The welcome lack of enthusiasm for Joe Biden

Given that hatred of Bill Clinton and George W Bush were also mass-participation sports, Mr Biden promises to be the first president since the latter’s father whom a large majority of Americans could more or less live with. What he cannot command in enthusiasm he makes up for in what we might call legitimacy. Had he lost the nomination to Bernie Sanders, a Democrat with a fervent flock, America would be in line for another dialling up of partisan tension, whoever wins in November.

Political enthusiasm is not just the cause of problems, but also the symptom of them. It can sometimes seem that, as the US has atomised, citizens have returned to politics as a means of emotional expression and human belonging. Partisan tribe fills in for family, neighbourhood, romantic love and friendship. A generation has passed since the Harvard professor Robert Putnam traced the decline of associational life in his “Bowling Alone” essay. Cause and effect are nightmares to establish, but, starting with the new congressional Republicans of 1994, it has been a generation of “my party right or wrong”. It follows that one’s leader is not just an executor of policies but the object of blind loyalty. “Enthusiasm” can be a euphemism for something altogether weird and pernicious.

The problem, in other words, is not Mr Biden’s failure to kindle passion in people. It is our psychic need for such a person in the first place. His election might reacquaint the US with politics as it should be and has been: a machine for the arbitration of conflicting claims, and not as the basis of one’s whole identity.

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