If Joe Biden were a candidate for the Presidency of California, he wouldn’t win. Californians, it’s pretty clear, would choose somebody better aligned with their own values. Likewise, if he were running for President of this particular house, internal polls suggest he’d be doomed. We’d pick Hilary, or maybe Isobel the Cat. Joe wouldn’t even be in the conversation.
But Joe Biden isn’t running for the Presidency of California, or the Harsimus Cove Neighborhood Association, or our living room. He’s running for President of the United States of America, and America, as the Whitney Museum reminded us during its reopening, is hard to see. It’s a big place; its parameters can’t be apprehended from wherever you’re sitting, or by whatever loudmouth you may be following on Twitter. Those who claim to be taking the pulse of America tend instead to be taking the pulses of their friends, or their affinity groups. How could Joe Biden win the primary?, nobody I know likes him; how could good ol’ Uncle Joe not win the primary?, everybody I know loves him, and so on.
It is because America is so hard to see that we have elections in the first place. The political opinions of our neighbors down the block often surprise us; the opinions of our fellow Americans on the wide open plains are entirely inscrutable. All we have to go on is the vote count — and that count demands interpretation in order to be understood. What does a landslide in a rural Texas county tell us about the will of the electorate? Anything? Americans have long rejected the idea of a national primary in the fear that it would benefit people like Biden: those with connections all over the land, formidable name recognition, and a certain anodyne quality designed to placate the anxieties of the masses. We try to do this piecemeal instead; we try to let smaller political units have their idiosyncratic say. As it turned out, that arrangement benefited Joe Biden too.
I’ve been watching politics for a long time. Maybe I do it to understand my neighbors, and to get some needed insight into a wider society that has never exactly made me feel welcome, and maybe I’m just a masochist; regardless, if there’s an election going on somewhere, I’ll spend some time the next day picking through the results, precinct by precinct. I have never seen anything like Super Tuesday 2020. Joe Biden won in places where he was expected to do well. He won in places where he was widely expected to lose. Biden won in places where he didn’t or couldn’t spend any money, and he won in places were he didn’t even bother to show up. In Massachusetts, where he did not campaign, he beat the sitting senator and a popular senator from a neighboring state. He carried blue-collar towns, minority-majority towns, college towns, factory towns. A few months after he was left for dead on the debate stage after his apparent demolition by Senator Harris — and despite a compromised fundraising effort and half-hearted support at rallies — Uncle Joe thumped the field. That night, he became the presumptive Democratic nominee, even as his rivals were slow to admit it.
How this happened is a matter for closer examination. One popular theory on the Internet is that the vote was rigged in Biden’s favor. This may have been done electronically, or through voter suppression, or unfair mass-media treatment of his rivals, or perhaps through a combination of all three. Even in the best of times, America doesn’t make it easy to vote; tacit disenfranchisement has been a huge problem in our elections, even in places where explicit disenfranchisement isn’t supposed to exist anymore. After every election, there are many anecdotal accounts of voting difficulties, names scratched from rolls, sudden poll closures that feel strategically orchestrated, threats from employers to toe the electoral line, and other pernicious stuff that we all ought to be concerned about if we’re interested in the proper functioning of a democratic system.
Before we ascribe Biden’s win to treachery, we owe it to ourselves to be honest about the magnitude of the accusation we’re making. We’re talking about a nationwide effort that would have required coordination between hackers, thugs, unscrupulous reporters, and criminal masterminds. Is something like that possible? I’ll wager it is: the interconnectivity of our systems means that widespread manipulation is never out of the question, and our moral bankruptcy means that people in power will always be able to rationalize their actions. There is, however, a more elegant explanation for Biden’s win — one that doesn’t require any conspiracy at all. Joe Biden may just be more popular than we think he is.
This is not to say that he’s a better candidate than his opponents, or even that he’s a good candidate, period. He may yet turn out to be Mondale II. The epidemic might have jumbled our public priorities; if we re-did the election now, it’s possible that Democratic primary voters would choose somebody else. Or — and this, I believe, is every bit as likely — they might see Biden as a decent steward in troubled times and pick him in bigger numbers than they did on Super Tuesday.
Popularity has never been an index of quality. People regularly flock to dumb stuff. Our insistence on settling disputes about our national direction via all-determining quadrennial beauty pageants strikes me as a weakness of American democracy, not a strength. We ought to be able to devise a better system than this for ascertaining the general will of the country. Nevertheless, this is the machine we’ve built, and we seem determined to run it until the gears fall off. In February, we turned the cranks and pushed the buttons, and Joe Biden was the name on the slip that came out of the slot. There it is, in permanent marker. It’s not going anywhere.
There are many who will absolutely reject this outcome, no matter what. They’ll insist that the game was unfair, and the bargains were corrupt, and backstabbers played dirty, and there is simply no way that a politician they don’t like could possibly have been more popular than the one they did. This peculiarly American form of sore loserdom has become a major problem in the 21st century. It’s personified by the chief executive, who cannot ever seem to admit that he could be outvoted about anything, and must invent dark fantasies about undocumented workers bussed across the borders in order to soothe his ego. He is a caricature of a wider national affliction, one driven, perhaps, by the effects of an Internet that we designed, deliberately, to fool us into thinking we’re more significant than we really are.
I have no idea what sort of President Joe Biden would make. Odds are against us finding out: incumbency is powerful, the poisoned national mood hasn’t changed very much since 2016, and people tend to rally around the chief during crises. Biden does not strike me as a man with the fortitude, ingenuity, or charisma to buck any of those trends. Should he win, my hope is that he will surround himself with people who will take threats to public welfare seriously, and will use the resources of the federal government to identify them early, and head them off before we’re forced to close down the entire world for repairs. I’d hope he’d rebuild some of the scientific agencies and watchdog organizations that the current administration has dismantled for no clear reason. I hope he’ll govern with the compassion and fairness that the office demands of him. No, he wouldn’t have been my choice for President of New Jersey, or of Harsimus Cove, or our house. Nevertheless, I wish him well. Good luck, Uncle Joe. You’re going to need it. We all will.