On the Saturday before last week’s Iowa caucus, Joe Biden was approached by a voter who remained undecided a few days ahead of the contest.
Having initially leaned toward Elizabeth Warren, the woman told Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi that she entered into the exchange earnestly and in good faith — entirely open to the possibility of being convinced by the former vice president. Needless to say, his response — reportedly some version of “If I haven’t convinced you yet, I’m not going to” — didn’t inspire her to caucus for Biden last Monday. Many others who might once have been open to that possibility seem to have ultimately come to a similar conclusion. Though the final results are yet to be confirmed, the nominal front-runner for the Democratic nomination very likely finished a distant fourth in Iowa with less than 14 percent of the popular vote.
The incident reflected a wider pattern of needlessly testy exchanges between Biden and ordinary voters. On the campaign trail the former vice president has cut an unbearably awkward figure, regularly getting loud and physical at town halls and other events when challenged.
“You’re a damn liar, man,” a visibly irate Biden told an eighty-four-year-old retired farmer in December when asked about his age and his son’s business activities in Ukraine (shortly afterward, Biden would challenge the man to a push-up competition and suggest that they both take an IQ test). Earlier this week, he responded to a question about his apparently poor performance in the Iowa caucus by calling the questioner — twenty-one-year-old Georgia college student Madison Moore — a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” and dismissively asking if she’d ever participated in a caucus.
Suffice it to say, tense exchanges such as these — which Biden’s team has rather absurdly tried to spin in his favor — are a bizarre feature of a campaign whose entire pitch revolves around the candidate’s supposedly ecumenical appeal to broad swathes of voters. Even stranger is Biden’s by now well-established habit of telling the very people whose support he’s ostensibly trying to court that they should take a hike and take their votes elsewhere.
Last month, he was approached by former Iowa state representative Ed Fallon, who told him, “We’ve got to stop building and replacing these pipelines.” “You oughta go vote for someone else,” Biden responded while poking Fallon’s chest. The exchange continued, with Fallon suggesting he would vote for Biden if he ultimately became the Democratic nominee. “I’m running for a primary, a caucus, that’s what I’m running for, okay?” replied Biden. “Now, you believe that Bernie can do something and by 2030?” (Fallon, as it turned out, was actually supporting Tom Steyer.)
Adding to his tally in December, Biden retorted, “If you looked at my record and still doubt about my commitment, go vote for somebody else,” when asked by an activist from the Sunrise Movement about his appointment of Heather Zichal (who is said to have made over $1 million working for natural gas company Cheniere Energy) as an adviser on climate change. In October, he told another Sunrise activist to “Look at my record, child,” and in November, he told migrants’ rights activist Carlos Rojas to “vote for Trump” when confronted over the record number of deportations during the Obama administration.
Given the number of one-on-one exchanges that occur on the campaign trail, there’s no way of tallying the precise number of occasions Biden has explicitly instructed ordinary voters not to support him. As a basic matter of political practice, it’s wrongheaded for obvious reasons, and his awful showing in Iowa is a clear illustration as to why.
Being a Washington veteran rapidly approaching a half-century in public life, Biden’s behavior probably has roots in personal frustration. He is, after all, a former vice president currently facing an unexpectedly strong challenge in a race he likely assumed was his to lose. Having spent eight years basking in the protective shield of Barack Obama’s international celebrity, he has had to spend much of the past year grappling with pointed questions about his past votes and record, ultimately finding little support from anyone under the age of fifty. Anticipating success and popular deference, his campaign has instead been met with widespread suspicion and hostility from a culture that is hastily moving on from the centrist shibboleths and cultural conservatism that have largely characterized his long career in public life.
But as a would-be standard-bearer for America’s liberal establishment, Biden’s attitude is emblematic of something larger and more pervasive in the culture of the Democratic Party — defined by contempt for activism and progressive politics in general. Revealingly, Biden’s pattern of open hostility toward socially concerned and earnestly undecided voters alike sits in stark contrast with the posture he has assumed when speaking to the crowds of well-heeled donors who’ve been courted to fund his campaign. “I need you very badly,” Biden infamously pleaded to a hundred wealthy contributors at the Carlyle Hotel in New York’s Upper East Side last summer, before announcing that “No one’s standard of living would change. Nothing would fundamentally change” were he to be elected president.
Running parallel to his long-standing obsession with “reaching across the aisle” (i.e. preferring cooperation with Republicans to working with progressives), Biden’s deference to both wealth and institutional conservatism reflects the politics of the liberal mainstream since at least the Clinton era, with the Democratic Party having become an increasingly professionalized machine dominated by consultants, contemptuous of the needs and demands of large swathes of its own electoral base, and bent on the pursuit of technocratic elitism over activist governance. Undergirded by an affluent donor class, its leaders have long sought to manage rather than reflect the politics of progressive-minded voters while ultimately deferring to corporate interests and ideological priorities set by congressional Republicans.
His unique and often cringeworthy personal style aside, Biden is hardly the only Democrat in the race wedded to the corporatist style of Democratic politics. Indeed, other high-profile candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are also working overtime to throw it a life preserver amid the populist challenge being mounted by Bernie Sanders and the movement around him. When challenged by Sanders over his many contributions from billionaires at last week’s debate in New Hampshire, Buttigieg’s response was nothing short of Orwellian:
I will not pursue politics by telling people they can’t be at our side if they’re not with us 100 percent of the time. This is a time for addition, not rejection. For belonging, not exclusion.
Absurd as it may be, Buttigieg’s conception of a party that welcomes the exorbitantly rich with open arms is an entirely accurate reflection of the way centrist liberals view their coalition and the respective roles demanded of its various parts.
The obvious irony is that progressive voters and left-wing activists are frequently expected to swallow their beliefs and support whichever donor-vetted centrist the Democratic Party nominates. “Inclusion,” such as it is, is invariably a one-way street whereby those compelled to support America’s nominal left-of-center party are asked to enter into permanent coalition with billionaires and corporate oligarchs while their own priorities and interests are systematically excluded. Buttigieg, for his part, is now trying to cast the Sunrise Movement as a shady dark-money group even as newfound support from corporate executives attaches itself to his campaign. There is, it would seem, some room for rejection and exclusion after all — provided the right people are the ones being excluded.
If you sincerely care about the environment, poverty, corporate control of the American economy, or want a health care system that isn’t designed to bankrupt or kill you, centrist Democrats don’t want your support. Or rather, they want it to come exclusively on their own terms: accompanied by an attitude of absolute deference to big donors, party bigwigs, and the platitude-spewing cipher candidates they opt to elevate every election cycle.
Those who dislike this arrangement, after all, are more than welcome to go vote for Donald Trump in November.