A lot can happen between now and next year’s election, but President Joe Biden’s decision to run and former President Donald Trump’s barely diminished standing with Republicans make a repeat of their 2020 contest quite likely. Pause for a moment to consider this prospect — and the epic failure it represents.
The Democrats’ best offer to the nation is a leader who’s 80 going on 90, who can’t safely be allowed off-script or put in front of reporters, whose grasp of policy and his own personal history was tenuous even in his prime, and who’s accused of involvement in his son’s peddling of influence.
The Republicans’ leading applicant for the world’s most important job is admittedly still a youngster at 76. On the other hand, he led an administration that set new standards of chaotic and incompetent government, encouraged a riotous assault on the U.S. Capitol, is the subject of several criminal and civil investigations, and is defending a lawsuit alleging he’s a rapist.
This extravaganza of unfitness is unsurprising, even rational, to people who follow U.S. politics closely. Everybody else — that is, a plurality of Americans, as well as the rest of the world — must wonder whether following U.S. politics closely drives you mad.
It’s less about madness, in fact, than systemic political failure. Biden’s candidacy does make sense; so does Trump’s. To be precise: They and their supporters aren’t behaving irrationally. They are acting within an electoral system that is incapable of dealing with the deep class and cultural divides of American society.
Both parties could bring forward candidates who’d be more popular with the general electorate than Biden or Trump. Why don’t they? Because those kinds of candidates don’t tend to be popular with people who vote in primaries. This more committed subset of voters favors candidates who mirror its own passionately held preferences. How the candidates will fare in the general election isn’t always front of mind.
At the moment, Trump has more support among Republicans than, say, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, even though DeSantis looks more likely to beat Biden in a general election. For now, at least, the party is on course to choose the candidate with the better chance of losing.
The Democratic case is more complicated, because Biden, as the incumbent, has always been the presumed nominee. If he stepped aside to allow an open competition for the succession, progressive champions such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders might have a better shot than moderates such as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo or former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (either of whom, I’m guessing, would win more general election votes than Biden or the progressive torch-bearers).
Even though about 70% of voters — and 51% of Democrats — don’t want Biden to run, he will likely do better in the general election than Warren or Sanders. So his choosing to run might in fact serve the interests of both the party and the public. But notice how: by foreclosing a system apt to choose somebody worse.
The defects of America’s system of primaries aren’t new. But America has changed in ways that make them more pernicious. The ideological distance between the parties has increased; the cultural distance has increased even more.
To be sure, this isn’t necessarily fatal for centrists and pragmatists. As loathing of the enemy increases, so does fear of the consequences of an enemy victory. In 2020 this helped Biden, who was able to present himself within the party as a centrist and unifier: The threat of Trump was scary enough to quell the party’s heightened distaste for compromise.
The problem lies one step back. The affective separation of the parties — so-called negative polarization — makes it harder for pragmatic compromisers to build support within their party and establish themselves as credible contenders. If you’re willing to do business with the evil-doers on the other side, you’re impaired from the start. It takes extraordinary political talent — think Barack Obama in 2008 — to appeal to both energetic partisans and the distracted, wavering middle. The angrier politics gets, the harder that kind of breakthrough becomes.
Improbable as it might seem, Biden might indeed be the Democrats’ best bet in 2024. His divisive record in office will make it harder for him to play the bridge-building centrist; on the other hand, most voters will find the prospect of a second Trump term even scarier than the first. The bottom line’s the same: If the choice is Biden versus Trump, American democracy is surely broken.
What will repairing it require? Things may have to get worse before they get better. The question is how much worse. In 2019, it was possible to imagine that a global pandemic causing more than 1 million deaths nationwide and colossal economic damage would have united Americans around a sense of urgent common purpose. In fact it divided them even more deeply — for and against lockdowns, for and against masks, for and against vaccine mandates, for and against expert authority.
If this still-worsening rupture can’t be mended, the outlook for U.S. peace and prosperity is grim. And a prerequisite for any kind of repair is political leaders willing to try. Where are they?
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics. Previously, he was deputy editor of the Economist and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.