2020 Primary: Plus ça change…

I tried watching one of the Democratic Primary Debates, some months ago. It was basically unwatchable.

It’s just deeply awkward and unpleasant, for one thing; not only does it seem much like the collision of noises in a typical ESPN yelling-heads show, it’s worse because in theory the presidential debate is consequential and it certainly imposes this debasement on some genuinely intelligent people.

In a bigger sense, it’s hard to keep watching when it’s fairly obvious, before the debate even begins, that it’s basically a ritualized, desperate waving around of American culture’s absurd decay. The set design would have seemed like a grotesque parody if you showed it to someone a few decades ago. As visual metaphor for a culture trapped in rituals which no longer function, yet so hollow it can manage no response except to tart them up with ever more neon and mirrors, it would be rather hamfisted. Except this is what passes for reality. This reduction of national dialogue to a ridiculous game show, in both function and form, is not critical art but a miserable cynic’s disgusted counsel of despair.

lol, says the debate format, nothing anyone does matters just give up.

The debate content and the larger primary provided a lot of support for that counsel, and some interesting but very limited exceptions to it.

As of this writing, the 2020 Democratic Party nominee for president appears likely to be a former vice president, the same outcome as every time a former VP has sought the party’s nomination going back at least several decades. The last Democratic vice president who didn’t become the party’s nominee was Alben Barkley, nearly 70 years ago, and he abandoned his campaign rather than being rejected by primary voters.*

Every Democratic vice president between Barkley and Biden, and probably others going back much further, sought the party’s nomination and got it. Within this context, Biden’s likely extension of the streak seems to say that indeed, once he announced his candidacy, nothing did matter or was going to. The facts that his shortcomings are as great as they were in past failed attempts, and that he barely even had a campaign by many measures, seem not so much evidence that “We’re in a post-campaign era” as someone suggested, as evidence that all successful Democratic candidates for president determine future nominees years in advance, and it requires wildly extreme circumstances for their running mates to void that pre-selection.

As intriguing as are various larger aspects of this primary, that conclusion still seems inescapable if I’m being honest: if you want a woman nominee, or a progressive nominee, or a highly qualified nominee, or whatever, either get that person elected vice president, or else wait for an “open” year. Everything else seems, at most, of secondary importance.

Within the second tier features of this primary, the candidacy of Michael Bloomberg seems the most significant. Whether or not he could have succeeded in derailing a former vice president’s nomination, it’s significant and horrifying that a Republican supervillain got within reach of buying up the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

I have made this comment already, but I am going to keep reemphasizing it, even as I keep acknowledging how many people have memoryholed the entire Bloomberg campaign. It really happened. The way in which Bloomberg has shamelessly walked away from his alleged all-the-way-to-November-win-or-lose campaign since Super Tuesday just underscores the horrible record he already had, yet he managed to scoop up an alarming amount of support among both rank-and-file and party elites.

That Elizabeth Warren was able to use a TV debate to draw attention to Bloomberg’s horrible record, so effectively as to throw his polling rise into reverse, doesn’t really amount to a system working. It was a heroic effort, but it’s difficult to feel confident that it was guaranteed to succeed, or that some other intervention was guaranteed to succeed had Warren not been there on that stage.

By contrast, Bloomberg’s success at simply buying a popular narrative seems much more reliably replicable. It didn’t seem to matter that his TV and other ads were demonstrably bullshit; the slick message reached voters in a way that contrary facts did not, until one competing candidate both chose to go for broke, and succeeded.

In combination with things like the seemingly very effective erasure of Warren from contention by media coverage, as well as the way in which Donald Trump has repeatedly benefited from fantasy media narratives, the power of television is startling and truly horrifying. Even if the power of heir-apparent status is still greater, in Democratic presidential primaries, actual general elections seem subject to an information infrastructure which can and does create pseudo-realities, which are nearly impossible to disrupt.

In this sense, yes, we might be described as “post-campaign.” Grassroots organizing seems like it just can’t compete with news headlines and TV chyrons, when it comes to reaching “the normies” who are decisive in big elections. Even spectacular grassroots fundraising seems like it can’t compete, either, unless maybe it’s super-spectacular and all spent on slick ads.

This is really, really, really, really, really bad. For humanity, but especially for any progressive agenda if one makes a distinction. So much of progressive politics is institutionally committed to a grassroots organizing model, in which change is accomplished and elections are won by knocking more doors, making more calls, sending more texts, taking more peer-to-peer actions of one sort or another. In down-ballot races, I think that this has significant validity, just because there’s so little media narrative at all specific to those races. But the bigger races—and many people’s bigger beliefs about what’s possible—seem to be driven a lot more by media narrative. Progressive politics is perhaps not ideally suited to address that reality, but it seems right now like there is little infrastructure or culture even acknowledging the challenge. It seems likely that there won’t be, any time soon, either.

Beyond this, there are of course other interesting features.

In terms of winning a Democratic presidential nomination, I think there’s validity to the observation someone made after Bernie Sanders’s campaign in 2016, to the effect that an explicitly leftist candidate can the black primary vote (as Jesse Jackson did) or the white primary vote (as Sanders did) but has yet to win both at the same time. This primary also should teach realists to disregard the eternal speculation about a “brokered convention,” generally, and to forget about a progressive candidate winning the nomination at such a convention, in particular. Two presidential election cycles in a row, now, what we might call the DNC Democrats have proved willing to sacrifice personal ambitions to clear the decks for their own frontrunner. What’s more, it’s questionable whether or not the progressive wing can overcome that even if it responded in kind.

Meanwhile, in what might be considered one of the relatively benign ways in which presidential primaries have become spectacles with function widely separated from their putative purpose, running a presidential campaign can create value without winning, even beyond the value of any campaign.

In this regard, the Democratic primary is arguably more wide-open than ever. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was able to become a top-tier candidate for several months. Of Republican supervillain Bloomberg, enough has already been said in this post. This primary also, even more bizarrely, featured two teenagers with a Twitter account getting a long-retired fringe political figure essentially qualified for that volatile television spotlight, but for the shifting debate rules of the DNC. (Should I mention Marianne Williamson? I guess so, as long as I make explicit that the expansive potential for randos to run for president and get traction is by no means an entirely awesome thing.)

Compared with Mike Gravel, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign was much more conventional in most ways. I would like to think that her accomplishments are, at least, more consequential. As a first-time candidate, she got into the top tier and hung on, even after flavor-of-the-week support moved elsewhere. She eschewed big-donor fundraising, and still raised enough to fund coast to coast organizing. If she weren’t 70 years old, I would think that a future nomination is almost hers to lose.

As it is, I’m still proud of the Warren campaign, proud to be part of it, and hopeful for the projects which are emerging from it. Several years ago, Ezra Klein wrote an essay about why Elizabeth Warren should run for president. It has remained in my memory mostly because I referred back to it multiple times as a source for the characters which make up shruggie; oddly enough, that section of the essay may be the most important as well.

So you run and don’t win? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

You can accomplish positive things by doing so, nonetheless.

* As far as I can tell, Democratic presidential nominees who have been vice president, but haven’t succeeded to the presidency and been able to run as a sitting president e.g. Truman or Johnson, consistently lose the general election. So we’re probably going to be trying to break that historic streak this fall, along with all the other challenges to a Democratic victory.

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