Biden and Trump are shattering the records — previously held by Clinton and Trump — for unpopular top presidential candidates. Professional election gurus who thought Trump had become too unpopular now think he has a shot because Biden is just as unpopular.
Pollsters have the numbers to show that most people think these guys are too old, and most media outlets offer up their elderliness as a key explanation for their unpopularity. I’m not convinced.
If Biden or Trump were championing popular demands, I think the public would want them in office until their dying breaths. Of course, there are huge differences between Trump and Biden. But they are alike in their unpopularity, and they are both so unpopular that there have to be millions of people like me who consider them both terrible — not “equal,” not “similar,” just both terrible, the way that both movie previews and airplane food can both be terrible without having been “equated” with each other.
Nobody as unpopular as these two should be one of the only two boxes you get to choose between on a ballot. If one of the two big parties were to nominate someone popular, the other party would be forced to do the same. If neither can figure out how, or doesn’t consider it a priority given the unpopularity of the other party’s likely nominee, we’ll be stuck with a negative election: most people either not voting at all, or voting for the guy who’s not Trump or the guy who’s not Biden. That could result in fewer promises to break, but it won’t do anything to alleviate any suffering or solve any public policy disasters. And even such a lose-lose election will still suck up 80% of the funding and energy that could have gone into principled educational and activist campaigns over the next 12 months.
I think there’s a lot more than age bothering people. I think “too old” is necessarily shorthand for “not up to the job.” Clearly the vast majority of our elected officials are very far from up to the job, and one can easily blame stand-out disastrous officials’ ages — or at least answer “yes” when asked if they’re too old to do the job. It’s not as if people are cheering for what Biden and Trump have done but sorrowfully and regretfully concluding that they are just too old to continue with their good works. I haven’t seen any polls showing majority support for Biden’s or Trump’s performance on any of the tiny range of issues that pollsters poll about. It’s safe to assume that people are also unsatisfied on much of the wide range of topics omitted from most polls.
The age of elected officials is in the news because of the aging Senate as well. Is Mitch McConnell or Dianne Feinstein too old to be in the Senate? Most people would say yes, but there’s no big movement to chase them out. After all, they’re doing less damage now than they used to. Is Bernie Sanders too old to be in the Senate? Most people, I think, would say no — in part because he hasn’t been seen to be in the same condition Mitch McConnell is. “Age” is a fill-in for ability, and Sanders seems more able. But there’s no clear line between ability and approach, and Sanders is also seen to be supporting very popular positions.
The main problem with Biden and Trump is that they don’t do things that most people want done. And to some extent they’ve both promised to do so and then blatantly refused for four years. That will make anybody unpopular.
Here’s a partial list of promises from Biden’s 2020 campaign website and the 2020 Democratic Party platform that Biden campaigned on:
- Reduce military spending (dramatically increased instead),
- End drilling on federal lands (expanded instead),
- Stop separating immigrant families and instead compensate them (not done),
- Remove the cap on Social Security taxes exempting incomes over $160,000 (not done),
- Make community college free for two years (not done),
- Create the healthcare “public option” and lower the age for Medicare (instead Medicare keeps being privatized),
- Provide paid sick and family leave (not done, even for railway workers whose threatened strike was outlawed),
- Provide high-quality, universal pre-kindergarten for all three- and four-year-olds (not done),
- Provide Section 8 housing vouchers to every eligible family so that no one has to pay more than 30% of their income for rental housing (not done),
- Make a $2 trillion investment in clean energy (way beyond what was included in the “Inflation Reduction Act”),
- Provide every city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation (not even mentioned since the election),
- Introduce a constitutional amendment to entirely eliminate private dollars from our federal elections. . . . Enact legislation to provide voluntary matching public funds for federal candidates receiving small dollar donations. . . . Restrict SuperPACs. . . . End dark money groups. . . . Ban corporate PAC contributions to candidates, and prohibit lobbyist contributions to those who they lobby (unheard of since the campaign; these are words from the 2020 campaign website),
- Create automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, early voting, universal vote-from-home and vote-by-mail options, and an election day holiday (only feebly attempted),
- Heavily tax billionaires and corporations (attempted in minor ways, but the pretense that it’s been done hurts efforts to do it going forward).
- End U.S. participation in the brutal Saudi war on Yemen (not done),
- Treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah state (instead, the president famously fist-bumped the Crown Prince, continued the war on Yemen, and is still pursuing ever closer ties with Saudi Arabia).
Of course failure to do any of those things may strike you as of little concern in comparison with fending off the fascist threat of Trump. Isn’t it important to have a president who breaks all his promises but says things against racism, rather than empowering the Nazi buffoon prince to abolish “democracy”? Well, obviously, yes.
But, also, obviously, no. If we don’t have a dramatic and immediate reversal of policies on climate or on nuclear weapons, it is highly likely that nothing else will matter for very long at all.
So, again, obviously yes, those precious remaining moments will matter even more and should be made as good as they can be. But should it be my responsibility to gag back my nausea and support a deservedly unpopular candidate? Or should it be the responsibility of political parties to nominate candidates whom the public doesn’t find to lie somewhere between uninspiring and revolting?