Calls for Biden’s Withdrawal Are a Sign of a Healthy Democratic Party

The reaction to last night’s presidential debate showed that America’s two major political parties are not remotely the same.

One has transformed into a cult of personality that continues to intensify its unwavering support for a presumptive nominee who is a convicted felon and habitual liar—a man who incited a violent mob to try to overturn an election, and whom courts have found liable for sexual assault and banned from doing business in New York. The other is in full-blown panic mode, considering whether an incumbent president should drop out of the race after he sounded frail in a debate.

Republican fealty to Donald Trump—no matter his crimes, no matter his moral transgressions—is the hallmark of authoritarian devotion to a man, regardless of policies or ideas. It’s the telltale sign of a broken political party—one that long ago abandoned principles and values, falling back instead on an amoral, unwavering allegiance, by which Trump can do no wrong.

By contrast, the Democratic freak-out over Joe Biden is a sign of a healthy political party. Individual leaders—no matter how effective, decent, or well-intentioned—are not sacred cows, to be valued above the national interest. Democrats view Biden the way that normal political parties view their leaders: as a vessel to achieve policy goals that will improve the lives of citizens. Nothing more, nothing less. This is why you don’t see Priuses adorned with Biden flags or bumper stickers depicting him riding a giant eagle. It’s embarrassing in a rational political party to fuse your identity with a man rather than his message. Republicans long ago jettisoned that shame.

Consider this basic, damning fact: Trump lied constantly throughout the debate and refused to say that he would accept the outcome of the upcoming election. Not a single Republican in Congress condemned his lies, nor did they call on him to drop out of the race. A functioning political party would feature some dissent, with party leaders asking whether making a convicted felon the party’s political standard-bearer is really the best idea. But among the Republicans, crickets—because everyone knows that questioning the leader is political suicide. Get on the Trump train and ride it until the very end, or wind up in the political graveyard alongside Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney.

Republican devotion to Trump reminds me of a dynamic I’ve encountered while studying authoritarian regimes in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. In many of those systems, once a political party has coalesced around a charismatic demagogue, debate ends. Internal dissent is harshly punished. A destructive cycle follows: Leaders never face criticism, so their blunders get compounded. By contrast, in healthy, democratic political parties, dissent offers the possibility of course correction; voters and party leaders grumble or even openly challenge their leader, and either the leader changes or the party changes leaders. This responsiveness is the greatest strength of democratic governance. Republicans under Trump have smothered it—at our peril.

Many Democrats are worried that the debate over Biden’s political future will have devastating consequences. The worst-case scenario for Democrats is to have an ugly, public rupture, in which swaths of the party call on Biden to drop out, others defend him, and he ultimately limps toward November after suffering from an intra-party battering. But the best-case scenario—an internal course correction, brought about by healthy questioning of the party’s leadership—could be very positive. The White House could be made to understand the urgent need to change its political strategy, or the party could produce an alternative nominee with, perhaps, a better chance of winning in November.

The optics are understandably upsetting for Democrats. One candidate’s age-related frailty prompts calls from his party to step aside, whereas nobody in the GOP seems even remotely bothered that a lying authoritarian will lead their ticket into November, even if he must do so from a jail cell. But the urgent question facing Democrats isn’t whether the situation is fair or reasonable. It’s not.

Between Trump and Biden, Biden is unequivocally the better choice. But some Democrats are also, understandably, asking themselves: Is there a preferable alternative candidate who can, with minimal political damage, replace him on the ticket and protect democracy by defeating Trump? Nobody knows the answer, but questioning party strategy is a rational response to Biden’s stumble in a high-stakes moment for the most consequential election in modern history.

Having that conversation is not a mark of a party in disarray, but rather an indication that the Democrats are currently the sole reflective, responsive political party in America. We can only hope that the discussion happens quickly, that the political fallout is minimal, and that come what may, voters in November recognize what Republicans cannot: that an authoritarian felon should never be president.

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