Imagine you’re the producer of a hypothetical Broadway show. There’s a lot on the line. So, you’re concerned. You’re worried about letting down the big star who’s the centerpiece of the show. You’ve got serious concerns about recouping your investors’ risk. Most of all—more than you would even admit—you don’t want the talking heads, the people you and all your friends know, to savage your enterprise.
How do you make sure it can’t fail? How do you rig the game in your favor? There’s a concept in theater called making a show “review-proof.” Seth Godin wrote about this:
You do this by intentionally scheduling a short run and stocking the play with big stars. Big stars, though, likely require you to modify the show so that it’s not so good-at least not so good by Broadway standards. (Julia Roberts is a star, her show was not well respected). Result: You sell a lot of tickets (in fact, The Odd Couple sold out before it opened). You are review-proof. And you train the audiences who attend that Broadway shows aren’t so great.
Now, instead of New York theater, suppose you’re in politics. Suppose you’re a major player in one of the two parties. Say it’s the Democratic Party. Just like your Broadway producer counterpart, there’s still serious money involved.
But this time, oh, the stakes are so much higher. More than you can truly fathom, and you’ve been quite a fathomer in your time. I mean, we’re not just talking billions of dollars here. We’re discussing the trillions involved in the global economy. We’re talking about the very future of the world, possibly the human species. How do you deal with the fear?
Perhaps you do what strategic planning people call a “premortem.” You run through all the ways a thing can fail. But unless you have military discipline and academic clarity, running a premortem is very hard to do. So most times, political professionals review-proof their campaigns. They make arbitrary decisions about what does and doesn’t work, what can and can’t play. If Broadway producers are afraid of critics, political professionals are terrified of what the Post or the Times or CNN or MSNBC will say.
What happens with review-proofing Broadway shows happens with political candidates. You make it so your platform can’t be challenged. I mean, God forbid the Republicans call you a socialist, or Jake Tapper accuse you of partisanship. You get scared of losing money, of losing votes, and so you cut away whatever can be risky or attacked. In the purpose of protecting your investment, you lose track of why you’re making a show in the first place—or running a campaign. You review-proof your show, or your candidate … and in the process, audience-proof it, top to bottom.
This is what is happening with Joseph Biden, former Vice President of these United States. Biden is being floated as a serious contender for the most leviathan office in the world.
And it would be all so hysterically funny if there wasn’t a danger of him being taken seriously. According to CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom’s new Iowa caucuses poll, Biden is currenly basking in a 24 percent share, above Sanders’ 16 and Warren’s 15.
It’s hard to take early polls seriously, especially considering that at this stage, A) name recognition is really what’s being tested for, B) millennials don’t do landlines, and C) the entire point of Sanders and Warren is that they are uniquely situated to turn out a huge non-traditional voter turnout. But for the sake of argument, let’s presume Uncle Joe is in the lead.
What are the party muck-a-mucks thinking? In a brilliant piece for the Atlantic titled “Trump Has Killed Democrats’ Sense of the Possible,” Jemele Hill wrote of the weird disconnect between the Biden fantasy, and the Trump-laden world we all dwell in. Hill’s notion is that the Fear of an Orange Planet has cracked the brains of the Democratic Party:
... Biden’s elevation to front-runner is a testament to how much President Donald Trump has shaken the faith of those who believe the White House could better reflect what America looked like. This is perhaps Trump’s most crucial victory yet: successfully persuading Democrats—especially African American voters—not just to lower the bar, but to abandon the idea that inclusion and bold ideas matter more than appeasing the patriarchy.
If the current trends hold steady, Hill writes, the next Dem nominee won’t be the most progressive nominee, or the nominee most capable of holding the coalition together. The danger is that the Dems will opt for a nominee who:
just has to beat Trump, even if the cost of that victory is reinforcing the idea that only an older white man is capable of getting this country back on track. ... Unfortunately, the lesson even Democrats have learned from Trump’s election is that certain voters are willing to tolerate anything if they believe in a candidate. Especially if that candidate is an older white man.
And here’s my point. In a quest to “beat Trump,” the Dems will choose precisely the man who is least likely to beat Trump. Their thirst for the prize will destroy their chance at the goal itself, like a woman who tries to impress her long-time crush by mentioning she’s made a hundred detailed paintings of his face.
Harris and other centrists have been criticized (correctly) for their dreadful austerity policies. But Uncle Joe’s fingerprints are all over the worst ideas of the last 40 years. From the Crime Bill to the Anita Hill hearings, every ailment we groan under today is anticipated by the groping career of Senator Biden. Whatever positions you dislike about Harris, Biden holds double-plus the blame. As the wine moms of Twitter remind us, this ain’t it, chief.
Why take him seriously? Some of it is the afterglow of Obama. Mostly, it’s about the electability canard. But as Peter Beinart writes, nobody knows anything about electability:
The point is that we, and they, simply don’t know. Electability is extremely hard to predict. And when pundits discuss it, they often rely on unstated and dubious assumptions—which usually lead them to predict that the most centrist candidate with the most establishment support is the person general-election voters will like best. ... Nor is it obvious that Biden would be best suited to doing so.
So let’s say you want to critic-proof the Dem nominee. Let’s say you’re really worried about FOX News. Maybe you keep asking yourself: “Oh, what will the conservatives say about us?” If that’s your game, then Biden might seem a smart choice: he’s undeniably a pale male. His long advocacy on behalf of the credit card industry prove he’s no socialist. Or even a progressive, really. However:
Biden supported NAFTA and the Iraq War, and he’s been a Washington insider for almost a half century. In 2016, Trump voters expressed their deep pessimism about the state of the country by voting for radical disruption. If some have now lost faith in Trump, and thus grown even more disillusioned with politics than they were before, wouldn’t they look for a different species of disrupter, perhaps an anti-establishment populist such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren? Why go for the Democratic candidate who, more than almost any other, represents the pre-Trump status quo?
The simple answer to Beinart’s question is that, despite iffy polls, Biden’s support does not lie among the base. Biden’s backers can be found among the professional class, in politics and media, who want to review-proof the Democratic nominee. The term they use for this review-proofing is “electability.” But it amounts to the same thing.
Drop away the pseudo-rational recipes around “electability.” What are we left with?
Fear of the Orangeman, and his second term. And when you operate from a place of fear, how different the world looks! By nature, humans are predisposed to loss aversion. We’re designed to protect what we have, to look obsessively for the danger that will come. These reactions make sense for savanna creatures. In nature, fears are immediate and ever-present. But this is a different age. Larger fears, like climate change or inequality or war, those are the real threats. But those threats exist in abstraction; they’re not in your face.
Right now, deep fear has hold of the leaders of the Democratic Party. It runs them in the Hamptons, it orders them in Manhattan, it cripples them in Congress, it commands them in California.
The tragedy of this fear is that it prevents them from seeing what is actually required to stop fear. The Dems are not actually protecting themselves, or their party, against risk. They are protecting against the feeling of risk. This is the same feeling that audience-proofs a show, with similar results.
That’s because there is a difference between actual risk, and the feeling of risk. The economists tell us humans are rational creatures. But to use Uncle Joe’s favorite word, this is malarkey. When it comes to preserving our own lives, we do not act rationally. Why are so many of us are afraid of airplane flights, but ride in cars without a care in the world? You have a one in 103 chance of dying in a vehicle crash, and a one in five million chance of dying in a plane crash. We fear dying in terrorist attacks (likelihood: one in 30.1 million), but eat without thinking (likelihood of choking to death: 1 in 2,696). Even with our most precious commodity, we’re terrible at calculating sensible risks.
This is because we prefer to avoid the feeling of risk. Air travel is great at minimizing actual risk—and, unfortunately, creating the feeling of risk. That’s why we avoid the feeling of risk at the cost of creating more actual risk. We will literally get in a rolling death wagon to avoid the relatively safe flying machine. We’ll do anything to avoid the negative emotion. Even if it leads us to greater peril.
This is why Joseph Biden is so unique. The Dems want a nominee that the GOP and white dude moderates and the press won’t critique, and folks, that will never, ever happen. The Dem leaders are having a nervous breakdown, and Biden is the best symbol of their anxiety. The actual, proven risks of Biden are huge, since he is the living, breathing embodiment of everything the base loathes. He is the symptomatic, incarnated, gaffe-prone form of everything that Dems are trying to overcome. In every way, he’s a candidate ill-suited for the times. Despite being famous for riding trains, Biden is the car of Democratic risk: the dangerous choice that seems safer than flying.
The safe choice would be a popular, progressive politician, like Bernie or Warren; or even a slightly center-left corporate cop like Harris, who looks and sounds like the Democratic Party of 2019. Bernie, Warren, and the other slightly progressive centrists are the airplanes. They are the Broadway shows you know will hit it big, even if the critics will be against them.
You are not safer with Biden then you are with Bernie, or Warren, or Harris, or Buttgieg, or insert fifth Dem name here. Biden is the smoking which will kill you, even as it calms your nerves. Biden is the opioid overdose (fatality likelihood: 1 in 96), the fall (1 in 114), the motorcycle accident (1 in 858).
Politics, to put it mildly, is not a rational endeavor. But even as an anxiety-quencher in an Age of Fear, Candidate Biden does not make sense. In what universe do this man and this moment meet? Is this what the times are crying out for? The Senator from MBNA? The Distinguished Gentleman from the state of #MeToo? There’s a rich strain of dark irony here. The man who’s probably most responsible for student debt, the man who mocks Millennials at every turn—that’s your guy to win back Bernie’s demographic? Really? The base just sent record numbers of women to Congress. And Biden is your reply? How do you not see contempt in that choice?
Trump broke the brain of the Dem leadership in 2016. I understand their trembling. A second Trump term is an existential threat. There are obvious ways to deal with this fear: give the public what they want. Become the party of the working class again. Defend the rights of women. Embrace the young. Fight for a multicultural America. Stop the wars.
“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” said Lincoln, “By what means shall we fortify against it?” Simple. We take our fears seriously, and we see them for what they are. The choice that feels risky is actually the most logical, sound, non-insane option.
I get it. Warren and Sanders don’t feel safe. But they’re much safer than Biden. Operating according to anxiety is like drinking vodka in a blizzard storm: you’re going to feel warmer while the frost is claiming your bones. Trump (of all people) has taught us the value of looking truth in the face. In life, there are no sure things. But there are safe bets, on land or sea. And here’s one: if the Democratic Party nominates Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., they will lose. Play it safe, shame your fears, and change the world.