Messaging frameworks matter.
When I try to put myself in the shoes of a so-called swing voter — someone with no allegiance to a particular party, a minimal depth of information about the candidates, and little time or motivation to dig any deeper than their most echoed buzz words — this is what I hear:
One campaign says, “let’s make our country great again.”
The other campaign says, “let’s make our country decent again.”
Decent is a really conspicuous choice of word for a candidate to choose, especially considering the other guy’s key value proposition, which, by the way, has already been battle tested to the tune of 304 electoral votes. Regardless of what the facts may say about Donald Trump, there are lots of undecided voters who will simply take those pitches at face value and go with the more superlative adjective. All things being equal, great sure sounds like a better deal than decent does.
Obviously, the word decent can have a few different meanings. Folks who listen to the messaging from the Biden campaign will notice that they’re not just using it to ascribe the virtues of integrity, kindness, and goodwill to their candidate; they’re also using decency in the sense of conveying that he is the candidate who conforms to particular standards of propriety and good taste.
There’s some important nuance buried in that messaging. These two meanings are not exactly analogous. Decorum and good taste, after all, do not necessarily bestow integrity and kindness upon a person. And lots of morally upright people can, for lack of a better descriptor, come across as abrasive assholes who say and do things that rub certain coteries the wrong way. The Biden campaign is using this distinction to send a precisely tuned message: Joe Biden is not an unkind despot like his opponent. Nor does he condone the simmering anger, vulgarity, and eschewing of liberal politeness on the left and right the political center. No, Joe Biden is decent.
For many well-to-do liberal and centrist voters, the Democratic Party’s message of decency is just the fix they‘re jonesing for. The creature comforts and political vanity they have historically enjoyed is in short supply these days. They long for simpler sociopolitical times. You know, the good old days *checks notes* three years ago when Barry and Joe were in office. “Things weren’t perfect back then,” the wistful lament seems to go. “But they weren’t so bad either.” In a word, they were decent.
That is, they were decent if you were already pretty well off and not so great if you weren’t. Nevertheless, that nostalgic message is likely to resonate with all the cause-du-jour connoisseurs who have grown weary of sign-making and protests and marches. These Park Place Progressives have never really been allies but rather more like war tourists among the truly marginalized. They showed up, took part in some rituals, got their photo-op, and now they’re ready for some me time. A Biden presidency would be the ultimate participation trophy.
The left knows, of course, that these calls for a revival of decency are a dog whistle for propping up an unjust status quo. It has become a biennial tradition for the Democratic Party to rally the people on the margins and then circle the wagons around the political center, signaling that the fight for systemic change is less important than propriety — that some injustice is fine as long as we maintain order — that profits take precedence over people’s lives.
This rightward turn might just as well be printed in an almanac for folks who see the Democratic Party for what it is: a party that will always pledge its allegiance to corporate interests and billionaires. For newly minted radicals, however, that shift rightly comes as a dousing disappointment. To these passionate revolutionaries, I implore you not to let the Democratic Party’s subterfuge extinguish the fire inside you. Use that dousing to temper your spirit for the fight ahead. To effect any kind of meaningful change in our country, working-class and middle-class voters would be wise to divest themselves from the Democratic and Republican parties altogether and build new parties and alliances that better serve their interests.
As criticism from the left accumulates, pundits and establishment loyalists will increasingly frame the Biden campaign’s pitch for decency as a coalition-building tactic designed to cast as wide a net as possible. The big-tent defense is another part of the standard Democratic Party playbook for so-called swingable elections. By admonishing the left, brandishing Republican endorsements like trust badges, and hammering home the notion that a shared deference to some universal, albeit nebulous, concept of decency is the common thread that can mend the divisions in our country, Biden’s campaign is trying to do what so many Democratic campaigns aim to do: take their plurality out of the middle.
If history is any indication, that’s a gamble that is likely to almost pay off (which, I’d argue, is exactly what the establishment wants). Yes, Joe Biden, like so many other establishment Democrats before him, will finish this race in a close second. It’s not a great result, of course, but the history books will no doubt say his performance in this race was, well… decent.