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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Democratic Complacency Is Back

The election looks good for Biden but Democrats specialize in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In 2016, many Democrats were certain Donald Trump would lose. They pointed to polls showing Hillary Clinton five points ahead even in red states like Arizona. A buffoon, they thought, could not be president. The American people would never put Donald Trump in the White House. Some warned at the time this was wishful thinking, and without an appealing candidate or an ambitious agenda, Democrats would fail to inspire people to come to the polls. But Trump’s victory was simply unthinkable, so Democrats did not think about it.

I would have thought the central lesson from 2016 was: beware complacency. There is a tendency to tell yourself the story you wish were true, to selectively pay attention to the facts that support that story, and to ignore facts that contradict it. One will be biased by how things look from the Bubble: nobody I know supports Trump. It is critical that we guard ourselves against overconfidence, because there is no downside to doing so: in an election, you should assume you’re going to lose until you’re certain that you’ve won, because then you’ll be motivated to do everything you possibly can in order to ensure victory. It does not hurt to win by too much; it only strengthens your “mandate.” 

Yet there are troubling signs that some Democrats have not, in fact, learned the lesson. “Believe the Polls This Time,” wrote Democratic pollster (and architect of BP’s greenwashing rebrand campaign) Stanley Greenberg in the Atlantic. With polls showing Joe Biden five points ahead in Texas, the state was being declared “very winnable” and a “swing state,” the same kind of data that led Hillary Clinton to spend the leadup to Election Day campaigning in Arizona rather than Wisconsin. I am feeling a creeping sense of déjà vu.

Greenberg is a pollster, so his argument is primarily based on analyzing the polls. He admits that in 2016, he completely botched the analysis and succumbed to wishful thinking. But this time, he insists, is different. He has adjusted his polls to include more non-college-educated white people and is not overlooking the same things he overlooked last time. The changing demographics of his samples, he says, are “an elixir against being deceived again.” 

    Greenberg points to Hillary Clinton’s “worst blunder” in September of 2016, when she called many of Trump’s voters “a basket of deplorables.” “White working-class voters noticed the lack of respect,” Greenberg comments. Trump’s approval rating is only 41%, he adds, and the American people simply do not support Trump’s agenda. The most important factor is:

… the sustained, unwavering, and extremely well-documented opposition of the American people to every element of Donald Trump’s sexist, nativist, and racist vision… Trump’s raison d’être as a candidate and mission as president is to stop immigration… This president has created a country that is committed to defending its values. Just not his values.

    And while Greenberg acknowledges that “in the next four months, many things could put Biden’s current lead at risk,” he concludes: 

The lingering apprehension among Democrats fails to recognize just how much the political landscape has changed since 2016. We are looking at different polls, a different America, and different campaigns with different leaders.

Now, I do not doubt that Greenberg is right that Biden’s poll numbers are better than Hillary Clinton’s. Personally I used to think Biden had very little chance of beating Trump, but since then a pandemic has destroyed the American economy and the Trump administration has shown itself totally incapable of managing the crisis. Nearly 90 percent of people are dissatisfied with the direction the country is going. This changes things, and makes Trump far more vulnerable than he would have been in “normal” times. In the middle of such a disastrous failure by the president, you would think the opposition candidate would almost certainly win, unless the opposition party were just staggeringly incompetent and incapable of seizing the moment.

But that’s exactly what the Democrats are. In the American Prospect, David Dayen goes through Nancy Pelosi’s miserable record on coronavirus relief. Andrew Cuomo, the most prominent state-level Democrat during the crisis, has nothing to be proud of (his actions directly killed a man I knew and liked, which makes me personally despise him). Already, Pelosi is preparing people for a “compromise” on additional relief funding, and as Nathan Tankus has described the situation we face: 

Overall, Congress has adopted an incoherent policy mix which helps households and businesses limp along but hasn’t mobilized the economy to beat coronavirus or provision people while coronavirus continues. They haven’t adopted enough payroll protection to generate low levels of unemployment nor have they fully committed to a “households only” rescue plan which would necessarily involve greatly expanding health care coverage and regularized emergency direct cash payments to households… Establishing unemployment triggers for fiscal programs is an idea circulating among elite Democratic party economists (which is a good thing) but they appear to be dead in the water among Democratic congressional leadership. It is no exaggeration to say that life support for the U.S. economy is running out and the next few weeks are of critical importance to the lives of millions of people.

So there’s been little Democratic political leadership at a time when it’s of the utmost urgency, and while I am sure the American people are generally bitter about the situation they face, I am not sure how many people are confident that the Democrats care about solving things.

When I hear Greenberg say he has an “elixir” against being fooled again, alarm bells go off in my head. It sounds to me like “magic potion.” What troubles me is that Greenberg lists a bunch of facts that are favorable to Joe Biden beating Donald Trump. But if you’re going to do an honest analysis, you have to list the facts that aren’t as favorable. Here are a few that any serious person needs to consider:

  • Incumbents have a significant political advantage.
  • Donald Trump still has significantly more money to spend than Biden, even though Biden is gaining.
  • Biden is not very good at campaigning, and has a multi-decade reputation for fucking things up with damaging gaffes, while Trump has a powerful organizing apparatus working for him. 
  • On the issue of policing, Biden does not have the advantage that other Democrats might have, since he is literally personally responsible for the repressive carceral state, and Trump, despite a recent harsh anti-protest stance, also touts himself as a criminal justice reformer (Trump is not known for accuracy or consistency).  
  • Republicans will be ruthless in their effort to suppress the vote and disenfranchise people, because they do not care about democracy. (Trump is already pushing the idea that mail-in ballots are to be treated as fraudulent.) 
  • Trump is a very good propagandist and is flooding the airwaves with ads.

    I am not trying to be pessimistic here. I am not a pessimist by nature. What I am is extremely cautious, and because of the utter disaster that was 2016, I would encourage Democrats to take every possible step to avoid lapsing into complacency. Stan Greenberg says has taken steps to ensure that he is not fooled by the same things as he was in 2016. But what if there are different things to be fooled by this time around?

    How, you might wonder, could people not want to throw out Trump given what is happening around them? One reason is that Americans are incredibly poorly informed, and their lack of information makes it easy for politicians to sell them false stories. While I was out on a bike ride recently, I met a perfectly nice and intelligent 40-something year-old man who asked me what I thought of the whole situation. I gave some vague thoughts, and then he told me that he’d been reading a lot of interesting things lately in the the Epoch Times. You may have seen the Epoch Times advertised online: it’s a spectacularly well-funded right-wing newspaper that floods YouTube with offers of free trials. It’s staunchly pro-Trump and takes the position that Covid-19 is a conspiracy by the Chinese Communist Party to wreck America. Trump, it argues, is doing his best to keep the country together.

    The man I met had subscribed to the newspaper because it was free, and then claims he was impressed by the thoroughness of its analysis. So he believed the things it said, or at least he thought they were quite plausible. This man is not unusual. Around the country, when you meet people who are apolitical and do not really pay attention to the news, they are often not really sure what to make of the various narratives being pushed. Do not take it as a given that people will accept the story “Trump’s incompetence wrecked the country” over “Trump is doing his best to lead during a crisis that nobody could have predicted or stopped.”  

    I am not saying it’s likely that Trump will win. I’m saying it’s possible. Too many Democrats still think of Trump as completely incompetent, when the reality is quite different: he’s incompetent at governing, but he’s very competent at spinning and lying in ways that make it difficult to get to the truth. He is an absolute artist of bullshit. Do not underestimate his capacity to manipulate people. 

    We are in a completely unprecedented situation. So much could happen between now and November. I would hesitate to make any predictions about what the country will look like a few months from now. It’s true that the American people reject Trump’s “anti-immigrant” agenda, but because he’s Donald Trump, he may just bluster up a new agenda (and, if re-elected, continue his horrific anti-immigration policies). What if Biden comes across as feeble during the debates? What if Trump spins a tale about how he is trying to restore American greatness while struggling against the uselessness and incompetence of Congressional Democrats? What if by November things are looking up a bit on the coronavirus/economic front?

    The thing that concerns me most about Greenberg’s analysis is that it is not just a license for complacency (it speaks of “lingering apprehension” from progressives as if it’s irrational). It’s also a license for inaction. It seems to operate on the theory that Democrats do not need to have an agenda or a good candidate, or to actually lift a finger to get that person elected. What will determine the election is whether Trump implodes on his own. There is no real “call to action.” My worry here is that it will simply be assumed, as it was in 2016, that because the numbers look good, the numbers will keep looking good, and because Trump is unpopular, voters will turn up at the polls to throw him out. I do not intend to offer predictions, because I think the situation is too volatile to offer prophecy and anyone who does is irresponsible. But I would say that one of the most dangerous things Democrats could do right now is assume they’ve got this thing in the bag and that Joe Biden will coast to victory based on the weakness of the economy. It might happen that way. But what if it doesn’t? 

Update: I removed a link from this article to a tweet that seemed on further inspection like it might have been extremely dry sarcasm.

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