A thing you get familiar with, if you ever write critically about the Democratic Party or about its establishment politicians from any perspective located to their left, is people giving you grief for having failed to support the team. “This is why the Democrats will [lose again in 2020/never win/never stay in power],” various angry people say. “We can’t stop devouring our own.” They are a little bit mad, but mostly just disappointed to see people prioritizing ideological purity or specific policy goals over the bedrock principle of making a state turn blue on an electoral map.
Here, as an example, is an excerpt from a characteristic comment somebody posted to a blog I wrote last week about Joe Biden’s steep and unmistakable cognitive decline:
I don’t disagree with you on pretty much anything you said here (or in general!).
But right now, Biden probably has 2:1 or at worst 3:1 odds of becoming the nominee. I don’t want that to happen, but having liberals paint him as a senile dunce really hamstrings us down the line if he does win because of what the other option is—even if you’re right.
We can’t risk another election of, “Not even Democrats like him!” “Both candidates are flawed!” “They say the same things about Trump!” If Biden does win, it is not a douche vs. turd sandwich election—it’s a turd sandwich vs. apocalypse. So it’s one thing to say, “I think his views are dated and that there are better Democrats in the mix,” but anything that makes Biden seem remotely on the same plane as the disaster of Trump is honestly irresponsible and damaging.
All such responses run along the same lines: We’ve got to win, and we can’t win if we’re honest and open about the problems with the candidate. Because of this, you mustn’t describe Joe Biden’s clear and alarming ongoing struggle with basic “having and expressing a coherent train of thought”-type functions, because this indisputably accurate depiction of him will not help his chances of winning. Likewise, you mustn’t criticize a Democratic establishment candidate with a long and unmistakable record—Biden now, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and Al Gore and so on before that—for advocating positions that amount to a pre-negotiated unconditional surrender with regard to progressive policy goals, and which inevitably will be shifted even farther to the right during the actual legislative process. Electing this type of candidate necessarily means failing to fulfill or even to meaningfully pursue an actual progressive agenda, but saying so is worse. If you say things like that, people might hear you, and then they might also think it.
The odd thing that comes through here, and which is a constant in so many other examples of this genre of reader feedback, is a strenuously reasonable tone that implies that the reader and writer are on the same page, and the dispute is finally just one smart guy talking to another about our shared responsibility to some third person or persons. We both know that Biden’s mental incapacity is real and a real problem; we know, too, that the idea of Biden serving capably as the president of the United States, given those issues, is baldly absurd; we also know that, should it come down to a general-election choice between Biden and Donald Trump, both of us almost certainly will sprint like fucking madmen to our local polling place to cast our votes for the Democrat, even if only as a vote against Trump.
The concern is for some body of other people out there, in the broader population of voters or might-be voters—innocent dumbasses, who do not know all these things, and who might not understand that a second Trump term almost certainly would be a lot fucking worse than electing a clearly doddering and confused Biden, who would at least be somewhat less likely to fill the government with genocidal maniacs and sneering, contemptuous incompetents. It is those people who must not be made aware of the plain fact that Joe Biden’s brain has dissolved into a gray bisque that oozes out of his head if he forgets to put earplugs in before going to bed at night. Our duty to the nation is to keep them from having thoughts about this.
Many moderate liberal and left-ish people apply this kind of governance to their own thought processes, too, acting as though the act of critical thinking represents a gap in herd immunity. Yes, sure, Joe Biden sucks. Yes, his ideas, such as they are, reflect what would be a laughably outdated perspective on challenges facing the country and its government and the world, were the situation not so grave as to preclude laughing. Yes, at a basic level he is incapable of articulating even those paltry ideas, in part because of the lifelong shortcomings as a thinker and communicator that have torpedoed each of his many prior campaigns for the presidency and in part because he is in steep cognitive decline. And so yes, it is clear that, early polling figures and establishment backing aside, Biden is not anything like the best person the Democratic Party could nominate for the presidency in the next election, and that committing at least four years to the interests and priorities he represents would be so insufficient a response to the challenges he so faintly understands as to be near-suicidal. We get all this. But what about the people that somehow don’t, what would happen if they also came to think this way? If they think this way, Biden would have to work all the harder to capture their votes in the general election. And if he can’t, then Trump will win again. That’s even worse. Therefore I must not think this way. Therefore: Go, go, Uncle Joe.
I think there was a strain of this thought process inflecting the performance of horror and opprobrium that the more stridently respectable members of the centrist media and pundit corps directed at Julián Castro after last week’s Democratic primary debate, in which Castro sharply raised the issue of Biden’s mental acuity and memory in front of a national television audience. For a party picking from among several candidates to represent it in a presidential election, few factors could be more relevant to a given candidate’s pitch than that candidate’s basic personal ability to do the job—to handle the rigors of the presidency, yes, but also to do the very exhausting and visible and high-risk work of campaigning for it. The ability to do all that is something a primary should aim to suss out while there’s still time for the party to select somebody else! Yet Castro’s challenge of Biden’s faltering memory—or his confusion about the real differences between a pair of health-care proposals—violated the boundaries of a vigorous debate in the eyes of these discourse referees. If Castro raised the subject, why, people might think about it. And then who knows what could happen?
But the thing is, these are the primaries. Hell, they’re not even the primaries yet: Nobody will cast a vote in one of those until February of next year. Nobody will have to make a final choice between the Democratic nominee and Donald Trump until over a year from now. The primary is the time for the party’s constituency to say “Here is what I want” and for the various candidates to scramble over each other and debase themselves attempting to demonstrate that they can be exactly, perfectly what their voters want. That only works if the voters say what they want, instead of censoring each others’ attempts to do so.
All of which is to say: Your job is not to make this easy for them, liberals, and neither is mine! Your job is to make this hard. The job is to ask, in a blank contextless void, what do you want from our politics, what kind of process and what kind of outcome? And then the job is to demand it, and to hold the chosen standard-bearers to their commitments to that end.
Do you want a president who wants to do big shit to address the insane, ballooning, society-warping consolidation of wealth and power among a shrinking class of unaccountable vampires? Then demand that the Democratic Party give you the opportunity to elect one, and make these assholes fight over who’s the most revolutionary. See if you can get Elizabeth Warren to swear that as president she personally will behead Jeff Bezos on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Do you want a president who shares your children’s sorrow and terror about the destabilizing global ecosystem and the bleak apocalyptic future previous generations have left for them, and who wants to be the transformative figure who rouses public will for bold, ambitious climate action? Then demand it. Your goal should be to bring about the spectacle of 10 sweaty politicians one-upping each other’s ludicrous climate promises—Well under my plan the United States will burn zero fossil fuels by 2030! By 2025! By February 1, 2021!
Or more to the point: Do you want a president who has the full command of their cognitive faculties? One who knows what the fuck is going on during a debate, or a complex legislative effort, or a tricky foreign-policy negotiation? One who can think a coherent thing, and then express that coherent thought in a coherent fashion, without digressing into gibberish about the relative merits of the victrola and the cinematograph? Of course you do. That might even be the very most obvious and reasonable baseline elimination criteria for a president: That this person’s brain works. It’s the smallest thing for a sane voter of conscience to make an absolute requirement for the gig, particularly when there’s still a double-fistful of candidates and as many as nine—but not 10!—of them clear that bar easily.
In this context, “What I demand in a president is whoever happens to be leading in early, elderly-skewing Democratic primary polling, no matter what” is absurd. You are the will those polls are attempting to capture, you and you and you and me, and your meek, passive adoption of their results is the saddest of self-fulfilling prophecies. Up to a point it may make some sense to examine one’s own feces, but one mustn’t also devour it.
Do a majority of left-of-center Americans affirmatively want to vote for Joe Biden and what he is selling—for an out-of-touch 76-year-old centrist with a failing brain, whose public proclamations and debate answers only make sense if you rearrange their letters into generous anagrams, and whose only compelling campaign pitch so far is the cynical idea that nothing on earth can rouse one’s fellow voters to a more ambitious choice? Of course not. Nobody would call that candidate out of the ether if he did not already exist. That is not anyone’s ideal choice.
So, during the primaries at least, the job is to demand a better option. Even if you like Biden; especially if you like Biden. Demand a dynamic candidate, a nimble debater and public speaker, a compelling advocate of ambitious and unlikely and transformative ideas. See if Biden, or your favorite, can prove an ability to be that. And if that candidate can’t, fucking pick somebody else!
In the run-up to the 2016 election, Republican voters demanded an absolutely empty, brazenly worthless malignant nihilist; a rich, white, male avatar of their final abandonment of the pretense of this or that principled “conservatism.” The clock is ticking on those voters, and they got impatient and demanded that their party undergo a more rapid transformation into a pure white-power party organized solely around the annihilation of the people they hate. They got their guy, who is the president now, and they’re getting the rest. He’s stuffing the courts; he’s threatening war with Iran; he’s overfilling concentration camps along the border; he’s unraveling environmental regulations faster even than the most avid polluters want.
None of that is good, and the fact that the tilted realities of both the electoral college and systemic voter suppression generally and by design make it easier for white conservatives to get their toxic demands met isn’t good either. But at a basic level, Trump’s seemingly improbable rise was just the Republican primary working the way any primary is supposed to work. Meanwhile the Democrats have spent damn near every primary of my lifetime pissing down their quavering legs and triangulating their party’s way to nominating whichever wan, detestable party animal gives them the best shot at... blaming a narrow electoral loss on an importunate activist left? Defeating the idea that politics is or can be a tool for pursuing worthy social goals, rather than a system for promoting well-credentialed strivers? It is honestly kind of difficult to tell what the Democrats want most of the time.
The general election is the time to make a persuasive case for the party’s pick. Donald Trump—spoiler alert—will talk vicious, nasty, cartoonish shit about the Democratic nominee no matter who it is or how hard a time that nominee had getting through the primaries, no matter what weaknesses the nomination process exposed or kept hidden. The legislative process will, as designed, water Warren’s newfound shorten-all-the-billionaires agenda into something less gory and more peacefully redistributive. What results will be something less than what anybody demanded in the primaries, whether they tried to demand the safest possible thing or not. There is no reason to start with that compromised position as an opening one, and then immediately get to work on negotiating it down.
In the meantime, fuck Joe Biden. If he needs it easy, he can retire. The rest of us have the fate of the world to figure out. That will be extremely hard with or without him. The least we can do for now is speak the truth, out loud, to each other.