Elites Want to “Save” American Democracy by Signing Its Death Warrant

Once again, pundits have begun beating the drums for a presidential ticket split between a Democrat and a Republican in 2024. It’s a return to the elitist thinking that was still dominant in 2016 — and a recipe for disaster in the fight against the Right.

An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last month pitched 2024 as the year for “change candidate” Hillary Rodham Clinton to mount her history-making big comeback. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Last month, a surreally bizarre trifecta of articles attempted to make the case for various alt-presidential tickets ahead of the 2024 election. On the face of it, none are particularly worthy of note except as objects of bemused derision: each advancing a highly improbable and transparently click-chasing future hypothetical. Tom Friedman’s self-parodying screed, for example, makes the case for a Joe Biden/Liz Cheney partnership, taking its inspiration from Israeli coalition politics. By way of response, Damon Linker suggests Biden should team up with Maryland Republican governor Larry Hogan to “marginally” improve Democratic electoral fortunes. (Linker, to be fair, does acknowledge that such a scenario is far-fetched.) Charging into the fray Leeroy Jenkins–style, one op-ed in the Wall Street Journal even pitched 2024 as the year for “change candidate” Hillary Rodham Clinton to mount her history-making big comeback.

Articles like these are roughly the punditry equivalent of a fantasy football draft: a vaguely amusing pastime with zero stakes, enjoyed mainly by people permanently OD’d on the news.

It’s probably no accident, however, that the genre has started to make a resurgence a year into an ossified administration that was effusively sold to liberal voters as an activist presidency in the making. As Biden’s approval ratings continue to tank, his legislative agenda stalls, and Democrats stare down the prospect of catastrophic defeat in next November’s midterms, the usual goldfish-brained chorus of pundits has grown increasingly vocal about the idea that blame lies with a White House too captured by progressive excess and removed from the reasonable “center” of mainstream opinion.

Fearing a second act of Trumpism and still reeling from the two surprisingly strong challenges made by Bernie Sanders, it follows that we’d see the return of a type of elite fusionist thinking that was all the rage back in 2016. Drawing on a kind of militant centrism, the core idea was that mindless anger — whether from gun-toting MAGA chuds or activists championing universal health care and free college — threatened the sanctity of liberal institutions, necessitating a new alliance of the technocratic center right and center left in order to save them. In this crisis of democracy, it was said, democracy itself was the culprit, and the people were a feral mob in desperate need of rescue from themselves. (If this sounds like hyperbole, I invite you to peruse this June 2016 essay by James Traub, quite literally titled “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise up Against the Ignorant Masses,” which was a superlative entry into the genre).

The slew of recent op-eds positing absurd scenarios for 2024 might be insipid discourse fodder, but it’s also symptomatic of a genuine strand of elite opinion that sees the salvation of America’s sclerotic political order at some Archimedean point between Joe Biden and Mitt Romney. In its current incarnation, this “fever dream of reactionary centrism” seeks to bring about a consolidation of the pre-populist status quo: forging a permanent coalition between the traditional establishments of both major parties under the transparently fraudulent aegis of “defending democracy.”

It’s the kind of bipartisan bilge with virtually no buy-in outside expensive corporate fundraisers and newspaper op-ed sections. But it’s the sort of thing that still finds oxygen in a political environment so inane some liberals can be found lionizing the likes of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush because they count among a handful of Republicans willing to criticize Donald Trump (Cheney, who took office after his ticket quite literally stole the 2000 election, having been warmly received at the Democrats’ January 6 commemorative event last month). Though unlikely to attract genuine popular support, quixotic speculation about the prospect of an alt-fusionist ticket will probably grow as the Democrats face a difficult midterm election and the GOP maintains its thoroughly Trumpified course with or without an actual Trump candidacy in 2024.

Here, the recent past offers plenty of precedent. Hillary Clinton, after all, more or less openly ran as the bipartisan standard-bearer for establishment America, boastfully rolling out Republican endorsements in the absurdly out-of-touch belief they would be political kryptonite. The 2020 Democratic National Convention, meanwhile, somehow included a “virtual prayer circle” for the late John McCain, while the party’s brightest young voices were asked to make way for the likes of Colin Powell, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, and union-busting former GOP governor John Kasich.

Spurred by the events of January 6, 2021, and an already atrophying Democratic administration, there’s every reason to expect that 2024 will see a reversion to something like the same formula as anxious elites call, yet again, for a popular front in the face of the post-Trumpian right. Such thinking proved disastrous in 2016 and continues to represent a political road to nowhere. Having nothing to say about political corruption, democratic stagnation, destructive trade deals, the noxious influence of organized money, or any of the other root causes of the current political crisis, America’s elite fusionists seek not to overhaul defective institutions but instead to restore their legitimacy. Though partisans for this project have seized on the rhetoric of heterodoxy and public-spiritedness, their objectives remain fundamentally conservative.

Perhaps more importantly, they are also self-defeating. Repairing the reputation of a rotten system is no substitute for transforming it, and a coalition of elites who have been on the wrong side of every major issue and policy decision for the past quarter-century is incapable of achieving either. What America’s atrophied and increasingly precarious political order demands is not bipartisan insularity and anti-populism but genuine democratic revolt — not just against the sinister forces of Trumpism but also the elites whose behavior has allowed it to fester and flourish.