joe biden politics Trump

And Now, Back To Your Regularly Scheduled Political Decay

"This kind of political decay leads either to slowly increasing levels of corruption, or to populist reactions to perceived elite manipulation".

I am admittedly (better: avowedly), skeptical about the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency leading to anything other than a return to the status quo. The idea that no real change is forthcoming is a running theme in these pages.

Of course, that is not (and has never been) to say that a Biden presidency wouldn’t represent a reprieve from the current situation, which is deteriorating at a remarkable pace as America’s misbegotten experiment with autocracy hurtles flaming down the freeway, brake lines cut, the driver pounding the horn and screaming obscenities into a bug-splattered windshield.

Rather, the point is that America has been on the road to becoming an extractive state for decades. So, even if the country decides to open the driver’s side door, shove the captain out, and hit the exit ramp marked “Biden”, that ramp simply puts us back on the slow road to “textbook” political decay.

The problem with that is obvious. “Modern liberal democracies are no less subject to political decay than other types of political regimes”, Francis Fukuyama wrote, years before Trump took power. Consider the following passages (from Political Order and Political Decay):

While everyone in a modern democracy speaks the language of universal rights, many are happy to settle for privilege — special exemptions, subsidies, or benefits intended for themselves, their family, and their friends alone. Some scholars have argued that accountable political systems have self-correcting mechanisms to prevent decay: if governments perform poorly or corrupt elites capture the state, the non-elites can simply vote them out of office. There are times in the history of the growth of modern democracy when this has happened. But there is no guarantee that this self-correction will occur, perhaps because the non-elites are poorly organized, or they fail to understand their own interests correctly. The conservatism of institutions often makes reform prohibitively difficult. This kind of political decay leads either to slowly increasing levels of corruption, with correspondingly lower levels of government effectiveness, or to populist reactions to perceived elite manipulation.

Sound familiar?

My own interpretation of the current situation is that America was experiencing just that, which in turn opened the door for Trump who is, of course, a populist and did, in fact, rely in part on voters failing to understand their own interests correctly (e.g., working class Americans were made to believe a billionaire real estate tycoon running on the Republican ticket would act in their interests if elected). Trump’s “drain the swamp” promise was always absurd, but it played on the idea of corrupt elites peddling influence for personal gain.

America will, in all likelihood, return to that slow-motion decay under Biden.

So, why is he so far ahead according to the polls? Well, simple. Because it’s become apparent to most voters that while “Beltway business as usual” is lamentable in the extreme, it’s immeasurably preferable to outright chaos, the disappearance of the rule of law, and third world-style nepotism, all of which define the current administration. Hence Trump’s abysmal approval rating.

Biden delivered what I would describe as an underwhelming plan for the economy this week, but in a testament to what happens when a man (Trump) becomes so preoccupied with his own personal battles (and demons) that he loses a plot he himself wrote, the former vice president’s pitch was received as sufficiently nationalistic and populist to curry favor with an electorate which has demonstrated a palpable disdain for the hyper-globalization of the past three decades.

“Biden’s plan should immediately make one thing clear: The era in which free trade was a centerpiece of the elite economic consensus is well and truly over”, Noah Smith wrote for Bloomberg. “Although Trump embraced a blunt form of protectionism and thinkers on the right have been floating ideas about industrial policy, there was always the possibility that Democrats would hew to a Clintonite free-trade position, but Biden’s announcement proves that Democrats, too, are squarely in the industrial policy camp”.

Rabobank’s Michael Every writes that Biden “has outflanked Trump in the populist stakes with [his] ‘Build Back Better’ plan and a $700 billion ‘Buy American’ pledge to create 5 million new manufacturing jobs [all] while Peter Navarro’s proposal for the same gathers dust on the White House desk”.

As Biden was in the process of rolling out the details Thursday, Trump was on Twitter lambasting the Supreme Court and even taking shots at staunch ally Lindsey Graham for failing to haul Barack Obama in front of what would amount to a tribunal on charges of… well, nobody knows quite what, really.

Trump, it would seem, simply has not come to terms with the fact that while one can chip away at democratic institutions and build an autocracy over time by wearing down the populace and slowly purging political opposition, America wasn’t prepared for an overt, out-in-the-open, shift to authoritarian rule over the course of just four years.

Now, he’s losing the populist messaging battle by focusing too narrowly on divisive tactics and increasingly brazen expressions of xenophobia which resonate with a narrower and narrower sliver of the electorate.

“Biden also says he’ll back unionization and collective bargaining”, Rabobank’s Every went on to write Friday, noting that “unless Trump comes up with a sweeping new plan, he will lose #MAGA ground to a man who spent his career building the neoliberal consensus Trump won by running against”.

And that, folks, brings us full circle.

Biden is essentially attempting to opportunistically hijack elements of Sanders/Warren-style left-wing populism that will resonate with Trump’s base, while relying on a kind “wink-wink” strategy to reassure everyone else that at the end of the day, he’s still Joe Biden, a consummate Beltway horse trader with no real designs on shaking anything up beyond what’s necessary to pacify a progressive movement whose time is coming, just not yet.

Read more:

Joe Biden Is A Regular Franklin Roosevelt (New Deal Sold Separately)

‘Katrina Moment’: Is Trump Even Running For Reelection Anymore?

36 comments on “And Now, Back To Your Regularly Scheduled Political Decay

  1. H- first you have to stop the bleeding and save the patient. Biden is only planning on 4 years – it will take at least 3 of them to mostly undo a lot of the damage. Unlike many VP picks that are not that consequential this one really is. I do not understand the hero worship many have for Bernie Sanders.

    • There’s no “hero worship”. You have suggested on two occasions this week that I have some affinity for Bernie Sanders beyond the general message from his platform. I’ve said America needs real change and that American-style capitalism needs to be reformed lest it should perish to the detriment of everyone, and I’ve also suggested that Sanders’s policies are more in line with a modern view of society than other candidates. I have never said Bernie Sanders is an ideal president, nor have I ever, in any setting, described Bernie as a hero of mine. I see my personal hero every morning in the mirror. 🙂

      • I look in the mirror twice a day. To brush my teeth and shave. It reminds me that I am growing and decaying simultaneously.

      • Actually I was not referring to you- I know you like Sanders policy and are quite grounded in your evaluation of politicians. Sanders has a certain following, not quite as bad as the Trump base, but true believers. He does not deserve it.

        • I get it. In fact, I was a pretty avid one of them for a while. Bernie lost me in recent years, I can’t get behind things like universal rent control and I have a hard time believing that he actually thinks it’s a good idea rather than one that will resonate, a political machination of the exact sort that I liked him for not engaging in. But overall, beside representing a set of political views that really have no other prominent representative (Warren, whom I do still somewhat like, comes closest but doesn’t have anything like his lengthy and consistent record), one thing I think most observers will agree with is he’s much more guileless than most politicians. He’s largely stuck to the same views and principles for decades, even when it wasn’t politically expedient. That’s a big draw, and can read as “heroic” in the American political environment, especially if you already lean in favor of his views. Even during the Obama era, I recall hearing conservative ideologue media talking heads expressing respect for Sanders’s integrity , saying that at least he was honest about what he stood for. That’s exceptional, and should tell you something.

      • Indeed, Bernie himself is not the answer but he was a spark that turned a lot of heads… now a lot of people are starting to think… that’s not that crazy… so hopefully we can start seeing a real progressive reform displace the status quo candidates either with the democratic party or replacement from outside. A lot of what Bernie advocates is necessary, he just never had the political skill to get it done. Others need to pick up the torch. I think we are seeing some possibilities there.

  2. I think, Mr H.,that the man in the rocking chair is what we need at the moment. Anyone, even slightly more emotional than Biden about any cause, worthy or not, would be more than any of us non-political people could bear.

  3. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Anyone who thinks that Biden represents a new era of income and social equality or creeping socialism in the US hasn’t been paying attention to the American experiment over my lifetime, or for that matter, since its inception. But as the saying goes, “Literally Anyone Else.”

    • Creeping socialism. Yes no more Interstate road systems, farmer programs, airports or bank bailouts for me. I am sick of this socialism being so successful.

  4. If ever a time for a good defense being the best offense it is now. Pelosi has managed to keep the young and bright at bay for some reason. Biden is not saying what they want to hear but he can be made to go with the flow once this experiment in oldie time nonsense is behind us. Biden with all his shortcomings does not deny modernity.

  5. Imagine if a seventy-something is still capable of learning and growing, if they are plastic enough to shift, if they can truly listen, adapt, select the best and most pragmatic ideas from among the dross, if they can surround themselves with the best and brightest, and hear opposing views, if at the end of the day their purpose is to lift everyone up to the best of their ability would we dance with joy?

  6. This article while seemingly being in support of the common man comes across as terribly elitist. It implies at several points that those voting for the populism have been led astray and don’t understand what their interests are. I am no fan of the current state of affairs in the nation but to imply that voter blocs don’t understand what objectives they are voting for is a tad arrogant. Are we to believe that if only they would follow their intellectually superiors guidance they would be better off? Haughty absolute moralism from both wings contributes bigly to our current state of affairs.

    • What would you say about a lower-income, blue-collar worker who votes for a billionaire real estate tycoon promising to cut corporate taxes? Or a farmer who votes for a man who has never done a day of manual labor in his life and who has, at various intervals, threatened to cut off the country’s relationship with China, the key export market for US agriculture?

      With apologies, the average American who identifies as conservative or liberal could not tell you the name of a single, solitary thinker associated with their self-professed political affiliation.

      Also, when you say “It implies at several points that those voting for the populism have been led astray”, I would remind you that that is not so much an opinion as it is a historical reality. Almost every instance of populism the modern world has ever known is an unequivocal example of voters being led astray. That is (almost literally) a defining feature of populism.

      I’m not stating opinions here, I’m stating facts.

  7. You are stating facts, as you see them, and that have been altered via your lens. How is “With apologies, the average American who identifies as conservative or liberal could not tell you the name of a single, solitary thinker associated with their self-professed political affiliation” some type of fact. It is an opinion. I do realize that this is a markets/economic focused website but I think you err by predominantly viewing social issues through that economic filter. There are more things that go into the political calculus of those voting blocs than their relative financial position in relation to their leaders.

    • The US has a unique strain of anti-intellectualism among developed countries. Working class voters have been taught to distrust “coastal elitists” or “tax and spend liberals” which has absolutely been used to undermine their economic interests. The fact is that the wealth disparity in this country has grown substantially as the “elites” in one party have repeatedly pushed supply-side economics and that the government is the problem. That same party continues to tell those working class voters that we can’t afford universal healthcare or infrastructure or paid parental leave or any number of initiatives that would demonstrably improve the lives of working class voters. Then they turn around and hand out corporate tax cuts that go to us elites, the 10% of the population that owns 88% of the stocks and bonds.

      That fact is that modern economics is incredibly complex and beyond the grasp of the average voter. All you need to do is administer a basic financial literacy test to show how shallow the average person’s understanding of basic economics is. Politicians take advantage of that by comparing government budgets to household budgets or by throwing working class voters a few dollars in tax cuts and then finding some scapegoat (e.g. immigrants, China) for why working class voters struggle to get ahead. You can call it elitist, but it doesn’t mean it’s incorrect that working class voters have been bamboozled with bad economic theories and culture wars that don’t have a thing to do with their day-to-day lives.

    • Exactly. All of that. And, more specifically, this: It is a fact that most voters in America (i.e., more than 50% of them) could not name a single, solitary thinker in the tradition of the their self-professed political ideology. I would bet everything I own on that, and I am quite confident in stating it as a fact. As most readers know, I am a political scientist first with decades of experience in academia. Most Americans are not literate when it comes to hundreds of years of political philosophy. The idea that the average American voter could tell you their favorite political philosopher from the tradition they espouse to represent at the ballot box is wholly laughable.

      • Doesn’t the American voter base simply boil down to abortion and gun rights?

        • Politicians love to ‘boil it down’ to issues that are a diversion from the real issues at hand. If you think that the wealthy are not focused almost solely on economics then I have a bridge to sell you.

  8. “a narrower and narrower sliver of the electorate”. Sadly, not a thin sliver. Most wouldn’t describe 40% of a pie as a sliver. It’s disturbing that so many would (gladly?) accept his racism and flaws to further their tax cuts and right wing agenda (he has played so carefully towards gun rights and abortion, while he is not a careful person). It is true that Biden is likely no more than a placeholder, but a cooling off period may work out well. It would open up a wide field for policy and people in the next election.

  9. Wow! With so much paternalistic intellectual certainty on display, I hardly know where to begin. It really is that simple? Forty percent of the electorate has been “taught” to distrust the coastal elitists? They have been “bamboozled” with bad economic theory since the proper, more modern economic theories are beyond their intellectual capability to comprehend? This coupled with their lack of reading of historical political philosophers explains the error of their ways? I am happy to hear that it can all be boiled down into such a simple equation. Here I was thinking that those low income folks had personalities, experiences, personal histories, individual thought patterns, social networks and an occasional intellect that might have factored into the equation. Whew. Lucky we don’t have to get into all that complexity. I guess all we have to do is to get those dummies to see the light and cash in their allegiance to their current political overlords and place their trust a new set of overlords that truly do know what is best for them. Those new guys will most assuredly look out for their interests unlike the current crew. No need for them to worry their pretty little heads about all that complex modern economic theory. Done. Solved.

    The conservative right and the progressive left are the same type of individuals with each just spouting a different religion. They already know all the answers and all you need to do is listen to them. No need for you to have your own middle lane. “We’ll just pave yours over and you can ride along with us.” Both also tend to hark back to some primordial utopia when all was right with the world and we weren’t on a path to decay. Excuse me while I place a call to Garrison Keillor. The USA has always been a country beset with problems: lurching from one issue or crisis to the next while real live humans tried to solve the issues the best they could. The country got by and it will continue to get by because it has a system that allows competing ideas to battle it out. It might look chaotic and ugly but it creates resilience because the pendulum can swing both ways and just occasionally it is in the center. I’d rather live with the chaos than be subjugated to either of the two wings with their “religiosity” and certainty. I’ll stick to the messy middle and deal with the complexity rather than subscribing to either sides’ simple solutions.

    • Wow, so much loathing for those with opinions. But your’s are right?

      • I don’t loathe those with opinions. I just try not to confuse opinions with facts. There has been too much of that from both sides for the past four years. Also please re-read my comments, if you can bear it, because nowhere in there did I mention my opinion being right. It’s just my opinion

  10. And if we end up with a wider field of policy and people what good will that do if we can’t get the illiterate ‘most Americans’ to some level of literacy to be able to make wise decisions. They’ll still be voting in Presidents and Governors who are just as ill-equipped to lead as what we have now. It would take years to educate the young to the level this country needs and sadly many parents would object to their babies having to put the work in to learn what is needed. Just to put a curriculum together on a national scale would be a monumental task. Sadly, I don’t think Americans have the collective will. Please, please, please prove me wrong.

    • I guess if its all that hard we could just take away their ability to vote and let technocrats make all the decisions. On second thought, that might be a little bit too much like China.

  11. What the United States really need is more parties on the ballot. And I don’t mean a third option, but six or seven.
    Isn’t offering only two choices by definition polarizing?

    Call European politics bloated, bureaucratic, inefficient etc…. But having more parties play a political role and forcing government coalitions of several dots on the left-to-right-spectrum creates consensus and helps people feel their interests represented.
    I bet there are people in the US who are gun advocates and pro green energies. And people who would like to see taxes on high incomes go up but also want a strict and tight immigration policy and so on and on…
    What choices do Americans have? Hold your nose and vote “your” guy.

    • You are spot on with this, especially with the coalitions forcing a consensus. The current political duopoly is a false choice. They also benefit from our dissatisfaction and by keeping us at each other’s throats no matter how much they protest that they would love to break the logjam.

  12. False choice. Best two words,written together, in all the comments, that sum up OUR system. Cannot imagine even 3, much less 6 or 7, parties happening in my lifetime, but sure do hope following generations get to enjoy such a reality.

  13. Circling back to another theme in this fine piece: is it possible that Biden’ strategy is to find a delicate balance of policies and positions that will attract a wide enough scope of voters to get elected, and that once in the White House he might pivot somewhat toward more progressive plans – so long as they don’t rock Wall Street? Of course, my pollyanna fantasy includes Democrats sweeping both Houses, leaving behind the “blue-dog” types.

    Because of Biden’s age, his selection of VP will be more important than usual, I think, as that person might actually have to take over the top job. To take my fantasy further, he would submit a short list of candidates for his cabinet at the convention.

  14. Coming to this thread a bit late, but found it very interesting to digest previous comments. It leaves me with a question about whether the current form of democracy is at all viable as choice for selecting leaders. If we take the position that the electorate is too uninformed to trust them with voting, why do we allow it? It all sounds very elitist, but that appears to be the logical conclusion from some of the comments above. While at the same time there does not seem to be any other viable option other than the current system or tweaking it with the ranked choice voting idea. Do we need a fresh idea on the ways that we organize our political system given 65% don’t vote and many that do have so little grasp of the ideas and voters are increasingly manipulated by political spending by elite special interest groups or social media.

    • To be clear, I do not advocate at all for restricting the franchise and would actually much prefer that voting was made easier (national holiday, vote by mail, etc.). If I could wave a wand, I would agree with the posters that a parliamentary system is preferable so people can vote for the party that closest represents their views. I would also undo Citizens United and severely limit the idea that corporations are people when it comes to political spending and that money is speech.

      I ultimately think we’ll move toward some of the programs discussed above as we see a generational shift in opinion. Might take another decade for some of the basics, but I do actually have high hopes that Biden will tack toward the progressive wing of the party if it’s a clean sweep. If it’s not, get ready for four years of gridlock.

  15. I found this analysis by George Friedman interesting. Our limited choice of only two parties has been limited further (unintentionally I think) by the outcome of Party Primary reforms in the 1970’s. https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/paradox-americas-electoral-reform

    If we had a parliamentary system, the coalition building to form a government would provide a forced method of doing at least a modicum of consensus building. Currently, with the 24 hour news cycle and the way many groups and channels treat politics as a gladiatorial blood sport, there is little opportunity for reaching across the aisle to arrive at some type of negotiated solutions. Unless there is a true crisis, those in the middle get slammed by their wings for even attempting outreach to the other side. Politics becomes an all or nothing game.

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