Let’s start with an easy one.
How old is Joe Biden?
As this issue goes to press, 77. America’s median age is 38, which means that more than half the country is less than half Biden’s age. If inaugurated on January 20, 2021, exactly two months after he turns 78, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., will be older on his first day in office than Ronald Reagan was on his last day as president. Reagan was the oldest president prior to Donald Trump, who is three and a half years younger than Biden and became president almost four years ago. As a result, Trump will reach the age of 78 years and seven months in January 2025, at the conclusion of what would be his second term. Biden will be that old in June 2021.
Last year, when Biden was a candidate for the Democratic nomination, he (or at least his advisors) suggested he would serve only one term if elected. Having become the nominee, he said more recently that he would “absolutely” consider seeking a second term in 2024. If that quest overcomes all obstacles, political and medical, Biden would leave office in January 2029 at 86, an age surpassed by only seven ex-presidents.
To think of Biden’s age another way, he is older than his party’s nominee in each of the seven most recent presidential elections: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton. One must go back to 86-year-old Michael Dukakis, who lost the 1988 election to George H.W. Bush, to find a Democratic presidential nominee born before Biden was.
How long has Joe Biden been in government?
After serving two years on the New Castle County Council, Biden was elected one of Delaware’s U.S. senators in 1972, weeks before he turned 30 and became constitutionally eligible to take office. (He defeated 63-year-old Republican incumbent Cale Boggs who, the Biden campaign insinuated, was a nice man but no longer really up to the job.) After 36 years in the Senate, during which he attempted unsuccessfully to win his party’s presidential nomination in 1988 and 2008, Biden served two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president. He became a private citizen in 2017 for the first time since 1973.
How long ago was 1972?
Forty-eight years ago, of course, which works out to 19.7% of the 244 years since the Declaration of Independence. At the beginning of this most recent fifth of our nation’s history, Elvis Presley was performing on stage, mostly in Las Vegas, and The Godfather was the year’s most popular movie. The median family income was $11,120. Cutting-edge personal technology was the pocket calculator. Sharp’s model, introduced in 1971, weighed 1.59 pounds and sold for $395, the equivalent of $2,500 today.
Of the Senate’s 99 other members when Biden first took the oath of office, 87 have passed away. Those now departed include the men who had lost what were, at the time, the three most recent presidential elections: Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern. (Two younger senators still alive in 2020, Walter Mondale and Bob Dole, would become opposing vice-presidential candidates in 1976 before going on, in 1984 and 1996 respectively, to join the ranks of defeated presidential nominees.) Other now deceased senators include J. William Fulbright, Jacob Javits, Mike Mansfield, and John Tower, men of consequence and renown in 1973 but familiar today only to political historians. Sic transit gloria. Of the 13 senators still drawing breath who were in office at the beginning of the 93rd Congress, Biden is the youngest, followed by 82-year-old Sam Nunn, while James Buckley, now 97, is the oldest.
When Biden joined the Senate, its most senior member was George Aiken, a Vermont Republican who had been serving since 1941. When Aiken became a senator that year, his longest-tenured colleague was South Carolina’s Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith, whose seniority meter began running in 1909. Smith, in turn, sat as a freshman senator with three colleagues first elected in 1880. When they were sworn in, they joined a legislative chamber whose most senior member had assumed his senatorial duties before the Civil War. Biden, in other words, is four degrees of separation from a Senate that included Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis, and five degrees from one that heard historic speeches from John Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. The timeline compresses when a career politician becomes an old man in what is still a young republic.
How smart is Joe Biden?
Smart enough to have graduated in the top 90% of his law school class (76th out of 85) at Syracuse University in 1968. And also smart enough that journalist Timothy Noah could write in 2012, “Biden is not a stupid man. He’s a smart man who often says stupid things.”
Noah was trying to make a case for Biden, whom he called a “surprising non-embarrassment.” His profile in the New Republic was one of a contrarian genre that emerged during Biden’s vice presidency. The Beltway consensus that dismissed him as a windbag and “buffoon” was mistaken, the articles contended. Instead, they took the position that Biden possessed negotiating and interpersonal abilities that served him well during 36 years in the Senate, and then served President Obama well when it came time to assemble compromises and coalitions. Obama himself had little aptitude or enthusiasm for that part of the job, so Biden’s skills filled a critical need for the administration.
Be that as it may, the worst parts of Biden’s reputation were not concocted by his enemies. His unforced errors really did provide the raw material, time and again. The belief that Biden is “dumb or a lightweight,” Politico has recounted, “took hold” during his first presidential campaign. Under a torrent of derision, Biden was forced to withdraw in 1987 after giving speeches that appropriated, without attribution, a British politician’s autobiographical particulars as though they were his own. (Biden dropped out of the race, David Letterman explained, “to spend more time with [his] imaginary coalminer relatives.”) Along the way, he exaggerated his academic achievements and berated a voter who asked about them: “I have a much higher I.Q. than you do, I suspect.”
The problem did not begin in 1987, however. It was there all along. Although every politician says things quickly regretted, Biden’s unforced errors are sui generis. The New Yorker’s Eric Lach wrote that they don’t really qualify as “gaffes”—political opinions blurted out that are more prudently concealed, such as Hillary Clinton’s reflections on the deplorables.
Rather, a Biden talk on the wild side entails not self-wounding candor but acute cerebral-larynx disengagement. As a child, Biden overcame a bad stutter. It frequently seems that he did so through a Faustian bargain that afflicted him with Tourette’s Syndrome: he speaks fluently and at great length, even by Washington standards, but utters things that are baffling, bizarrely inappropriate, or both.
In a notorious 1974 interview in the Washingtonian, for example, Biden praised his first wife, Neilia, killed in an auto accident the month after his 1972 election victory. He called her “my very best friend, my greatest ally, my sensuous lover,” with whom he had a “sensational” marriage, “from sex to sports.” Neilia had “the best body of any woman I ever saw,” Biden said, and reminisced about his ability to “satisfy her in bed.” He was eager to remarry, Biden explained, because “I want to find a woman to adore me again.”
Nor did 1987’s humiliation connect Biden to his inner editor. In 2007, during his second attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden characterized his then-rival Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Earlier this year, Biden said that as a senator in a U.S. delegation to South Africa, it had been his “great honor” to be arrested by authorities determined to prevent him from visiting Nelson Mandela, who years later “threw his arms around me” and thanked Biden for that effort. Both claims were false, and a campaign aide was required to do what she could to walk them back in a way that didn’t make her boss look like a fool and a fraud.
After so many years of saying so many weird things, Biden has come to receive a benefit denied other politicians: being graded on a curve, a phenomenon journalist James Lileks has termed the “soft bigotry of Joe expectations.” Even so, Lach predicted last year that Biden’s nomination would mean Democrats “will be in for months of apologizing and explaining things away.”
So, is Biden’s mouth his biggest political liability?
Yes. Unless it’s his hands.
In 2019, seven women complained that Biden’s behavior toward them in public, including protracted hugs and unwanted kissing, made them feel uncomfortable and demeaned. In response, Biden said that his belief that life “is about connecting to people” has made him a “tactile politician,” one who thinks “I can feel and taste what is going on.” Without apologizing, he promised to be “more mindful” of the fact that the “boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset.”
In the past, Biden’s excessive familiarity came under the dispensation of the soft bigotry of Joe expectations: he was of an older generation; he meant no harm. Above all, morally flexible feminists made allowances for him, similar to the ones they granted Bill Clinton, another pro-choice Democrat.
Even before Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer, accused Biden this year of having sexually assaulted her in 1993, there were indications of growing discomfort with the way Biden heightened feminism’s contradictions. (Biden denied Reade’s allegation, the fragmentary evidence was inconclusive, and media outlets that were not explicitly conservative hastened to treat the accusation as moot and therefore irrelevant.) Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, for example, counted the former vice president’s enthusiastic support for Obama-era rules on sexual misconduct in higher education against rather than for him. “If Biden were a male student or professor who had touched and sniffed women on a college campus in the ways he has been repeatedly captured doing on camera,” she wrote, “he would likely be in deep trouble as a disciplinary matter, in large part because of reforms that Biden himself led.” Since most Democrats continue to praise those reforms, she wondered whether the party was really comfortable with a presidential nominee whose public behavior would get a professor fired or a sophomore expelled.
Is Biden still, you know, all there?
It is especially hard to gauge the cognitive decline of a public figure whose cognitive peak was neither recent nor lofty. In his memoir, former FBI director James Comey recalled White House meetings where President Obama would point a discussion in Direction A, then wait patiently to resume that journey until a five- or ten-minute digression from Vice President Biden in Direction Z had run its course. Discursiveness has always been Biden’s modus operandi. In 1993, the New Republic devoted an entire page to a verbatim reproduction of a single question Biden posed during a Supreme Court confirmation hearing. It contained nearly five times as many words as the Gettysburg Address.
That said, and despite campaign efforts to limit and script his public appearances, it certainly appears that Biden merits the assessment made of many people in their late seventies: he has good days and bad days. The detours that Comey noted are increasingly frequent, often occurring within a single sentence—or, rather, freeway pileup of sentence fragments. Worse, rather than heading in a new, unexpected direction, they don’t really go anywhere at all. In September Biden answered, after a fashion, a question about the coronavirus: “COVID has taken this year, just since the outbreak…has taken more than 100 years. Look. Here’s. The lives. I mean, just…you think about it. More lives this year than any other year for the past hundred years.”
In a CNN interview earlier this year, Biden repeatedly looked down from the camera to his desk while saying, “You know, there’s a…during World War Two, when Roosevelt came up with a thing, that was, you know, totally different, than a…than the…it’s called, he called it, you know, he had the war, the War Production Board.” The moment was excruciating in ways transcription doesn’t capture. Journalist Glenn Greenwald subsequently tweeted, “I’ve literally never seen one person—until Joe Biden—who had to read from notes to answer questions from a cable TV host. And even with that, he often gets lost.”
Given all that, how on earth can Joe Biden be one election victory away from the Oval Office?
Well, let me ask you a question. Is Joe Biden the same person as Donald Trump?
No, of course not.
There’s your answer.
How is that an answer? Millions of people are not Donald Trump. And dozens of them were Democratic presidential candidates.
Yes, in the space of five weeks Biden went from being in danger of dropping out of yet another presidential campaign to decisive victory. He finished a distant, humiliating fourth place in the 2020 Iowa caucuses and fifth place in the New Hampshire primary—after which, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos reports, his campaign “was assessing how much money it would need in order to pay staffers if it shut down”—then won a landslide victory in South Carolina. That triumph propelled him to ten primary victories on “Super Tuesday,” three days later. Over the ensuing week, every Democratic opponent withdrew from the race and endorsed Biden, except for Bernie Sanders, who did so the following month. The contest was over. There’s never been anything like it.
Three weeks after Super Tuesday, Alex Wagner of CBS News and the Atlantic distilled the argument that Biden’s un-Trump-ness was sufficient justification for making him president. “Stay Alive, Joe Biden,” her article’s title implored. Despite Biden’s “fairly awful campaign events and confusing statements and garbled debate performances,” Wagner wrote, “Democrats have chosen Biden as their vessel for Trump’s defeat.” Because they were “terrified and furious at the prospect of another four years of Donald J. Trump” in office, Democrats turned to Biden in the belief that he was their most “electable” candidate.
But “Does Anyone Actually Want Joe Biden to Be President?” New York Times contributor Jill Filipovic asked in 2019. Even after nominating him, it’s not clear how many Democrats really believe that no other American is better qualified. Sometimes, though, it’s enough to win a nomination by being the candidate who’s most acceptable, or even least objectionable, to the largest portion of one’s party. It also helps to be judged the one least objectionable to persuadable voters who are independent or identify with the other party. This is what Wagner means by “electable.” (But such calculations carry their own risks, ones demonstrated by the Democrats’ 2004 nomination of John Kerry, who turned out to be not quite electable enough.)
In Osnos’s summary, “Biden benefitted from fear of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.” For a few days in late February, after Sanders followed his victory in New Hampshire by winning the Nevada caucuses decisively, the Vermont senator seemed the party’s likely or even inevitable nominee. Many Democrats believed that nominating a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, who had spoken glowingly of his experiences travelling in the Soviet Union, would replicate George McGovern’s 1972 catastrophe: a nominee who electrified Democratic activists, but could never be accepted by a majority of the electorate, would go on to lose to a detested, seemingly vulnerable Republican incumbent. By the time of this year’s South Carolina primary, when it was clear that none of the remaining second-tier candidates would ever climb to a higher plateau, Joe Biden had become the only alternative to the huge gamble of nominating Sanders. Accordingly, the party’s voters, donors, and leaders set aside their differences with, and misgivings about, the former vice president. Biden won the nomination, Michael Tomasky wrote in the New York Review of Books, “because he seemed to the greatest number of Democratic voters to be the safest bet.”
So what is the basis for these claims about Biden’s electability against Trump?
Two things: the former vice president’s personal decency and political moderation.
“Character is on the ballot,” Biden said in his acceptance speech to the party’s virtual convention, as are “[c]ompassion…[d]ecency, science, and democracy.” Democrats and journalists—not readily distinguishable groups—have joined in treating Biden’s decency as his defining quality. His acceptance speech “captured the romance of decency,” wrote the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson. After Biden’s Super Tuesday triumphs, historian Matthew Dallek gushed that the former vice president “exudes decency.”
Concerning moderation, Biden’s career “has been distinguished mostly by careful centrism,” in Osnos’s words. That career encompassed decades when Democrats suffered politically for the Great Society’s failures. Long before President Clinton was triangulating, Senator Biden was actively trying to accommodate skepticism about big government and social justice, skepticism which elevated Reagan and then Newt Gingrich. As a freshman senator worried about reelection, Biden became “the Democratic Party’s leading anti-busing crusader” in the 1970s, the New York Times reported last year. His commitment to this cause included collaborating with North Carolina Republican senator Jesse Helms on an amendment that reduced the federal government’s ability to withhold funds from school districts that failed to meet desegregation benchmarks. “Biden’s advocacy made it safe for other [Senate] Democrats to oppose busing,” wrote the Times.
During his first Senate term, Biden was capable of sounding more conservative than many of his Republican colleagues on the broader question of government’s capacity to effect social reforms. He rejected a full-employment bill co-sponsored by liberalism’s grand old man, saying that Hubert Humphrey “isn’t cognizant of the limited, finite ability government has to deal with people’s problems.” The socialist magazine Jacobin recently scorned Biden as “the Forrest Gump of the Democratic Party’s Rightward Turn.”
How well do these claims hold up? How decent is Joe Biden?
The character question, too, needs to be graded on a curve. Biden has spent half a century in politics, a field of endeavor that favors a man skilled at getting others to believe what they need to believe in order for them to do what he wants them to do. Those too fastidious for such exertions seldom last long or go far. “In Washington,” George Packer, then with the New Yorker, wrote in 2012, “elected officials considered themselves a higher breed.”
Biden was no exception—loyal to “a small circle of long-serving aides,” in Packer’s words, but “if you just worked your ass off for him for a few years he wouldn’t notice.” One of the unnoticed was Jeff Connaughton, whose mixed feelings about Biden included some admiration but also the belief that the senator was an “egomaniacal autocrat.” In fairness, to be a senator at 30—one of the higher breed, but also younger than many of the staff members who toil as mere courtiers—puts you at great risk for self-adoration.
Biden has not always succeeded in keeping his contempt for such minions hidden from view. In 1998, he publicly berated weapons inspectors for presuming to testify to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that they needed more access and resources to determine the extent of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs in Iraq. “I respectfully suggest that I have a responsibility ‘slightly’ above your paygrade,” Biden sneered. The inspectors had had the effrontery to discuss matters that only grown-ups like himself, the president, and the secretary of state were authorized to decide. “That’s why they make the big bucks; that’s why they get the limos, and you don’t.”
To resist egomania would take a degree of humility and perspective that most precociously successful politicians, Biden included, do not possess. More typically, character manages to adapt to lofty, consuming ambitions. The result, in Biden’s case, is a decency that is situational and performative, part of the Biden persona similar to Bill Clinton’s empathy shtick. His memory may be slipping but, as in the Nelson Mandela fantasy, Biden’s heart-warming embellishments and fabrications are not random. Instead, they reliably serve the purpose of making him appear impressive, noble, and sympathetic.
It is a pattern established back when all Biden’s marbles were answering roll call. Just telling audiences the terrible story of the auto accident that killed his wife and daughter wasn’t enough. For years, Biden also added that the driver of the truck that hit their car had been drunk. In fact, the driver wasn’t charged with intoxication or any moving violation, and there’s no evidence that he was even at fault. The memory of the crash tormented the man to his grave, and a powerful politician’s casual denigration of their father tormented his children. When his daughter wrote Biden to ask him to stop telling this lie, he wrote back to apologize…then a few years later resumed moving audiences to tears with the story about the drunk driver who had killed his family members. After a CBS report about the accident, Biden apologized again and, for the time being, has dropped from the playlist the story of the driver who “drank his lunch.”
Okay, so how moderate is Biden?
Well, that’s situational too. Every Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton in 1992 has carried Delaware, but during Biden’s first two decades in politics, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush each won a lopsided victory there. Biden’s careful centrism was a matter of necessity when he was a young senator, but became habitual as he became more senior, and more politically secure. (After initially winning his Senate seat with 50.5% of the vote, Biden ran six more times and won at least 58% in each election.)
Biden’s defenders now use his long voting record and cautious reputation to dismiss fears that his administration will closely resemble the one Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would have fashioned. “Biden isn’t seen as a radical, a socialist, or even a particularly progressive politician,” Ezra Klein of Vox contends. The former vice president “is a conventional Democrat, representing the center of the Democratic Party,” Atlantic contributor Shadi Hamid writes. “If Biden, of all people, is beyond the pale, then so is half the country.”
Prior to securing the nomination, Biden himself described why he wanted to be president, and what he would do if elected, in notably modest terms. At one 2019 campaign event, Osnos records, Biden “promised not to ‘demonize’ the rich and said that ‘nothing would fundamentally change’” under his administration. The overriding goal was to supplant Donald Trump in favor of a much less…interesting…president. Among the reasons Biden leaned so heavily on his connection to Barack Obama during the campaign (even though Obama didn’t endorse Biden, or anyone else, until the contest was decided) was to offer Democrats a restoration of the tone and direction of American political life before November 2016.
By the time Biden accepted the 2020 nomination, however, the country had experienced the coronavirus pandemic and then the Black Lives Matter moral panic. Even as Biden’s ambitions grew to include a possible second term, they now also point to a far more consequential presidency. According to Osnos, he shared with Sanders his ambition to be the “most progressive” president since Franklin Roosevelt. “We have an opportunity,” Biden told CNN in April, “to do so many things now to change some of the structural things that are wrong, some of the structural things we couldn’t get anybody’s attention on.” In an effort to unite the party for November, Biden convened task forces to develop positions on the biggest questions, ones that would be acceptable to all wings of the party. Each group was co-chaired by a Biden and a Sanders supporter—e.g., John Kerry and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on climate policy. At the same time, according to another report, the Biden campaign was also working closely with Elizabeth Warren on policy proposals.
So, will a Biden presidency be leftist or centrist?
Well, one or the other—but not both. This presents a problem for those who think that even a presidential campaign should demonstrate a modicum of logical consistency. Biden’s champions, journalistic and political, are barely concealing their hostility to the law of non-contradiction.
The best thing about Biden, according to Paul Waldman of the liberal American Prospect, is his “malleability.” Over a long career emphasizing accommodation rather than principle, Biden has shown that he has “no purity tests, and no problem with compromise.” Or, as a “senior Obama Administration official” told Osnos, Biden “is very much a weathervane for what the center of the left is.” Progressive Democrats can get the next best thing to a Sanders or Warren presidency, Waldman advises, by making sure that they constitute the prevailing winds that determine Biden’s direction.
In the meantime, the best way to get him elected president is to give contradictory reassurances to different groups of voters. “Biden’s long profile in American politics has given his campaign cover” Klein explains, to “build bridges to the more socialist wing of the party, and to normalize a more progressive agenda, without fearing some of the backlash that other candidates might receive.” Biden’s centrist reputation, Osnos agrees, “could make it easier for him to achieve changes that might seem more threatening coming from a doctrinaire progressive.” After Biden’s half-century of being malleable, there are grounds to assure centrist voters that he won’t be a dangerous progressive in the White House, and other grounds to assure progressive voters (and donors) that he won’t be a disappointing centrist.
The cracks in the rickety structure that the Biden campaign must build are already showing. “In trying to have things both ways” regarding the police and race relations, “Biden risks alienating both ends of his coalition,” in the New York Times’s assessment. “Suburban voters—particularly older white voters—are less enthralled with the idea of defunding the police. And activists say a pledge to prosecute bad cops doesn’t go nearly far enough.” Along the same lines, the Biden campaign denounced anti-Israel activist Linda Sarsour as an anti-Semite, but then put its national coalition director on the phone with prominent Muslim and Arab-American leaders to apologize for the “pain” caused by the “disrespectful” and “hurtful” statement.
And what’s the point spread on which way a Biden presidency is likely to tilt? Left or center?
Left has to be the betting favorite, given Biden’s unblemished 50-year record of choosing the path of least resistance. Margaret Thatcher called herself a “conviction politician,” a term no one has ever applied to Joe Biden. Doing so would require specifying even one conviction that has guided his long journey, which is a fixed point that political science has yet to locate.
Consider his selection of Kamala Harris, California’s first-term senator, as his running mate. (If elected, Harris will be more likely, in actuarial terms, to inherit the presidency than any vice president in history.) Her Senate voting record in 2018 and 2019 compared favorably, in the scorecards of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, to those of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. During her own presidential campaign, launched in January 2019 and scuttled last December, Harris endorsed a “mandatory buyback program,” i.e., confiscation, for privately owned firearms deemed “assault weapons.” Her “Medicare for All” proposal promised to abolish private health insurance, shortly before it promised not to abolish private health insurance. Her climate proposals required that by 2035 nothing but zero-emission vehicles would use the country’s thoroughfares, and she was for banning all “fracking” before she was against it. Harris vowed to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortions, and criticized Biden, when they were opponents, for his history of supporting it. After being attacked for this stance by Harris and others, Biden promptly repudiated a position he had held for 40 years.
The choice of Harris is a strong indication about other choices Biden will make if elected. Personnel is policy, according to the folk wisdom of Washington. What is true of every administration would be doubly true of Biden’s, given his age, signs of decline, and adulthood devoted to the calculated embrace of stronger people’s convictions. As the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph C. Sternberg argues, President Biden is likely to end up as Prime Minister Biden, the beleaguered supervisor of “jostling Democratic special interests,” where it’s “every man, woman and child for him-, her-, or zirself.” In a party well to the left of the one that nominated Barack Obama in 2008, Biden’s promise to be a “transition” president can only mean accommodating the most progressive Democrats, steadily more numerous, determined, and—since Trump’s election—enraged. New York magazine’s Sarah Jones speaks for them when she says that Democrats’ “leftward shift” is reflected in two convictions: climate change and social inequalities “require massive spending and an activist government,” and sincere commitment to such policy goals renders “bipartisanship and compromise” with Republicans “useless and grotesque.”
So, the risk-averse argument against a Biden presidency is that he’ll make good on his promise to Bernie Sanders to be more progressive than Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama?
Ordinarily, the prospect of a Greenish New Deal or Medicare for Nearly All would justify answering that question in the affirmative.
But these are not ordinary times. The Democrats’ leftward shift encompasses not just transformational policy changes, but axioms and attitudes portending a regime change. Abraham Lincoln summarized the code and spirit of self-governance in his First Inaugural Address: “A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.” Above all, republics are possible only among people who “are not enemies, but friends,” fellow citizens who understand that they “must not be enemies.”
The assertion that compromise with congressional Republicans is grotesque forms part of a larger belief, gathering adherents and force, that democracy, pluralism, and civility are luxuries that have outlived their usefulness. “Debate-club democracy,” argues New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, “where people of good will share a common world of fact but disagree on what should be done,” has been rendered “an expensive illusion” in the Age of Trump.
Indeed, leftists have concluded that the idea of decent, reasonable people disagreeing respectfully was “useful” mostly for perpetuating such grave injustices as environmental degradation and racial inequality. To correct and atone for these transgressions is so urgent that it is no longer imperative or even defensible to respect constitutional checks and limitations, honor deliberate changes in public opinion, or promote civic friendship. The result, as the American Conservative’s Helen Andrews writes, is that the most pressing question we can ask about those on the Left in 2020 has become whether they “are capable of sharing a country with people they disagree with.”
The evidence of this incapacity or refusal to share grows relentlessly. In June the New York Times reported, with evident approval, on high school students’ use of social media to denounce peers for “racist behavior,” which can include preferring the phrases All Lives Matter, or Blue (i.e., police officers’) Lives Matter, to Black Lives Matter. For some enforcers, the trophy on the wall is to have an offender’s college admission rescinded. People “who are about to go to college need to be held accountable for what they say,” explained one 16-year-old commissar. She views them as the kind of proto-oppressors who “end up becoming racist lawyers and doctors. I don’t want people like that to keep getting jobs.”
Though ostensibly run by adults, the Washington Post showed a similar generosity of spirit when it chose to ruin a woman’s life because she had attended a Halloween party in blackface…two years previously. The malefactor was not a Cabinet secretary or television news anchor, but a graphic designer, fired from her job the day the 2,800-word story ran, some three weeks after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis triggered nationwide protests. “Democracy Dies In Darkness” became the Post’s motto after November 2016, but the paper has yet to shed any light that would explain its decision that a private citizen’s moment of dubious judgment, neither recent nor consequential, was newsworthy.
Obviously, these are all bad developments. But what do they have to do with Joe Biden or the 2020 election?
There are two problems. First, the “cancel culture” is growing more assertive, augmenting its lists of targets, transgressions, and tactics. Secondly, the Democratic Party is responding to this phenomenon by growing more passive, equivocal, and even supportive.
No sentient creature with a television or internet connection is unaware of the harassment, intimidation, assaults, destruction of public monuments, looting, arson, and riots, undertaken this year by people claiming to further social, and especially racial, justice. It’s particularly striking that justifications for these acts are increasingly explicit, even brazen. After carloads of looters came to Chicago’s Michigan Avenue shopping district one Sunday night in August, a Black Lives Matter organizer said, “I don’t care if somebody decides to loot a Gucci, or a Macy’s, or a Nike, because that makes sure that that person eats, that makes sure that that person has clothes, that makes sure that that person can make some kind of money because this city obviously doesn’t care about them.” At a protest the next day, one sign read: “Our futures have been looted from us. Loot back.”
In Portland, Oregon, protest marchers are targeting residential neighborhoods as an expression of their belief, summarized by the New York Times, that “sitting idly and watching a protest without participating…is to show tacit support for racism.” In one instance, several hundred marchers threatened a home’s occupants: either take down their American flag or the protestors would return and burn down the house. “You’ll never sleep tight, we do this every night,” is one of the group’s chants. The marchers’ counterparts in Rochester, New York, have begun posting online police officers’ home addresses and family members’ identifying information.
In a saner time, Democratic lawmakers would not consider such lawlessness a formidable moral dilemma or intellectual quandary. Nuance is neither needed nor wanted. And yet, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s oracular pronouncement in response to a question about a mob destroying a statue of Christopher Columbus in her native Baltimore was, “People will do what they do.” As protests added names to the list of historical figures unfit to be honored with statues, Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic senator from Illinois who was under consideration to be Joe Biden’s running mate, said that we should “listen to the argument for removing George Washington statues.”
For a few encouraging hours, it appeared that Connecticut’s Democratic senator Chris Murphy would demonstrate moral clarity to his party and country. “This isn’t hard,” he tweeted.
But, apparently, it is hard and you do have to choose—at least if you’re a Democratic politician fearful of getting on the wrong side of your party’s shifting convictions. Murphy subsequently deleted the tweet on the grounds that it “mistakenly gave the impression that I thought there was an equivalency between property crime and murder.” In fact, his statement did not, mistakenly or otherwise, give any grounds to accuse Murphy of such equivalency. But Murphy is not the first senator who tried and failed to look principled while being craven.
Because America has a proud history of surviving its politicians’ stupid and cowardly utterances, the more menacing danger posed by Democrats’ response to this year’s convulsions is that inactions speak louder than words. In May, the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis and Democratic governor of Minnesota either could not or would not prevent a mob from burning down a police station along with many other structures. For three weeks in June, the Democratic mayor of Seattle and Democratic governor of Washington either could not or would not regain control of the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.” In fact, according to the New York Times, the city government “not only permitted the establishment of a police-free zone, but provided infrastructure like concrete barriers and portable toilets to sustain it.”
When police departments cannot prevent the destruction of their own stations, when citizens who call 911 are told that the police are not responding to emergencies in that particular neighborhood, these flagrant derelictions are—to borrow Joe Biden’s phrase about Obamacare—a big f–king deal. Governments are instituted to secure inalienable rights. To fail in their most basic duty leaves people rightly terrified and livid about being forced to fend for themselves.
By the time these traumatic events occurred, Biden was the presumptive presidential nominee and clear leader of the Democratic Party. And yet, decent Joe Biden either could not or would not prevail on Democratic officials in the states of Minnesota and Washington to protect their constituents’ lives, safety, homes, and businesses. To borrow one more phrase, written on signs that were carried in this year’s protests, Silence is Violence.
The Biden campaign was not, however, completely disengaged from the mayhem. At least 13 Biden campaign staffers donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund in the days after the George Floyd protests began. Kamala Harris asked her Twitter followers to contribute as well. Among those released from jail due to the Fund’s provision of bail was a man charged with attempted murder for shooting at police officers during the riots. Little wonder that George Packer, though desperately hoping that Biden defeats Trump, worries that voters will correctly discern that a Democratic presidential candidate “means it when he denounces police brutality, but less so when he denounces riots.”
For those of our readers with lives apart from their CRB subscriptions, can you summarize the import of these unconscionably thorough elucidations?
I conclude by endorsing the opinion of National Review’s Stanley Kurtz: the likeliest preview of a Biden presidency can be found in higher education, where college presidents say all the right things about academic freedom, and then do all the wrong things to protect it.
These presidents are not themselves radicals. They sincerely hope to facilitate enlightenment and concord in their small fiefdoms. They interact skillfully with donors and trustees, crafting sympathetic though non-committal reassurances that placate even the registered Republicans. Ultimately, though, the correlation of forces always argues for acceding, often preemptively, to the demands of left-wing students, faculty members, and administrators. These are the people who, more than any others, will determine whether a college president’s life is miserable or tolerable.
“Ask yourself,” Joe Biden said during an appearance in August. “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?” No, Mr. Vice President, you look like a grandpa and elder statesman. But as any beleaguered conservative professor will confirm, by virtue of being both more numerous and far more compliant than the communists, the careerists are always more dangerous.
Among inveterate critics of progressivism are some who find it exhausting and distasteful to have Donald Trump in the White House. One need not share these sentiments to understand them. Similarly, the opinion that Donald Trump should be denied a second term and his Republican “enablers” voted out of Congress, as George F. Will has urged, is contestable but comprehensible.
It’s not clear, however, why America should be punished—with reckless policy initiatives and the rolling repudiation of constitutionalism—for what are held to be the Republicans’ Trumpist sins. Complacency about this outcome requires substituting spite for thought. Nor does it make sense that losing an election is supposed to be a cleansing, edifying experience for one political party…but not both. Perhaps nothing less than two defeats by a despised opponent can disabuse the Democratic Party of its growing contempt for democratic processes and prerequisites. But are there Democrats who grasp that their party’s leftward shift fortifies the woke intolerance now jeopardizing the republic? And, if so, are any of them willing and able to explain the crisis in terms that even Joe Biden can understand?
This essay is a special preview of the forthcoming Fall 2020 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.