Recall, if you can stomach it, the ugly, confused aftermath of the 2016 elections, when everyone who voted for Hillary Clinton spent weeks agonizing over what had gone wrong, and what they hadn’t seen coming. Was it Russia? Her e-mails? Bernie? Lack of a ground game in the Midwest? Poor performance at the debates? Failure to pounce on the pussy-grabbing tape? Benghazi? Racism? Economic anxiety? Racist economic anxiety? Different tribes clung to their preferred reasons, but the wisest of us can retroactively recognize that the admixture of all these elements (and more) unexpectedly catapulted Donald Trump to the presidency.
So things are different this time as 2020 closes in on us. We don’t want to be caught flat-footed in the same way, and since the exact winning combination of elements remains unknown, an excruciating self-awareness permeates the political discourse. Every angle must be explored so what when the winners and losers are declared, nobody can say they didn’t see it coming — hence the confusing, increasingly prominent strain of thought that The Onion is partially responsible for the elevation of Joe Biden’s candidacy.
When Barack Obama picked Joe Biden to serve as his running mate in 2008, the conventional wisdom saw Biden as the jocular, hangdog opposite of Obama’s calculated, cool persona, the High Life to his IPA. This perspective was formally embraced by America’s favorite satirical publication The Onion, which wrote dozens of headlines spinning Biden as a buffoonish, vaguely criminal cool uncle. Here’s a few of them: “Biden Clenches Plastic Beer Cup In Teeth To Free Hands For Clapping”; “Biden Has Guy Named Worm Sit In For Him At Cabinet Meeting”; “Biden Working His Way Through Scratch-Off Tickets During Obama's Swearing-In”; and so on. The joke, repeated over and over, was that Biden was sort of a fuck-up who’d lucked his way into this spot, and ha ha, wasn’t it sort of funny? It was sort of funny, because the stakes were seemingly low and because The Onion was not a paper of record responsible holding our politicians accountable.
The real Joe Biden, however, is a mixed bag of a person. His decades-long voting record bears plenty of ideological contradictions and disappointments. He attacked Anita Hill, supported an ugly crime bill, voted for the War in Iraq, isn’t seemingly terrified about climate change, is weirdly pervy toward women, insists the Republicans can be negotiated with, the list goes on. Most of this was known, but it all took on new relevance with Biden emerging as the 2020 Democratic presidential frontrunner following his entry to the race last month. And last week, a former editor at The Onion wanted to let you know he was really sorry about all of the jokes.
“I can’t speak for my colleagues, but at the time, I didn’t take him seriously enough to think we were doing anything wrong,” Joe Garden wrote for Vice in a piece about his regretful role pushing this version of Biden. “I thought of him as little more than a political necessity: the older, more conservative white guy who softened Barack Obama’s image in regions where the prospect of a black president was too radical. A deeper dive on Biden never felt necessary.” He continued: “As I watch him campaign as an old (-fashioned, -school, -old) centrist, I realize how badly we screwed up. Instead of viciously skewering a public figure who deserved scrutiny, we let him off easy. The joke was funny, but it didn’t hit hard enough.”
The piece included some gossip about how figures in the Obama White House loved the caricatures (a sure sign that the satire wasn’t doing its intended job), and how the editors should’ve looked harder at his political record. Those conclusions were echoed by a similar piece in MEL, and plenty of other people across the internet who’ve recognized the disparity between the two Bidens.
We are living in a timeline where some guy at *The Onion* who wanted an easy headline beat has singlehandedly rehabilitated Joe Biden so that he’s the 2020 front runner. Shoot me into the sun I’m ready— christina (@floozyesq) March 12, 2019
I'm convinced that no one actually likes Biden, they like the pop culture version of Biden that was created by *The Onion* and shit like those detective novels about him. The actual man isn't likable.— Joseph Fink 🐞 (@PlanetofFinks) December 12, 2018
Honestly, I feel like *The Onion*’s version of Biden is responsible for like 80% of his popularity. https://t.co/yL0CLSPJPi— Mari Brighe (@MariBrighe) March 20, 2019
I feel like *The Onion* being openly socialist now is penance for them rehabilitating Joe Biden's image— Kate Aronoff (@KateAronoff) March 30, 2019
At first glance, it’s easy to understand why this Onion depiction has come up for close scrutiny. If you’re a particular kind of internet user, which is to say “very online” and somewhat politically to the left, these stories — considered with the chilling knowledge that Biden, a rude, “gotta hear both sides” centrist Democrat might be the next president — feel incredibly archaic, if not somewhat dangerous, because of their potential role in terraforming Biden’s reputation to voters. For basically a decade, one of the country’s premier comedic institutions treated him as an endearing joke, rather than a frustrating emblem of institutional D.C. politics. And in the post-2016 climate, in which the way everything has been done is up for debate, it presents an easy moment for self-reflection.
But consider some other factors. Per polling, Biden’s main support comes from older, moderate, and non-college educated demographics. Millennials don’t particularly hate or love Biden, but Democratic millennials are increasingly socialist and left-wing, which is to say there’s probably more skepticism of him than from other generations. The Onion’s readership has fallen for years; the publication went online-only in 2013, following the same trends in journalism that have affected the entire industry; but it still attracts something like six to eight million unique readers a month. Its readership is pointedly younger than its competitors, and the writers clearly veer to the left.
So, to recap: Joe Biden’s biggest supporters are older and moderate, and The Onion’s readership is younger and more liberal, while also being a fraction of the electorate considering its readership isn’t that big. In other words, they’re the people who are least likely to support Biden, if you even accept the idea that Onion readers constitute any meaningful voting bloc… which hasn’t stopped the tsk-tsking about The Onion’s role in enabling Biden’s rise to the top.
Garden didn’t put the whole blame on The Onion; he said that the paper was “just one small link in a chain of institutions that didn’t scrutinize Biden closely enough.” That’s technically true, though I’d say that it’s a really, really, really small link, and that it ignores the ability of readers to laugh at the Biden joke while still remembering that he’s still Joe Biden, and not a beer-swilling cad. (Like, you know, all the “smart” leftists who did the same.)
I am willing to put my neck out with another hypothesis about Biden’s popularity: That he was a jovial sidekick to a popular and visible president for eight years, and that, like most politicians, avoided any protracted and obvious controversy during his time in office. America, like every country in the world, valorizes its leaders because of a collective hope that they’re the best of us, and can lead us to success. It’s intellectually limited and frustrating, but it’s just the way it is. The vice president rarely comes up for scrutiny in that process, unless he really fucks up; even Mike Pence is relatively liked, despite the fact that he’s a ghoul who is taken to task by left-leaning satirists every single day.
Biden has other forces bolstering his image: he’s a recognizable straight white man, and voters are terrified of Trump possibly winning again and want to go with the most “electable” option. There’s just way more “normal Democrats” than avowed socialist-leaning types — and again, there’s the Obama nostalgia. He has so many natural advantages, and yet some of the young and online believe The Onion could have played a bigger role in defanging Biden’s ascent, in this moment where everything is up for analysis. It’s possible, though if we’re placing that much faith in the ability of satirical newspapers to swing political sentiment, then the super-PACs should’ve put their money into digital media, not TV ads.
Or perhaps I’m understating it and the Onion-Biden doubters are on the money. Maybe millions of Onion readers internalized the Biden depiction and have respawned that energy into the world, leading to his polling edge. Still, in the rush to be self-aware about what brought us here I sense the same kind of myopia that occluded Trump’s rise — the belief that because your world is the world, and that by casually reading into the emotional valences surrounding you can interpret reality in a way that feels right, though it’s no more verifiable than “well………….. maybe.” Biden is popular because of several-dozen intersecting factors, only some of which have to do with digital media, and almost none of which have to do with photoshopped aviators. But a problem is much easier to diagnose when you’re convinced you had something to do with it; it flatters our egos to imagine a different outcome, had we simply acted differently. The complete reality is much vaster, and more terrifyingly unknowable.