The Democrats have to decide between two visions in the primaries. Do they want a return to normality or another revolution for the U.S.?
What is the right response to the Donald Trump era? After the deep break with his election and the turbulence of the last three full years, can America return to normality, stability, reason and reliability—like turning the page in a book? Or is another revolution needed, because the dissatisfaction with this supposed normality was what opened the way to the White House for the New York real estate mogul in the first place? The starting position for the Democrats—who will vote in the primaries that begin on Monday, Feb. 3 for the candidate who will challenge Trump—can be reduced to this question. Two camps with different prescriptions are facing off, one rather moderate and one markedly leftist. According to the polls, their front-runners are the same as they were at the beginning of this intensive primary campaign over a year ago: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
2 Old White Men
At one point, the Democrats started the selection process with confidence and celebrated the widest and most ethnically diverse field of candidates they had ever had. It was supposed to represent colorful America, that rainbow coalition which had twice helped Barack Obama to victory. The fact that Hillary Clinton could not mobilize this coalition to the same extent four years ago cost the Democrats the White House. So the party is particularly bemoaning the fact that of all the candidates, two old white men now have the best chance to secure the nomination.* Both are close to 80 years old, come from wealthy states on the East Coast, and have been active in Congress for decades, the epitome of the political establishment. Yet the expected duo is the logical outcome of the fact that both most consistently embody the opposing visions of the party. Biden and Sanders have also consistently led in the polls, with the exception of a period in the fall when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also a member of the left wing, was able to overtake her rival Sanders, and even surpassed Biden for a few days.
Nonetheless, Biden likely still has a significant advantage over all of his rivals. That is astonishing considering that he has serious weaknesses and fails to elicit the enthusiasm even among his supporters that Sanders or Warren regularly evoke. Biden is not a good speaker, and his penchant for verbal missteps is legendary. In 1988 and 2008, he competed for the Democratic presidential nomination and failed dismally each time. In particular, he is vulnerable to attack on substance; for instance, his vote for the war in Iraq in 2002 or the draft of legislation to reform the criminal justice system, which was passed in 1994 under Bill Clinton and criticized by many Democrats today as far too restrictive. However, Biden has managed to achieve compromise across party lines during his long political career and thus represents a conciliatoriness that many moderate voters sorely miss today. Moreover, his almost paternal friendliness with Obama recalls a time when the White House was not a fount of constant hate and continual scandal. Biden presents himself as a candidate of reason rather than of passion, one with the best chances of beating Trump. This “electability” is his most important campaign argument.
On the other side is Sanders, who, as a self-declared socialist, was still considered a radical outsider in 2016 and who is demanding nothing less than a revolution for America. His vision for expanding infrastructure, health and education systems and a social state along the lines of a northern European model would double federal spending, raising them to an unprecedented peacetime high, according to estimates. His central project, mandated federal health insurance or “Medicare for All” and the elimination of private insurance providers would alone represent something of a profound cultural shift for the United States. On issues of international relations and trade, however, Sanders takes an isolationist and protectionist stance similar to that of Trump. The stability of his platform lends “Bernie” authenticity. His radical rhetoric especially excites young voters who are no longer frightened by the term “socialism.” On the contrary: 49% of Americans under 40 view socialism in a positive light according to polls, whereas capitalism only does slightly better with 51% and has notably lost support in recent years.
Such numbers also attest to frustration over the current situation at home, as well as the support that Sanders has on the left and Trump on the right. The outstanding economic numbers obscure the fact that income inequality is growing in the U.S. and real wages have been stagnant for decades for most Americans. Now as before, where one lives and one’s ethnicity significantly determine a person’s future prospects. Around 30 million people still do not have health insurance; two-thirds of all private bankruptcy cases are associated with health problems. To date, more people die from opioid overdose than traffic accidents. That is one reason that life expectancy has gone down for three straight years, which is very unusual for an industrialized country experiencing a boom. Is the desire for a revolution thus not reasonable? And did Trump not prove four years ago that theories of better “electability” are completely overrated?
That may be the case for Republicans, whose voter population has become more homogenous over the last few decades of polarization. Almost three-quarters of Republican voters describe themselves as conservative—considerably more than 20 years ago. The party’s move to the right corresponds with this trend. Among the Democratic base there is an ideologically similar development toward the left, but only half of their voters call themselves progressive. For this reason, the Democrats cannot ignore the moderate middle. Moreover, their base is much more diverse in terms of ethnicity and social status than among the Republicans. In order to win in the November election, they need to convince leftist urbanites in San Francisco just as much as devout blacks in North Carolina.
Once Too Radical—Now the Moderate Position
Even if Sanders succeeds, the prospects for implementing his “revolution” would be extremely modest. The campaign is showing how much his position is challenged within the Democratic Party. He would already have to work to win over the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives—not to mention the Senate that will likely remain dominated by the Republicans. Consequently, there would be more years of complete impasse in Washington and a deepening of the political divide. America cannot afford yet another experiment with an angry populist in the White House.
The Democrats have already shifted significantly to the left as a result of polarization. This is especially noticeable in health care policies, the most important issue for Democratic voters. All candidates support the introduction of public health insurance. Even Biden wants a so-called public option in addition to the current system that uses private insurers. Obama failed on this proposal in 2010, despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. What was then viewed as too radical now represents the moderate position in the party. Their presidential hopefuls all call for a higher federal minimum wage, tax hikes, and more federal funding for education or environmental protection. Whoever wins the nomination will be the most progressive candidate in decades. That is Sanders’ real success. Trump knows how to exploit this and for months has been describing all Democrats as radical socialists who are destroying America’s blossoming economy and would create a situation like that in Venezuela. That is ridiculous. But the left wing of the party makes this line of argument too easy for him.
*Editor’s Note: This article was written before the first presidential caucus in Iowa and primary in New Hampshire which may change this prediction.
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