U.S. President Joe Biden walks at Dane County Regional Airport, in Madison, Wisconsin July 5, 2024 (OSV News photo Nathan Howard/Reuters).

“How did we get here?” asked former senator Claire McCaskill on MSNBC in the wake of Biden’s slow-motion campaign disaster, which reached, one hopes, a tipping point during his excruciating debate performance. Another way to ask this “hard and heartbreaking” question would be: “How could they let this happen?”

Somehow, in a presidential election that Democrats insist (with good reason) is one of the most important in history, they are running a candidate demonstrably too old to govern now, much less to run the country for another four years. And because he ran largely unopposed in the primaries, it is up to him whether he stays in the race.

Of course, there isn’t really a “they” at all, at least in the sense of a cabal of elite Democratic Party decision-makers who can transcend politics and pull the strings behind the scenes. But there are actors with power who could coordinate their actions to substantial effect. There are former Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton and, especially, Barack Obama; there are powerful governors and senators, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer; there are powerful DNC officials, influential operatives and consultants, and allied members of the media. One need only look back to the 2020 primaries to find proof that such figures can act in concert. Obama and others convinced presidential candidates Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to line up behind Biden against Bernie Sanders.

Why did the party act in 2020 but not during the 2024 primary season? By then, Biden was already showing historic weakness in the polls, his growing infirmity was confirmed by both his public appearances and his staff’s reluctance to let him make them, and he had obvious problems exercising and projecting power effectively. Not only did party elites not act; they actively discouraged viable challengers to Biden and even changed the primary schedule to ease Biden’s renomination. Meanwhile, they dissembled about his condition while accusing Republicans and skeptical liberals of exaggerating his senescence.


One reason is surely that the threat in 2020 came from the left wing of the Democratic Party. That meant it threatened centrist leaders’ own place at the top of the party. A Biden candidacy—and even a Biden loss—though catastrophic for the country, wouldn’t necessarily damage the standing of establishment actors within the party the way a Sanders victory in 2020 might have.

But there are also two other fears that seemed to dissuade powerful Democrats from supporting an open primary. The first was, paradoxically, the fear of a second Trump presidency. As David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist and a belated critic of Biden’s 2024 candidacy put it, “I felt a primary challenge would fail and only help Trump.”

There was never much reason to believe either of Axelrod’s claims, however. Even on the heels of a surprisingly successful performance by Democratic candidates in the 2022 midterms, a majority of Democrats wanted Biden to bow out. Given the relative strength of the potential field, it seems quite likely that Biden would have lost or decided to drop out after a few poor debate or primary performances. What’s more, if he had managed to survive a serious primary challenge, there’s every reason to believe it would have made him stronger, not weaker. After all, to survive he would have had to show capabilities whose apparent absence was the only reason Democratic voters wanted to see him replaced.

Axelrod’s fears recall the specious argument that Hillary Clinton was weakened by Bernie Sanders’s primary challenge in 2016. That was precisely the wrong lesson to learn from her candidacy. It was the party’s decision to coalesce behind Clinton and discourage challengers that led to Trump’s victory. Sanders’s challenge merely exposed her weaknesses—it did not produce them. More, not fewer, challengers were needed, including one from a candidate capable of preventing her nomination. Of course, one strong contender would have been Joe Biden himself, who, in the interest of party unity, was talked out of running by Barack Obama and others (partly because they feared a Biden candidacy would give Sanders and the Left a path to victory).

It’s not really the fear of a Trump election per se that motivates Democrats.

What sometimes gets celebrated as Democratic unity is in fact a troubling conformity that reflects the party’s weakness, not its strength. Parties are meant to mediate conflict, not cover it up. The Democratic Party seems able to muster collective action only to silence internal critics and shore up power in the center.

This leads to a second fear, that of potential candidates and operatives afraid of jeopardizing their future careers in the party by either challenging Biden or calling for his removal. It’s telling that the only center-left Democrat to challenge Biden in the primaries was Minnesota representative Dean Phillips, whose independent wealth and relatively low status in the party made the risks tolerable. Nevertheless, his fate showed that the fear isn’t baseless. To the extent his presidential campaign garnered any attention at all, it was roundly criticized, and he faced primary challengers for his own House seat. He is no longer running for reelection.

Time and again, after a lost election or other party failure, it turns out that there were plenty of internal critics whispering among themselves about the looming disaster but too afraid of reprisal to speak their minds publicly. Yet the establishment remains uncomfortable with the democratic character of its own primary process. Even now—with the risks of Democrats’ antipathy to intraparty democracy once again laid bare—many establishment Democrats seem more comfortable handing the nomination to the demonstrably unpopular Kamala Harris than risking an open convention.


It’s not really the fear of a Trump election per se that motivates Democrats—as we’ve seen, when it comes down to it, it’s a possibility that they are all too willing to countenance. It’s really the fear of being seen to have helped Trump that concerns them. The perception is much more frightening than the reality because their careers within the party are based on perception. Gretchen Whitmer or Gavin Newsom can set themselves up to run in 2028 whether or not Trump wins. But challenging Biden in the 2024 primaries was potentially career-ending. They would have risked being seen as disloyal, losing donors and party support, and being blamed in the press for weakening Biden’s candidacy.

That calculus is less clear-cut for power brokers whose ascent to the top of the party is already complete—Obama and Schumer, for example. But for them, too, there is little to gain and much to lose by going out on a limb if not everyone is behind you. Even now, when it is clear that Biden must go, Obama and Schumer have issued statements of support that they surely don’t believe. Everyone in the party is waiting for everyone else to give them a clear signal that it’s now okay to say what has been obvious for well over a year.

Such hesitation is sometimes dubbed a “collective-action problem” in the press, but it is better described as a mix of cowardice and careerism. After all, parties are meant to address the collective-action problem, not facilitate it. But the cynical pursuit of self-interest within the boundaries of the game of institutional ladder-climbing has hollowed out the party. Of course, politicians have always been motivated by self-interest, but political ambition used to be centered on the acquisition and exercise of power for the purpose of changing the world for the better and thereby earning some measure of glory. This required taking the kinds of risks that our careerist leaders, who seem more concerned with celebrity than glory, shy away from in favor of public relations and the cautious management of perceptions. The party becomes a mere tool for those trying to ascend its rungs, and its stated goals—whether winning elections, building coalitions, or mediating disagreements among members—become secondary at best.

At worst, these goals are actively thwarted, as party insiders become so concerned with image and perception that they lose touch with the outside world. The party treats its own voters with fear and disdain. It advances “democracy” by demonizing dissent, shutting down debate, and changing the rules to benefit those at the top. It becomes a means for producing not collective action but collective delusion and postmodern theatrics. In the effort to manage perceptions and build individual brands completely independent of underlying realities, it begins to defy common sense. Little by little, its attempts to counteract the Trump cult degenerate into its own forms of irrationality.

Alexander Stern is Commonweal’s features editor.

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