How Do You Solve a Problem Like Joe Biden?

August 12, 2019

What ‘Teflon Joe’ Has Going For & Against Him

The White Rooster Effect & Democratic Voter Preferences

By Al Giordano

This is an excerpt from Issue #90 of Al Giordano’s América, sent by email and available in full here to logged-in subscribers. To gain access to the entire essay and all the backstage content at Organize & Win donate here, then register your account and we’ll quickly approve it.

To understand why so many voters who in 2007 and 2008 were not at all interested in Joe Biden as a candidate for president are backing him today, let’s observe the social behavior of chickens.

In the field next to my home there are various small flocks of free-range chickens that spend their days combing the earth for insects, worms, edible plants, moles and other small rodents to dine on. Each flock has a dominant rooster and although there are multiple hens, one of them is dominant in each, too (that’s where the term “pecking order” comes from). If there are other roosters and cockerels (young roosters) in the flock they keep their heads down and stay off to the sides of the group, deferential to the alpha, who regularly crows to remind of his rule and warn that he’ll fight any rooster that contests for his territory.

Out here in the mountains, hawks, eagles and other predators threaten from above. The alpha rooster keeps his head up and a watchful eye for them. When one flies near he sounds a warning. The hens and chicks run for the nearest brush in which to hide as he follows up the rear.

From time to time early in the day a flock comes up close to my bedroom window and the rooster crows before I want to hear him. I go to the window overlooking them and swing it open. The rooster hears and sees my movement up above, signals his warning call, and the flock runs as if a hawk has been spotted for cover where it remains quiet at least for a while until the perception of danger subsides.

One day I noticed something very interesting and different. There were a couple of hens outside my window unaccompanied by any rooster, clucking away while I was trying to write. I went to the window, opened it, and stuck my head out, hoping to shoo them away. They looked at me unfazed and continued grazing and pecking for food. I clapped my hands to startle them. They ignored me! In all the other cases a rooster gave the warning that triggered their fear and flight during previous window openings. But without the rooster they had no queue to feel afraid and thus were not afraid of something that was not a real threat.

The rooster deploys fear, even when unnecessary, as a tactic to control the flock, of making himself seem more useful than he actually is. And generations of social evolution of the species have led chickens to these behavioral responses. Remind you of any other species you know?

Now, what does this fowl story have to do with Joe Biden?

The White Rooster Effect

The voters in 2007 and 2008 were more attracted to Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton than to Joe Biden or the other white male candidates in that cycle, each a potential “first” to end the uninterrupted monopoly of white male presidencies in the US. There was fear at first, particularly among black voters, that a black man couldn’t win. Obama countered that by running on hope, which worked because hope is an antidote to fear.

Twelve years later, the Democratic flock in American politics has become fearful. Still in trauma that Trump won the Electoral College in 2016 and over the manifold harms his governance has brought to human life and the fate of the earth, they’re doing what creatures do when frightened. They’re seeking a protector from central casting: a white rooster.

But we are not chickens. We’re humans. And we should use our powers of reason to behave as such. Too many people have swallowed false narratives as to why Trump became president. There are African-Americans and others who believe Trump is president because white Americans couldn’t handle a black presidency. And while there is a lot of truth to that it carries the wrong lesson because Obama already had been reelected in 2012 and nobody doubts that if he had run in 2016 that he would have won again. That’s one big cognitive dissonance weighing on their choices in 2020. “America couldn’t handle a black president,” but yes, in fact America could and did.

Likewise, there are women and men in America who believe Trump won the presidency because the voters couldn’t handle the concept of a woman as president. Paradoxically, this fear has often been reinforced by some Clinton supporters when people correctly point out how misogyny and sexism were wielded as weapons against her candidacy by the news media, by Trump, and before him by Bernie Sanders, and by many of the most rabid supporters of both. Again, there is great truth to that, but it was not at all outcome-determinative to the 2016 results. Clinton won the by three million votes while targeted disinformation, loony third-party candidacies and voter suppression in three Rust Belt states took care of the rest. “America couldn’t handle a woman president,” but yes, most American voters in fact could and did vote for one.

Both of these common take-aways – that a woman or person of color can’t beat Trump – from 2016 are false narratives. They are dead wrong. But the undertow of fear wrought by that electoral tsunami has triggered many people, even some who know better, to think betting on a white man to take on Trump is the safer play. It’s not, but how would we chickens know that while we have long been conditioned like barnyard birds to live by our fears?

It is out of this Petri dish of fear that the “electability” myth was conjured. Indeed, Biden may be hovering around 30 percent of Democratic voter preferences nationwide but when those same voters are asked in surveys who is the “most electable” against Trump around 50 percent say Biden. The “electability” question favors a white man because of that White Rooster Effect. “Who can beat Trump?” is a fear-based question that will always skew some sector of voters toward a white man.

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