Democratic Voters Played Pundit in Picking Joe Biden. History Suggests They Are Bad at That Game.

With Joe Biden as frontrunner, the electorate is choosing a comfortable path forward. That path is no longer safe.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images
Editor’s Note: This was written in early 2019 as the epilogue to the book, “We’ve Got People.” In 2020, it stands up distressingly well. It’s been lightly edited for tightening.

The insurgent wave that crested in the Bronx in June 2018, lifting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory, had begun with a rock thrown into the water in 1983 Chicago, with the election of Harold Washington. It would be only fitting that the same wave crashed back down in Chicago, in 2019, washing Mayor Rahm Emanuel out to sea.

One of Harold Washington’s lieutenants, Chuy Garcia, had challenged Emanuel in 2015, and gave the mayor a scare from his left. It would later emerge that Emanuel’s team had suppressed horrifying video of the cold-blooded police killing of Laquan McDonald. He had buried it long enough to win reelection (Emanuel was first elected in 2011, after stepping down as Obama’s chief of staff). In 2016, the Cook County prosecutor who facilitated the cover-up was ousted by Kim Foxx, running on an aggressive reform agenda.

It can be painful to think what could have been if Democratic leadership made different choices decades ago.

In 2018, insurgents took on the beating heart of Chicago politics: county tax assessor. The position may sound mundane, but it produced the lubricant that greased the machine. An insurgent candidate ran for the office in charge of assessing and collecting property taxes in Chicago, and won a startling upset, which came along with other leftist pickups on the city council. Five members of the Democratic Socialists of America won city council races, producing enough socialists on the city’s legislative body to form an actual caucus. United Working Families, a sister to the Working Families Party that started in New York, backed an additional three successful leftist council candidates. Emanuel declined to run for a third term. Luis Gutiérrez retired from Congress, and Garcia, who had given Harold Washington’s elegy, won the race to replace him.

Emma Tai, executive director of United Working Families, celebrated the progressive sweep of the city. “Tonight, voters rejected Rahm Emanuel’s legacy,” she declared. “Chicago belongs to the people.”

The people, however, have yet to claim control of the country as a whole, or even of the Democratic Party. It can be painful to think what could have been had Democratic leadership made different choices decades ago. What if Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition had won that primary in Wisconsin and managed to clinch the nomination? Even if he had lost the general — as Michael Dukakis did anyway — it would have shown future candidates that people power provides a genuine path to the nomination. “There would have been no room for Trump if we had democratized our economy,” Jackson told me.

Instead, the notion of exciting the base and expanding the electorate was suppressed until it reemerged around Howard Dean in 2003 and 2004, then around Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. (“We changed the rules in ’88 which made [it] possible for Barack to win. Under the ’84 rules, Hillary would have been the winner, because we went to proportionality rather than winner take all,” Jackson reminded me.) And finally, in a dramatic expression, behind Bernie Sanders in 2016. The eventual recognition that power for Democrats lies in people, not big money, transformed the 2020 cycle. No longer do candidates boast about locking down the most high-dollar bundlers; the competition in fundraising is now who can raise the most money with the lowest average contribution.

Yet the party establishment can’t be expected to simply hand over power. In 2019, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it would blacklist any consulting firm who did any work for a challenger to an incumbent. Nancy Pelosi has reserved some of her most forceful language for the squad of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley. Omar and Tlaib — and Omar in particular — have faced withering attacks from their Democratic colleagues; Ocasio-Cortez has been called by a colleague “Nixonian,” and much worse in private, where party honchos plot ways to bring her down. That’s all before the president and a billion-dollar right-wing spin machine have had their say.

The final obstacle comes down to the people themselves. Democratic primary voters fancy themselves pundits. Jackson surged in the polls until he came close to winning. To be sure, some voters turned on him simply because they didn’t want a black man in the Oval Office. Many others, though, believed that other people would be unwilling to elect a black man president, which meant he wasn’t electable, which meant he needed to be stopped. Bill Clinton emerged from a deeply competitive primary and persuaded Democrats that he and his Southern charm could put an end to 12 years of Republican rule. In 2004, Democrats preferred Howard Dean, but believed the military man, John Kerry, would be the smart pick to take on Bush in wartime. Like most strategic calculations made by Democratic primary voters, it was harebrained. The one risk primary voters took was going with their hearts and nominating Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton, perceived by the Democratic electorate to be electable, was everything but.

Headed into 2020, Sanders has a robust movement behind him, and Republicans I talk to in Washington believe he’s one of the few Democrats who could give Trump fits in the key states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. His organizing operation would be able to register and turn out far more black voters in crucial cities like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit, while he can also appeal to aggrieved working-class voters of all races who want someone to, well, drain the swamp. But the pundit-voter who thinks of Joe Biden knows one thing for sure: That man is electable.

The folksy Scranton man has managed to convince liberals that he’s the guy who can talk to those white, working-class voters Democrats have been chasing since they took flight from the party half a century ago.

Biden was little more than a footnote in this book’s chapter on the 1988 campaign. His 2008 campaign didn’t end in disgrace, but merely faded into obscurity; his career was revived by Obama. Biden’s contribution to the party debate has been to put himself on the wrong side of the issues with a startling consistency. One would think that just by chance, given a career that spans a half-century, he’d manage to get a few things right by accident. Even his most uncontroversial accomplishment, the Violence Against Women Act, was tucked into the Biden Crime Bill, which played a major role in juicing mass incarceration.

This book has been about how today’s Democratic leaders, such as Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, or Rahm Emanuel, are scarred from the political wounds they suffered in the 1980s and ’90s. Even after Democrats took control of the House in 2018, making repeal of the ACA impossible, the party leadership continued arguing that any effort to advance Medicare for All risked the destruction of Obamacare. In May 2019, Pelosi warned that Trump might resist leaving office if he loses in a close election; therefore, the House should pull back on impeachment hearings and run to the center.

But the old guard has company in their torment. Today’s generation of young (and increasingly not-so-young) socialists recognizes the threat of fascism as real, but doesn’t shrink from it, rallying behind the boldest possible platform. Their parents, haunted by Reagan and then the Gingrich wave of ’94, worry that pushing for a progressive agenda will produce a backlash among the American public — an electorate they fear like an alien species meant to be pacified with moderation rather than won over with something robust.

Biden is just the man for that pacification project. The folksy Scranton man has managed to convince liberals that he’s the guy who can talk to those white, working-class voters Democrats have been chasing since they took flight from the party half a century ago. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, similarly exploits liberals’ lack of familiarity with rural culture to sell himself as the guy who can win the Midwest. Gone unmentioned is that he won a small mayoral election with roughly 8,000 votes — fewer than AOC won to beat Joe Crowley — and is running for president because he doesn’t think Midwest voters will send him to the House or Senate.

Still, for a fearful party electorate, moderate candidates feel safe in ways the wild-haired socialist and the woman from Harvard don’t. Meanwhile, carbon concentration in the atmosphere rises, the oceans warm and acidify, the glaciers recede, the tundra warms, the rainforests shrink, coral reefs die off — and, according to climate modeling, clouds themselves are at risk. In May 2019, the United Nations warned that the bottom was falling out. “The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” said Robert Watson, chair of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. “We have lost time. We must act now.” If voters insist on being pundits, incorporating the climate crisis into their analysis ought to reorient their understanding of risk. [Update: It has only gotten worse.]

Trump’s reelection isn’t the only risk those people face, however. Indeed, it’s not even the only political danger on the horizon. In 1974, the Labour Party took power in the U.K., with the country at a crossroads. A robust social movement looked to curb the power of banks, capital, and captains of industry, while democratizing the workforce and attacking sources of economic inequality. John Medhurst covered what happened in the next two years in his short but essential book “That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76.” Finance fought back, and the moderate wing of the Labour Party won the internal struggle for power, implementing only meager reforms instead of the transformative ideas being pushed by a strong (but not-quite-strong-enough) left wing. Dissatisfied, the British public ushered in Margaret Thatcher, who had no such caution when it came to reshaping the country. Her dismantling of the welfare state and its working class was never inevitable.

If Democrats meet the public’s demand for real change with something fake, the other side is willing to offer the real thing. The real risk of a Biden nomination might not be that he could lose to Trump — though that is certainly plausible — but that he will beat Trump, fail to deliver, and open the door for a fascist who actually knows what he’s doing. Playing it safe is going to get us all killed.

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