My wife and I argue far more about politics than we used to. Trump does that to you. We don't disagree on the need to remove his corrosive presence from the White House, and we're equally resigned that there aren't enough vertebrate Republicans to convict him in the Senate. So, our debates focus on the Democratic primary and the choice of who will challenge Trump next November.
The Iowa Caucuses are now only seven weeks away and Fox News' composite caricature of the Democratic field is old, gay, unlikeable, corrupt, and irredeemably socialist. With no candidate polling much above 25% at the national level, the Democrats only have six months to coalesce around a nominee who can simultaneously turn out black women in the South, energise college students in the Mid-West, and reassure soccer moms in the Philadelphia suburbs. With Trump's approval ratings stuck in the low 40s, he should be eminently beatable, but in the rancorous hyper-polarised politics he's created, his opponent needs to be able to both tell a compelling story and take a punch.
The swim lanes of the primary are now clear. Joe Biden has a lane to himself. Like many of the pensioners you see in municipal pools, Biden is swimming so slowly that you're convinced he's going to sink. Yet his sustained electoral buoyancy is keeping him well ahead in almost every national poll. His pitch is simple; it takes a thin-skinned septuagenarian white guy to beat one and, with decades of public service, he won't get shrug-dissed by Princess Anne or laughed at by Justin Trudeau.
Off to the left of Biden is the 'socialist' lane occupied by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, whose combined polling numbers have consistently topped Biden's for the last few months. They've fired up the left-wing twitterati and energised small-dollar donors with a slew of big government ideas from free college to single-payer healthcare, and they've not been afraid to say that taxes will go up. Warren's 'I've got a plan for that' policy machine has helped define the agenda for the rest of the field, creating a wake that everyone else in the pool needs to swim through.
In the lane right beside Biden are the other centrists; Pete Buttigieg, Senators Klobuchar and Booker, Governor Deval Patrick and a few others. Apart from Buttigieg, who is making steady gains, most are just treading water waiting for Biden to have a senior moment so that they can emerge as the pragmatic non-Socialist alternative. Some like Senator Booker are now in danger of drifting over into the next lane which is increasingly congested with dead political floaters. The most recent high-profile addition to that non-swim lane is Senator Kamala Harris, who found that attacking Biden for being a racist did nothing except puncture her own electoral water wings, sending her quickly to the bottom of the polls.
Finally, there are two candidates who can lounge on their mega yachts rather than swim. Billionaires Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg are attempting to show that you don't need to eat bad fried chicken in country diners to be viable, instead, you just need to be willing to write humungous personal cheques targeted at the huge swathe of voters going to the polls on 3 March's 'Super Tuesday'.
The continued diversity of this field highlights the main issue energising the McIntyre dinner table debates. My wife contends that the country is simply exhausted, and that Biden offers a low-risk return to some sense of normality. As a potential one-term President with a strong heir-apparent VP like Buttigieg, Biden can bring the pendulum back from populist crazy land and stop it somewhere in the political middle. Even with a grown up in the White House, we might simply return to Obama-era congressional gridlock, but at least the executive branch won't be a mafia crime family with autocrat envy.
My wife also sees it as a positive that left-wing firebrands accuse Biden of being a creature of Washington who has consistently worked across the aisle, because maybe that means he'll be able to help moderate Republicans convalesce from Trump-era PTSD and re-engage in normal politics. So, Biden's policies don't really matter if his electability means he can win the swing states and draw a line under the last four years. She could be right, but the flaw in that approach was highlighted by Biden's endorsement last week by John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee whose prized electability evaporated under sustained Republican attacks and who singularly failed to energise the broader Democratic base.
The counter argument, represented by my side of the dinner table, is that Trump's election was a symptom, not the cause, of what ails America and that radical change is required. If we don't deal with issues like weaponised social media, vast pools of dark money in politics, rampant voter suppression, and double-digit increases in violent hate crimes, the system will keep spawning Trump clones who may be even more dangerous if they're disciplined and competent. Only by addressing what's broken with our politics will we be able to grapple with longer-term problems like income inequality, sky-high healthcare costs, climate change, and gun violence.
The conventional wisdom used to be that capitalism and democracy had a strong linear correlation. Nearly 30 years ago, Francis Fukuyama famously predicted that the universal adoption of market economics would lead to the 'end of history' and universal liberal democracy. Yet from Singapore, to the Middle East to China, there are now countless examples of state capitalism delivering economic growth with little or no democracy involved.
Even in the West, instead of a linear relationship there's now plenty of evidence of a convex curve, where at some point unfettered capitalism starts to degrade democracy. When 68% of US political campaign donations come from 0.3% of the population, there's a price for everything, from elite college admissions to an Ambassadorship to the EU, and when the economic elite are inseparable from the political elite, the endgame is a banana republic kleptocracy where pay-to-play is brazen and unconstrained.
To hijack a democracy for personal gain you need a demagogic smokescreen to hide behind and that's where Trump's focus on divisive issues like immigration plays a huge role. Like any abusive relationship, the political genius of the American right has been to convince those who would benefit from radical change that any change is dangerous and destabilising. Rather than debate the actual merits of say free college education, Sanders and Warren are painted as harbingers of collective farming in the Mid-West and Washington – bureaucrats telling Caterpillar how many tractors to build. This fear of change has permeated the Democratic Party itself as evidenced by a recent (and rejected) $1m donation that came with the caveat that it would be refunded if Warren won the nomination.
The 'booming' US economy with record low unemployment is also an effective smokescreen that obscures the facts that US life expectancy has fallen for three straight years, suicides are up 30% over the last two decades, and we've got an increasingly shameless self-perpetuating plutocracy in which the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 185 million combined. If the 99% don't start voting their self-interest, many of them could find themselves in perpetual neo-feudal gig economy servitude. If there's one statistic that should drive voting patterns, it's the Pew Charitable Trust's estimate that three-quarters of young American adults will now end up financially worse off than their parents.
America's been here before and climbed out of the hole. The Gilded Age in the late 19th century was a period of rapid economic growth but also a period of increasing economic inequality, political corruption, and social tensions. Ultimately, the robber barons were brought to heel by the rise of labour unions, the trust busting of President Teddy Roosevelt, and a progressive movement that increased the role of government and buttressed democracy. And yes, those progressive-era radicals were labelled socialists by their opponents as well, at a time when that word connoted far more violent insurrection than it does now.
The 'return to normal service' argument is seductive. Don't take the risk of letting Trump get another four years. Be pragmatic and disciplined and seek reform over revolution, a viewed backed by President Obama who intervened in the primary with the observation that America is 'less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement'. But that 'small c' conservatism begs the question of how you know when big structural change is required.
At the end of the Gilded Age, the tipping points were hundreds of workers dying in factory fires because there were no health and safety regulations, monopolists like Andrew Carnegie violently crushing strikes, and the blatant corruption of electoral politics. As we look to 2020, can tackling climate change wait for American politics to settle down? When medical bills bankrupt half a million Americans a year, is tinkering with Obamacare enough? And, is the 2019 record of more than one mass shooting per day a number we can live with as we wait for politics to normalise?
Democrats need to make a better case that unemployment and GDP growth are not the only metrics that matter for society and that there's a viable version of American capitalism that puts more emphasis on social mobility, income equality, and aspirational quality of life measures. You can point at Scandinavia, but it's not an easy argument to make as Jeremy Corbyn is finding out. His spending plans would put the UK public sector in line with most of the rest of Europe, but those plans have been demonised by most of the UK press as radical and dangerous under the premise that this type of political realignment is simply not possible. As British historian R H Tawney observed, 'happy the nation whose people has not forgotten how to rebel,' which may explain why both the UK and America are currently so miserable.
My heart says the US does need radical change to stop us reaching an inflexion point where it may no longer be possible. That the cancer of Trump and the late-stage crony capitalism that he represents now justifies strong progressive chemotherapy. But I'm also swayed by my wife's argument that anything that increases the risk of another Trump term also risks irreversible damage to both the US and the broader world.
I hope at least one Democrat emerges from the primary who can both make the case for change and reassure voters stuck in their abusive relationship with Trump that there's no need to be afraid of that change. But if they can't, and Joe Biden emerges as the 'safe' Democratic nominee, he will still have my vote come next November, and I'll be eating some crow for dinner if he wins.