Why America’s Losing Faith in the Democrats
What Biden’s Plummeting Approval Rating Really Means
Written by Umair Haque and published in Medium.com 8/31/2021
You don’t have to look very hard to see something troubling. Joe Biden’s approval ratings are beginning to plummet. They’ve fallen 16 percent since the beginning of the summer. That’s a tremendous decline. Just 46% of Americans now approve of the job Biden’s doing, while 55% disapprove.
This is a stunning reversal in political fortunes. Biden rode to power on a remarkable wave of goodwill, at least from the centre outwards. And while the question of “approval” is in a very real sense a reductive and foolish one, still, American politics is made of such folly. So: is Biden’s reversal of fortune a blip — or trend?
Let me begin on a note of caution. Biden’s fans are becoming something of a cult. They brook no criticism, and don’t want others to, either. They expect an atmosphere of relentless positivity, not free thinking and reason. This is going to be a critical essay, like most essays should be. It is not going to go easy on Biden. As much as I like the man, reality is what it is, and Biden’s approval ratings are indeed cratering. And so, even if his most ardent fans don’t want it to be, the question now urgently needs to be asked: why is America beginning to disapprove of Joe Biden?
Pundits will tell you that this is probably no mere blip. They’ll point to three key areas of disapproval. The disastrous exit from Afghanistan, which has humiliated America around the world. Yet another wave of Covid, surging across the nation, Red States again becoming some of the world’s hottest plague zones. And the economy, which, despite appearances, beyond headline statistics, is still a thing of daily strife and struggle for the vast majority of Americans, who are underpaid, overworked, exploited, demeaned, devalued, and made to feel (and end up being literally) worthless.
On the surface, those three answers are correct. Biden has misjudged these three crises. And yet the issues here cut much, much deeper than that. How deep? Existentially deep, for the Democrats.
The Democrats won the last election not because Joe Biden was Joe Biden. But because he wasn’t Donald Trump. There is a very big difference between those two things. The nation wasn’t particularly hungry for Joe Biden as much as it was disgusted by the fetid, rank taste in the mouth left after the fascism, corruption, and obscenity of the Trump years. Joe Biden pitched himself — smartly — as the anti-Trump: calm, competent, friendly, kind.
Through all that, the Dems managed something remarkable — at least for American politics. They cobbled together a coalition of the centre and the left. Of young and old. Of black and white and beyond. This was a true “big tent,” as the phrase goes. There was room, it seemed, for everyone who wanted to be in — even if tensions simmered once they stood awkwardly shoulder-to-shoulder under the canopy.
This was a remarkable feat because it very, very rarely happens in American politics. It’s business as usual in Europe and Canada — the centre and left are smart enough there to know that they must be united to defeat the right. Yet there “centre” and “left” mean different things, too, just as in America, right wing basically means “gun loving fascist,” or close enough to it. The Dems rode to power by pulling off, at least for American politics, a minor-league political miracle — they united the centre and left, who are usually at each others’ throats.
Usually, what happens in American politics is the opposite. If the Dems do make inroads, and win power, it’s by winning over the right. They tack right, as Clinton did, turning punitive and harsh, saluting free markets, and celebrating individualism and materialism. Uniting the centre and left is so rare in American politics that the Dems should be given credit for doing so.
But not too much credit. I don’t say that to be mean, just to be realistic. America — at least half of it or so — was literally ready to vote for anyone who wasn’t Trump. It’s a testament to how weak the Dems appeal really is that they didn’t do better at the last Presidential election, which wasn’t a landslide, even if it was a decisive victory. It wasn’t the sweeping rejection of fascism America needed, in just that way. A majority of white Americans still voted for Trump — that is how badly Biden is and was rejected.
If you grasp all that, then you should also see the following conclusion coming. For the Democrats to retain power — and that means both winning the House and another term for Biden — they have to keep on pulling off a political miracle in America. They need to keep their fragile coalition of centre and left, of young and old, of black and white, from shattering.
That’s no easy task. Because these two groups under the same big tent — center and left — have very, very different agendas. Often opposing ones. Ones that are in direct conflict with each other. And right about now, what is happening is that those differing agendas and visions of these two wings of the party are coming into direct conflict — and the Democrats’ fragile coalition is starting to splinter.
Let’s take the issue of Afghanistan. American leftists are giddy that the war is over. They celebrate the end of “imperialism” (which is wrong, because the Taliban is one of America’s imperial armies, one which spun out of control, but that’s a different topic.) But the centre is not so sure. They wonder about Biden’s competence. His backbone. His will and vision and purpose. Did it have to be this way, they ask? I’ll come back to that, in just a moment, in case it’s not clear.
Then there’s the economy. The centre seems alright, if not overjoyed, with the job Biden’s doing. They like the infrastructure plans and stimulus and all those big headline numbers that pop up often now. They are optimistic and excited by America investing in itself again.
But the left has been waiting for more — much, more. And it’s sharply disappointed that the Dems have caved on several key issues. They haven’t cancelled student debt. They haven’t raised the minimum wage — at least not fast or far enough. The left understands, too — at least the smarter elements in it — that those big headline numbers aren’t enough. Not to bring American investment levels to Canadian or European levels. That, comparatively, they lift American investment by a tiny 5% or so, if that — when it needs to rise by 25%.
Then there’s Covid. The left believes firmly in mask mandates and basic public safety measures. It goes further than that — and its more intelligent elements, again, believe that vaccines should be a true global public good, not a patent protected money-making scheme America defends at the WHO because billionaires stand to make even more. The centre, though, seems largely complacent. It seems resigned to the idea that Covid will go on forever, that everyone will need a booster shot, that it will be a bonanza for capitalism, that nothing much more can — or should — be done about it. The centre has little will to continue taking on Covid.
I could go on. The left wants bold, direct investment in “climate change” — sorry, I mean global warming — a Green New Deal. The centre is complacent and reluctant to kill the golden goose of the American economy, which is plastic junk and carbon emissions. And so forth.
What does all that mean, though? What does it say?
Something like this.
Fractures are beginning to crack through the Democrats’ fragile coalition. Ones which were there, from the very beginning — mere ripples, threatening to harden and widen into true fissures. Now all that is becoming very real.
The left is growing embittered and disillusioned on one side, and the centre on the other. More precisely, exactly what embitters and disillusions the left is what pleases and satisfies the center — and vice versa. Afghanistan — left, leave, center, not so sure. Climate — left, invest, center, don’t kill the golden goose. Economy — left, more, center, that’s enough, thanks. And so on.
The natural opposition between left and centre is arising again. It’s the issue which has bedevilled American politics from time immemorial. Yesteryear’s leftists were profoundly opposed to slavery and segregation — and the centrists shrugged, called it wrong, profited from it, and blithely let it all go on anyways. You see the problem. A divided left and centre are why America is such a backwards country — and a united centre and left are, by contrast, why Europe and Canada are able to make real progress, over and over again.
When what pleases one faction of the party is also exactly what angers and causes resentment and rage in the other, a political coalition is unlikely to be able to hold. That is the true challenge the Dems face — navigating this Scylla and Charybdis of American political waters. Few have been able to do it (and even more viciously, those few who have, like JFK and Lincoln, were killed as a reward for it.)
The Democrats’ nightmare scenario goes like this. Their coalition goes on fracturing, and finally splinters. At the next set of elections — Presidential and Congressional — an embittered, resentful left stays at home. That means young people and minorities, who don’t turn out. Meanwhile, some portion of the vast majority of American whites go back to their long-standing pattern — they vote Republican again, as they and their parents and grandparents always have. The right wins easily, and — hey presto — Trump’s back in office.
The Dems don’t know what hit them. Just like that — snap! — Joe Biden’s a one term President.
We’re not there yet, at the nightmare scenario. But we’re moving one step closer to it, day by day. The fragile Democratic coalition is fracturing. The natural tensions between left and centre are not being resolved. They are simmering into open conflict. Meanwhile, Biden’s much-vaunted competence is being called into question, which creates doubt among all those centrists, who want just want a polite, competent enough middle manager of a declining empire, not a man on a moral crusade to change the world.
The resentment and bitterness among the left is growing each and every day. And on those issues where the Dems please it — like the chaotic departure from Afghanistan — they manage to alienate and sow the seeds of doubt in everyone else.
In the end, it might not be possible to hold together a coalition as fragile as this. The American left is impatient, demoralized, and angry — while the American centre is craven, overcautious, compromise on anything and everything, from rescuing a dying planet to investing enough in the future, as long as they get their big TVs and SUVs and low, low taxes.
Many have tried walking this tightrope before. Few have succeeded. And like I said, those tiny, tiny few who did succeed? Well, they were killed for it, anyways. Those are the stakes, my friends.
My feeling? Biden has the toughest job in the world — and it’s only going to get harder from here.