To the prognosticators of the American left, the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination process was to be the first where identity politics was rightly in the driver’s seat: the Republican Party had stopped pretending that it was anything but the party for old, angry, white guys and their chattel.
Surely, pundits predicted, the Democrats would challenge Donald Trump with a person who looked the part of a leader for everyone else – preferably a youngish person, but more importantly a woman and/or a person of colour.
These predictions were not limited, though, to what the Democratic Party would do, or should do. There was an additional assumption that the Democrats had no choice but to nominate a person who satisfied the new criteria of the identity politics era. The twitterati were so committed to these criteria, in other words, that it seems they struggled to imagine how a candidate who did not satisfy them would win the nomination.
Although we are still a year and a half away from the election, the early polling finds two white guys in their 70s – Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders – at the front of the horse-race for the Democratic nomination.
No serious pundits suggested that whiteness and maleness were exclusion criteria. Still, if a white man was going to have a chance, the thinking went, he better be squeaky clean. For example, he needs to check his privilege at the door – something that former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke learned the hard way after declaring, “I’m just born to be in it.” It is also important to avoid anything that could be construed as unsupportive of women and people of colour; thus Bernie Sanders faced questions about his insufficiently enthusiastic support for Hillary Clinton after she won the 2016 nomination, not to mention the colour-blindness of his class war.
According to this analysis, none of the potential nominees seem more ill-suited to lead the new Democratic Party than Biden. How could a twentieth-century man like Biden win the leadership of a twenty-first-century organisation like the Democratic Party? Even his friends had doubts. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote in 2012:
“We should be cleareyed about each Democratic contender’s shortcomings and vulnerabilities. Biden, who followed 36 years as a senator from Delaware with eight as Obama’s vice president, has many. His record is one of them. There’s prodigious accomplishment there but also trouble: his stern treatment of Anita Hill when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he was chairman; his key part in the passage of crime bills that ended up punishing African-Americans disproportionately. None of that jibes with his party’s current priorities and mood.”
And yet, Biden’s name has sat atop the long list of Democratic candidates in every major poll conducted so far, and the gap to his nearest rivals, with the exception of Sanders, has only grown since he formally announced his candidacy.
Skeptics chalked up early poll results to Biden’s name-recognition advantage, and predicted things would change once his lesser-known rivals got more exposure and once the darker aspects of his past met the bright glare of attention reserved for frontrunners. Although there is still plenty of time for such dynamics to play out, some of these skeptics have acknowledged that Biden’s impressive recent numbers are a meaningful indicator of his genuine and so far unshakeable popularity among Democrats and the broader electorate.
What could explain the failure of the commentariat to predict that Biden’s past would not be a death-blow to his candidacy? There is a peculiar form of reasoning found in modern left discourse, according to which the actions of the past are to be judged by the moral norms of the present. This reasoning appears to be more common among the expensively-educated people who dominate online discourse than it is among the people who have participated in the pre-election polls.
For those who feel that their past words and actions, recorded for posterity, have been unfairly used against them, the modern practice of digging up dirt has been derided as “offence archaeology.” At issue is whether past actions can be appropriately judged by today’s norms.
I had a bit of a time-travel moment a few years ago. I was reminiscing about how Eddie Murphy was easily the most talented funny person of my formative years, and I sat down to watch “Delirious,” his epic stand-up special, for the first time in probably thirty years. I laughed plenty, but I was also shocked at how homophobic it was by today’s standards. What does this say about me? What does it say about Eddie Murphy?
I can’t speak for Murphy specifically, but I know that my own attitudes about homosexuality, and my sensitivity to the identities and feelings of LGBT people, have evolved considerably over the last three decades. And I have not travelled this path alone, as national attitudes about gay marriage, for example, have become much more enlightened over time.
This is not to say that we cannot ever judge the past through the moral lens of the present. However, when we do so, it is worth at least bearing the contextual frame of the norms of the time as well as considering the actions of people who adhered to them entirely in the abstract. We can look back at the 1980s as a time when LGBT people were routinely marginalised without assuming malintent among all who participated in (what we now know to be) acts of marginalisation.
How do we know, though, when someone can be absolved of past intent? How do we know that they have changed? I don’t hold my current self accountable for what my teenage self found funny, but you would have to take my word for it that I have changed.
It is also reasonable to consider someone’s past behaviour when making inferences about the motivations that could influence their future behaviour. This is particularly true for judgments of a person seeking an elected position that comes with power. Full disclosure: I am a class warrior like Bernie Sanders, and Biden’s ties to big money make me wary.
But as for Biden’s past actions on gender and race – are they indicative of inherent sexism and racism, or are they best understood as the actions of an elected official, on behalf of his constituents, over a long career during which societal norms changed considerably? Biden’s popularity among female and black voters outside the Twitter bubble might indicate that they favour the latter explanation.
What is it about the left commentariat that would make them think that Biden’s past behaviour would lead voters to conclude that he is an irredeemable sexist and racist? Presumably, they are projecting their own feelings on to the broader electorate. It is not particularly liberal, though, to be pessimistic about people’s capacity for improvement.
But my point is not to chastise left Twitter for its illiberalism. Rather, I would like to help its participants to make more accurate predictions about what makes voters tick. Digging up old dirt on an unpreferred candidate might be satisfying for the Twitter left, but it is no guarantee that it will prevent him from convincing primary voters outside the bubble that he has since bathed.
Dan Meegan (@DanMeeganJr) was born and raised in the United States and now lives in Canada, where he is a professor of political psychology, and the author of America the Fair: Using Brain Science to Create a More Just Nation.