After Super Tuesday it seems clear that the Democratic Establishment learned a valuable lesson from the Republicans after 2016. You can’t beat an insurgent candidate with a divided field, which necessarily means some candidates are gonna have to take one for the team. That’s what happened in the hours leading up to the grand event when moderates like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg ended their campaigns to rally around their fellow moderate Joe Biden. The result was what you might expect, Biden picked up the lion’s share of those votes which equaled narrow plurality wins in Texas, Minnesota, and Maine. This was a result that we should’ve been more prepared for and if we think about the Democratic Party as an institution it makes sense.
Democrats are the party of government; they respect its legitimacy to have authority and believe that it can be used as a tool to improve people’s lives. Republicans are the anti-government party; they believe that the private sector is often more effective than government and in fact government limits liberty not increases it. The media watched the Trump phenomenon in awe and believed they recognized something universal in the American voter, an abiding anger at the system as well as a desire to disempower it. This was only reinforced when Donald Trump exceeded all expectations to become President of the United States defeating a candidate who was well financed and well credentialed but nevertheless the human manifestation of Washington. So, the logic went, populism overtook an established political party once so therefore it can happen again.
But what that fails to understand is that Democrats are not Republicans. Democrats have not been primed in the same way for a generation through media and mainstream politicians to have the same distrust of the status quo and our institutions in the way that Republicans have. Some Democrats have, those on the left have been skeptical of our institutions since before Vietnam but they are a minority. Therefore, a candidate running against the systems, systems that most Democrats still fundamentally believe in, was going to have very limited upside. That is unless a disproportionate amount of independents with the same skepticism were drawn into the process. It remains to be seen if that will happen, but so far Democrats are showing that they believe the problem is the Republicans and not any kind of institutional failure. That’s what Biden is running on, that the government isn’t functioning because of Republican obstructionism but it used to work before, and it can work again if Republicans do the right thing. Of course, that erases the experiences of several different communities including but not limited to Blacks, Latinos, indigenous people, and of course most people not identifying as straight or male. Nevertheless, so far it appears to be a winning message because it is consistent with a century of ideology.
But while we’re speaking about ideology, it seems to be more complicated than policy. It also seems to be wrapped up in culture, and if were being completely honest Sanders is the counterculture and Biden is the mainstream. Often the counterculture wins in the long term, but it is still the counterculture and does not win in the immediate term. This is fine if we’re talking about political movements, but it is not ideal for presidential campaigns who need to win elections as they happen. You may be familiar with the “beer track“ and “wine track” analogy used in politics, where beer candidates are authentic outgrowths of the working class while wine candidates appeal to a more suburban educated voter. In most parts of the country, save for areas with more Whole Foods and Nordstrom’s than low income housing, the beer candidate wins. This dynamic plays out fairly regularly in general elections, on occasion two wine track candidates face off and the incumbent tends to fare better. But rarely do two beer track candidates face off which is what is happening with Biden and Sanders. Twenty years ago, perhaps Biden and Sanders would fight to a draw or Sanders would be narrowly favored. However, the Democratic Party is witnessing a rapid change in its coalition to include scores more of traditional wine voters, many former Republicans, and they are wielding their influence. The choice is Sanders who is openly contemptuous of the kind of inequality that wine voters have been able to take advantage of and don’t see as inequality versus Biden who has wine voter sympathies while speaking the language of the beer voter. Wine voters and many beer voters seem to have decided on Biden, the results of that decision will have enormous consequences.
There are a lot of voters with Biden in spite of his policies not because of them. Voters aren’t necessarily with what Biden is saying, but how he says it. Sanders is attempting to combat a problem not totally related to policy with a policy argument. That’s probably not going to work because it hasn’t already, Biden has a very long and very problematic policy history hat is public record. As a Sanders supporter it’s difficult for me to say this, but if you can’t defeat Joe Biden with his many failures of policy and presentation, then it’s hard to imagine you defeating Donald Trump who is a much more capable competitor. Of course, the party and the media and donor class have put up countless roadblocks, but that was always going to happen and Sanders experienced it first-hand 4 years ago so he should’ve been prepared. If Sanders wants to win, if he can win, he will need to stop expecting the party to come to their senses. Sanders is going to need to attempt to talk in ways outside his comfort zone. Sanders has clearly won the party on policy, but ironically not on himself. It is going to be necessary to thread the needle on exposing more voters to what is wrong with the system while proposing a more positive, perhaps less caustic, way forward.
There’s a long way to go until July and many votes to be counted, anything could happen. But there’s a lot of history working against Sanders that he should attempt to understand because that will be pivotal not just for his prospects as a candidate but the overall success of his movement.