Dazed and Confused

He yells at you from the podium. His ideas are crazy. He’s too old. He’s not even a member of the party he wants to lead. He’s unelectable. 

Yet, as much as they tried, establishment Republicans were unable to stop him. Their legacy frontrunner, Jeb Bush, couldn’t resonate with an electorate that sixteen years earlier had rallied enthusiastically to his brother. All the energy was with the insurgent, but he was such an outlier candidate that the idea of his nomination was unthinkable to serious people. By the time Bush’s candidacy collapsed, it was already too late. Donald Trump had exploited a glaring weakness in the Republican Party, taking aim at a Washington establishment that served itself well but was failing the voters who boisterously cheered him on. No one was there to come to the rescue. 

Four years later, the parallels to the Democratic Party are hard to ignore. Sanders’ success reflects an ongoing rejection of the pre-Trump governing consensus that elites of both parties have tried so hard to protect. It is evidence of the precariousness of their position that the Democrats’ erstwhile frontrunner who promised a return to happier times fell so far so fast, and that the candidate in line to bail out the party is a billionaire beneficiary of the obscene excesses of neoliberal policies that the Sanders electorate is in the process of repudiating. 

The Biden/Bush parallels are striking. Jeb owed his position in the Republican hierarchy to his bloodlines, as son and sibling of the presidents who shaped the Reagan era as much as Reagan himself. Biden grafted his claim to the office onto his close affiliation with the president who presided over what he likes to call the Obama/Biden era. Both ran (or are running) uninspiring campaigns and have obvious weaknesses as candidates, but every candidate has weaknesses and it’s easy to see how both would have had a clear path to the nomination in a period of political stability. In the context of the times, each carried the burden of protecting the status quo, or in the case of Biden, the status quo ante, through his explicit call to return to the politics of the Obama years. Like Bush, that message was received with far less enthusiasm than the populist promises made by an insurgent who — notably and significantly — had no allegiance to the party elites.

On that point, the Sanders/Trump parallels are particularly striking. Both thrived on the margins of politics, Trump as a self-made television celebrity and Sanders as a democratic socialist who caucused with Democrats but didn’t join the party until he wanted its presidential nomination, and who spent most of his legislative career advocating for ideas considered too radical for most Democrats to take seriously. Both are populists, or at least Trump positioned himself as a populist during his 2016 campaign, promising to spend big on universal healthcare, infrastructure and worker protections. Both would have been easily dispatched by candidates like Bush and Biden during periods of consensus when their boisterous calls for radical change would have had appeal only to a disaffected few.

Trump’s upending of the Republican Party and Sanders’ unexpected success against Hillary Clinton in 2016 were blast warnings that the old ways had stopped working for a large segment of the population. Tump ultimately abandoned the facade of economic populism and embraced the Republican corporate agenda. Bernie as president would almost certainly try to govern as Bernie, and his durability is a warning to party regulars that large segments of the public continue to reject what the parties are feeding them. Democratic party elites were able to contain Sanders the last time, but they are weaker now after having had to accept significant policy and process concessions in exchange for Bernie’s support of Hillary, and after Clinton’s shattering Electoral College loss. 

With Biden flailing, guardians of the status quo are looking to Michael Bloomberg to bail them out, or as the New York Times put it, to be their “savior”. The optics of this are telling and more than a bit ironic. Bloomberg is the poster child for everything that has happened over the past forty years that is causing the parties to lose their grip. A billionaire of almost unparalleled wealth, he has been a promoter and beneficiary of the economic policies that have fueled our unprecedented inequality. And how is he going to save the Democrats? By spending money! His appeal to a party rank-and-file that wouldn’t take him seriously in normal times is that he has the means to go up against Trump and the willingness to get into the gutter with him. His core message is an appeal to fear — to an electorate that regards a re-elected Trump as an existential threat but hasn’t yet figured out how to defeat him. In this regard, it’s not unlike Jill Biden’s message to the supporters of other Democrats that her husband may not be the most inspiring candidate or agree with them on the issues but they have to support him if they want to win

Bernie’s Nevada victory has revealed that the elites are as fearful as the rank and file – only over different things. Yesterday’s over-the-line hyperventilating about Sanders’ Nevada victory from pundits invested in re-establishing the pre-Trump status quo revealed a sense of desperation that the only choices in November would be further descent into authoritarianism or a sharp left turn toward democratic socialism. Yes, they are petrified about the prospect of four more years of Trump, but they also do not want to live in a country that would cast them aside to embrace democratic socialism and cannot imagine that the United States ever would. So they remain invested in a political world view that says Biden or Bloomberg can win nationally but a candidate like Sanders cannot, even though the data suggest that’s not true.

During a period of stability their world view would be correct. But in a period of stability you would expect the status quo frontrunner to have broad-based appeal to the electorate, not to be so weak as to create an opening for an outsider candidate or require a bailout from a multi-billionaire. Those invested in the way things have always been may yet pull the balance of power back toward their position before Democrats leave Milwaukee this summer, but regardless of how the 2020 cycle develops, the ground is shifting beneath them.