The corona virus has struck us at a critical moment in our politics, and there is every reason to believe that it will exacerbate trends already in progress. It has drastically altered our national life at the very moment that Joe Biden's nomination as the Democratic candidate has become almost assured. We have a long way to go to November, but as things look to me now, Biden will probably defeat Donald Trump by a significant majority. That would put an end to a disastrous episode in American history--but it will not change the fundamental direction of the country or the outcome of the great crisis that may finally be nearing its end.
Donald Trump so dominates the news cycle, and so completely enjoys the abject devotion of the Republican Party in general and its Senate majority in particular, that we easily forget how unpopular he remained in the country even before the current crisis began. The current poll averages at realclearpolitics.com show him with 52% disapproval and 44% approval and they have never shown him with more than 50% approval. More to the point, a similar poll average shows Joe Biden leading him in trial heats by a full 6 percentage points, 50.7 to 44.4. (Bernie Sanders, by the way, leads by almost as much.) Biden, meanwhile, came out of nowhere after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary to demonstrate real enthusiasm among very broad segments of the Democratic Party--every segment, as it happens, except voters under 40, who did not vote in sufficiently large numbers to make a difference. (Age, by the way, trumped race: younger black voters, like their white contemporaries, favored Sanders in exit poll after exit poll.) Because Biden is well known thanks to 8 years as Vice President, he evidently inspires confidence. That, clearly, is going to be Trump's biggest problem.
For a long time, it seems to me, both sides of our political spectrum have been practicing different kinds of vanity politics. The nation works, to the extent that it still does, because of the institutions that earlier generations put in place in the middle decades of the last century, and both sides have been undermining the institutions they control both for monetary benefit and personal satisfaction. Both the tightly regulated and heavily taxed economy of 1940-80 and the remarkable educational system that grew up in the same period have become extraordinarily rich and powerful institutions that principally benefit only the people who run them, corporate executives and university administrators. Meanwhile, both parties use buzzwords to rally their base. The system survived even the shock of the 2008 crash, largely because a Democratic President accepted the premise that it remained fundamentally sound. The George W. Bush Administration had used the favorable situation it inherited to embark on useless, destructive, extraordinarily expensive crusades in the Middle East, because it had talked itself into the idea of a great crusade [sic] to keep the US supreme in the world. By the 2010s, however, the political system was paying a price for its vanity. Donald Trump in 2016 showed that the Republican Party had totally lost touch with its voters. This year, it looked for a while as if Bernie Sanders might make the same point about the Democrats.
Sanders' fall from front runner status was the first signal of where things were going. Several factors played a role, but one cannot ignore the absolute panic among nearly all of our punditry during the month of February over the possibility that he might actually be nominated. That panic was only partly based on the fear that he might lose (a fear that had no support whatever from polling data that showed him beating Trump), or that his candidacy might hurt down-ballot Democrats. It also reflected a terror that the Democratic Party might actually nominated a candidate who felt that economic inequality was a serious danger that required direct, determined steps to do something about it. He drew heat, among other things, from the very reasonable statement (in my opinion) that billionaires should not exist. Several commentators cringed at the thought of a world without the philanthropic Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, forgetting that we cannot have those few exceptions without the Koch brothers, the Scaifes, and the many other corporate giants who now dominate our politics. It has become fashionable, by the way, to claim that sexism doomed Elizabeth Warren, but she faced the same onslaught of centrist panic when she seemed likely to become the front runner--and made the mistake, in my view, of backing away from Medicare for all in response. In centrist mythology, private insurance--the reason that we have an increasingly unaffordable health care system, which doctors have told me we cannot sustain--has become something that millions of Americans love. Biden's candidacy will reassure the health insurance industry and Wall Street--which is important, sadly, since it means they won't be tempted to vote for Trump, whom they already trust to allow their wealth to keep growing faster than the economy as a whole.
Trump, meanwhile, faces a real domestic crisis for the first time, and it is bringing out the worst in him. He is trying to use it the same way he uses everything else: to make himself look like an innocent genius in a world full of guilty idiots. He has already made absurd claims to give himself an aura of omnipotence and omniscience. It now turns out that the google website that will allow sick people to get tested--which he promised within a few days--hadn't gotten beyond the stage of a few conversations between Jared Kushner and a google subsidiary called Verily. The president's bizarre claims have prompted Google to try to make them come true, but Verily had in mind only a pilot program in the San Francisco and Seattle areas. Meanwhile, the virus has crashed the stock market, depriving the President of his favorite talking point.
These two major developments point towards a Biden victory, followed by a return to the Obama-era status quo. That means on the one hand that we will once again have a federal government led by men and women who believe in its mission and respect facts and science. Given Biden's age, and the unlikelihood of him seeking a second term, he will also be less beholden to politics and less likely to be dominated by spin. He can also try to restore our stature in the world and arrest the drift towards war with Iran--although I doubt that our allies will ever have the same degree of trust in us again. He will get us, at least rhetorically, back on the right side of the climate change issue. But I do not think that Biden and the Congress can be expected to make any fundamental attack on the direction of our economy. Rather than try to dismantle our oligarchy, his administration will try to diversify it. And even Democratic policies on social issues will face lots of opposition from the federal courts, now effectively packed by Trump and McConnell. Those courts will exercise their enormous power--which they developed from the 1950s through the 1970s in pursuit of liberal goals--for conservative ones. That marks a return to the traditional role of the courts in American history, from 1789 until about 1938.
I have said many times that we do not live in a heroic age. Inequality, and the decline of state authority, define our era. I will be having more to say about that after I read Thomas Piketty's new book, now on its way to me. Under the circumstances I am grateful for any step away from disaster. That is what Biden's election would mean. True progress, however, will fall to subsequent generations, some of them not yet born.