the national interest

What Joe Biden Is Teaching Democrats About Democrats

Joe Biden in Fullerton last October. Photo: Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media via Getty Images

Over the past five years, the Democratic Party has seemed to race leftward so fast that its recent standard-bearers are considered no longer qualified to lead it. Bill Clinton? An embarrassment not welcome on the campaign trail. Barack Obama? A neoliberal whose half-measures should not be repeated. Nor does the new crowd of Democrats qualify by the stringent standards of ideological purity: Cory Booker has ties to Wall Street; Kamala Harris was a prosecutor; Beto O’Rourke once mused about cutting Social Security.

But nobody is thought of as more retrograde than Joe Biden — “a deeply flawed candidate who’s out of step with the mood of his party,” Politico wrote last year. Biden’s heresies are comprehensive: on foreign policy (supporting the Iraq War), social policy (his dismissive treatment of Anita Hill, harsh criminal-justice stances, opposition to school busing), and economic policy (support for the Reagan tax cut, balanced-budget fetishism). And Biden, being Biden, has articulated these positions with cringey sound bites that make the situation even worse.

The prevailing mood toward a Biden candidacy has been a combination of anger that he has the temerity to lead a party that has left him behind and sympathy that he’s too addled to grasp his predicament. A genre of op-ed has developed out of liberals pleading with Biden, with such headlines as “Why Joe Biden Shouldn’t Run for President” (The Week, The Guardian); “I Like Joe Biden. I Urge Him Not to Run” (the New York Times); “I Really Like Joe Biden, but He Shouldn’t Run for President” (USA Today); and, as exasperation has sunk in, “Again, Joe Biden, for the Love of God: Do Not Run for President” (The Stranger).

The poor guy has disregarded all the advice and decided to run anyway. And initial polling has revealed that a large number of Democrats have not left Biden behind at all. He begins the race leading his closest competitors, including early front-runner Bernie Sanders, by as much as 30 points. Perhaps it was the party’s intelligentsia, not Biden, that was out of touch with the modern Democratic electorate.

The conclusion that Biden could not lead the post-Obama Democratic Party is the product of misplaced assumptions about the speed of its transformation. Yes, the party has moved left, but not nearly as far or as fast as everybody seemed to believe. Counterintuitively, House Democrats’ triumph in the midterms may have pushed their center of gravity to the right: The 40 seats Democrats gained were overwhelmingly located in moderate or Republican-leaning districts.

Biden’s apparent resurrection from relic to runaway front-runner has illustrated a chasm between perception and reality. The triumph of the left is somewhere between a movement ahead of its time and a bubble that has just popped.

This is not to say we imagined the whole thing. Beginning in President Obama’s second term, important social movements began to burble out of the left and into American culture. Black Lives Matter helped drive criminal-justice reform to a point where even President Trump went along with a bill to shorten sentences for thousands of people in federal prison. The #MeToo movement highlighted workplace discrimination and sexual exploitation, exposing sexual predators in media, politics, and other commanding heights of culture. In just a couple of years, attitudes seemed to leap forward two generations.

And then, in an economic analogue to these social movements, the Sanders campaign sparked to life a socialist faction inside the Democratic Party. The influence of socialist thought can be seen in Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, the latter of which argues that climate change demands a sweeping reorganization of the entire economy.

News accounts have emphasized the growing share of self-identified liberals in the party as well as the diminishing stigma of socialism among younger Democrats. But political parties are large groups of people, and they change very slowly. Socialism may be growing less unpopular, but it remains quite unpopular. In a recent poll, just 10 percent of Americans held a positive opinion of socialism, and 29 percent said it is compatible with American values (against 57 percent saying otherwise). While the liberal share of the Democratic electorate is rising, it’s only just caught up to the combined share of Democrats who call themselves moderate or conservative. A small majority of Democrats say they wish the party would move in a more moderate direction.

In the New York Times, Frank Bruni suggested that Biden’s “party can’t get enough of the word progressive, but he’s regressive, symbolizing a step back to an administration past.” Yet, according to another recent poll, it seems most Democrats can get enough of the word progressive and also are quite fond of the administration in which Biden served: When Democrats were offered a choice of different ideological labels, “socialist” and “democratic socialist” each drew 1 and 6 percent, respectively, and “progressive Democrat” got 5 percent. Sixteen percent of respondents chose “moderate Democrat,” and 20 percent of them picked “Obama Democrat.”

So why did the media spend the past few years getting the state of the Democratic Party so wrong? One reason is that a numbers of factions had an incentive to hype the rise of the left. The left itself came out of 2016 giddy with its conviction that Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton only out of inertia (or even, the more radical members of the movement claimed, party manipulation). Sanders had won the young, and therefore the future.

In reality, Sanders received lots of votes from people who either appreciated his earnest persona or objected to Clinton for a variety of reasons, including her being too liberal. (Sanders ran up the vote in places like West Virginia and Oklahoma with many of the same conservative Democrats who had supported Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008. Both times, they were registering protest votes against the party and its presumptive nominee. The Sanders movement convinced itself that his success reflected an unsated demand for socialism. The rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—young, nonwhite, native to social media—gave the movement the ideal image of its ambitions. Their plan to take over the party involved repeating that they had already done so.

In this project, they enjoyed the support of the conservative media. Saddled by his own unpopularity, Trump cast his opponents as radical socialists. Last year, a White House economic report hysterically announced, “Coincident with the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, socialism is making a comeback in American political discourse,” as if, any day now, bands of bloodthirsty Marxist guerrillas might descend from the mountains. Right-wing media focused almost obsessively on Ocasio-Cortez and a handful of her closest allies, including Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib. That these had a habit of supplying TV-ready controversies made the cycles of outrage perfectly symbiotic. The conservative media would attack Ocasio-Cortez and her crew, who would rally their supporters to defend against the attacks. Both had an interest in portraying her as the Democratic Party’s true leader.

On top of it all, the familiar cast of centrist independents cycling through the greenrooms of CNN and MSNBC found the left to be a convenient balancing tool. Trump’s gross bigotry and authoritarianism threatened to place them in the uncomfortable spot of blaming the country’s problems on a single party. But you can’t make a centrist message out of distancing yourself from one entire party and three members of the other party. To make the comfortable “both sides have gone too far” formulation work, the Democratic left flank had to be portrayed as a dominant force. “Liberals wondering why conservatives who worry about Trump don’t join the Democrats should consider what is happening on their own side of the aisle,” wrote anti-Trump conservative Peter Wehner in The Atlantic. “Progressivism is wrecking the Democratic Party even as crude populism and ethnic nationalism have (for now) wrecked the Republican Party.” This message formed the basis of the Howard Schultz campaign.

The most important ingredient in the delusion was Twitter. It is hard to exaggerate the degree to which the platform shapes the minds of professional political observers. Part of Twitter’s allure to insiders is that it creates a simulacrum of the real world, complete with candidates, activists, and pundits all responding to events in real time. Because Twitter superficially resembles the outside world’s political debate — it does, after all, contain the full left-to-right spectrum — it is easy to mistake it for the real thing.

But the ersatz polity of Twitter doesn’t represent the real world. Democrats on Twitter skew young and college educated. A study last month found that the Twitter-using portion of the Democratic electorate harbors far more progressive views on everything than the party’s voting base.

One striking example of the disconnect took place earlier this year in Virginia. An old medical-school yearbook showed Ralph Northam, the state’s Democratic governor, in a picture featuring a blackface costume and Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. If you followed the debate on Twitter, as nearly all political reporters did, Northam’s resignation was simply a given. The debate turned to when he would step down, who would replace him, and what other prominent people would have career-ending blackface yearbook photographs.

Virginians, however, were split in ways the political elite would never have guessed. Whites and Republicans favored his resignation, while African-American voters believed, by a 20-point margin, that Northam should not resign.

As the Democratic Party in 2019 begins to wake up to the fact that its intellectual and activist vanguard is deeply at odds with both its voting base and the vast majority of its elected officials, the politics of Washington and the 2020 primary are shifting in unexpected ways.

In Congress, Nancy Pelosi survived a campaign in which more than three dozen Democratic candidates, nearly all running in conservative or moderate districts, refused to endorse her for House Speaker. Pelosi, in turn, has embraced the large wing of newly elected centrists that gave her the majority. Pelosi has repeatedly dismissed Ocasio-Cortez and her peers as irrelevant.

“When we won this election, it wasn’t in districts like mine or Alexandria’s … But those are districts that are solidly Democratic. This glass of water,” she said at one event, hoisting a glass, “would win with a D next to its name in those districts.” In an interview, she repudiated socialism (“I do reject socialism as an economic system. If people have that view, that’s their view. That is not the view of the Democratic Party”), and when asked about the faction associated with Ocasio-Cortez, she replied, “That’s like five people.”

Pelosi keeps making this point so insistently and even rudely because, perhaps, the media have kept missing it. Only half of House Democrats support Medicare for All, and slightly fewer representatives support the Green New Deal. (Pelosi’s assessment of the latter — “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive. The green dream, or whatever they call it” — summarized its very dim prospects.) Meanwhile, Pelosi has broken from the left on other high-profile controversies. She has refused to initiate impeachment hearings and held a vote condemning anti-Semitism following Ilhan Omar’s comments accusing Israel supporters of foreign allegiance.

College-educated white Democratic voters have shown a growing concern about structural bias in American society: a transformation owed to social progressives, who tend to be the most skeptical about nominating a white man for president. To them, the struggle against racism and sexism correlates with a belief in increasing representation of women and people of color. Many Democratic voters, on the other hand, have arrived at the opposite conclusion. If racism and sexism are so endemic, they’ve decided, then beating Trump requires nominating a white man. “You’ll always hear, ‘There’s no way a woman can win this,’ and they go back to Hillary,” one voter told the Times. “Even among my female friends.”

Most of the party’s presidential candidates took the claims of the ascendant left at face value when they undertook their campaigns. Candidates like Harris, Booker, O’Rourke, and Elizabeth Warren designed their platforms as if they had to compete ideologically with Sanders. Several of them have already advocated Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, which could expose them to withering attacks from Trump if they win the nomination. Harris told an interviewer that, yes, she would do away with private health insurance. Julián Castro endorsed cash-payment reparations. Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand called for abolishing ICE, before backing off and saying they only wanted to reform it.

None of these plans stands a chance to pass Congress under the next president, even in the best-case scenario. All of them poll badly. (Medicare for All sounds popular until you tell people it means eliminating private insurance, at which point it grows unpopular.) The candidates seem to have overestimated how much left-wing policy voters actually demand. Democratic voters might be dissuaded from nominating their former vice-president if they hear more about his long record or if he repeats the undisciplined campaigning that led to defeats in both of his previous presidential campaigns. But it is already clear enough that he is supplying something much closer to what the party’s electorate wants than either the political media or the other candidates had assumed. A Democratic Party in which Biden is running away with a nomination simply cannot be the one that most people thought existed. Some of Harris’s advisers, the Times recently reported, are urging her to stop mollifying activists and embrace her prosecutorial past.

It might slowly be dawning on the left that its giddy predictions of ascendancy have not yet materialized. Corey Robin, a left-wing writer who has previously heralded the left’s impending takeover of the Democratic Party, recently conceded he may have miscalculated. “We have nothing like the organizational infrastructure, the party organization, the intellectual and ideological coherence, or political leadership we need,” he wrote. “I don’t see anything on the horizon like the cadre of ideologues and activists that made the New Deal or Reagan Revolution.”

The long-term question for the left is whether it can build a movement that can dominate in the real world, not just on Twitter and in some magazines. The short-term question is whether it can leverage what power it does have among activists and intellectuals without blowing up an election many Democrats see as an existential fight for the republic.

*This article appears in the May 13, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

What Joe Biden Is Teaching Democrats About Democrats