Swing Voting in Steeler Country: A Grievance Meditation on the Democratic Party
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
There’s a bumper sticker (and t-shirt and internet meme) going around that says, ‘Literally Any Functioning Adult 2020’. It’s funny, or at least it was the first time I saw it, and it captures the frustration a lot of people feel these days. I sympathize. I'm frustrated too.
But such an attitude obscures a lot.
First, anyone who feels this way must, at very least, appreciate the fact that we live in a country where we can speak this way. In many places, implying that the head of state is neither ‘functioning’ nor ‘adult’ would result in not waking up the next day.
Second, as much as we complain, it’s only in a country as privileged and effective as ours that setting such a low bar would not result in total catastrophe. Enumerated powers, checks and balances, federalism, even informal features like the exhausting amount of collaboration required within the executive branch; these things are all responsible for the fact that, if we actually did elect someone with no more qualifications than age and basic ‘functioning’, we’d probably get through it.
Third, our leaders know we feel this way and use it to their advantage. Suffering through four years of a crappy president, if indeed that’s what history ultimately reveals him to be, should raise our standards, not lower them. Contrariwise, wanting to jettison Trump so badly that we require almost nothing of his replacement means the latter can get away with pretty much anything while he’s doing that nothing. During the 2016 campaign, Trump said he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. Given the president’s extreme unpopularity with the other side, Biden now enjoys a similar impunity. So the Fifth Avenue guns are drawn on both sides, and neither of their bullet chambers are still full.
More on that in a minute, but, first, let’s take a step back.
By my very rough estimate, there’s a Biden sign in every tenth or twentieth residential yard out here, but every third or fourth domicile bears some witness to support for the president [...]
I live in Pennsylvania, one of the states now being called a ‘battleground’ in the coming 2020 general election for president of the United States. Right now, Joe Biden leads the polls in the struggle for this prize.
But not by a ton. The average margin between the candidates in this state is around 4%, which is roughly within the margin of error.
Obviously, Pennsylvania’s cities, like all cities, are ‘blue’, but outside Pittsburgh and Philadelphia lies what is sometimes called the conservative ‘T’ (so shaped because the ’Burgh and Philly occupy the state’s lower corners). Democratic strategist James Carville put his finger on this region with his now infamous declaration that Pennsylvania is ‘Paoli and Penn Hills with Alabama in between’. While the ‘T’ description predates the president’s tenure, it handily captures how the vast majority of its residents feel about our current national politics: This is Trump country.
By my very rough estimate, there’s a Biden sign in every tenth or twentieth residential yard out here, but every third or fourth domicile bears some witness to support for the president—ranging from the very polite official signage to homemade posterboards with Marks-A-Lot declaring the deliberately antagonistic and profane “F— your feelings; we’re re-electing the motherf—.” A veritable quilt of the strangest hero worship.
And, recently, I was out running some early-morning errands when I stumbled upon a very large, apparently very well-organized citizen parade of Trump supporters driving to a nearby park. Local officials were there, along with dozens of motorcycles and a sea of cars punctuated by elaborately Trumped-out bowties (not this kind but this kind). A few days afterward, I heard on NPR that, I guess, this is a ‘thing’.
Oh, and then there’s our ‘Trump House’.
So the ‘enthusiasm gap’ is hard to deny around here.
In addition to being a Pennsylvanian, I’m also a swing voter. This means that, like my state as a whole, I oscillate in voting for Democrats and Republicans and, on the rare occasion, even bench myself until the next game. My geography together with my openness (or sometimes just indecision) puts me in one of this cycle’s most scrutinized electoral classes.
And I find it genuinely hard to make the decision. Not that I’m tempted to vote for the president. I, like nearly everyone else, have a kind of shadow-side, ‘I fear to watch, yet I cannot turn away’ soft-spot for his deranged, car-crash sense of humor, which is why our country’s liberal media outlets continue to find him such irresistible television despite the fact that covering him is directly counter to their stated aims. But he and I share a rationale on almost nothing.
No, there’s just one little—well, actually, pretty big—thing about the Democratic party that really sticks in my craw, and I think it sticks in other peoples’ too.
I’m a registered Democrat and, this spring, we had the largest field of presidential primary candidates any party has ever had in this country. In the beginning, Pete Buttigieg was the declared winner of the Iowa caucuses, Bernie Sanders had Nevada, and the two split New Hampshire. Then, Biden took South Carolina, demonstrating that it was actually possible for him to acquire delegates (which was, by no means, a given at the time).
And then a funny (but unsurprising) thing happened: Just two evenings before Super Tuesday, when fourteen states would cast their ballots, giving us the first genuine sense of whom American Democrats really wanted as their president, Mayor Pete announced that, in effect, he no longer considered it worth finding out, supposedly after having ‘looked at the math’ (one can only assume he called Andrew Yang). Then, Amy Klobuchar did the same the following day.
With these two out of the race, voters repelled by the self-proclaimed socialist Sanders had no other center-left option than Biden (since no one could stand Mike Bloomberg or, I guess, get past Hilary Clinton’s smear campaign against Tulsi Gabbard). In other words, all non-Bernie votes would add up against him in Biden’s column rather than being split amongst the various center-left candidates, thereby increasing the chances that Sanders would not be the Democratic nominee, whether it’s what Democratic voters wanted or not. That Elizabeth Warren, nearly indistinguishable from Bernie ideologically, stayed in the contest for her own reasons only contributed to the strategy by creating an asymmetry: The center-left would coalesce while the far-left would split.
Predictably, Biden swept the Super Tuesday contests that week. Dozens of commentators (including the president and, naturally, Sanders himself) responded with the obvious etiology: A deal must have been made. NPR’s Mara Liasson rushed in to help the public understand the Democratic Party’s reasoning:
'[B]efore South Carolina, we thought we’d seen this movie before. Remember in 2016, Republicans couldn’t coalesce around one alternative to Donald Trump. It sure looked like Democrats were going to have the same problem with Bernie Sanders. But now we’re watching a new movie, where Democrats are acting more like a mature party—at least the center-left portion of the party—willing to make individual sacrifices to boost what they think is best for the party. That was led by Pete Buttigieg, who all along was the one to most clearly articulate the goals for the Democrats.'
It’s worth pausing to note Liasson’s swipe at the far-left as being unlike the ‘mature’ center-left, something I think she probably wouldn’t imply at this juncture. But the main point is clear: The Democratic party, ‘led’ (a curious analysis) by Buttigieg, didn’t want to elect their crazy by splitting their normies like the Republicans did. Fair enough, I guess.
And then another funny (but unsurprising) thing happened: Everyone pretended like it never happened, like Biden had been voters’ unanimous choice all along. Amusingly, Marianne Williamson, not usually known for astute political commentary, had to explain it to NPR’s ostensibly baffled Jeremy Hobson:
Williamson: […] This was not a great celebration of American democracy that we’ve had here for the last year. We have had the process of control and manipulation by the DNC in a way—
Hobson: In what way? What are you saying that the DNC did?
Williamson: […] The American people are not stupid. And what I found with the voters in those early primary states is that they were more than capable of handling all this if it had been truly left to them. Instead, there has been so much manipulation including, I believe, that Monday-night drama before Super Tuesday.
Hobson: But Super Tuesday was a day when Joe Biden, who hadn’t put any money into some states, didn’t have any campaigning in some states, still won those states. Those were real voters that turned out and voted for him and decided for themselves that that’s who they wanted to support.
Williamson: Yes, I understand that they decided for themselves. And I certainly have a respect for the American voter, and I have respect on a level of personhood for Joe Biden. But I do not agree with Dana Bash when she said that was just this organic unfolding of the—
Hobson: You don’t think that was organic.
Williamson: Absolutely not. You tell me. Look at Amy Klobuchar in that last debate. This was not a woman planning to get out of the race that week. Look at Pete Buttigieg at that debate that week. These were not people planning to get into—out of that race. Something happened. And any, I think, intelligent observer realizes it.
Hearing is believing. ‘Something’ indeed.
The next chapter of the story shifted from the kind of everyday megalomania that’s been de rigueur in the party since the Clintons got off the Greyhound from the Ozarks to a more sinister series of events. For many months, we were left to speculate about who Biden’s veep would be, though we were told it would be a woman. In terms of the number of days away from the DNC, it wasn’t that much later than usual, but in terms of the number of days away from the general election, it was quite tardy. And, of course, it mattered more this time because—not to belabor a point already talked to death—it wasn’t and isn’t exactly clear that, if elected, Biden will make it through an entire term, a point he has acknowledged himself. (And, in this light, we have become ironically and tragically incapable of fulfilling even the ‘Literally Any Functioning Adult’ criterion.) So the vice presidential candidate is far more important than usual, which calls for more time with her—whoever she’d be—in the public eye than we’d usually need. Instead, we’ve gotten less.
That candidate turned out, of course, to be Kamala Harris. The only disappointment of this choice that is relevant here is that someone polling at 3.4% when she dropped out of the presidential primary on December 3rd, 2019 is more than a little likely to be our president without anything like the usual vetting.
And, then, in the denouement of this little drama—and this actually was surprising—Kamala accidently told a business roundtable what ‘a Harris administration together with Joe Biden’ would do for minority business owners. Then, later that day, Biden referred to their partnership as the ‘Harris-Biden ticket’. Kinda makes you wonder what they had been talking about that morning.
And, apparently with a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’, Biden is now saying Harris is ‘ready on Day One to be president of the United States of a America’ and calling her ‘really presidential’. Just what is their plan for Inauguration Day, anyway? As a voter, I’d sorta like to know.
I cite these details to show just how transparently the Democratic party have subverted our democratic process in a year when they claim that voting for their candidate will ‘save democracy’. (And though I say ‘transparently’, you do have to pay attention to partisan media outlets on both sides to get all the pieces of the puzzle.)
[I]f you’re going to tell people they’ve chosen a candidate when, in reality, you picked one they didn’t love so he could pass it on to one they rejected, you can’t reasonably ask them to cosign that process as ‘saving democracy’.
This ‘saving democracy’ rhetoric has some basis in reality: The president is a not a democratic man. But Mara Liasson was right to contrast the 2020 Democratic primary with the 2016 Republican primary. Donald Trump became the president because, among other things, the Republican party allowed their voters to choose among competing candidates, whereas Joe Biden became a presidential nominee because the Democratic party prevented this process.
You might be thinking, was this really wrong of them? After all, it’s still a republic even if the people don’t pick the candidates in party primaries, so long as they eventually elect one of those candidates to office. This is true. We haven’t always had presidential primaries in this country and, at least in theory, we could go back.
But if you’re going to tell people they’ve chosen a candidate when, in reality, you picked one they didn’t love so he could pass it on to one they rejected, you can’t reasonably ask them to cosign that process as ‘saving democracy’. Especially after having done more or less the same thing last time around.
I don’t know what I’m going to do in the voting booth this November (such lack of knowledge also entails that it will be an in-person affair). The third party candidates are quite uninspiring. This is genuinely interesting and attractive, if it’s not too rational to get on the ballot. But, honestly, right now, I’m feeling more like this.
I also don’t know what my state—or, indeed, the country—is going to do. I believe our political circumstances encourage voters to lie to pollsters to a degree that pushes potential error outside the usual margins and, therefore, that, once again, most of my Democratic compatriots are overconfident. But if Biden loses, I hope the Democratic party finally considers the possibility that ‘something’ has something to do with it.