Lack of enthusiasm for Joe Biden is a positive turn for America

US Politics: After messianic Trump and Obama eras the US could do with less emotion

Delaware can reasonably claim to be the most innocuous state in the US. The tax-advantageous peninsula seldom incurs hatred, its opposite, or even a second thought from those outside its nearly 1m residents. Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club, in which a man seeks deliverance from a life of desk-bound averageness, has Wilmington, its largest city, as an implied setting.

Not all politicians take after their states, but despite being Pennsylvania-born, Joe Biden is Delaware incarnate. In half a century of public life, the Democratic candidate for president has never assembled an intense fan base or many dedicated enemies. His politics are middle-of-the-road and his charisma is of the functional, baby-kissing sort. The polls suggest that President Donald Trump's supporters are fewer but incomparably more zealous. This "enthusiasm gap", with its supposed implications for turnout, disturbs the sleep of some of Biden's supporters.

It is also the most precious thing about him. The US has had two consecutive presidents with messianic followings, and it is worse off for the 12-year surge of emotion. No democracy is riper for a period of tepid leadership.

The problem with the politician as hero is that even well-meaning ones can damage civic life in all sorts of ways. The most corrosive is the raising of impossible expectations. Barack Obama touted his presidency as the "moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow". Others read into his election the end of America's racial schisms. What transpired – a conscientious, flawed, mildly reformist administration – inevitably struck millions as a grievous betrayal. No one who grew up in Tony Blair's UK will fail to recognise the dive in mass sentiment from ecstatic credulity to embittered cynicism. By not starting so high, Biden cannot fall so low.



Then there is Newton’s law on equal and opposite forces. One side’s enthusiasm for a leader is the other side’s alienation. Republicans who diagnose liberals with “Trump derangement syndrome” are citing a case in point. But it is as nothing against their own conniptions about Obama a decade ago. In fact, the current president is best understood as a howl against the previous one.

Given that hatred of Bill Clinton and George W Bush were also mass-participation sports, Biden promises to be the first president since the latter's father whom a large majority of Americans could more or less live with. What he cannot command in enthusiasm he makes up for in what we might call legitimacy. Had he lost the nomination to Bernie Sanders, a Democrat with a fervent flock, America would be in line for another dialling up of partisan tension, whoever wins in November.

Political enthusiasm is not just the cause of problems, but also the symptom of them. It can sometimes seem that, as the US has atomised, citizens have returned to politics as a means of emotional expression and human belonging. Partisan tribe fills in for family, neighbourhood, romantic love and friendship.

A generation has passed since the Harvard professor Robert Putnam traced the decline of associational life in his "Bowling Alone" essay. Cause and effect are nightmares to establish, but, starting with the new congressional Republicans of 1994, it has been a generation of "my party right or wrong". It follows that one's leader is not just an executor of policies but the object of blind loyalty. "Enthusiasm" can be a euphemism for something altogether weird and pernicious.

Psychic need

The problem, in other words, is not Biden’s failure to kindle passion in people. It is our psychic need for such a person in the first place. His election might reacquaint the US with politics as it should be and has been: a machine for the arbitration of conflicting claims, and not as the basis of one’s whole identity.

It is hard to convey the coolness – in truth, the resentment – with which Biden’s candidacy was met by many Democrats upon its launch 18 months ago. After their long tryst with Obama, there was something bathetic about the man from Wilmington. The urge to worship a leader is often framed as right wing, and the Trump base is unsurpassed in its intensity. But the itch is ultimately cross-partisan.

It was not conservatives who made West Wing, the syrupy television drama about a near saint of a Democratic president. It was not conservatives who built the now faltering cult of the Kennedys. Biden is the corrective to an unhealthy trend in his party and country. Nothing commends him to national leadership as much as the mild feelings that he arouses. Whatever enthusiasm has achieved this past decade or so, it is not an America at peace with itself. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020