The Iowa caucuses, the first electoral contest of the 2020 presidential election cycle, happen today, so it’s a good time to look at how the contest is shaping up, what we can expect from it—and what, if anything, to hope for.
I take as my starting point that none of the major candidates—from either party—will be a good president.
That ship sailed a while ago. There is no one whose judgment or declared policies on spending, entitlements, free markets, or foreign policy deserves positive support.
But we are not merely making a choice of the lesser evil. Both parties stand at an ideological crossroads, and this election will influence which direction they take. So we might look at the election more in terms of the likely impact different candidates (and ultimate outcomes) will have on the future ideological direction of American politics.
Speaking for myself, I find it strange to have a rooting interest in the Democratic primaries, and even stranger to have a rooting interest for Joe Biden, a man I have always regarded—and still regard—as something of a buffoon. It would take a very strange and unlikely set of circumstances to make him the most acceptable candidate for president.
Yet here we are.
On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic primaries are shaping up as a showdown between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Which means: a showdown between the moderate and radical wings of the party.
Biden already had a lock on the moderate track, and with the fading of Elizabeth Warren, Sanders is emerging as the leading candidate of the radicals. What’s more, there’s a good chance he could win the Iowa caucuses and follow up with a win in New Hampshire. But Biden is likely to sweep primaries across the South—he has a commanding lead in South Carolina—because black voters are now the conservative base of the Democratic party.
The prospect of President Bernie Sanders is what makes Biden an unexpectedly acceptable alternative. Biden has campaigned, not on transforming the American political system, but on returning it to normal. He has campaigned as someone who would seek results through persuasion and consensus.
Consider, by contrast, Bernie’s plans to govern by executive fiat, on the grounds that “we cannot accept delays from Congress.” His measures would include things like “a ban on the exportation of crude oil to combat climate change.” It sounds a lot like socialism mixed with radical environmentalism and carried out—as it always must be—by authoritarian means. Like the lady said, fascism with communist slogans.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden has campaigned by throwing cold water on this sort of thing and explaining to Democrats why “You can’t do it by executive order any more than Trump can do things when he says he can do it by executive order.” Similarly, he has warned that “if we can’t get a consensus, nothing happens except the abuse of power by the executive,” which he describes as if it were a bad thing–thank goodness.
So the direction represented by the two main Democratic candidates is pretty clear.
Biden seems more likely to win the Democratic nomination. Both he and Sanders are already well known to voters, and if you look at their long-term polling averages, you’ll see that while Democrats try out and discard other candidates, those two tend to move up and down within a well-established range: Bernie between 15 percent and 25 percent, Biden between 25 percent and 35 percent. That gives Biden a clear advantage—but not a big enough one to be overwhelming.
There is no such suspense on the Republican side. Donald Trump faces no big-name challenger, and the state parties have been cancelling primaries to prevent even the possibility of voters being allowed to choose an alternative. The impact on the Republican side will be seen, not in the primaries, but in the general election. A win for Trump would be a confirmation that tells the party to keep going in the ideological direction he represents: more nationalist, more nativist, more hostile to the free market, and resolutely anti-intellectual.
So let’s take a look at the possible results. I am not advocating for any one of these options, but I am advocating for an overall ideological result: less power to the illiberal nationalist conservatives and less power to the illiberal radicals on the left. The idea is to figure out which scenario is most conducive to this result.
There are four basic outcomes that are possible at the end of the Democratic primaries and the general election. Let’s take them in order from least desirable to most:
Really bad: Trump beats Biden. The worst outcome for all of us is that Democrats nominate their moderate candidate, Biden, who then loses to Trump in the general election. This would embolden Trump and the nationalist wing of the right, while also emboldening the radical left, who would say “we told you so” and argue for the nomination of a radical candidate in 2024. Truly, the worst of both worlds.
Pretty bad: Trump beats Sanders. The slightly better outcome is that Democrats nominate the radical socialist, Bernie, who then loses to Trump. Think what a debacle it would be if the democratic socialists charged full steam ahead to utopia, only to deliver four more years of Donald J. Trump.
In this case, the moderate Democrats would be the ones who got to say “I told you so” and start with the upper hand in 2024. But this result would still give Trump and the nationalists validation for the conceit that they are the only alternative to socialism.
Bad: Sanders beats Trump. It’s a close call, but I think the slightly better option might be that the Democrats nominate Bernie, who beats Trump. It could happen. Bernie’s weaknesses—his anger, his off-putting personality, his kooky pronouncements, his whiff of authoritarianism—are not all that different from Trump’s. And as for his contempt for capitalism and the free market, he would only be echoing the nationalist conservatives.
So what would happen if he wins? The radical left would not only win massive credibility in the Democratic party—and moderate Democrats would be expected to fall in line—but they would also be able to wield actual power.
The saving grace would be that it would probably not be enough power to get all that much of what they want. Probably.
Like Barack Obama after 2010, Bernie would probably be stuck doing all the stuff he thinks he can do by executive order, without being able to pass lasting legislation. And yes, I know I just used the word “probably” a whole bunch of times.
The real silver lining, in this scenario, is that the nationalist conservatives would suffer a catastrophic loss of credibility. Trump wouldn’t be the guy who saved America from socialism. He would be the guy who delivered America to socialism. The illiberal nationalists who have attached themselves to him would have to answer for this catastrophe.
Maybe I’m being optimistic, and instead the GOP would come up with a stab-in-the-back myth in which somehow a tiny, “irrelevant” fraction of NeverTrumpers are the ones really responsible for the disaster.
Maybe, like the Corbynites in the British Labour party, the GOP would just dig in deeper.
And of course President Bernie would be truly awful—so this is not exactly an optimistic scenario. But it would at least create an opportunity for one major political party to recover its sanity.
Not so bad: Biden beats Trump. This would be a massive validation for moderate Democrats, while it would also discredit the Trumpist right. It would make Donald Trump’s decision to risk his entire presidency in order to smear Biden look like an act of colossal foolishness. The “But He Fights” argument—which excuses any kind of misconduct, so long as it results in victory—would ring awfully hollow if it resulted in defeat.
And what about a Biden presidency? He would be foolish, poorly informed, and prone to gaffes and harebrained ideas that his advisors would scramble to walk back. In other words, he would be pretty much like the current incumbent.
But President Biden wouldn’t have a mandate for radical measures, and I don’t think we can expect him ever to have a cult-like following that regards him as the indispensable answer to all of the world’s problems. Which would make for a refreshing change from the past twelve years.
Meanwhile, in this scenario, Donald Trump would begin to look more like a temporary aberration and less like the vox populi, which would give the right an opportunity to mount some kind of intellectual recovery–if they could manage it. After the past four years, I have my doubts, but it would be nice if they at least gave it a shot.
These projections are not ironclad. I have laid out the balance of probability, but the only reason we’re having this discussion is because improbable events sometimes occur. It just adds to the drama this year that the worst and best scenarios above are also the two most likely scenarios. And they’re almost equally likely.
It seems odd for me to settle on the election of Joe Biden as the best outcome, but I’m trying to look for the option that does not involve hoping for the greatest destruction in the belief that somehow everything will bounce back immediately in the opposite direction.
A couple weeks ago I wrote a piece “Against the Sweet Meteor of Death.” The Sweet Meteor of Death—SMOD for short—is a running Twitter joke about hoping for an asteroid strike to end life on Earth so we won’t have to face another awful news cycle.
I’m trying to take an approach that’s the opposite of that. Call it #NeverSMOD.
In that spirit, I would also remind you that unlike some people, I have not given up on the contest of ideas. If our goal is to defend freedom and individualism, the presidential election contest is not our only hope, not by a long shot. We can game out which electoral outcome will help or hurt this cause, but the contest of ideas is much bigger and will continue whatever happens between now and November.