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Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee for president on Wednesday while the country he hopes to preside over was roiling with a pandemic, soaring unemployment, and a collapsing economy. In this dramatic time, his was a muted victory. Sure, Biden’s opposition within the fractured Democratic Party was louder than ever—Bernie Sanders’ supporters bitterly resented the “Medicare for All” candidate’s withdrawal at a moment when all Americans are at high risk of getting ill and simultaneously losing their jobs and insurance. But Biden’s support remained comparatively sedate. His YouTube broadcast on the day he became the nominee peaked at “about 1,700 viewers.” This enthusiasm gap is not new. Biden’s success has come despite a muted online presence and media appearances so sporadic that “Where is Biden” frequently trends on Twitter.
This has been true all along—and perhaps mysteriously, it has worked to Biden’s advantage. While Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters were louder, had an enormous online footprint, and advanced arguments and issues that have changed the party, it was Biden voters who turned out in droves in the primary, despite their silence online. This has made the nominee’s victory feel confusing. It demands an explanation that common-sense theories about how political enthusiasm, exposure, and airtime should affect turnout cannot provide. Despite an apparent lack of enthusiastic adherents, an associated lack of funds, underwhelming debate performances, and no clear agenda, Biden floated to victory. The question is why—and can whatever powered him to the top do the same in the general?
Back in January, when the economy was still relatively strong, Biden’s poll numbers were high, and coronavirus hadn’t hit public consciousness, I suggested something like this would happen. My thinking then was that there were two theories about what the majority of Democratic voters wanted. One was that, having seen the real situation in the United States laid bare, and activated by the barrage of outrages perpetrated by the Trump administration, many Americans were finally prepared to fight hard for radical change before it was too late. This model presumes that the Democratic electorate had become not just adversarial but revolutionary: It didn’t just want to make a U-turn and undo what Trump had done. It wanted to steer the ship in a new and better direction, with all the work and organizing that implies. This was the pitch both Warren and Sanders were making: Work with me and we will build a better world.
The other theory was that an electorate that is exhausted by a president who can’t stop making the country’s struggles all about himself—an electorate that has had to respond to every fresh emergency by throwing what little free time and energy it has at protests, calls to representatives and senators, donations, and organizing—is depleted and desperate for rest. “In a landscape saturated by the furious exhalations of a president who can’t stop reacting and responding to every new development, restraint might have its charms for an understudied demographic: the American voter who wants nothing more than to tune out,” I wrote then. “With a government unable or unwilling to check or balance itself, the public has had to go into overdrive and react nonstop: People have had to plug so many leaks in this sinking boat that many simply feel depleted. That the plugging of the leaks isn’t really working only exacerbates the exhaustion.”
When I wrote those words, we didn’t have the highest unemployment numbers in recent memory and we weren’t losing 2,000 Americans a day to a virus no one understands. People weren’t stuck at home watching their livelihoods disappear and getting news that their loved ones, who they never got to see again, had died alone and afraid, struggling to breathe. They weren’t actually obligated to watch press briefings in which the president jokes about models he’s had sex with in the midst of discussing thousands of projected American deaths. They weren’t forced to navigate an arcane system of loans ineptly administered by unprepared banks in order to try to save their small businesses in the short term. They weren’t scrambling for toilet paper or fearing the disease vectors their fellow humans might be as they shopped for their groceries. They had not considered that the Kavanaugh Supreme Court would reject efforts to extend absentee voting so people could vote safely and instead require Wisconsinite voters to stand for hours in hail and rain in the middle of a pandemic, literally risking their lives to do their civic duty. A few weeks ago this would have looked like a bad parody of voter suppression, but this week, SCOTUS upheld it, and this is only one of a long list of abusive actions Americans have recently had to witness. Despite voting by mail himself, the president has made clear that he will use every lever he has to prevent voting by mail—the only safe way to vote if stay-at-home orders are still in effect this November. Back in January, we had not witnessed the president withholding desperately needed aid from states whose governors didn’t praise him enough. Nor had we learned that Trump—having said states should fend for themselves because the federal stockpile was “ours”—would order the federal government to start seizing their supplies.
Things, in short, are worse now than they were before. People aren’t just civically exhausted now; they are—in a very real and immediate sense—existentially endangered. There are (again) two theories about what should follow from this: One is that people will be more willing to fight to overthrow a system this dysfunctional and corrupt. The other is that people crave relief and rest. There is a generational divide here, certainly: Sanders supporters, being on average younger, better fit the first theory. Biden voters already conformed to the second back in January, and recent disasters may have only bolstered it.
Many, myself included, have been mystified by voter behavior during this Democratic primary. It’s as difficult to square Sanders’ clear platform and fervent base with his lackluster electoral performance as it is to reconcile Biden’s lukewarm support with his overwhelming results. But if the challenge is to understand rather than prescribe, it’s not that hard to see why Biden is carrying the day. Biden’s opponents aren’t wrong to say he’s so absent he’s functionally a placeholder—the “generic Democrat” polls ask voters to consider opposite Trump. But they might be underestimating that, given some of the political hungers right now, the generic and forgettable might be more appealing than a battle cry for more action, more engagement, and more effort.
One factor undergirding all this might come from studies suggesting that negative partisanship is more motivating than positive partisanship. Ezra Klein writes in Why We’re Polarized that this effect increases as a function of one’s consumption of political news. “Among Democrats, a very unfavorable view of Republicans increased [the likelihood of contributing money to a candidate or group] by 8 points, while a very favorable view of their own party didn’t increase it at all,” he writes, stipulating that “the most-engaged experience politics differently than everyone else.” What Trump’s unceasing domination of news cycles and airwaves has done is radically increase the political engagement and consumption of Democrats, specifically. (Many Republicans have tuned out during Trump’s tenure—including members of Congress who claim, not always believably, not to have heard or read Trump’s latest outrageous statement.) If that’s been radicalizing, and an engine for negative partisanship, the radicalization has not been entirely willing. Democrats hate Trump almost as much as he hates them, but they’re being forced to watch him, now (during the pandemic) more than ever.
In political terms, Biden is an inert gas. His main superpower—and I think it really might be one in this landscape—is that he doesn’t come across as reactive. That draws an extremely sharp contrast between him and the president who cannot stop reacting. It means, among other things, that Biden is boring. Of course his YouTube broadcast got little engagement. One doesn’t particularly need to hear Biden speak because he traffics in familiar platitudes. “This nation has never been defeated when we’re together. And we’re not going to be defeated now,” he tweeted on what was a historic day for the country and his campaign. I just typed that sentence out myself, and already I’ve forgotten it. But its objective is not to be memorable: It is to be vaguely comforting in a way that reactivates a version of this country that no longer feels remotely true. Its appeal is no less nostalgic than Trump’s, but the gift of it is that one can safely tune out. It suggests things won’t radically deteriorate without constant, anxious monitoring.
There’s a second prong to Biden’s longevity, and it’s his immunity to attack. This is, I think, an undersung component of his campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris’ memorable excoriation of Biden for supporting busing didn’t take; her campaign sputtered out and his support in the black community remained solid. The effort to make Biden’s conduct with women matter happened early in his campaign, back when several women spoke up to complain about his habit of touching women and smelling their hair. Not only did he survive that; it inoculated him against future allegations of more serious misbehavior. While there’s obvious intraparty discord fueling the lack of coverage of Tara Reade’s allegations that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her when she worked for him in 1993, the new allegation is having the same strangely muted noneffect as E. Jean Carroll’s allegation that the president raped her: It’s too much, and so, somehow, it dissipates. This is a pattern of sorts in “Me Too” cases: Even Harvey Weinstein’s jury, which convicted him of third-degree rape in the context of a complicated and sometimes consensual relationship, didn’t believe Annabella Sciorra’s account of how he straight-up raped her. People don’t seem inclined to believe rape allegations—especially when they come after a litany of lesser offenses.
It’s worth saying too—as we wait for investigative reporters to investigate Reade’s charges, and I hope they do—that there seems to me to be a general collapse of optimism that any public processing of all this could matter. There’s an accused sexual assailant in the White House. There’s another on the Supreme Court, sitting alongside a sexual harasser. In a pandemic, people just can’t muster the same procedural energy anymore—even the levels of intraparty aggression during the Democratic primary lost intensity under the pandemic. No one can get up a real head of steam over one more account. Biden’s creepiness was proposed as a problem already, and America rejected it. If the country does have to choose between two men who have sexually assaulted women, this will hardly be the first time anyway. It’s not a pleasant fact for those of us fighting for a more just world, but it seems plainly true that many Democrats bitterly resent Al Franken’s resignation as an overcorrection, and when times are this dire, they are not going to sanction a nominee for sexual misconduct that the other side’s supporters come perilously close to celebrating.
But the greatest example of Biden’s indestructability—the biggest attack that didn’t take—was Trump’s own effort to extort Ukraine to “open” an investigation into Biden. It’s hard to appreciate in hindsight how colossally that gambit failed, but fail it did. Trump got himself impeached trying to smear Biden! And it cost Biden virtually nothing politically. “Look, it’s simple,” he told the New York Times before the Iowa caucuses, laughing. “They’re smearing me to try to stop me, and they know if I’m the nominee, I’m going to beat Donald Trump like a drum.” I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine that any Republican attacks on Biden along these lines are going to persuade a single Democratic voter.
If anything, Democrats ought to be impressed by this quality of Biden’s. Despite his occasional outbursts of temper (which no doubt help him scan as “authentic”), the former vice-president is intriguingly immune to the personal grudges around which Trump builds his entire politics. Sure, there’s a more complicated version of him, but Biden telegraphs as the definition of a nice, normal guy. That’s why Barack Obama picked him to be his running mate, after all. Despite Trump’s efforts to extort a U.S. ally to manufacture a smear against him, Biden offered to call Trump on the phone to help him deal with the pandemic. The (meaningless) phone call happened, and Biden—whose idea it was—set the terms for the tone and won. Biden calling Trump “very gracious” is meaningless (this is what a nice guy persona does for you), but Trump describing his call with Biden as a “wonderful, warm conversation” notched Biden an immense moral victory. The guy who insists (bizarrely) that Republicans can change did manage to briefly drag Trump out of the mud and onto higher ground. He just doesn’t seem to take things personally, and while that was a perfectly ordinary quality among politicians at one point, it might be operating as a real political asset in a landscape where the president punishes people who criticize him by denying them lifesaving equipment. Indeed, Biden is obviously considering Harris—whose most famous campaign moment came when she attacked him—for his vice president and speaking of her in the warmest tones. “I’m so lucky to have you as part of this—this partnership going forward,” he said. “The biggest thing we can do is make Donald Trump a one-term president. So I’m coming for you, kid.”
Biden doesn’t just rise above. He floats so high you can barely see him. There’s no reading a country, and one hesitates to invoke the silent majority, but judging by Biden’s numbers, an ability to take punches without striking back is a quality many Americans seem to miss. The bar has gotten very low, and Biden is “nice” enough that not even Sanders could ever muster the vitriol to really truly attack him.
Trump invigorated his base by constantly saying the unsayable, and by being needlessly offensive, performatively undisciplined, careless, bratty, vindictive, and small. He created the conditions for an interesting experiment on the American psyche: Are open corruption and pure transactional venality preferable to the idealistic hypocrisies of political discourse? The experiment has taught us, I think, that the reviled ideals and “norms” weren’t purely decorative—flawed and untrue as they might be, they actually did curb some misbehavior. To quote my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley, who wrote about Trump’s betrayal of our allies the Kurds, “the world would benefit if more public figures … began hypocritically professing this kind of BS again.”
That’s exactly what Biden does—profess that BS. And because he’s known for gaffes—yet another inoculation!—he doesn’t get punished for saying things other politicians might take real heat for. Vagueness is his asset every bit as much as it is Trump’s. “You’re seeing the soul of America now,” Biden said to Chris Cuomo in an excerpt published on the candidate’s Twitter account. “Look at what Americans are doing. Average Americans. They’re not talking about divisions based on race or ethnicity or any of that malarkey,” he said. (I will pause here to note that it’s very difficult, in my view, to read this as anything but calling talking about race issues “malarkey,” but let’s press on.) Biden continues: “What they’re talking about is they’re reaching out and helping everyone. We’re seeing the soul of our nation on full display every day in this crisis—and it makes me so proud to be an American.” As with Trump, sympathetic listeners will hear what he means—that Americans are coming together regardless of their differences—rather than what he says (that talking about divisions based on race or ethnicity is malarkey).
This is all to say that while I don’t understand Biden’s support, he has managed to sidestep (not solve) political problems in ways that defy expectations. Biden’s challenge was to simultaneously defend Obama’s legacy while embracing a Democratic platform that has moved so far left it in many ways openly contradicts it. That he is vague and prone to platitudes protects him from any clarity that might compromise him. His challenge was to run against the biggest, loudest media hog in the history of American politics, and he has met that challenge by barely appearing at all—and by making his appeals so mild you don’t even remember what they were.
That might not make sense, but there is a dream logic to why it might be appealing to weary voters. Biden doesn’t speak in the frenzied hysterics that have come to characterize fundraising emails. A Biden tweet asking for donations is almost comically opposed to Trump’s screaming appeals to destroy the enemy. “Folks, I know these are tough times, but this crisis has made it clearer than ever how much elections matter—and what a difference it makes who is in the White House. If you can, please chip in to fuel our campaign. I would really appreciate it.” I can’t believe this is the strategy in a political landscape based on gun-to-your-head rhetoric. But there it is: The tone isn’t DONATE NOW TO SAVE THE REPUBLIC; it’s “if you can, please chip in.” The promises are modest but so—and this is crucial to an exhausted electorate—are the demands.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to this week’s Political Gabfest.