I made myself a promise not to follow or comment on the Democratic presidential campaign until October or November, primarily because it a pointless exercise that will have nothing to do with who will win the Democratic nomination and whether or not that person can successfully defeat Donald Trump. I consider it like obsessing about what happens in spring training or preseason football, which has nothing to do with who wins the World Series or Super Bowl.
However, while preseason and spring training are terrible predictors of who will ultimately prevail, they can provide insight about a team’s thinking on what a winning strategy looks like.
Like athletes in spring training or preseason, presidential candidates are currently defining themselves, testing their messages, and developing strategies that they think will make them successful once the real campaign starts.
There are two competing theories about what a winning Democratic strategy looks like. The younger, insurgent Democrats believe that political success is tied to expanding the electorate to encompass more of the marginalized America, making it younger and more diverse. This theory says Republicans can only win elections when the electorate is smaller, older and whiter. This is why Republican campaign strategy focuses on voter suppression.
Despite many more women (including viable candidates for president and a forceful House speaker) and more people of color (including a past black president and black candidates for the highest office), the Democratic Party establishment remains a privileged white guys club, much like their Republican cohorts. The difference is the Republican privileged white guys club is in charge of America’s all-white political party, while Democratic leadership has a problem in that they don’t look like the party they lead or the voters they most need.
While their rhetoric and stance on social issues are diametrically opposite to that of Republicans, they share more with Republicans than the casual observer might realize
They both represent America’s corporate economic interests and privileged classes. The Democratic establishment also has the same militaristic stance in defense of those corporate economic and class interests as Republicans. This is why when Democrats win, we never get policies that address the need for structural change. Even Obama’s Affordable Care Act was primarily designed to protect the health care industry, not maximize healthcare for underinsured and uninsured Americans.
The entrance of former Vice President Joe Biden into the Democratic presidential fray is an excellent opportunity to develop an understanding of the Democratic establishment’s theory of case and its limitations. The premise of Joe Biden’s campaign is that Trump is an anomaly, an interruption of the linear progress toward a more perfect union. And despite Trump winning a majority of white voters in 2016, the majority of white Americans don’t support Trump, and what Democrats need to do in 2020 is to give that white America a better white option.
When Biden announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination, his statement included the following, “We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.” He warned that if Trump is re-elected, “he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”
During a campaign stop, Biden touted his bipartisan credentials, claiming the public would witness "an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends." GOP lawmakers, Biden predicted, would be willing to work with him once Trump left office.
Biden is only partially right about the 2020 presidential contest being a battle for the soul of America. This election will not be a battle for the soul of the nation, but it will be a battle for the soul of white America.
Trump’s reelection won’t change the character of this country because Trump is a creature of this country, a manifestation of the current character of arguably the majority of white America. With the genocide of the indigenous people, the hereditary slavery of Africans, the Jim Crow oppression of their descendants, and the structural, misogynistic oppression of women, there has never been a time in American history when you couldn’t find Donald Trump. Through much of our history, in fact, Trump’s like has dominated America.
Trump and Republicans embrace the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and religious bigotry that are endemic to America as the natural and proper order. They neither envision nor want a life without white male privilege. They will never negotiate that privilege away.
The unspoken but implied premise of a Biden campaign (and of those other Democratic moderates whose names no one knows) is that winning over older, more moderate white voters is the key to a Democratic victory in 2020.
The problem is that the Democratic establishment and Democratic insurgents can’t both be right, and the party will soon have to make up its mind which path to follow.
Since its founding, the United States has rested upon a set of mutually contradictory principles. The existential political challenge for this country has been, and will continue to be: what are white Americans who know better willing to do about white Americans who won’t do better? What you need to do before you consider what Democrat you’re going to support is to decide what America you live in. How Democrats think about that and what it means to be white in America will ultimately decide how Democrats build their strategy for November 2020.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.