Politics

American Politics Needs a New Main Character

Elon Musk? Kyrsten Sinema? In our opinion, absolutely not.

Elon Musk and Kyrsten Sinema's cut-out head shots are seen against a backdrop of a blue United States map covered in question marks. Both Musk and Sinema are wearing goofy expressions.
No thanks and no thanks. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tristar Media/Getty Images, Bonnie Cash-Pool/Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

Even if you are not aware of it explicitly, American politics always has a main character. After a presidential election, for example, the new president is the main character. If the president chooses a major accomplishment to pursue, it can become a main character of its own, like the Affordable Care Act. After midterm elections, the opposition party and its leaders and priorities become main characters, like Newt Gingrich in 1994 or the potential impeachment of Donald Trump in 2018. Presidential primaries change main characters on a weekly basis in a way that can be thrilling, if you’re into that sort of thing (pervert).

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Well, that’s how it usually works, anyway. At the moment, circumstances have conspired to preclude the ascendance of any U.S. elected official, candidate, legislative faction, or issue to a central status around which action and discussion could organize itself. It’s an unprecedented state of diffuse inconclusiveness, a Mexican standoff of guns that cannot be loaded, and a battle between empty boats floating past one another in an endless, aimlessly circulating gray sea. (Folks, am I talking about national political conditions or the U.S. men’s soccer team’s tactical approach in the attacking third here? JK, JK.)

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To wit: Joe Biden is president, but because his approval rating is so low and Republicans are about to gain control of the House, he has no political juice to work with. The Republican Party also does not have any juice—nary a droplet of luscious, syrupy political juice—because its midterm performance was the worst of an opposition party in decades and it failed to win the Senate. It’s TBD whether current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will be able to become speaker, but there’s also no obvious candidate to replace him either. With gas prices falling, stock indexes rising, and Hunter Biden’s continuing to not interest most voters, neither is there an obvious issue for a GOP House to make into its primary cause, even if it could settle on a leader.

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Nor can any particular person or faction in the Democratic Party claim credit for its midterm strength. It’s mostly agreed, rather, that the self-inflicted GOP wounds of the Dobbs decision and 2020 election denialism—instead of any particular Democratic ideal or proposal aside from “being somewhat normal”—are responsible for the results. The party’s surprising midterm results have also dampened speculation that Biden will or should decline to run for a second term, so as things stand now, there is no 2024 Democratic primary to speculate about.

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What of the principal 2020 denier, Donald Trump, and the rest of the potential 2024 GOP primary cast? Trump, indisputably the main character of politics for most of the past seven years, is experiencing a relevance ebb thanks to the midterm results and his choice, reckless even by modern Republican standards, to host newly avowed Nazism enthusiast Ye (formerly Kanye West) and a white supremacist named Nick Fuentes for dinner. Trump even trails Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a new Economist/YouGov poll of Republican primary voters.

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Does that mean DeSantis is the main guy? Not really. Nah. No. The national conversation about Florida Ron is already coming around to the idea that as interesting as he may be as an idea—a Republican powerful enough to defeat Trump head to head—he isn’t a dynamic speaker or personality. Boring Ron. Also:

DeSantis, wearing a blue vest and comically enormous white boots, shakes a law enforcement officer's hand.
Ron DeSantis. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via DeSoto County Sheriff’s Office/Facebook.
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DeSantis’ administration is, moreover, known mostly for confrontational, conspiracy theorist–friendly tactics like describing critics of a sexuality-related classroom instruction bill as “groomers” and naming a vaccine truther to the position of state surgeon general. This has played well in Florida, a suddenly red state where there has historically been no such thing as being too weird, but it would not exactly represent a fresh new path for a party that just suffered a series of losses because swing voters perceive many of its candidates as strange, menacing assholes. Which speaks to the same problem that McCarthy has: What is a Republican leader supposed to stand for right now, if not Trumpism but also obviously not anti-Trumpism?

We must also consider Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who stole headlines Friday by announcing she isn’t a Democrat anymore. Main character? She certainly seems to aspire to it. But as a plot twist, her defection is a bit cheap: She says she is going to continue to associate with Democrats for the purpose of committee assignments and does not plan to change the way she votes—i.e., as a standard Democrat, except on the question of whether to impose higher taxes and other costs on corporations. (Her answer to the latter question is no. The bar for daring iconoclasm has gotten lower in recent years.) Democrats also now have a one-vote cushion in the Senate, thanks to Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia. (Warnock would perhaps be the main politics character this week if there were to be a competitive 2024 Democratic primary.)

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Tragically, this void in political discourse has been filled in recent weeks by businessman Elon Musk. Musk is worth billions of dollars because of his work in the technology and automotive fields, but he is now using his resources single-mindedly to make what he believes to be a point about centrism and free speech. On a daily basis, this pursuit becomes an even more obscure feud with certain users of Twitter, which he now owns, over whether its previous owners’ choices about what “disinformation” and “hate speech” content to promote—or not promote—actually constituted suppression of conservative speech. The debate is an important one in the abstract whose most current iteration is about whether someone named Dan Bongino was “shadowbanned.” This is Dan Bongino:

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There’s a follow-up:

OK.

Surprises can create main characters and main issues: unexpected Supreme Court decisions, the outbreak of war, civil rights outrages. More optimistically, maybe economic trends will continue surging to the positive and Biden will reenter the so-called Camaro Zone of popularity and centrality. Who else? Samuel Alito? Back to Mayor Pete? Senator Taylor Swift?I don’t like these options either, but something’s gotta give here. A democracy cannot live on Dan Bongino alone.

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