During my time in Washington last month, I had the opportunity to ask an informed observer of the political scene if 2020 is shaping up to be a change election, along the lines of 2008, 2010, 2016 and 2018. He equivocated. Given how early it is, I couldn’t blame him. In hindsight, though, I may have asked the wrong question. The issue emerging for Democrats is whether 2020 will be a change election or a paradigm-shattering election. If Democrats could answer this question with certainty they would know whether to nominate someone who will run on a message of returning to normalcy or on a radical departure from politics as we have known it over the past two generations. Because they cannot know the answer to this question, they will need to let voters sort it out during the primaries, even as events seem to be taking a turn toward the dramatic.

The 2020 election could produce three possible outcomes. Democrats could offer a return to no-drama Obama-era liberalism and win with a candidate strong enough to unite that portion of the country that wants to remove Trump. They could win with a paradigm-changing agenda and a candidate who rejects both Trumpism and the system that gave rise to Trump in the first place, ushering in a new political era. Or they could lose with either candidate if enough anti-Trump voters find their nominee, respectively, uninspiring or too radical, producing a status quo outcome despite Donald Trump’s enduring unpopularity.  

There are early signs that Democrats are edging toward the second option despite the risk of experiencing the third. The substance of last month’s debate showed just how progressive the party has become since the Obama years (and, yes, I recognize that Obama was still president just two and a half years ago). Single payer proposals were off the table during the push for the Affordable Care Act, and a public option proved to be an impossible lift. Now, a public option is the most conservative position in a debate where Medicare for All has the support of three candidates (maybe four – Harris’ position is a bit opaque), all but one of whom has a realistic path to the nomination. Similarly, we have seen changes in how leading candidates talk about racial issues, gender equality and LGBTQ rights. Remember when Democratic leaders felt they had to keep their support for same-sex marriage to themselves? For that matter, when was the last time Democrats publicly embraced tax increases? This is clearly not your slightly older sibling’s Democratic Party.

Signs abound in the horserace, which is experiencing a shake-up as the name recognition phase ends and the large field of talented candidates has a chance for some one-on-one time with voters. Joe Biden, standard-bearer for the status quo ante, is a weak and brittle frontrunner. His inability to find his voice or footing when Kamala Harris confronted him on his history with racial issues speaks to a tone-deafness that has damaged his main argument about electability. As Biden falters, progressive candidates Warren and Harris are creeping up on him in the public’s view of their electability. Together they have more support than Biden and more room to grow. Even Bernie Sanders, who rightfully will be remembered as the grandfather of the leftward shift, is marching in place, offering up round two of his 2016 campaign while the rest of the party appears to be passing him by.

The ascent of progressive ideas and candidates is not surprising when you consider how public opinion has been radicalized in the Trump era. When Republicans were galvanized by Donald Trump and abandoned a generations-old political consensus, they ceded what remained of that consensus to their opponents. This space is now either occupied by Democrats or, in the case of what used to be the center-right, unoccupied. Collectively, it represents a solid majority — the 55% or so that says they will not consider voting to re-elect Trump — situated to the left of where the political middle used to be before the departure of the right. With hardcore Trump supporters out of reach, it’s hardly surprising that Democrats would go searching for the new center and gravitate leftward in the process. However, because this group is anything but monolithic, it can be tricky for Democrats to figure out where to plant themselves in order to maximize their returns from the anti-Trump electorate and assemble a coalition large and deep enough to win.

Politicians are fond of playing up the importance of every election, but if Democrats ultimately go with any of the leading candidates besides Biden, they will offer voters a more profound choice than they have had in two generations — more profound even than the choice in 2016, when Hillary Clinton represented continuation of the status quo. Two incompatible visions of America, each different from what we considered normal before 2016, will be on the ballot. The electorate will be asked to decide between four more years of right wing nationalism and corporatist economics or a dizzying lurch toward multiculturalism and the embrace of progressive policies the likes of which we have not seen since the collapse of the New Deal coalition. The options will be zero-sum: banish incrementalism from our politics along with the neoliberal solutions which have dominated political discourse under Republicans and Democrats since the dawn of the Reagan era; or entrench, perhaps permanently, the autocratic tendencies of the Trump Reaction. 

At once compounding and advancing this stark choice is the incumbent’s clear desire to make 2020 transparently about racism. The chilling display at Trump’s North Carolina rally last week, during which he stood silently for 13 seconds as the crowd chanted “send her back” in response to the vitriol Trump aimed at Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, was the start of what I fear will be a 16-month festival of hate. With the dog-whistles stripped away there will be no question about the choices at stake next year. As the Democratic primaries play out against this backdrop, it will become increasingly difficult for Democrats to maintain that they can just turn back the clock to a more placid time.

Ready or not — and we may not be ready — it feels like we are heading toward a monumental choice. Everyone will have to take sides. It will be a Civil War by other means.