The Joe Biden campaign decamped on Duluth, Minnesota yesterday. Through an amusing series of rumor mill connections with its origins in the State Patrol, a few friends and I found ourselves on the patio of a café named Amazing Grace for the former vice president’s “spontaneous” appearance in the center of the city’s bustling Canal Park tourist district. I had my share of chances to brush up against political figures of all stripes in my DC days, so to see this scene from my dreamy college years dropped into my beloved backwater hometown was at once both familiar and surreal. It matched the mood of Biden’s presidential campaign, both a predictable capstone decades in the making and warped by the twisted house of horrors that is 2020. Reality slows down for no one.
Any sympathetic skeptics looking to find some inspiration in Biden’s slow-but-steady campaign for the presidency can now find it from an unlikely source: George Packer, the elegist of the broken American Dream. In “Make America Again,” published in the October edition of the Atlantic, he finds an unexpected hero who could just become the most consequential president since Reagan. Biden’s campaign, Packer says, “is not the stirring language of a visionary leader, or the doctrinaire rhetoric of an ideologue. It’s the prosaic talk of a career politician shrewd enough to realize that he might have greatness thrust upon him.”
In 2016, my sense was that Biden, not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, was the most viable Democratic standard-bearer that year, the one person who could perhaps hold on to a fading part of the Democratic coalition that would prove pivotal in that year’s race. Clinton seemed too much a creature of the establishment, too devoid of charisma, to retain that demographic; I also didn’t quite buy the notion peddled at the time that an aging socialist would somehow speak to them, a position that the 2020 primary results seemed to vindicate. Biden chose not to run for both personal and political reasons, and we all saw what happened.
That confidence in Uncle Joe did not, in my mind, extend to the early primary season in the 2020 cycle. At 77, he seemed like a figure past his time, and he certainly looked it in the primary debates. The early Biden campaign seemed like a giant collective shrug, an effort that coasted on name recognition, vague Obama era good vibes, and the more acute weaknesses of some of his rivals. Just as his early pitch for the presidency was based on sketchy year-out polls that labeled him the most viable not-Trump, his ultimate triumph in the primary was by virtue of being the most viable not-Bernie. Unlike the Republicans in 2016, the Democrats showed off their institutional discipline and rallied behind their old vice president, a lowest common denominator that promised stability and maybe a few more of those white working-class votes in those crucial swing states. A van emblazoned with “Settle for Biden!” made its way up and down the streets of Canal Park on Friday afternoon.
The world has changed since Biden sewed up the nomination in early March, but in many ways, he is still an awkward fit for the moment. He is an old white man in an era when the Democratic Party spends most of its time celebrating racial and ethnic and gender diversity, a man who has spent the past 50 years in the swamp that both Trump and the rising left both claim to disdain. His age complicates campaigning during a pandemic. His handsiness and glad-handing are at best relics of a different era. There’s a legitimate concern that he will look at the Senate as the collegial institution it was in his early years, and not the bitterly partisan roadblock it has become since he left it, which could doom any legislative agenda. His well-cultivated image as a Scranton streetfighter squares awkwardly with the sprawling estate whose basement has been the base of operations for his campaign.
Biden, however, has two great strengths as a politician. First, he is adaptable, always responding to the tides; whether that makes him an opportunist or a careful listener who has his finger on the pulse of a nation is in the eye of the beholder, but because he isn’t beholden to any real platform, he can go wherever conditions lead him. Second, he knows what loss is, and is at his best when he speaks in raw, moving terms about it. In a time of death and plague, that knowledge of what it takes to overcome pain gives him an added gravitas. Watching his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, I remembered why I thought he could be the unifying force in 2016, and sure enough, pretty much everyone I know on the left is along for the ride, however begrudgingly. The internal warfare that plagued the 2016 campaign has been consigned to the sidelines, and the policy disputes that defined the primary race seem like quaint arguments of a different era. This is not a policy election. It is, as Biden has said from the start, the struggle for the soul of a nation.
As Packer notes, rarely have past great figures been perfect fits for their times. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were scions of old East Coast wealth who did more to break up concentrated wealth and build an inclusive economy than anyone in American history. Lyndon Johnson was a political creature with considerable, obvious flaws, but he also rode a moment of upheaval for long enough to ram through the most consequential legislative agenda of the postwar era. Just as Johnson followed the inspiring but ultimately rather tumultuous and technocratic Kennedy years, Biden could be the one who makes the promise of the Obama era real. Sometimes the people who know a system best are most able to change its trajectory.
I have frequently expressed exhaustion with Democrats’ efforts to resurrect the New Deal every time they try to roll out a semi-ambitious platform. Franklin Roosevelt’s effort, as Packer deftly notes, succeeded not because of the strength of its ideas, but because he found himself in a position of considerable power and had a mandate to test out an array of tools in a moment of crisis, some of which worked and stuck. Milton Friedman, of all people, understood this best: crises are the only times when real change happens, and “when that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
After a momentary feint in the New Deal direction, the Biden campaign seems to have recognized this. Biden’s policies listed on his website aren’t what matter; what matter are the myriad ideas with popular support that have germinated in response to ongoing American crises over the past decade or two, and the possibility that we just might have a Democratic President, a Democratic House, and a very narrowly Democratic Senate that is willing to kill the filibuster and go all in. This, at least, is Packer’s hope. It is a rare optimistic take from him, the “last best chance” of an effort to restore something resembling a participatory democracy.
My own sense is that reality lies somewhere between the declinist picture Packer has painted so strikingly in his writing over the past 15 years and the tired but sustainable decadence diagnosed by the likes of Ross Douthat. When I read Douthat’s book I agreed with his diagnosis of Trump era white nationalism as right-wing cosplay, and I’m intrigued by an argument advanced by Bruno Maçães in an upcoming book, History Has Begun (excerpted in New York magazine here) that the Trump era is just a drift of politics into virtual reality; not that it doesn’t have real-world consequences, but Trump is an entertainer using politics to peddle his product, delighting his fans by owning the libs instead of enacting any serious policy. (And, lest it sound like we’re blaming one side of the spectrum exclusively for this drift, a left that settles solely for social media activism and reading Robin DiAngelo probably isn’t much different.) “America is not poised to become a place like Russia or Iran, but rather is mirroring a television show about a place becoming like Russia or Iran,” Maçães concludes. We are all caught up in a performative charade.
This seems true up to a point, and we are right to ask questions about the implications of our increasingly virtual future. But the more people live out a fantasy world, the more the lines will blur, and the greater the risk that people will actually believe their roles in this fantasy are reality. People will accept their typecast roles in this left-versus-right squabble, and the slow burn in the streets of American cities of this summer will turn into a low-grade, steady war in which more and more people die. There is no fantasy in death.
Joe Biden, of course, knows death. He also recognizes that the country needs to mobilize, with World War Two as a better analogue for the effort necessary than the New Deal. Maçães rightly diagnoses the long-running weakness of Western liberalism: its lack of muscle, its contentedness with thinking that giving people health care and a base level of material wealth will fill the hole in the American soul. It’s a start, of course; far better than many alternatives. But it will never fulfill the more aspirational corners human psyche. The answer is not a march in the streets (though they can help) but a government led by the Scranton streetfighter that Biden purports to be, a potential lurch back to reality from a figure who has no desire to inhabit Trump’s world of performance as politics.
As he left Amazing Grace on Friday afternoon, Biden made his way over to the two hecklers in MAGA hats on the edge of the crowd. Told to stay put by the Secret Service, my friends and I couldn’t hear what he said. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, however, captured the moment: “Biden approached the man from the alternate reality, elbow bumped him, chuckled and assured him that if he does win, Biden would work for him, too.” It shouldn’t be refreshing to hear a presidential candidate aspire to be on the side of people who disagree with him, but this is where we are.
I don’t know if Joe Biden will be the transformational figure George Packer imagines he can be. Even if he wins in November, even if the United States pulls through this election without disputed results and violence in the streets, he’ll face a forbidding and sclerotic political environment. He could go down as a strange detour, a last gasp of a fading old order—just like Trump, from a different part of the political spectrum. But if—if—there is a way out of this troubling lurch in American democracy, it will most likely start in a basement in Delaware, and in the minds of enough Americans who see a pause in the performance as a worthy endeavor.