Former vice president Joe Biden speaks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on November 1, 2017 in Chicago. Scott Olson / Getty
It’s still early going, but the basic dynamic of the 2020 Democratic primaries seems to be set and is likely to crystallize in the weeks and months ahead. Faced with a restless party base and an insurgent Bernie Sanders candidacy that appears worryingly viable, party elites and donors will continue to look to anything — and anyone — they believe might push the reset button and restore a sense of normalcy.
Indeed, there’s good reason to believe that the upcoming primary contest will end up resembling the GOP’s chaotic and disorienting 2016 race, in which Republican elites scrambled to find the secret formula that could arrest Donald Trump’s momentum, cycling awkwardly through donor-friendly suits like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich before finally settling on the widely loathed (and spectacularly unsuccessful) Ted Cruz. (Most of those Republican elites then swiftly turned on a dime, becoming die-hard Trump loyalists.)
In similar fashion, Democratic power brokers and consultants have already auditioned several Anything But Bernie vehicles and are likely to test-drive a few more before the race is through. Even at this early stage, the primaries have become a kind of phony war in which an array of functionally indistinguishable establishment candidates compete to make the contest about something, anything, other than a decisive break with the political and economic status quo.
First out of the gate was Beto O’Rourke, fresh from his own unsuccessful Senate run against none other than Ted Cruz. Arriving to a chorus of effusive praise from pundits intent on proclaiming him The Most Exciting Candidate In A Generation, O’Rourke fast inherited the mantle of a Serious Contender, securing a high-profile interview with Oprah Winfrey in Times Square and becoming the subject of a breathless 8,500-word Vanity Fair cover story timed perfectly for his official campaign launch. Drawing on a familiar arsenal of political clichés and performing a painfully contrived rendering of what professional-class Gen-Xers think young people find cool, O’Rourke’s campaign thus far has been like an extended meditation on the true meaning of emptiness — with few policy positions to speak of and little of substance to say about what its leading man actually believes or where he intends to take the country.
Betomania, at least in its first incarnation, proved short-lived — arguably cresting shortly before O’Rourke’s official entry into the race and quickly being eclipsed by another dizzying media ascendency: that of Pete Buttigieg, a figure virtually no one had heard of mere months ago. Boasting an impeccable resume, boyishly unctuous grin, and no discernible agenda or program to speak of, the mayor of South Bend Indiana was suddenly everywhere. From magazine covers to clickbait documenting his dogs’ personalities and the candidate’s taste in various consumer products (with Amazon links embedded for good measure) the Buttigieg brand swiftly established itself as institutional liberalism’s flavor of the month.
Just like O’Rourke before him, the Democratic Party’s latest rising star has succeeded in generating tremendous media buzz despite articulating his beliefs and goals in only the vaguest and most abstract of terms. As Nathan Robinson points out, the Mayor Pete phenomenon has mostly been about Mayor Pete himself: his background, his temperament, and his credentials which, taken together, admittedly have strong brand potential.
You have a handful of candidates from the middle of the country, but very few of them are young. You have a handful of young candidates, but very few of them are executives. We have a handful of executives but none of them are veterans, and so it’s a question of: what alignment of attributes[my emphasis] do you want to have?
Given his brand potential (not to mention his reported presence at secretive meetings with donors and party elites plotting against Sanders) no one should count Mayor Pete out just yet. But for the moment, the long-anticipated return of another figure on the Democratic scene has somewhat cooled the media’s Buttigieg-induced delirium.
Unlike a failed Texas Senate candidate or the mayor of South Bend, a former vice president cannot claim even superficially to be an outsider. Joe Biden surely knows this and wouldn’t feel comfortable in the role anyway, which is why he isn’t even pretending to be something he’s not. His Washington is one of elite camaraderie and locker room fraternity far exceeding anything ever dreamt up by Aaron Sorkin: an ancien régime to be nurtured and preserved by way of endless handshakes and magnanimous compromises between fundamentally decent people, be they milquetoast liberals, militant conservatives, or literal former segregationists. As far as the official narrative is concerned, Biden boasts strong appeal with the real America of hard-working, blue-collar Joes — the sort who toil in the mines and factories by day and toast bipartisanship with Comcast executives at gold-plated fundraisers by night.
More accurately, Biden’s potential appeal is to a broad swath of voters who felt reasonably comfortable and secure during the Obama presidency and simply want to restore something resembling it. Far from being a hawkish, corporate sycophant and one of the principal architects of mass incarceration, their Biden is the one of early 2010s internet memes and late-night comedy fodder: an avuncular, slightly potty-mouthed but ultimately loveable good guy who wants things to get better in a non-threatening sort of way (perhaps to a lesser extent, he also appeals to some older or more conservative Democrats simply because he reflects their beliefs). Cashing in on Obama nostalgia — and presumably hoping his association with the still-popular former president will innoculate him against criticism — Biden has become the third figure to emerge from the party establishment’s ongoing Anything But Bernie cavalcade and he may not be the last (who’s ready for a Klobuchar breakout?).
From a pundit perspective, the Three Bs (Beto, Buttigieg, and Biden) appear disparate. For one thing, they all belong to different decades, the first two being forty-six and thirty-seven respectively and the former vice-president seventy-six. They’re all white men but hail from different regions and are said to have divergent appeals: Beto to the young (he skateboards, after all, just like Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock); Buttigieg to those who prize intelligence and sophistication (he’s read Joyce and is, like the very best among us, often called a “wonk”); Biden to erstwhile coal miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia whose love of faith, family, and flag is exceeded only by an insatiable hunger for means-tested tax credits and a fondness for soaring oratory about deficit reduction and the inherent nobility of the nation’s billionaires.
Jokes aside, that assessment is superficially correct. The Three Bs do indeed boast different sources of appeal, tick different demographic boxes, and will strike somewhat divergent cadences with their political messaging. Nonetheless, the candidacies of Beto, Buttigieg, and Biden all follow from roughly the same template.
Beto, Buttigieg, and Biden — their variations notwithstanding — are all different reflections of the same, largely postpolitical strand of liberalism, one that has so thoroughly acceded to the logic of neoliberal capital that it no longer recognizes the difference between campaigning and marketing and is stubbornly uninterested in having it explained.
That’s the unifying theme here, as the current trifecta of consultancy-hatched Anything But Bernie candidates auditions for the coveted role of National Savior™. Having given up on the idea of doing anything particularly transformative (not to mention embracing a donor class openly hostile to most or all meaningful versions of it), all that remains for centrist Democrats is to market aspiring leaders like brands to be consumed by potential buyers in the electoral bazaar. Not accidentally, this model of politics has increasingly drawn on a vast army of marketing executives, advertising professionals, and other technocrats who specialize in selling politicians the way Pepsi, Coke, and Frito-Lay periodically push exciting new twists on their classic flavors.
The recasting of politics as an exercise in marketing has a further corollary, namely the transfiguration of ordinary voters from complex people with material needs and political values into shallow market niches with buttons to be pushed and pleasure centers to be stimulated; from human citizens into consumers. The underlying assumption here, shared with the world of advertising and cloying sales pitches, is that all people want to see something about themselves represented in the products they purchase and consume. Envisioned this way, democratic politics fast becomes pure spectacle: a contest of broad personal narratives to be manufactured and affected by politicians qua brands campaigning on the basis of this or that reductive cultural taxonomy they supposedly embody — their own “alignment of attributes” to borrow Mayor Pete’s arid phraseology.
Taking the notion still further, Buttigieg has openly embraced a “storytelling first, policy details later” ethos premised on the idea that voters don’t actually want to hear much about policy at all, remarking recently: “The story that we tell, not just about government but about ourselves, and the story we tell people about themselves and how they fit in, really grounds our politics.” Here Buttigieg is at least partly correct. The average person probably doesn’t have the time or the inclination to study the mundane details of a politician’s agenda and every candidate must necessarily tell some kind of story. But the content of that story, and its grounding in something other than sand, ultimately matters a whole lot more than whether it ticks the correct boxes for pundits, party elites, and marketing gurus.
Sanders himself has a story, featured in every stump speech and similar to the one he’s been telling for decades. He is not the protagonist but merely a supporting character in a long-standing struggle against inequality and exploitation, fought between ordinary people and an entrenched class of political and economic elites — both Democrat and Republican — bent on preserving the status quo and its many injustices at all costs. It’s a story that has the virtue of being grounded in social and material reality and it includes both a tangible policy program and a plan of action for bringing it about.
The oft-cited dichotomy between policy and storytelling — the former substantive though esoteric, the latter compelling but shallow — is as much a mirage as the range of choice represented by the Three Bs: each one an utterly conventional, donor-friendly Democrat hostile to anything resembling meaningful change but still ubiquitous in a political and media environment intent on treating politicians as brands and voters as consumers.
As the phony war rages on, expect the focus groups at Liberalism, Inc. to serve up a few more flavors between now and New Hampshire — every one of them vanilla and caffeine-free.