It’s finally here. After what seems like years of primary campaigning, Iowa Democrats are finally about to have their say in the matter via the Iowa caucuses. The field has narrowed considerably from the original 2 dozen or so contestants and polls suggest that soon the battle for the Democratic nomination may be a 2 man contest between former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. That prospect already has the leadership of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) looking not so furtively at the panic button. They have, for instance, already changed the debate rules in a way that gives Michael Bloomberg a chance to appear on stage.
In analyzing elections and the strategies the Parties and candidates use to win, it is important to make a distinction between the Party professionals on the one hand, and the candidates and their coalitions on the other. Political parties are organized around winning elections. Period. Candidates organize their campaigns around issues designed to win a sufficient number of delegates to capture the nomination and then win the general election.
The issues that the candidates choose to organize around and then galvanize a campaign may be ideological, but need not be. Sometimes interests are sectional with ideological overlaps. Both the Civil War and the struggle over civil rights were partly driven by sectional clashes. The clash over slavery that ultimately led to the Civil War represented a clash between the Republican North and the Democratic South. But the civil rights struggles of the 1960s saw an alliance of moderate to liberal Northern Republicans and Democrats, while opposition was mostly an alliance of Southern Democrats irrespective of ideology and Northern conservatives from both parties.
In fact there are many instances where differences in regional interests and ideological interests have shifted back and forth and the Parties have reconfigured themselves accordingly. In the late 19th century the Republican Party was the party of tariffs designed to protect Northeast manufacturing, while the Democratic Party represented farmers that wanted free trade. But by 1980 the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan was a strong proponent of free trade and the Democrats increasingly promoted trade restrictions to protect manufacturing and union jobs in the Midwest. Now the Republican Party of Donald Trump promotes managed trade pretty much like the Democrats have been doing since the 1980s.
All this is not to suggest that the Republican and Democratic policy preferences have begun to converge. They have not. What has transpired is enormous demographic, generational and cultural shifts in the respective Party constituencies that are not fully reflected in the Party hierarchies. The Republican Party has to a large degree been Trumpified; the question here is whether this reconfiguration is temporary and tactical or permanent. The results of the general election in November may provide some clues. But the result will importantly depend on who the Democratic nominee is.
The case of the Democratic Party is in some respects much more interesting. It is clear that the Party has taken a very sharp turn to the left. Not only that, younger, more affluent Party members seem to be positioned far more to the left than older and less white constituents. Those with college degrees are more prone to head left.
Given the state of play there are two questions facing Iowa caucus goers. The first set of questions is obvious: Should the Democratic Party go with a “safe” nominee like Joe Biden who appears on paper to be best positioned to defeat Donald Trump, and perhaps help the Party keep the House and win the Senate? Or should the Party go all in and nominate a very left wing candidate (like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren) who promises to transform the structure of American life using the force of the state? The results in Iowa will hinge on that calculus.
The second set of questions address an issue that is very important and more than a little disquieting. Namely, is there a truly substantive difference between the candidacies of the moderates e.g, — Biden, Klobuchar and the truly radical candidates like Sanders and Warren? The nominating process may provide an answer to that question as well.
It was only 4 years ago that had Debbie Wassermann Schultz tripping all over herself while attempting to argue that there is a real difference between socialism—in whatever form—and the liberalism that the Democratic Party claimed to represent. And now 4 years later, Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, is a leading candidate for the Party’s Presidential nomination.
There is every reason to believe that Bernie Sanders, who isn’t even a registered Democrat, will win the Party’s nomination and go on to face Trump in the general election. If that happens it will mean that the Democratic Party has made a decisive turn to the left with the aim of transforming the structure of American life from that of a Liberal market democracy into an Administrative State where citizens are transformed into subjects.
Such an election would likely bring an end to decades of electoral stalemate where the results are separated by a few percentage points and the game is mostly played inside the 40 yard lines. Of the many possible outcomes, there are 2 that are the most interesting. On the one hand, there is the possibility of a contest that looks like the 1972 race between George McGovern and Richard Nixon in which McGovern’s liberalism was soundly rejected; in the process McGovern went on to lose 49 states, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, which has never voted for a Republican.
On the other hand, the race could just as easily look like the one in 1980. In that case Democrats were initially encouraged by the Republican’s selection of Ronald Reagan as the Party’s standard bearer, the reasoning being that the public would never vote for a candidate as extreme as Reagan. In the event, Reagan went on to defeat incumbent Jimmy Carter in a landslide. Reagan carried 44 states and won with 50.7% of the vote against Carter’s 41% of the vote, while third-party candidate John Anderson’s got 6.6% of the vote.
An election contest between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is one that could settle a lot. It would provide a much needed clarification of what the electorate thinks is desirable and achievable. An election contest between Sanders and Trump would force the electorate to consider that fundamental issue with eyes wide open.
Let’s face it: on a personal level, Donald Trump is as severely flawed as it gets. With respect to policy, he is hardly a conservative as traditionally understood, much less a libertarian. His authoritarian tendencies are beyond dispute. He is as narcissistic as they come, which is saying a lot by Washington standards. Not only is he easily the most ignorant man to assume the Presidency in at least a century, he is incapable of recognizing the truth much less telling it.
Which is not to suggest that Bernie Sanders is just swell. He is a misfit; a leftist crank who is incapable of seeing the world as it is. He is willfully blind in that he sees only what he wants to see. His “no enemies to the left” mindset does not permit him to utter an unkind word about any of the world’s brutal left wing dictatorships, including Venezuela’s Madura. Sanders does not simply have policy proposals—he means to fundamentally transform America’s Liberal market democracy into a socialist state. Were Sanders to get his way, America as we know it, would cease to exist. In that regard it is disgraceful that the mainstream press, in its loathing of all things Trump, treats Sanders as if he were a normal candidate, which he manifestly is not.
Bernie Sanders is doing to the Democratic Party what Donald Trump did to the Republicans. The nominating process will allow us to see if the Democratic Party yields to Sanders and his supporters just as the Republicans did with Trump. If they do, we will know what constitutes the modern Democratic Party, just as we now know what constitutes the modern Republican Party.
And so we have two political processes in play that could come to define America in 2020. In the first instance, the Democratic Party will either choose to become a hard left socialist party with the aim of transforming American life using the police power of the state, or it will remain a center left mainstream party. In the second instance, if Sanders is the nominee, the body politic will face a choice between a narcissistic incumbent whose incompetence is only exceeded by his ignorance, and a socialist candidate who promises to wage a perpetual class war in a never ending search for nirvana. It is not exactly an appetizing choice; in fact it is nauseating. But it is clarifying.
It is possible that a moderate Democrat, as currently defined, will win the nomination, in which case we will likely muddle along for a bit longer, and neither of the above scenarios would necessarily comes to pass. But I wouldn’t count on it.