Joe Biden speaking on March 2, 2020, the day before Super Tuesday primaries.
* if you’re reading this on a phone, you won’t be able to play the videos, which only play on a computer, although you can follow the links.
The Super Tuesday primary week in US politics saw a consolidating effort by the center-right power-brokers of the Democratic party establishment and its sugar-daddies, plus the corporate media, to create a renewed narrative casting Joe Biden as the inevitable democratic nominee for president at this dangerous moment in the country’s history.
And if there’s one thing that this election (as well as the last one) has shown us, it’s that such narratives are almost everything in assuring mass support in an era of an “electability” discourse with pretenses to objectivity and factuality. Polls can, for example, show Bernie beating Trump by wider margins than Biden, but the electability narrative peddled by the corporate media will ignore such details in their narrative about Biden’s electibility.
It is no small irony that these largely fictional narratives determine success in a country that has been massively anti-humanities for decades. It might turn out to be the case that the college degree derided as most useless in the last few decades (an english or literature major, second only to the ridiculed art history degree) is the most useful one to have in shaping political outcomes in this country. For example, the current narrative is that Elizabeth Warren “effectively drove former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, a centrist bilionaire, out of the race” through her warranted attacks on him during the debates. But aside from the fact that this narrative overlooks the power of the viral video produced just before the debate by podcaster Benjamin Dixon, which had a big effect by publicly exposing Bloomberg’s rabid racism and forcing cable media to address it, this Warren narrative – repeated by centrist and center-right newspapers and cable media – completely obscures the fact that Bloomberg’s subsequent loss of traction and withdrawal from the race set in motion the re-direction of his mega-wealth, through a super-pac, to Biden. This means, in effect, that Bloomberg may be able to buy himself a presidency by proxy, one that will protect his own interests and those of his fellow 540 US billionnaires by further entrenching the corporate control of American politics and producing Biden as a candidate (if that occurs) deeply indebted to corporate power. That is a profoundly important narrative that needs to be told, and it’s a narrative that corporate media (cable and print) cannot begin to wrap its mind around.
Some progressive everyday folks are, though, beginning to question who will be pulling the strings behind a second potential president in cognitive decline.
Fortunately, in spite of the constant smearing he’s received on cable shows and newspapers, there’s no need to rule out a possible Bernie Sanders delegate win just yet, especially if Warren’s withdrawal results in a progressive endorsement. But what is most astonishing in all of this is not the tossing around of electability and inevitablility narratives in a country where people have been actively schooled that structural change is impossible and that efforts toward it will destroy the country. What is most astonishing is that this time the narrative is being accorded to someone who is clearly in a state of serious cognitive decline. American centrists seem to be just fine with electing someone showing signs of dementia that have been worsening at a steady clip throughout the campaign. The comparison to videos of Biden in 2016 show a stunning and tragic decline.
As Ryan Grim pointed out on twitter on March 4th, Biden’s supporters seem to be fully aware of Biden’s cognitive problems, and are still willing to support him.
In fact, the attraction to centrists of Biden’s nostalgia narrative of a so-called return to normalcy and decency seems to engender their willingness to normalize signs of dementia in a presidential candidate. The narrative is so powerful to them that they are willing to risk the loss of the election to Trump by someone who is not only in mental decline, but so far mainly supported in the very conservative states that Trump won the last time he ran against a centrist and will likely win again come November, regardless of who runs against him.
It was, in fact, that very “normalcy” that was the arc that led to Trump’s election – globalized thug capitalism, the outrageous consolidation of wealth at the top, stagnant salaries since the 1960s, etc. – all unaddressed by either party. One can understand the nostalgia of the top 5% of the Democratic party for those good old days. But just why is it that huge swaths of Democratic centrists in the 95% are willing to elect a mentally incompetent president, particularly after railing for years about Trump’s evident loss of cognitive ability?
The answer may be that Democratic centrists in the 95% have long accepted, whether consciously or not, the paternalistic determination of their lives by party machinery – by politicians long bought by lobbyists, corporations, and oligarchs, and by the Democratic National Committee that enables this commerce.
Centrists in the 95% seem to now project onto that political conglomeration their desires for a return to “normalcy.” This seems to be why they are not fazed by Biden’s precipitious mental decline. They’re willing to trade one figurehead for another, because self-consciously, or not, they know that the strings have been pulled from behind for a very long time, and with a candidate like Biden it will continue with the system in place. All that they seem to require is a switch of parties.
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, there is a kind of mass comfort in acquiescing to corrupt power at the top:
In a recent Tony Kushner translation of Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” there is an eye-opening line in which Courage says something like “The people like it when the leaders of a war engage in profiteering; they know their investment means there’s a good chance of victory.” So a mass identification with exploitative greed at the top contains a kernel of pleasure in it, and the left would do well to understand that articulating truths often does no more than reinforce these identifications.
Silvia Kolbowski in Between Artists, A conversation Between Silvia Kolbowski and Walid Raad
The dangers of a Biden nomination are legion: dementia – primarily, but also a history of calling for entitlement cuts, support of disastrous trade deals that sacrificed jobs for consolidated wealth, lack of political acumen in regards to his son’s opportunistic financial dealings, corporate cronyism, a history of plagiarism and lying, etc. It will be impossible for Biden to counter Trump’s dirty dealings during debates. Cognitive decline? Check. Lying? Check. Cronyism? Check. Nepotism? Check. Threats to entitlements? Check. But given the logic behind Biden’s support by centrists of the 95% (those at the top need no argument at all), it is hard to convince them of the dangers of a Biden nomination by relying on an argument about Biden’s countless weakness. Because what may appear as illogic to those of us who seek to point out these dire weaknesses through factual discourse, may actually have a powerfully logical appeal to the psyche that we cannot hope to change with reason alone. The psychical centrist logic is: The Democratic president’s dementia won’t matter because our party is powerful and will take care of things somehow; we know that strings are being pulled, and will be pulled behind the puppet when he wins, but the party’s connection to corporate power and oligarchs reassures us because we know that those in power will keep the system from failing completely.
Combine the cynical calculations made by the DNC machine to support the candidate of the status quo with centrist logic, and you have the perfect storm. This is particularly so since electoral politics rarely take the psyche into account, unless it is done intuitively by a politician. For example, a politician like Trump.
Progressives need to understand the role of the psyche in politics and become more savvy about breaking that identification. And it will begin with language.