Four steps that could yet save the Democrats

People whose obligations should have been towards truth and political responsibility bowed to the perceived imperatives of polite groupthink

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Before Thursday’s debate, the leading contender to win the upcoming presidential election was already Donald Trump, a man whose first stint in the White House provided all the necessary evidence that he is spectacularly ill-suited for the job. During that term in office, Trump ruled rashly and selfishly. He lavished praise on his appointees before firing scores of them for incompetence or insubordination. He picked constant fights with the independent institutions that preserve the separation of powers. And when he lost a hard-fought race, he refused to concede defeat, inspiring a mob to assault Congress,…

Before Thursday’s debate, the leading contender to win the upcoming presidential election was already Donald Trump, a man whose first stint in the White House provided all the necessary evidence that he is spectacularly ill-suited for the job. During that term in office, Trump ruled rashly and selfishly. He lavished praise on his appointees before firing scores of them for incompetence or insubordination. He picked constant fights with the independent institutions that preserve the separation of powers. And when he lost a hard-fought race, he refused to concede defeat, inspiring a mob to assault Congress, and breaking the key norm that has sustained the American Republic for the past centuries.

After Thursday’s debate, it has become painfully obvious that the only man who stands between Trump and the White House is no longer mentally fit for the job. Joe Biden has for decades served the United States with honor and devotion. Though he was (to put it politely) never known as a brilliant thinker or a creative strategist, his moderate political instincts and his personal decency provided the contrast to Trump the country needed in 2020. But there were questions about his mental acuity even then, and they have become impossible to quell since. Anyone who is willing to trust their own eyes must, after this debate performance, know that Biden is no longer capable of carrying out the duties of his hugely consequential office in an effective manner.

A presidential incumbent whose mental and physical state is visibly deteriorating before the eyes of the world would, even at the best of times, put the Democratic party in a tough position. But the current emergency looks even more hopeless for two reasons. First, Kamala Harris, Biden’s vice president and his presumptive replacement as the Democratic party’s nominee if he should bow out, is just as unpopular as her boss. This is no coincidence. Harris has no political core, having swung without rhyme or reason between the persona of a tough centrist prosecutor and that of a leftist agitator raring to take on the white supremacist power structure. Talented politicians anticipate the changing winds of public opinion without betraying their core values; Kamala Harris suggests she would be willing to go wherever it happens to blow. This has left her not only unpopular with the average voter but also — a more impressive feat — mistrusted by all the major factions within the Democratic party.

Second, it may now be too late to avert the impending car crash. If Biden had bowed out six months ago, there would still have been just about enough time for a new generation of Democratic hopefuls to make their pitch to the nation. But with the primaries concluded, it would likely take a very messy coup at the Democratic National Convention to stop Harris from succeeding Biden. So the Democrats now have to pick between the three terrible options of running a man who is senile, running a woman who is deeply unpopular, and splitting the party in an unseemly display of infighting and backroom dealing.

All of which raises a simple question: how could Democrats have gotten themselves — and, by extension, all of us — into such a terrible mess? The answer, I’m afraid, suggests that America’s institutions are badly broken. For at every juncture, people whose obligations should have been towards truth and political responsibility bowed to the perceived imperatives of polite groupthink. And while the costs of these decisions seemed to be moderate at each juncture, they slowly accumulated, ultimately producing the omnishambles in which America now finds itself.

Three mistakes have turned out to be particularly costly.

First, during the primaries for the 2020 presidential elections, virtually all candidates and strategists made the giant error of believing that the loudest voices on Twitter were a good approximation of the mood among rank-and-file Democrats. In the midst of the “Great Awokening,” talented politicians destroyed their own credibility by echoing the slogans and demands of a political fringe. They even managed to dress up perfectly sensible policies in the clothes of deeply unpopular ones. Cory Booker, for example, advocated an interesting plan for providing all Americans who turn eighteen with some start-up capital to go to college or start a small business. But though the policy would have been universal, benefiting Americans drawn from every racial group, he implausibly and offputtingly sold it as a means towards racial equity.

The self-immolation of a rising generation of mainstream Democrats effectively reduced the campaign to two poles. On one side there were the avowed leftists, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. On the other side, there was the one political dinosaur who was too old to understand what was happening on Twitter: Joe Biden.

Second, with Biden’s age already at issue in the 2020 campaign, his pick of running mate was always going to be especially consequential. But instead of assessing all possible contenders for their aptitude in the job and their appeal to voters, he successively narrowed down the field to favored demographic categories. First, he pledged that he would pick a woman. Rather than giving him greater freedom to pick within that group, this only intensified pressure on him to pick a woman “of color.” By the time his team was seriously vetting candidates, it was widely understood that he had ruled out anyone who wasn’t black.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that some of the other black women Biden had considered as his running mate, such as Susan Rice, would likely have fared much better. But the way in which Biden turned his vice presidential pick into a demographic tug-of-war was nevertheless a consequential error — not only because the candidate pool for such an important position should not be reduced to less than 8 percent of the American population, but also because the manner of her nomination further undermined Harris’s standing with the public.

Third, the signs that Biden’s cognitive state was deteriorating intensified throughout the first years of his presidency. As early as 2022, I argued that there were strong reasons “to worry about whether he can be an effective standard-bearer for the Democratic party in extremely important elections that are still over two years away.” This insight did not require any special skill or intelligence; all that was required was a willingness to say out loud what was already in front of everyone’s eyes.

And yet, the most influential pundits and columnists in the country refused to do just that for another year and a half. Back in the fall of 2023, the last opportunity for Biden to bow out gracefully and open the way for Democrats to run an ordinary primary contest, the taboo was still strong. Though plenty of journalists were privately conceding to me that they were worried about Biden’s age by that time, they studiously avoided sharing such concerns with their readers — or went so far as to say the opposite on the air.

It was only a few months ago that the taboo began to break. To their credit, writers like Ezra Klein and political operatives like David Axelrod put their head above the parapet when many of their colleagues still refused to do so. I am certain that they had to endure some unpleasant conversations in the office or at certain dinner parties as a result. But as was already evident at the time, it was a matter of too little too late: with primaries already in full swing by the time that leading journalists deigned to share their private thoughts with the public, the slow-motion car crash we are now witnessing was already impossible to avert.

When I was promoting my latest book, The Identity Trap, last fall, the question I was asked most often was about why we should criticize the flaws of the left when the threat from the right is so much greater. The answer I gave was threefold. The flaws of wokeness matter because they are leading us away from, not towards, the kind of society in which we should wish to live. They matter because they claim innocent victims who are deserving of our compassion. And they matter because they create the deep disdain for establishment institutions that helps right-wing demagogues be competitive in national elections in the first place.

Reflecting on the mess the Democrats have created for themselves, I would now add a fourth point. The problem with so much of American life — from the identitarian slogans that were unthinkingly embraced by mainstream institutions over the last years to the softer forms of deference to conventional wisdom that made pundits desist from asking awkward questions about Biden’s age — is that it is undermining the basic foundations of our society. You cannot have an accurate grasp of reality when journalists are more concerned with “reading the room” than with telling the truth. And you cannot have high-performing institutions when demographic considerations trump merit.

At least in the short-run, things will often work out just fine. But if you systematically weaken a society’s foundations, you’ll never be sure when the cracks start showing.

There are still over four months to go until the election. Things are looking dire. And there is every reason to think that the same instincts and incentives that have led Democrats to the brink of the abyss are still at play. Some prominent commentators, like Heather Cox Richardson, are pretending that the emperor has some clothes left. Others immediately started to lavish praise on Kamala Harris, clearly intent on circling the wagons around Biden’s presumptive replacement. The only thing that can make the errors of the past year look moderate is the errors that may lie in store for us over the next months.

But if Democrats finally face reality, it need not be too late for them to right the ship. Four steps could still save them:

  1. Party leaders and family members need to tell Joe Biden the tragic truth. Whether or not he is able to admit this to himself, he clearly is in no condition to soldier on for another four years
  2. Democrats must avoid the temptation of coronating Harris as Biden’s successor. From her poor showing during the 2020 primaries to her evident unpopularity today, there simply is no democratic legitimacy for forcing her upon American voters as the only realistic alternative to Donald Trump
  3. Democrats need to think outside the box about how to give Americans a voice in picking Biden’s substitute If party rules make it impossible to run a formal primary contest at this late stage, the party should surely be capable of staging a one-day consultative vote in all fifty states. This would serve as a crucial testing ground for the national appeal of would-be candidates and provide the winner with some modicum of democratic legitimacy
  4. The candidate who eventually replaces Biden needs to make a real offer to American voters. In the UK, an uninspiring Labour Party leader is about to win a big victory in part because he has aligned his party’s program much more closely with the moderate preferences of swing voters; if Democrats are to win a resounding victory against Trump, they finally need to take a page out of the same playbook

A week is a long time in politics. Four months are an eternity. There is no iron law of the universe which foretells that, come November, America will face the choice between a decent man who has tragically lost control of his faculties and an indecent man who worryingly retains control of his.

But to change course, Democrats will first need to dispense with the original sin that has gotten us into this mess in the first place: their cowardly tendency to prefer polite lies over to uncomfortable truths.

This originally appeared on Yascha’s Substack, Persuasion. This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.