The 2020 Democratic convention is over and the Democratic party has just let out a sigh of relief. The Democrats and their “new” leader were center-stage for several days and nothing went wrong. In fact, not only did their presidential candidate, Joe Biden, not have any gaffes, his acceptance speech was praised by Republicans, and by Fox News, which seems to be the highest compliment for the Biden campaign team.
If anyone was still wondering, the Democratic national convention made it crystal clear: Biden is going for the “moderate” Democrats and Republicans. Whereas Hillary Clinton still devoted one day to the Sanders base at the 2016 convention, the Biden camp gave Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just one minute, roughly one-quarter of the time they allotted to Republican ex-governor John Kasich.
Biden’s campaign is going to be Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” but with pictures of Black Lives Matter, as was captured perfectly in the “Rise Up” video that was debuted, to great enthusiasm from Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans, at the convention. Biden is going to be the feelgood president, the empathy president, the man who suffered and feels your pain. Most importantly, he is going to be the “not-Trump” president.
Sure, there is going to be a lot of hinting at progressive change, but Biden will mostly assure so-called moderates – and Wall Street – that they have nothing to worry about. And why should they? As President Trump wryly pointed out: “In 47 years, Joe did none of the things of which he now speaks. He will never change, just words!”
The Biden campaign has read the polls and the polls say that the November elections are going to be a referendum on Trump. Almost anyone who still self-identifies as Republican is now completely behind Trump – who still has an approval rating of 90% among Republicans – while 60% of Biden “supporters” say they mainly are backing him as a vote against Trump.
But Trump is really just a placeholder, who fuels a much longer-standing polarization. At least since the 2000 Bush-Gore election, sections of the two camps have argued that the next election is about the fate of US democracy. Each election, these sections have become bigger. Trump has embraced this division, and amplified it, raising it to new levels. In today’s “conservative” narrative, Marco Rubio and Fox News are (potential) enemies. Similarly, on the left, a new radical social media infrastructure has emerged that sees Nancy Pelosi and the New York Times as “Trump enablers”.
To be absolutely clear, the radicalization in both camps is not the same. Trump is a threat to US democracy. He has repeatedly shown his authoritarian instincts, openly fantasizes about an unconstitutional third term, and repeatedly praised domestic extremists and foreign dictators. And his party is now openly embracing QAnon conspiracy theorists like Marjorie Taylor Green and other white supremacists like Laura Loomer. Not to speak of the most influential gravedigger of US liberal democracy, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
You either see Trump as a danger to US democracy or you think Biden is. Nothing is going to change that
Joe Biden might be many things, but he is no radical. Nor is he a “dangerous pawn of the far left”, as the far-right outrage machine tries to portray him. In fact, despite Sanders’ remarkable runs in 2016 and 2020, the Democratic party is still well in the hands of centrists. And while the Democrats have been involved in several illiberal and undemocratic policies – from gerrymandering to the illegal surveillance of millions of Americans – their support for the liberal democratic system, in word and deed, is impeccable compared with that of the Republican party.
What does this all mean for the coming months? The main consequence of this polarization is that the mind of the vast majority of potential voters is already fixed, at least on the question of which candidate to potentially vote for. For most Americans, this 2020 election is about “the soul of America”, whatever that “soul” exactly might be. You either see Trump as a danger to US democracy or you think Biden is. Nothing is going to change that.
Consequently, the election is going to be won by whoever can make the most voters so afraid that they will come out to vote. Trump still has an easier task ahead, playing on longstanding racist fears, and profiting from most of the many deficiencies of the electoral system that work in his favor – such as the electoral college, the disproportionate weight for rural America and voter suppression. He is playing to a much smaller electorate, but one that votes more often.
Biden has a larger potential electorate, but weaker support among them. Moreover, he does not want to rely on the non-white vote, which overwhelmingly prefers him over Trump, but is notoriously low (in part because of voter suppression!). Hence, Biden has decided to prioritize the “moderate” white vote (again). But whether his campaign will be able to frighten enough white centrists more about the state of US democracy than over the economic meltdown or “demographic change”, remains to be seen.
- Cas Mudde is the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, the author of The Far Right Today (2019), and host of the new podcast Radikaal
Originally published: 2020-08-22 12:27:27