With his promises of bipartisan cooperation and his reported efforts to attract GOP donors, Biden’s campaign seems premised on the idea that only a reasonable, moderate man such as him — civil with Republicans and Democrats alike — can return a semblance of normalcy to Washington. He aims not just to invoke the Obama era, which surely felt like normalcy to a great swath of his potential voters, but also the politics of the 1970s and ’80s, when he was a senator. He’s a nostalgia broker, in other words, for a time when politics felt predictable and stable, and the men in Washington respected one another — as did, we’re meant to gather, their constituents.
Of course, normalcy is always a limited and specific sensation. Plenty of Americans certainly did not experience the ’70s and ’80s as halcyon days: The great era of Democratic-Republican consensus-building that Biden harks back to was built in part around the exclusion of black Americans, for instance. Nor were the Obama years, ensuing after the 2008 financial crisis, necessarily pleasant, socially or politically, for a significant number of people. (Remember Occupy Wall Street?) But putting aside whether getting back to that sort of normal would be desirable, it isn’t even possible. Biden’s campaign is premised on a promise he can’t keep: that the problems plaguing Washington are mainly aesthetic and can be reversed with the good attitude, deep experience and folksy charm of a man such as him.
But political polarization is a real, ongoing historical phenomenon in the United States, and it exists outside of Washington. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found, for instance, vast gaps between the political priorities of Republican and Democratic voters. “71% of Democratic voters say the way racial and ethnic minorities are treated by the criminal justice system is a very big problem for the country,” Pew’s report read, “compared with just 10% of Republican voters.” There were other major gulfs: Seventy-five percent of Republicans felt that illegal immigration is a major problem, while only 19 percent of Democrats said so, and Democrats were 61 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say the same of climate change.
Such deep disparities can’t feasibly be solved by better relations between particular politicians. They exist among voters themselves and are thus reflected in the antagonistic tactics of legislators and, lately, the president. As the Pew Research Center pointed out in a 2014 report, Americans are more divided along partisan lines now than they have been at any point in the past two decades, meaning, in Pew’s words: “92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” Pressing those widely varied medians back together may theoretically be possible, but it’s hard to see how a more genteel individual in the Oval Office could radically alter such a long-running trend unfolding on the ground among ordinary voters. After all, even the ever-equanimous Barack Obama remains the most polarizing president in recent history — though he may well be outdone by President Trump.
And what Trump has done, too, seems impossible to simply reverse. Whatever illusions Americans may have maintained about the inviolable dignity of the presidency and the knowing competency of the electorate writ large ought to be wiped out by now, similar to Richard M. Nixon’s effect on public trust in the government. And if Jimmy Carter, for all his moral rectitude, self-evident decency and gentle demeanor, couldn’t reverse the cynical trend in U.S. politics, then Biden, with his unctuous mien and tendency to say the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, doesn’t stand a chance.
None of which means there aren’t better days ahead: It just means that we likely won’t get there by pursuing the past. The normal of yesteryear wasn’t particularly pleasant for great numbers of Americans and is inaccessible to us now anyway, so why chase it? Biden’s campaign may promise a return to the ordinary, but that’s illusory; what’s possible is a different, better politics and political culture in the future. And there’s no message issuing from the Biden campaign about how to get there from here.