Two Bad Choices: A Familiar Story

Why the Democrats can’t easily defeat the least popular president in modern American history.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Democratic National Convention (DNC) has concluded, and the Democratic Party has officially nominated 77-year-old Joe Biden for president. This nomination cements the choice for Americans for the second election in a row between two unpopular presidential candidates.

The theme of Biden’s DNC was unity. The basic pitch the Democrats made to the American people was that Donald Trump is a disunifying figure and that Biden could help unify Americans in this time of crisis. That pitch could win this election; a “Return to Normalcy” message could work during a pandemic and a recession. However, what many of the Democratic party members don’t realize is that many Americans weren’t satisfied with the pre-pandemic American status quo. They don’t want to go back to Obama politics where despite the slogan “Hope and Change,” nothing fundamentally changed for most Americans. Inequality has continued to increase, and people’s quality of life continues to stagnate. Obama brought only symbolic change and fooled some people into believing real progress has been made.

That’s the problem with a unity convention. For Republicans and Democrats to unify, they can only discuss the one area where they agree: Trump is bad and Biden is decent. Noticeably absent was any discussion of the ideological future of the Democratic party. The convention, and by extension the party at large, placed symbolism over substance, where nominating a woman of color for Vice President, while important, is considered good enough, without having to make material improvements to the lives of any women of color in this country. The Democratic Party is a coalition between left wing radicals with real policy proposals and a core party infrastructure that only stands for its own election. Once again, the empty establishment won out. The American people are stuck between two bad choices.

Most people understand this situation at some basic level. They are less satisfied with their side than ever and vote because they hate the other side. This is the second election in modern polling history during which both candidates have majority negative favorability ratings. The only other election during which that happened was in 2016. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of Republicans and a large minority of Democrats voted against the opposing candidate and not for their candidate in that election. This rise of negative partisanship also applies to whole parties, not just candidates. The American National Election Study asks political partisans every four years to score the opposing party on a scale of one to 100. The average political partisan scored the other side as a 55 in 1980. The average political partisan gave the opposing party a 23 in 2016. Paradoxically, the same people have a diminished view of their own parties as well. On a whole, Americans are dissatisfied with the entire political system.

This article doesn’t need to outline all the reasons why Trump isn’t qualified to continue to be president. For that, just open up the New York Times or CNN and read one of the many articles that make the case compellingly. Trump is old, unstable, racist, and someone who lacks any moral or ideological commitments. Biden is also a flawed candidate. The Democratic electorate decided not to nominate him twice when he was still fully lucid. He then ran again in 2019 and defeated three other septuagenarians to secure the nomination. Biden is also old and unstable, makes many strange comments, and, though he is a man of far superior moral fiber to Trump, has changed views on almost every issue. The Democrats needed to find someone with unassailable charisma, patriotism, and convictions. In a country of over 300 million, they nominated someone with none of these things.

Biden was nominated because he was “electable” and because much of the Democratic base was afraid that progressive radicalism wasn’t. He also maintained a sizable base of support that let him survive until Super Tuesday, when the other moderate candidate dropped out in coordinated fashion. Biden also faced a weak final field of candidates, each of whom had major problems themselves. The most qualified people with interesting ideas largely aren’t getting into and succeeding in the Democratic primary. A fundamental problem is that most people don’t vote in the primaries. It’s no wonder whoever wins isn’t popular when they weren’t picked by popular consensus in the first place.

We must get out of this cycle. Every election over the last few decades, the Republicans nominate some milquetoast corporatist or, even worse, an identitarian populist. The Democrats respond with their establishment pick, who makes vague promises about change and delivers symbolism. While the latter is better, both choices serve to prevent meaningful reforms to help the stagnating middle and lower classes. The answer is not simple, and a positive solution may not be allowed to occur. The Democrats should not mirror the direction of the Republican Party and nominate a left-wing intersectionalist demagogue or someone who makes false promises and stokes class or racial hatred. We must demand reforms to the primary system. After his loss in 2016, Bernie Sanders and his supporters demanded the reduction of the power of the undemocratic superdelegates, and the party capitulated even though it directly undercut their power. Democratic voters must push for the introduction of ranked choice voting. Though this small change may not seem like it would have a big effect, ranked choice voting would allow primary voters to select the candidate who is the most popular, even if he or she isn’t the largest minority of people’s number one choice. A voter doesn’t have to worry about their vote not counting, because if the candidate they vote for is eliminated, their vote goes to the next ranked person on their ballot. This would help elevate candidates with novel ideas who people are afraid wouldn’t be electable. The next step, which would be even harder, is the replacement of the entire primary and general election system. This would effectively end the American quandary of two bad candidates and allow Americans to choose from a plethora of choices, free from concerns about electability.

However, this option, while preferable, may not be allowed to occur or may take too long. A third party candidacy could be a possible solution. A proposal like this was proposed by what Bret Weinstein called the Unity 2020 plan, in which two candidates, one from the left and the right, both anti-establishment and pro-change, would run and govern together. A plan like this, while admirably idealistic, is unlikely to succeed. Most people are too scared of the other side to join for radical change. Another way out is led by independent grassroots politicians who win lower offices through popular support and work to change the system from inside it. Unfortunately, many of these figures tend to rely heavily on identity politics and play a similar game that many on the right play with white identity. No solution is clean, easy, and likely, but the last thing we can do is become complacent and convince ourselves that this status quo is good. This isn’t a matter of taking a side and leaning into one ideology. We need to be against sides and ideology itself and create a system that allows for the most nuanced and non-violent discourse to occur.