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.
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.