Niall Ferguson: After Biden's disastrous debate, the Democratic party awaits its Gorbachev
“The big and convenient lie that Biden was compos mentis is now over; the big and inconvenient truth that Trump is out for revenge is taking its place.” (Photo by Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

Niall Ferguson: The Democratic Party Awaits Its Gorbachev

The iPhones of the well-manicured elite are burning up from Aspen to Martha’s Vineyard. What comes next?

The most impressive feature of Thursday’s debate between Brezhnev and Andropov—sorry, Trump and Biden—is that anyone watching was in the least surprised by what it revealed.

The president is senile. The former president is a blowhard. Both these truths have been obvious for years. Yet somehow The New York Times editorial board, the hosts of Pod Save America, and numerous other eminent liberal authorities were shocked by what CNN broadcast from Atlanta.

It all put me in mind of Donald Rumsfeld’s typology of knowledge from back in 2002. “As we know,” he told journalists at a briefing about the alleged ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”

This framework can be traced back to a 1955 paper by the psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham. Rumsfeld himself attributed it to NASA administrator William Graham, with whom he had worked in the 1990s on the congressional Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States

But the category Rumsfeld omitted—the one I’ve been thinking of since Thursday—is the category of “unknown knowns.” These are perfectly obvious dangers that decision-makers unconsciously or willfully ignore because they do not accord with their preconceptions. 

Last year we saw another striking example of an unknown known. After the pogrom carried out by Hamas against Israel on October 7, 2023, elite university campuses erupted with protests that in many cases were pro-Hamas or overtly antisemitic. Some of the world’s most brilliant investors were shocked to discover that the elite colleges they have been supporting with their hundreds of millions of dollars have enrolled or employed a substantial number of leftists whose “progressive” views include variants of antisemitism. 

But this has been clear to anyone who bothered to visit the Harvard or Yale campus over the last decade.   

The question is: Are we dealing here with genuine myopia? Or are the people professing to be shocked by Harvard antisemitism or Biden’s senility more like Captain Renault in Casablanca, who professes to be “shocked, shocked” that people are gambling at Rick’s nightclub, even as he pockets his winnings? The answer is that they are much closer to Captain Renault than they would care to admit to themselves because, like him, they belong to a thoroughly corrupt political system.

People love to ask: “Are these really the best candidates we can come up with?” What they mean is: “Why has the American political system provided voters with this terrible choice between two embarrassing old men for the post of president?” 

It is a hard question to answer if you refuse to accept that our system today evinces similar symptoms to that of other degenerating polities, notably the Soviet Union in the 1980s. (There are other examples. The last communist leaders of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Romania were all in their seventies.)

Since my latest column in these pages—which made the argument that we’ve recently become more like the Soviets than we want to face—there have been dissenting opinions, from Jonah Goldberg and Noah Smith, among others. However, as Ross Douthat acknowledged, one undeniable common factor is a leadership selection process that produces embarrassing old men.

There are five structural reasons for American political senescence.

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