Dead Candidates Society

Photo by Chris Charles

Why—to await democracy’s end—do we need the pre-existing condition of a Donald Trump restoration in the White House when already, almost a year before the 2024 presidential election, we are reduced to two dead men running?

In the Iowa caucuses, Trump received 56,260 votes (well, people standing in his corners of school gymnasiums) in a state that has 2,083,979 registered voters. In other words, 2.6 percent of all Iowa voters. For that effort CNN celebrated with the headline: “Trumps landslide Iowa win is a stunning show of strength after leaving Washington in disgrace.”

In the New Hampshire primary, Trump polled 163,700 votes in a state with 1,000,925 voters, so he won 16 percent, over which the New York Times chanted: “Trumps Win Adds to Air of Inevitability as Haley Sharpens Edge.”

I guess it’s all a matter of perception: in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, Senator Eugene McCarthy polled 42 percent of Democratic voters against 48 percent for sitting President Lyndon Johnson, but the headlines announced that Johnson had been dealt a stunning blow and shortly thereafter he resigned from the race.

Not that the Democrats in 2024 are any more democratic than the Republicans. For this Democratic nomination, there are only three candidates, one of whom is a faith healer going into the primaries as if running to teach Potions at Hogwarts.

The other challenger to President Biden is Representative Dean Phillips, from the third congressional district in Minnesota. In New Hampshire Phillips polled about 21,000 votes (20 percent) and lost to Biden, who wasn’t even on the ballot. (His supporters wrote in his name about 55,000 times.) In many senses, that’s like losing to “none of the above.”

Phillips’ political views are not wildly different than Biden’s but at least he has the advantage of not being 81 years old (he’s 55) and can remember what he had for lunch.

He is quoted in Politico as saying: Hes a president of great competence and success, I admire the heck out of President Biden. And if he were 15-20 years younger it would be a no-brainer to nominate him, but considering his age its absurd were not promoting competition but trying to extinguish it.”

The last thing on Democrats’ minds, however, is a lively election—with debates, position papers, budgets, and speeches. Instead, they are ignoring Phillips and going with the Campaign of the Living Dead, which is the re-coronation of Joe Biden and a Great National Tiptoe past the electoral graveyard hoping (against hope) that he can defeat Donald Trump in November. (Think of a bloody hand, maybe with a gaudy gold ring, thrusting out of a grave in a horror movie…on his own Trump is already turning orange.)

Keep in mind that neither national party has ever had much time for democracy—all those pins, bumperstickers, and town meetings. For most of the country’s 58 presidential elections, the parties have done their best to nominate machine-ready candidates while paying lip service to the idea of popular selection.

Only in the 1970s were party nominations delivered to the winners of state presidential primaries, and even then, the parties threw “superdelegates” (aka party hacks) into the convention delegate mix, just so that things did not get out of hand (and someone as decent as Senator George McGovern might again win a major-party nomination).

You would think, when faced with national party failure (both Republican and Democratic) that a logical response would be to open up the primaries so that a majority of voters might get a say?

Think about it: primary voters could vote on apps in all fifty states, and votes could go through successive rounds (like March Madness but with ideas not t-shirts shot into the stands) until, in the end, the winning candidate had a majority of his or her party’s registered voters and had done better than, say, five or ten other candidates.

Would it not be consistent with some aspect of the democracy if candidates for the presidency had to express views (spoken and in writing?) on subjects as diverse as Gaza, the war in Ukraine, the budget deficit, climate change, health and child care, the housing crisis, monetary policy, Supreme Court vacations, and school shootings? (Lincoln and Douglas had to speak for five hours just on slavery.)

Or try this for a presidential winnowing exercise: put candidates on live television with pads of paper and pens, and ask them to write down answers on three or four national questions, and then have a moderator read out their written answers. (A bit like Final Jeopardy, although in this case the champion goes home with a country, not the lounge suite.)

Somehow I don’t think Biden writes as well as his speechwriters; and something tells me that Trump cannot even write. (Suspect he’s limited to his egocentric signature, one of the few man-made objects visible on the moon.)

As best as I can tell, the United States has given up on serious presidential elections and embraced a system of digitocracy, in which the rival campaigns post short video clips (think of TikTok, but not so intellectual) that have almost nothing to do with governing a country of 330 million people.

Something has to explain how Trump can get away with his “victory” speech in New Hampshire—a meandering soliloquy somewhere between The Caine Mutiny and The Sopranos.

Come November, the president is chosen in what feels a ratings sweep. (“Based on your watching January 6: Hang Mike Pence, we thought you might like It’s a Rigged Rigged System….Fight Like Hell….or Take Back Our Wall…”)

Then, of course, there are the all-important money primaries, which are based on the United Citizens principle of one dollar, one vote—or in the case of Trump, bail to the chief.

If in the 2024 election the choice turns out to be Trump vs. Biden, then really what will be on the ballot is some illusion of democracy, a process that to outward appearances has some candidates, bunting, and thirty-second spots (“…and I approve this character assassination…”), but that otherwise is so bankrupt that the best it can offer up is an apprentice felon against a ventriloquist’s dummy—portraits of a political system in liquidation.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.