GUEST COMMENTARY - Our aging republic is wasting away. Our democracy may be dying.
But the Joe-mocracy survives.
My fellow Americans, too many of you fail to understand the true nature of government in the United States, here in the third decade of the 21st century. Since 2020, our country has not been governed by its people or by its representative institutions.
Instead, we’ve become a Joe-mocracy. That is, we are governed by people named Joe.
But not by all Joes. The American Joe-mocracy is an avuncular autocracy, led by two elderly Joes from two different mid-Atlantic states that, taken together, have a half-million fewer residents than San Diego County.
One is Delaware’s Joe Biden, 80, current occupant of the presidency, a job with more power than even a responsible God would want to bear. The other is Joe Manchin, 75, of West Virginia, who occupies the pivotal and powerful center in a divided Senate.
Over the past two years, virtually all of the significant governing by U.S. elected officials—on major legislation from infrastructure to inflation—was achieved by compromise between the two Joes. And since this is a country of partisan extremists that abhors compromise, the Joe-mocracy succeeded mostly in uniting the left and right in frustration.
Given all that anger—and the unpopularity of the Joes—it appeared that the Joe-mocracy would fall from power after November’s elections. But improbably, the elections provided an unexpected endorsement of the Joe-mocratic status quo. For the next two years, the Senate remains divided, under the narrow Democratic control that Manchin exploits.
The House, now barely in GOP hands, remains so split that, to achieve anything at all, the likely Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield—a city with five times more people than any West Virginia or Delaware municipality—will have to negotiate with the Joes.
America is supposed to be an exceptional place, and yet the name Joe—as I well know—is unexceptional.
This triumph of the Joe-mocracy is a huge political upset. Because the Joes in question so embody the cultural meaning of the name.
America is supposed to be an exceptional place, and yet the name Joe—as I well know—is unexceptional. Average Joe, Joe Citizen, Joe Blow, Joe Schmo, Joe Sixpack. Indeed Joe, once a common name, has become less common; I know not a single Joe among my children’s friends—it’s all Liams and Lucases these days.
Nothing about Joe says “national leadership.” That’s why, early in the Democratic primaries, I thought that Biden never would get elected president. We’d never elected a Joe before, and this one seemed too tired, too old, too mediocre to win high office in a country that, in leaders, responded to talk of great hope and exalted dreams.
But when Biden won anyway, I realized that country was a thing of the past. We no longer live in a dreamy, aspirational nation. We are as tired and old and mediocre as the Joes in charge.
As the United States becomes less dynamic, its politics have grown rigid and inflexible. The UCLA scholar of American politics and policy Lynn Vavreck and colleagues, in new research on the 2020 election, identify the problem as “calcification.” One of its by-products, they say, is that “within parties, people are more alike than ever.” Our sameness makes Americans boring.
Which is why it makes sense that a couple of boring Joes are running the country.
Let’s be fair: the Joe-mocracy can claim some victories. Manchin and Biden got through a huge stimulus and major investments in infrastructure and climate change. The Joe-mocracy also has quietly cemented official American consensus on issues that once were hot-buttons, like same-sex marriage.
But the Joe-mocracy offers no clear vision of the future, because the Joes in charge are stuck in the past. To a degree that is shockingly underappreciated, the Joe-mocracy has resembled a second Trump term, with the continuation of their predecessor’s worst policies—violations of immigrant rights, protectionism, inflationary spending, and pointless fights with European allies. The Joe-mocracy’s best policies—like tax credits and cash supports that cut child poverty in half—are expiring. And in a very old and tired way, the Joes have given up on major American problems, especially our gun violence.
The Joes talk a big game about democracy at international conferences, but they don’t always practice democracy at home. The Joe-mocrats failed to protect voting rights, centralized more power in the federal government, and ignored innovations in democratic deliberation that are sweeping the world.
The Joe-mocracy has taken on China, but won few allies overseas for that effort. China may be a dictatorship, but the Politburo Standing Committee is a team of seven communists. America is ruled by just two Joes.
And if they can stay healthy and alive, those Joes will have another two years in power before they face difficult elections in 2024. They’d probably both be wise to retire, and hand power to people with different first names in 2025.
Because Joe-America can’t remain a Joe-mocracy much longer, right?
(Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square where this article was first featured.)