In times of crisis, a certain sort of cynicism tends to set in: a citizenry’s belief that, despite feeling dissatisfied with the state of affairs or the leadership of the country, none of it actually matters. Because surely, those who rule us have a plan. Even when a political class is teetering on the brink, this automatic faith in its competence is enough to keep people from grabbing their pitchforks.

It is for this reason that the current political crisis playing out in the United States might end up being one for the history books. As far back as the 2020 election, there had been whispers about Joe Biden’s cognitive decline. Since then, supporting evidence continued to mount — until 27 June, when the President’s house of cards came crashing down.

A fortnight after that wretched debate, the Democratic Party has passed through a stage of shock, then grief, only to now arrive at a determination to push Biden out. Polling is now showing that an increasing number of Americans believe Biden is too old to stand; party donors are in revolt; and senior Democrat lawmakers are publicly urging the President to resign. As the trickle of leaks from the White House increasingly turns into a deluge, the picture that emerges is one of a collapsing administration.

Yet the real crisis at the heart of the American political system is not the punctured pretence of Biden being able to run things. Rather, the problem is almost the opposite: it’s now become clear that nobody is doing the job for him. Protected in the White House by his disgraced son-turned-gatekeeper Hunter, and powered by the conviction that the presidency is his God-given right, Biden, somehow, is still the one calling the shots.

“Rather, the problem is almost the opposite: it’s now become clear that nobody is doing the job for him.”

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise: in America, the President is the head of the executive branch of the government, the only person with the authority to give orders to — and coordinate with — every branch of the executive apparatus. If he does not do this job, nobody else has the formal authority to step in: the Treasury Secretary, for example, cannot simply decide to give orders to the Pentagon.

Nor is this a situation lacking in historical precedent. In 1848, the Austrian Empire faced an incredibly serious set of crises, after a string of revolutions in Italy, Hungary and even Vienna threatened to tear apart the entire empire. The Emperor of Austria, Ferdinand I, was severely disabled since birth, and couldn’t be expected to navigate this crisis. Beyond his mental infirmity, simple day-to-day activities would trigger extremely serious epileptic seizures. In 1831, after Ferdinand was wed to Princess Maria Anna of Savoy, he suffered five seizures as he tried — and ultimately failed — to consummate the marriage.

But because the Emperor was the head of the Austrian state, his inability to do his job led to the various people underneath him picking contradictory policies and fighting factional battles against each other. As Prince Klemens von Metternich and Count Franz Anton von Kolowrat-Liebsteinsky — the two most notable members of the government at the time — attempted to increase their dominions, Austria see-sawed dangerously back and forth between one set of incompatible policies and another, even as the crises continued to fester. Armed struggle was breaking out in Italy, the Czechs were talking about independence, the Hungarians were clearly moving towards breaking free from Habsburg rule, and the streets of Vienna were filled with demonstrators and barricades. An impotent Ferdinand could do nothing about any of this, and the people who were supposedly running Austria on his behalf were too busy feuding to notice.

So how was this resolved? Finally, in December 1848, as Austria’s situation finally became too desperate to ignore, Ferdinand I was pressured to abdicate. Everyone agreed that the factional power struggles inside the state apparatus had to be alleviated; and everyone knew that required a fully capable Emperor. Thus, after a few dynastic tussles within the Habsburg family, all potential claimants were eventually convinced to abandon their claims and clear the way for the 18-year-old Franz Joseph I, who actually turned out to be a very good choice. He would become one of the longest-reigning monarchs in the history of Europe.

When compared with today, what gives this story a suitable twist was the pivotal role played by the ambitions of a single woman. In 1848, that woman was Princess Sophie of Bavaria, mother to Franz Joseph I. Her plans to finally place her son on the Austrian throne had been well known long before his accession, and it was through her hard work that Franz Joseph’s coronation became possible. Indeed, occasionally described as “the only man at court” in Vienna, it was through her work of cajoling, coercion, and persuasion that the rest of the imperial family finally got on board.

Today, the woman in question is Dr Jill Biden, who is clearly the most forceful voice urging her husband to continue with the presidential race, no matter the cost to the country. But she is far from acting alone. For many in Biden’s inner circle, their own fortunes are completely tied up with the man himself: if he falls, so will they. In this way, the entire American political system has essentially become hostage to one political family, whose interests are increasingly not in line with anyone else’s. One common reaction to the presidential debate was to call it a form of “elder abuse”: many viewers recoiled at the spectacle of an old man forced to perform a role for which he was clearly no longer, when he should be spending his last years relaxing. But what is the health of an individual man, compared to dynastic ambition? We shouldn’t be surprised when such calls fall on deaf ears.

And yet, at this point, the pressure from donors, party operatives, and down-ballot candidates has probably passed the point at which it could be stopped: not removing Biden now will probably cause greater damage to the party’s credibility than forcing him out will. And that’s before we face up to the damage to the credibility of America at large.

Just as Austria was unable to deal with crises abroad in 1848 due to its domestic dysfunction, so is America trying to keep a lid on the Middle East, prevent Ukraine from losing, and keep Beijing at bay in the South China Sea. It is arguably failing in each of those theatres, and this current crisis is unlikely to change that.

More important, however, is revealing to the Americans themselves that the people who rule them no longer have a plan. At this point, nobody in America believes their senile leader can do the job of president for four more years, and most have stopped trying to argue that he can. But even so, even with disaster so clearly visible ahead — whether it comes six months or a year from now — Biden is pressing on, openly taunting the Gods themselves to intervene to stop him.

And perhaps this is where the 1848 analogy should give way to another. America might not be particularly interested in classical Greek tragedy, by and large. But as this disaster slowly unfolds at the heart of the US political system, it appears Greek tragedy has become interested in America.

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