If the 2016 election was a triumph of the radical right, a Joe Biden win would partially represent a counter-revolution of the normie middle.
Biden currently holds a substantial lead over Donald Trump in national polling and has expanded the electoral map to the point where turning Texas and Georgia blue is a real possibility. While a victory isn’t certain—nothing is, especially when it’s conceivable that Biden could win the popular vote by four or five percent and still lose due to voter disenfranchisement and the Supreme Court—Biden is in a much better position than Hillary Clinton was at this point in 2016.
Furthermore, district-level polling indicates there’s been a huge swing in the Democrats’ direction since 2016. And Biden has consistently led Trump since the moment he officially entered the race 18 months ago. Considering how many people have already voted, all of the polls would need to not be just as wrong as they were in 2016, but effectively twice as wrong.
There are a lot of reasons for Biden’s big lead heading into the election. Chief among them are the coronavirus, the horrible economy, and the fact that Trump has basically never made a majority of the country happy during his time in office—which, considering the amount of chances Trump has been handed to win the sympathy of the country in a crisis, provides a good indicator of how dogshit of a politician he is.
But arguably one of the reasons Biden is winning is that his campaign is essentially “normal”—basically what we expected from politicians in the pre-Trump era—in every way. Biden enjoys widespread support from the political establishment outside of currently serving Republicans. The explicit theme of the campaign is a return to normalcy. Biden’s tone and rhetoric is basically a Hollywood trope about what a president is supposed to sound like. He’s boring, and that’s the point.
It isn’t exactly “America is already great,” but that’s only because the last four years has left a lot of liberals questioning that themselves. And whereas Trump’s election can be seen as an expression of pure conservative social and culture war rage, his possible defeat can be viewed partially as a reaction of earnestness pushing back against that.
This presents a dangerous challenge for the left moving forward. Should Biden win, the narrative that the media and Democratic elites will try to shape is that voters preferred everything about Biden to the alternative on the left. And in one key respect, they did: unlike Sanders and other rivals who were pushing for more systemic reforms, Biden’s campaign has been predicated on ousting Trump, “healing” the nation, relentlessly avoiding becoming Twitter’s main character of the day or even engaging with online discourse at all, reassuring wealthy suburbanites and conservatives that they can trust him, and little else. He won the Democratic primary handily with that message, and, whatever your qualms about his politics or the relative emptiness of his pitch, it would be foolish to deny that it has contributed to the effectiveness of his general election campaign.
But even under the most optimistic circumstances, the underlying factors that brought us Trump and now Biden, probably, are not going away anytime soon. Without a radical departure from his own platform, Biden cannot fix the problem of tens of millions of people losing or not ever having healthcare in this country, solve the affordable housing crisis, or craft a more humane immigration system. And he cannot fix our collective social isolation that has been dramatically worsened by the pandemic, which is not likely to end anytime before the end of next year.
Many people, including myself, would be happy to rid themselves of Trump and Republican leadership. But what happens after it’s over?
One of the ways that the retaliation against Trump has manifested itself has been a pushback against the online world. It’s such commonly accepted knowledge that social media platforms don’t reflect reality that “Twitter isn’t real life” is a cliché. But over the past five years, it’s undeniable that what happens on Twitter has slowly seeped into wider culture, from Hillary Clinton’s press conference about Pepe to the neverending attack on Bernie Sanders from all sides of the Democratic Party about his most vocal online supporters.
As bad faith as this attack on Sanders was—Kamala Harris’ supporters show that having some toxic stans is not just a problem for the left—the fact that the media harped on this and made it one of the most talked-about issues during the Democratic primary had to have done at least some damage to Sanders’ argument that he could unify the Democratic Party. And it allowed his opponents to compare him to Trump even though Sanders was making a case for the clearest break from the Trump presidency and decades of neoliberalism in terms of policy.
Biden, on the other hand, couldn’t have been further removed from all of this—not least because until older voters drove his victory in South Carolina and his moderate rivals out of the race, he had virtually no vocal support and none of the big rallies or small-dollar backing of Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or even Pete Buttigieg. (The questions about “enthusiasm” have continued even though Biden has consistently led Trump by not much more or less than the same margin as now since the moment he entered the race.)
Biden’s refusal to engage too much with the personal and policy battles playing out largely online during the primary made it easy to mock him as an out-of-touch relic of a previous Democratic generation—if not a different country altogether.But he was also consistently polling with a substantial lead against Trump in hypothetical matchups right from the start of his campaign in April 2019, and his bet that petrified Democratic voters cared more about getting rid of Trump than they did about what the next Democratic president would fight for turned out to be exactly right. When the primaries actually got underway, Biden was able to wrap things up with stunning efficiency. It turned out he was running at pretty much exactly the right time.
The Sanders campaign tried to portray Sanders as the candidate who could both enact radical change and bring the country along with him—”Bernie beats Trump” was a familiar refrain throughout the campaign—but it ultimately failed once Biden was able to consolidate support in the center. (Decades of fearmongering about George McGovern’s 1972 wipeout continues to do a number on the left.)
This doesn’t mean that voters preferred Biden’s policies, as much as Democratic elites will push that narrative if Biden wins in a landslide. In every primary state that polled Democratic voters on Sanders’ signature policy of Medicare for All, they supported it, which is an even bigger feat when you consider most of Sanders’ opponents (including Biden) relentlessly attacked him for it and misrepresented what it was. But in many states, even voters who preferred Medicare for All went for Biden. They chose fear over hope.
The dynamic present in 2020—we must get rid of this man at all costs—is not going to work for the center every time. It didn’t work in 2004, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry, and there are plenty of people in the Republican Party who support all the same things Trump does but can do it via more conventional forms, i.e. not on Twitter and not as vulgar.
But what the parts of the left which engage with electoral politics can learn from this whole experience is that even among the people most likely to be sympathetic to this cause, there’s still a widespread belief that tearing down the system and starting over is a bridge too far. More Democratic voters than I’d like to admit think that this country can be better but is still fundamentally good, that our leaders should reflect that optimism and decency, and, crucially, that you won’t win an election unless you project these things back to the nation. Some people, in other words, just want normalcy.
If you view American history through a socialist lens, it’s difficult to reconcile all of this, because what some people consider “normalcy” has been genocide and poverty for others. But until someone figures out a way to convincingly stretch the public perception of “normal” to include radical redistribution of wealth and anti-imperialism, this is unfortunately a problem we’re going to keep running into.
Biden’s emphatic victory over the online left has been a model for the stark contrast he has drawn with our most criminally online president. As everything around him has gotten worse, the president has only leaned further into the refuge of comfort that is his timeline, as Jane Coaston wrote for Vox last week.
Millions are out of work, hundreds of thousands of Americans lay dead from the coronavirus, and Trump seems altogether ready to consign hundreds of thousands more to the same avoidable fate. Meanwhile, the president is name dropping Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and his “wonderful wife Molly” (her name is Nellie) at campaign rallies, calling Joe Biden “the big man” at the last debate, and appears to have made repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act his entire platform.
Unfortunately for him, no one gives a shit about any of this aside from his most fervent supporters. And while Trump’s onlineness might endear him to those people, it’s given more fuel to the notion that he’s some kind of aberration and that his personality is one of the most dangerous things about him. This has facilitated a move toward the Democrats from suburbanites, the kind of people who are very affected by the idea that an American president could refuse to condemn explicit support from white supremacists and Nazis, lie so blatantly, be so hilariously incompetent, and draw laughs from world leaders.
After four years of the president expressing more outrage about human death and suffering, a lot of people have turned away from someone who not only doesn’t give a shit about them but is very open about that fact. Biden wants people (some people, at least) to think he cares, and this year that’s basically enough.
It will not always be enough, however. Biden might be able to deliver on his promise to not be as embarrassing on an everyday basis as Trump, but Trump and the modern Republican Party have exposed the raw nerves of what’s holding this country together, and have completely abandoned the idea that we should be governed by anything remotely resembling popular will. No one can facilitate a return to normalcy from that, whether it be the “normalcy” of the immediate pre-Trump years or the normalcy of the pre-Gingrich years, when liberals and segregationists wouldn’t let a petty thing like political values get in the way of their cooperation.
Add to this the fact that inequality is only going to continue to widen, and working people are going to continue to suffer if there isn’t a massive stimulus package that blunts the worst economic effects of the pandemic. This might be the last “return to normalcy” campaign we ever see in our lifetime, because pretty soon no one is going to remember what “normal” looks like.
Even with all of that, the challenge for the left will be to convince a battered and bruised country yearning for a sense of stability that the only way to achieve that stability will be to enact radical change—and that, whatever the Democratic electorate’s fears about spooking too much of the rest of the country, nothing will be scarier than an America that has not fixed the problems currently eating it alive. The left will also have to grapple with the deepening incursion of rich Lincoln Project-adjacent voters into the Democratic fold.
For now, however, all eyes are on this coming Tuesday. Joe Biden is potentially on the verge of winning with a broad coalition of anti-Trump voters. The theory behind this entire campaign, from Biden’s announcement video way back in 2019 when he called Trump an “aberrant moment in time,” looks like it might work. And if that happens, Trump will have been done in not by his worst characteristics—the racism, the xenophobia, the authoritarian and fascist tendencies—but by the fact that his entire presidency was one big joke that most people didn’t think was funny.