Americans Believe Nothing Is Getting Better. Biden Feeds That Disillusionment

David Sirota / Guardian UK
Americans Believe Nothing Is Getting Better. Biden Feeds That Disillusionment President Biden leaves the Roosevelt Room of The White House on April 28 after speaking on Ukraine and taking questions from reporters. (photo: Demetrius Freeman/WP)

As his poll numbers crater, Biden appears to be offering no course correction. He still hasn’t signed a stack of potentially wildly popular executive orders on matters ranging from debt cancellation to drug pricing

“I’m going to become the Joker” is some of the internet’s most poignant shorthand. Referencing Todd Phillips’ dark 2019 film about the origins of the Batman villain, the phrase describes becoming so thoroughly disillusioned that one loses faith in everything.

Data about mental health suggests that even the most preternaturally chipper among us have tasted the Joker pill during the pandemic. But what if that Jokerfication is not fleeting? And what if it’s happening at a cultural, societal and institutional level?

This is the epochal question – because both parties’ leaders have accepted Jokerfication as the new permanent normal, and the Biden White House is actively convincing a generation to believe nothing will fundamentally change.

President Joe Biden started out in a much different direction. Right after being sworn in, he signed an American Rescue Plan that rightly provided direct economic aid to millions of non-rich people. As poverty subsequently dropped, Biden’s poll numbers temporarily rose, seemingly halting the ascent of Republicans’ authoritarian mob.

But now things have stalled, and Biden seems intent on accelerating – rather than combating – a rising tide of disillusionment.

Tossing the Republican party a lifeline, he has reverted to his familiar formula:he promises big changes that could help the working class – and then prevents those changes from happening.

He speechifies about the need to address crises he then makes worse.

He blames Congress for gridlock but will not pressure lawmakers or use his executive authority to do things.

He promises policy reforms that his own agencies decline to implement.

The public seems to sense the gaslighting: Biden’s approval ratings are plummeting and anti-government sentiment has spiked as his strategy Joker-pills the country.

As his poll numbers crater, Biden appears to be offering no course correction, and he still hasn’t signed a stack of executive orders on matters ranging from debt cancellation to drug pricing. Caught between the electorate and Democrats’ campaign sponsors, he appears to have decided that he cannot – or does not want to – stop the spread of the Joker pill. So he is now just mainlining its active ingredients into America’s veins with bold promises and even bolder betrayals.

Consider a brief list:

If this pile of Joker pills wasn’t poisonous enough, down-ballot Democrats have mimicked the behavior.

For example, Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been on a tour defending billionaires, fossil fuel companies and pharmaceutical conglomerates.

Over in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a media spectacle out of defending legislators profiting off well-timed stock trades as they receive inside information from their government jobs.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Progressive Caucus leadership has spent its time demoralizing the progressive base, betraying promises to hold the line on important policy priorities.

In the face of all this, Democrats’ campaign apparatus has gotten downright desperate. It is now airing ads boasting about a “historic middle-class tax cut”, a tax credit that has already expired, and an insulin price cap that hasn’t actually been passed into law – as if no one will be infuriated by those realities, even though data suggests many voters already are.

Amid an explosion of child poverty following the end of the expanded child tax credit, the Washington commentariat wonders why so many polls show an electorate enraged at Democrats — and it’s certainly true that right-wing media has successfully duped a chunk of voters into not believing some basic economic realities.

But the real story here is more than the Fox News effect. It’s full-scale Jokerfication.

Americans’ lived experiences with the climate crisis and with increasing costs for healthcare, housing, energy, higher education, and retirement have made two things clear:

1) The economy has been so rigged by tax loopholes, trade deals, deregulation, and corporate subsidies that even with good macro data, many Americans are getting pulverized. Indeed, inflation-adjusted wages are declining, most people are still getting crushed by the costs of basic necessities, and the threat of climate ecocide is growing.

2) Politicians may say encouraging things on television and Twitter feeds, but they are not doing what’s necessary to permanently improve things for anyone other than corporate and billionaire donors – whose profits and net worths are booming.

You can see how these realizations are Joker-pilling the country by looking at three emblematic data points.

There is the poll showing Democrats losing their edge among voters who were cut off from the child tax credit.

There are surveys showing Biden’s plummeting numbers among core Democratic constituencies that feel betrayed by his policies and actions.

And now there are polls showing his numbers have so disintegrated among younger voters that he is below where even Trump was among that age group, which has seen a rise in deaths of despair as they face “almost no chance of being able to afford a house”, can’t afford the cost of having children, are being hammered by college debt and confront a climate apocalypse.

This generation may not be Arthur Fleck dancing down stairways, but the Gotham City vibe of desperation is real.

Heading into the midterms, both corporate media and the Republican party see their self-interest in helping Democrats completely Jokerfy the entire country into believing absolutely nothing can be done – other than burn everything to the ground.

The former is lately focused on flogging the idea that inflation isn’t about what it’s actually about: corporations using monopoly power to jack up prices, lobbyist-written trade policies that off-shored supply chains, pandemic-related production shortages, and huge pay increases for the yacht set. Instead, media millionaires paid by billionaires are promoting all nihilism all the time, asking viewers to believe inflation is mostly the result of the government trying to temporarily help poor people survive Covid.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, are promising nothing but the business end of a legislative flamethrower.

House Republicans are proposing budget cuts that would incinerate Medicare and Medicaid. Senator Rick Scott is proposing to scorch the poor with tax increases. And Senator Mitt Romney suggested that America should consider torching workers’ retirement benefits.

And so here we are, arriving at Jokerfied America – a conflagration that Franklin Roosevelt feared, where more and more people don’t believe in democratic government at all.

If this inferno feels familiar, that’s because it is. It was not long ago that Obama’s Wall Street fealty and Hillary Clinton’s “it will never, ever happen” campaign so disenchanted voters that the country elected a Joker to the presidency. The 2020 election was a reprieve, but that is now starting to look like merely a momentary rest stop on a nihilistic road trip hurtling toward 2022 and beyond.

That journey doesn’t mean nothing good is happening. In fact, the accelerated disillusionment with politicians and electoralism may end up prompting a different, more direct kind of constructive politics.

For example, it is no coincidence that as young people and workers lose faith in the political system, America has experienced an upsurge of labor organizing campaigns, and the population’s approval of unions has hit record highs. The same trend may happen with the climate movement and ballot activism for economic causes that actually help workers.

But those positive developments will compete with the noxious effects of the Joker pill – bigotry, xenophobia, self-centric greed, misinformation, right-wing vigilantism, and incitements to violence.

With Trump as its clown face, the Maga movement is channeling mass disaffection into ever-more-malicious culture wars that demonize minorities, the LGBTQ community, socialists, unionists, academics, protesters, and anyone else who can be other-ized and scapegoated.

Those rightwing tactics are so cynical they almost seem like a gag. But as Joker reminds us, there is no punchline. In a country where “I don’t believe in anything” is fast becoming the zeitgeist, the scheme is likely to work – unless those in power start delivering for the working class.

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