As Joe Biden takes over the role played by Hillary Clinton four years ago, the Democrats and the media, encouraged by polls that show him handily beating Trump, join the remake. But Trump hasn’t lost yet.
The US presidential election is nearly a year and a half away, which of course means the campaign has already started. Most of the media have profited significantly from Donald Trump’s presidency thanks to the reality-TV star’s ability to create startling news and eye-grabbing tweets on a regular basis.
In reaction to a provocateur, the media, according to their political predispositions, had a choice about how to handle the windfall: cheer Trump’s chutzpah (Fox News) or play the role of shocked observer and critic of his abuse of power (CNN, MSNBC and other networks). Although President Trump is good for their nightly ratings, most of the corporate media sincerely regretted The Donald’s election due to their preference for economic and political stability. They perceive Trump’s volatility as a real risk to the continuity of the system of which they have become the official voice.
Accordingly the mainstream liberal media, comfortable with their quasi-monopolistic privilege of collectively owning the airwaves and cable slots, have somewhat predictably turned former Vice President Joe Biden’s candidacy into a march toward coronation, much as they did with Hillary Clinton in 2015 and 2016. Having served under the Obama administration, Biden is the only clear brand among the candidates, with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, whose use-by date may have expired.
Writing for The Atlantic, Jemele Hill analyzes the significance of Biden’s candidacy and surprisingly sees it as the result of Trump’s maneuvering. “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.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Lower the bar:
Follow the logic of politics in a modern democracy by reducing all political issues to their lowest common denominator, which generally means evacuating all meaning from those issues
Hill offers a definition of the lowest common denominator: “The nominee just has to beat Trump.” Rather than seeking to address the very real problems of a nation that looks and feels like a fading empire riddled by social problems that include a pandemic of opioid addiction and a rapid increase in homelessness, the Democratic establishment is focusing on the mathematics of voting, as they have consistently done in the recent past.
Trump’s election in 2016 had the effect of dividing the US political spectrum not into two, but ultimately into three political segments from a psychocultural point of view. This poses an existential problem in a democracy that has become accustomed to seeing politics as a choice between two distinct rivals representing — at least superficially — two contrasting visions of the nation and the economy. The main advantage of a binary system is that whoever wins can claim to represent the majority, despite being contradicted by the fact that barely 50% of the population participates in any given election. Moreover, concerning the presidency, the electoral college systems permits the election of a president whose rival received a majority of the popular vote. That has happened twice since the year 2000.
The main drawback of such a permanently binary situation is system sclerosis. It produces a code of conduct for elected officials that has little to do with the spirit of the law, moral principles, a serious political vocation or even patriotic ideals, and everything to do with the pragmatics of getting elected and funding the next campaign. To some, sclerosis seems like stability, especially when they are convinced of the existence of an existential threat, such as terrorism or (astoundingly) Russia. For the Democrats, Biden represents the sclerotic ideal.
The three psychocultural segments that now coexist in a form of mutually suspicious rivalry do not correspond to classic sociological criteria, though generational differences are beginning to play a major role.
The first category could be called “self-satisfied mainstream.” It includes establishment Democrats and Republicans and has appeal across all generations. It prefers not to question any existing institutions and to respect the business and financial hierarchy. It seeks to get on with its life and work while pursuing its favorite distractions, the most prominent of which are still television and sports.
The second segment also cuts across generations but is growing among the young: we can call them “concerned and impatient.” Their impatience stems from their perception that the issues they have taken an interest in — the fate of the planet, inequality and, to some extent, foreign policy — have been systematically neglected by the political class.
The third segment is the hardest to define even though it has always existed. It spans libertarianism, anarchism, white supremacy and various forms of radicalism, including Antifa (deemed to be leftwing), but also includes something totally apolitical: deep narcissism and alienation bordering on autism. It thrives on anti-intellectualism. It has always remained outside of politics and obviously represents no significant political force. But its cultural impact has become significant. We might call them collectively the new nihilists, except that nihilists traditionally focused on actively creating political chaos.
The first segment will vote for a Joe Biden or a Jeb Bush, even a Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. The second category will line up behind Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The third segment, even when it doesn’t vote, can help create an atmosphere favorable to a Donald Trump or another outlandish authoritarian leader.
The United States has always been culturally disunited. This has created a need for factors that create an illusion of unity. The first is the flag, a symbol of unity that brings with it cultural artifacts such as the national anthem (a song entirely about the flag) and the pledge of allegiance to the flag, which begins every student’s day at school in an act of feudal fealty. The flag also draws into its gravitational sphere the concept of the military, as a community of heroes defending the flag, whose offensive actions against other nations and peoples, however aggressive and historically unjustified, are systematically believed to be defensive. And the military includes the growing surveillance of the intelligence service believed to have the mission of protecting the unity of the nation.
The second political principle is the sclerotic two-party system. For at least a century, it has channeled the chaotic diversity of ideas and opinions into two slightly different but largely compatible directions: toward the Republicans or the Democrats. Unlike other nations with two dominant parties, Americans identify themselves at an existential level as Democrat or Republican. In terms of voter registration, independents constitute the majority, but they too accept the cultural division of society into what they regard as two legitimate “philosophical” categories, which have the unifying merit of excluding all others as illegitimate.
Throughout the 20th century, the binary party system kept the overwhelming majority of the population within the establishment’s stable cultural framework. Trump’s election provided proof that the established majority — including Democrats, Republicans and independents — has been severely weakened as the basis of the nation’s cultural identity. The emergence of the concerned and impatient alongside the new nihilists has radically changed the dynamics of party politics.
George W. Bush (the “war president”) and Barack Obama (promising “hope and change” that never took place) contributed, for contrasting reasons, to the trend that has weakened the traditional parties and undermined the trust people are expected to have in the personalities that proclaim themselves as unifiers. Like Britain today, struggling not to elect but to imagine its next leader, the US, in its sedulous pursuit of the lowest common denominator, has gutted its own political institutions and turned elections into hyperreal theater.
Now, the curtain is drawn and the actors are on the stage. Enjoy the spectacle.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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