020, but rather how cohesive the party will be even if Biden can win. Does a Democratic Party led by a 78-year-old President Biden and an 80-year-old Speaker Pelosi have any future in a post-Boomer America?
Democrats have long taken for granted the advantage they expect to gain from America’s generational ethnic transformation: as whites become a smaller majority, and in more and more places are reduced to an electoral plurality, the minority voting blocs that have proved loyal to the Democrats should provide them with permanent power. Yet this is no longer a safe bet if the Democratic Party splinters ideologically, and the ability of leaders like Biden and Pelosi to appeal to the young leftists of all races who supported Bernie Sanders is very much open to doubt. To win elections with one set of voters, while a completely different set of voters holds the future of your party, is apt to be a Pyrrhic, and most temporary, victory.
The dead hand of the past lies heavy on the whole country, not just the Democratic Party. Since 1992, Americans have consistently elected Washington outsiders to the White House. Bill Clinton had no national experience when he won that year. George W. Bush had none when he was elected in 2000. Barack Obama had been in the Senate only four years when he won in 2008. And Donald Trump had no prior experience of holding office of any kind when he became president. Although considerable continuities emerged throughout the administrations of George H.W. Bush (a true Washington insider), Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama—all supported the project of a “liberal world order,” in which the United States was embroiled in foreign conflicts, while globalization was their imperative in economics—voters at each election demanded something new and different from the previous status quo. Clinton was certainly not elected because voters wanted more of what Bush I gave them; Bush II was not elected over Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, because voters wanted to extend the Clinton era; and Obama was elected in explicit repudiation of Bush II. Donald Trump, of course, was the leader the country turned to in order to repudiate all of the above: Trump was as bold in his criticism of George W. Bush for the Iraq war, and of earlier Republicans for NAFTA, as he was in his attacks on Barack Obama’s record.
None of the other successful presidential contenders of the last 30 years has presented himself as a champion of an earlier status quo or a force for restoring Washington to its old ways. Even George W. Bush campaigned on a newfangled “compassionate conservatism,” not a return to Reaganism (or to the 1994 spirit of Newt Gingrich). While it’s possible that in 2020 Americans really will want to reverse the tides of time—after the misery of the COVID-19 experience and in reaction against the changes in government that Trump has instituted—the Obama legacy was not so potent in 2016 as to elect Hillary Clinton, and in four years under Joe Biden it is not going to get any fresher. Whatever opportunities this may present to Republicans and Sanders-style Democrats after 2020, for the country it will mean being stuck with an agenda and governing vision that had proved its limitations by 2016. The same conditions that led to the rise of Donald Trump’s populism and Bernie Sanders’s socialist movement that year will be established again under Biden, and after Biden those forces might take on much stronger forms than they did after Obama.
The Trump and Sanders phenomena have happened for a reason, after all. They happened because “hope and change” failed to deliver on its promises, and with Hillary Clinton there was no hope of anything other than stagnation. Trump and Sanders, in very different ways, represented new hopes and a defiance of stagnation. Biden, by contrast, offers no future at all. That includes a future in which he’s re-elected, age 81, in 2024. Who can imagine such a thing?
The near certainty that Joe Biden could only serve a single term if elected as president makes his choice of vice president a fateful one. That person will be the presumptive frontrunner for the 2024 Democratic nomination, and voters will take that into account when they cast their ballots this November. Should Biden win, he will be a lame duck from Day 1. Quite apart from whatever drawbacks his running mate will have in her own right (if Biden follows through on his pledge to pick a woman), the idea of electing a placeholder president for four years is not likely to sit very well with the American people. It would be an extraordinary abdication of leadership. And it’s not as if anyone would look to leadership in Congress to fill the gap. Nor, given the limitations of the office, would a vice president looking ahead to 2024 have the power to supply needed leadership before then. Quite the contrary: the vice president would be a target for everyone’s criticisms, Republicans and rival Democrats alike.
This is hardly a scenario for a return to stability and “competence” in government, as Donald Trump’s critics say they want. It’s equivalent instead to not having a president at all for four years—which may sound like a libertarian’s fantasy, except that the administrative state would continue to pursue an aggressively progressive agenda during the interim. That too can only contribute to populist resurgence.
For all the debilities that come with being the candidate of old age, there are advantages, too. Biden is not running as the paladin of the emerging Democratic Party, a party whose socialism and identity politics have been consistent losers at the ballot box—including, for the most part, in the 2018 midterms, and including in the Democratic presidential race this year. Biden is a survivor from an older, more broadly popular Democratic Party, one that still had powerful support in white working-class communities, such as those in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin that will be as decisive in 2020 as they were in 2016. For many voters of the Baby Boom generation, Biden is the third coming of the president they grew up idolizing, John F. Kennedy. JFK was the president they wished they could be, a glamorous symbol of America before Vietnam and Watergate. (Never mind that JFK actually deepend the country’s involvement in Vietnam.) Bill Clinton, who like JFK claimed an Irish ancestry—though one which in Bill’s case has never been proved—was the first Boomer elected president, and at 43 was just a year older than JFK had been when he was elected. Like JFK, Clinton had celebrity charm; and if he was a womanizer, too, that just went with the type.
Now Biden represents the same Boomer vision in maturity, even if he’s a few years too old to be a Boomer himself. Like Clinton, he also makes an unverifiable claim to Irish ancestry. Like Kennedy, he identifies as Roman Catholic. (And yes, like Kennedy and Clinton, he has been accused of mistreating women, and worse.) Biden is a callback to the Boomer memory of America—the look and feel of the country in the late 20th century, when white ethnics (Irish, Italians, Poles, and others) who had been at the margins earlier in the century now helped to define the mainstream, even occupying the highest office in the land. To elect Biden at 77 is, perhaps to some of these voters, a way of showing that they still matter in a country whose future will look very different. Much is made by Trump’s critics of the racial dimension to his support; but ethnic and generational identification with Biden should not be overlooked. Indeed, as a candidate who hopes to unite white ethnics and blacks, Biden is a throwback to the Democratic Party of an earlier age, too.
As the candidate of fear, Biden aims at a quite different segment of the electorate. Fear is what motivates upper middle class, highly educated voters. This professional class, filling as it does the ranks of journalism and the academy, presents itself as anything but fearful—according to its propaganda, fear is really hate, and hate is something that only deplorables experience, at least as a political emotion. Liberals will admit to being personally afraid, or worried for their communities, as a result of the horrors they believe Donald Trump has unleashed on the land. But only a populist demagogue, or maybe sometimes a socialist one, tries to capitalize on fear. Good liberal politicians are always about hope and change. Obama only made the slogan explicit. (In fact, “hope” was a byword of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign as well, which drew attention to the name his birthplace: Hope, Arkansas.)
Yet liberalism is the politics of fear in the most profound sense: it is an ideology that attempts to neutralize fear through the all-provident power of the state, guided by enlightened leadership. The fear that men and women traditionally feel on account of religion—fear of God’s wrath or fear of a universe without any order—is allayed by liberalism’s programmatic commitment to science and to rationalism more generally. Everything will have a rational explanation, yet that rational explanation will somehow be moral, too. What is important is that fear can be forgotten, without the need for any unearthly power to supply salvation. Instead, a supreme earthly power will remove all earthly worries: fear of want, fear of violent death, even fear of disease. The state is not the only institution that will meet these needs: for many liberals, the free market or science outside of government plays the greater role in provision. But the state at a minimum supplies the rules that make possible the efficient operation of the rest of liberal society.
And the state rests on a psychological foundation best explained by Thomas Hobbes. No doubt Joe Biden has given little thought to the 17th-century philosopher from Malmesbury, England. Most liberals do not think of themselves as Hobbesians, and a great many denounce Hobbes as an authoritarian or worse. But he understood that a politics suitable for a modern society has to prioritize fear, and its negation, over other emotions and their gratification. Other passions disturb the peace; but fear, particularly the fear of a violent death, can compel men to be reasonable. Fear of this kind is nigh universally felt, and its effects are quite predictable: people will support a power—an institution—that can protect them from violence.
By itself, that’s not a formula for liberalism. And what liberal society does with Hobbes’s political psychology is different from what he himself advised should be done in works like Leviathan. Liberals accept a great deal of competition and pluralism of many kinds, but what makes the competition and diversity possible is its harmlessness. The passions are allowed free rein, but only as long as they are weaker than the fear of violent death that holds society together.
To say that populism has a passion that is stronger than the fear of violent death would be going too far. But populism does involve a very strong passion for dignity, a desire for greater recognition of one’s status or plight—one’s humanity, in a felt and not just formally acknowledged sense. This passion is what most deeply offends the upper-middle-class opponents of populism in general and Trump in particular. They sense that this passion is the beginning of a different kind of politics, and has the potential to supplant the foundations of the old liberal system if it’s not checked. Populism has an understanding of human psychology and human nature different from those of liberalism, and such different foundations lead to different forms of politics and theories of the state.
Joe Biden’s voters have passions of their own, and they are no doubt usually sincere in saying that they are moved by a desire for justice or decency or fairness or any number of other objects of feeling. But all of those passions have been trimmed to fit the context of fear—the context of a political system in which fear has been negated but remains central, for should some other emotion displace it at the center of political psychology, the logic of the rest of the system would fail. The logic of competition for status or dignity looks very different from the logic of escaping from fear. The Trump phenomenon and populism threaten to upset this balance. This is why revolutionary or fascistic implications are attached to Trump’s politics by his detractors. Trump and his supporters are very far from being fascists, but their opponents believe that their emotional core, and their scale of passions, is inevitably incipiently fascistic.
Biden is the candidate for an America less concerned with dignity and more prepared to enjoy the fruits of a political psychology based on neutralizing fear. Under President Biden, the welfare state, science, and even the free market will continue to keep the fear of death at bay, and that will make room for mild pleasures: pornography and video games and varied cuisine and recreational activities of all sorts. Joe Biden’s louche son Hunter—known for his hearty indulgence in drugs and his sexual adventures with strippers—is a perfect specimen of humanity under this system. If he gets more stimulation than others, everyone else should get enough. And if they don’t, they mustn’t complain, they should ask for a program.
For all that liberals complain about Donald Trump’s affairs, or his great wealth, what exercises their ire the most is his spirit, which isn’t satisfied with creature comfort. His supporters are also motivated by something other than what liberalism can easily satisfy. (And this holds true whether we are talking about the nationalists or the Christian conservatives among his base.) Fear should have no competitor as the sovereign passion in a good, rational liberal order, but in Trump the glimmer of competition can be seen. In Joe Biden, however, there is no such danger: he sprinkles oil over turbulent waters, promising as he does only “competence” and more moderate politics. Yet here too, Biden’s supporters are too quick to address an immediate concern without looking to more serious long-term difficulties—for what Trump, and in a different way Bernie Sanders, indicates is that the liberal order has become too dessicated of humanity and feeling, too mechanical, too perfect. And so it courts a backlash, of which populism is not so much a manifestation, but an antibody.
American voters have tried to add new humanity to the nation’s politics in every presidential election since the end of the Cold War. They believed Bill Clinton when he said, “I feel your pain.” They gave a “compassionate” conservative a chance, and afterwards they demanded more “hope and change.” When that effort, too, succumbed to the inertia and decadence of Washington, voters turned to Donald Trump, the most decisive break from politics past. Now Joe Biden asks them to turn back, give up, and accept our country’s senility.
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