Approaching train wreck
With Donald Trump getting ready to run again in 2024, Joe Biden’s support has collapsed in opinion polls. Daniel Lazare explains why
Last April, Joe Biden was “the calm after the four-year Trump storm”, to quote the Wall Street Journal1 - the nice, grandfatherly sort who would return America to normalcy. After a half century in politics, he supposedly knew how Washington works, knew how to forge compromise and knew how to get the job done.
But that was last spring. Nowadays, Bidenism seems like little more than the shortest possible route between the old Donald Trump, who was at war with the entire federal establishment, and the new Donald Trump, who is more pissed off than ever and is sharpening his sword in anticipation of 2024.
A recent Trump rally in Iowa said it all. Flanked by top state Republicans and buoyed by a new state poll showing his approval rating at a record high, the once and perhaps future president told an overflow crowd in Des Moines:
After just nine months under Biden, violent criminals and bloodthirsty gangs are taking over our streets, illegal aliens and deadly drug cartels are taking over our borders, inflation is taking over our economy, China is taking over our jobs, the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, lunatic leftists are taking over our schools, and radical socialists are taking over our country. And we’re not going to let that happen, we’re not going to let that happen.
It was the sort of red-meat, semi-fascist rhetoric that set the crowd howling for more. Meanwhile, Biden’s own polls were plumbing new lows. Whether the issue was Afghanistan, the economy or the crisis at the Mexican border, as much as a 23-point gap had opened up between those who disapprove of his performance and those who do not. What is more, this was before Biden’s signature $3.5 trillion legislative package, combining social benefits and decarbonisation incentives, began dying a slow death on Capitol Hill - an epic defeat that leaves him looking even more ineffectual than he was before. “Battered on trust, doubted on leadership and challenged on overall competency,” one analyst observed, “president Biden is being hammered on all sides, as his approval rating continues its downward slide …”2
Quite right. But why are Biden’s fortunes plunging? The reasons are many. For starters, there is the honeymoon effect - the fact that reporters usually give a new president the benefit of the doubt (provided his name is not Donald Trump, that is) - only to turn on him with wolfish glee, once he starts fouling up. Then there is the fact that Biden railed against Trumpian incompetence with regard to Covid-19, only to display even greater incompetence when it came to the Afghan withdrawal. Biden is old and tired and has trouble even reading a tele-prompter, which is not exactly confidence-inspiring. As for his politics, they are a centrist mess - hawkish in terms of foreign policy, vacillating and confused in terms of domestic.
But perhaps the most important reason that Biden’s poll numbers are collapsing is one that few Americans talk or even know about: ie, the fact that 2020 left him in a much weaker position than is generally realised. The reason has to do with an increasingly sclerotic system and the mixed signals it sends.
Take elections. In other countries, their purpose is simply to clarify where the people stand at any given moment. Do they approve or disapprove of the way the current government is handling things? An election will tell you if the answer is yes or no.
Not in America, however. Here, the purpose is more often to muddle and confuse. James Madison, the so-called ‘Father of the Constitution’, laid out the thinking in a famous article written at the height of the constitutional ratification battle in New York state in November 1787. The problem with republics, he said, is that they give rise to overbearing majorities that tend to trample minority rights. The question, therefore, is how to rein in such inherently oppressive tendencies without destroying liberty itself.
But how? For Madison and his co-thinkers, the solution lay in complexity - which is to say in a federal structure, subdivided into a multitude of states, each serving to muffle and scatter political energy the way a series of breakwaters muffles and scatters the power of an ocean wave. As he put it, the goal is to:
make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or, if such a common motive exists … [to make it] more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other.
[t]he influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states … [they] will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states … A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the union than a particular member of it ...3
Confusion was good, in other words, if it prevented the majority from doing something that Madison did not like. As he put it in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “Divide et impera [‘Divide and rule’], the reprobated axiom of tyranny, is under certain qualifications, the only policy by which a republic can be administered on just principles.” The only way the people could act in a way that Madison, Jefferson and their fellow slave-owners regarded as just was by neutralising their own power via a process of self-division and self-conquest.
The upshot is a people that is simultaneously all-powerful and powerless! - a paradox that lies at the heart of American politics. The effects were all too evident in November 2020, when the US saw not one election, but several - each of which sent a different message, so as to prevent a single conclusion from shining through.
The best-known election was the race for the presidency, which Biden won by a hefty seven million popular votes. But the party performed less well in other elections that got less press. In the race for the House, for instance, Democrats collectively outpolled Republicans by five million votes, two million less than their lead in the presidential contest and therefore a sign that voters were more anti-Trump than they were pro-Democratic. Dems ended up losing 13 seats despite holding on to a slim majority overall.
The picture in the Senate was worse. There Democratic candidates wound up with nearly two million fewer votes overall despite holding Republicans to a 50-50 draw. Worst of all were the state elections, in which Democrats trailed by eight percentage points in gubernatorial contests overall and lost control of two state legislative chambers as well. All told, it means that Democrats now control just 22 state governments, while Republicans control 27 (one state, Nebraska, is ‘nonpartisan’).
So did Democrats win or lose? To repeat, it is a muddle. All we can say for sure is that, while moving one part of a vast and rickety federal structure to the left, the election otherwise allowed the remainder to hover in place or continue drifting to the right. In a slow and balky Congress, subject to endless ‘checks and balances’, this means that Republicans had more than enough leverage to bring Biden to a standstill. At a state level, it means that Republicans have sufficient clout to re-engineer the electoral system to the point that regaining the White House in 2024 is looking like more and more like a distinct possibility, even if voters might disagree.
The results are not fair or democratic. But they are fully in accord with an 18th century structure that, in its eternal wisdom, gives state governments nearly unlimited leeway to run federal elections however they see fit. In 19 states, Republicans have passed laws aimed at limiting voter access, while, in the bellwether state of Texas, they have introduced measures allowing Republican activists-turned-poll-watchers to move freely about voting places and to sue or seek court orders against any election official who gets in their way.4
It is a recipe for intimidation and disruption that is not so much designed to prevent elections as to tie them up in litigation. The goal could not be clearer: to call enough state tallies into question, so that, when it comes time for Congress to certify the results in early 2025, the entire contest winds up in the House, where Republicans enjoy a built-in advantage, thanks to voting rules dating from 1803. This is what Trump tried to do in last January’s attempted coup d’état, but lacked the legal means. But, as the Texas model spreads, he will be in a far stronger position in 2025. It is no exaggeration to say that 2020 may well prove to be the last free presidential election in US history.
This is why Biden’s fortunes are plummeting - because he tried to cover up an increasingly grim picture with a lot of happy talk about bipartisanship and good will. So ridiculous was the rhetoric that one pundit - Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia - finally exploded in November 2020:
This is beyond naive. It’s delusional ... He’s living in a past that was destroyed a long time ago and the remnants of it have been incinerated by Donald Trump. The cooperation just doesn’t exist except on things that aren’t controversial and that’s not where you need cooperation. You need cooperation to solve difficult problems, not the easy ones.5
If so, then global warming, the most difficult problem of all, is beyond reach. Despite emitting carbon dioxide at a rate five times the global average, it means that the United States is unable to stop, because its political system is not up to the task. When it comes to greenhouse gases, America is like a hopeless drunk who continually promises to sober up … tomorrow. Meanwhile, he has to down just one more quart of booze, because, hey, he’s an American and that’s what Americans do.
Reform is always beyond reach. The more Democrats rage and despair, the more they are captive of a system set in stone. Americans know that a train wreck is approaching. But, now that they are giving up on Biden, they figure that all they can do is brace themselves for the impact.
Federalist paper No10, November 23 1787: avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed10.asp.↩︎
‘Voting laws roundup’, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University, October 4 2021: www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-october-2021; see also: www.nytimes.com/2021/05/01/us/politics/republican-pollwatchers.html.↩︎