As we noted last week, primary season in the United States is fast approaching. And the Democrats, facing off against probably the worst president in the country’s history, are understandably prone to angst about the fact that their position in the polls is nowhere near as strong as rationally it should be.
In particular, there’s concern that the party’s nomination process may fail to produce a candidate with broad appeal. The front-runner, Joe Biden, turns 77 next week, and at this stage his main opponents are figures from well to the left of the political mainstream, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Writing this week in the Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja argue that the nomination process is broken and that voters in party primaries have too much power. They propose unwinding some of the reforms of the late twentieth century and giving more control back to the party establishments.
Rauch and La Raja have some good points to make. It’s certainly true that primary voters are a small and unrepresentative segment of the population (and those in the crucial early states even more so). And when candidates are numerous, as with the Democrats this year or the Republicans in 2016, then one with the support of a committed minority can often outlast more moderate rivals:
In a large field, enduring the early battles requires mobilizing a loyal faction rather than pulling together a coalition. The goal is not to win a majority but to survive and hope that luck pits you against a clutch of candidates who compete with one another in a different lane. Insurgents, extremists, and demagogues are good at pursuing factions, because they are not tethered to the realities of governing, which demand compromise and coalition-building.
That said, there’s a big element of insularity in this. At no time do the authors mention either of the things that most strike an outside observer as contributing to the dysfunctionality of American politics: the strict separation of powers, and the institutionalised two-party system. It’s the combination of the two that makes the selection of a single candidate such an all-or-nothing business.
In a parliamentary system, the leader is only part of the picture; party members also focus on the platform and the other personnel. A leader who drifts too far from the mainstream can be replaced mid term. And if a whole party goes off the rails, its voters can migrate to other compatible parties without having to embrace their historic enemy.
One person’s bug, however, is another person’s feature. While some Democrats are concerned about ending up with a non-mainstream candidate, others are looking forward to the prospect and are appalled that their colleagues might try to frustrate them. Here’s Zach Carter, for example, in the Huffington Post:
Since the Barack Obama presidency, rank-and-file Democrats have proved ideologically flexible ― they generally identify as “progressive” or “liberal” but continue to support more conservative Democratic incumbents in primary elections. … But the increasingly fractious disputes among elected Democrats and liberal intellectuals that have been breaking out since Trump’s election will eventually filter down to the electorate ― particularly if either Warren or Sanders win the presidential nomination and Democrats in the Senate continue to badmouth key planks of their agenda.
Now it’s quite true that some policies that the media consensus thinks of as “radical” – such as cutting military spending – are in fact quite popular. I certainly don’t intend to defend all that centrist Democrats have done. But the fact remains that a party that caters more to its own hard-core activist base than to the swinging voters it needs to attract is heading for trouble.
This is partly a difference of opinion about the Democrats’ prospects of victory next year. If they’re going to win (or for that matter lose) regardless of what they do, they might as well indulge themselves in policy terms. Carter says “the trend line for 2020 is a Democratic blowout,” which is not unsupported, but it strikes me as a dangerous level of overconfidence.
But even if I were convinced that a drover’s dog could headline the Democrats to victory next year, I would not choose Sanders for that role. Although I’d prefer him to Donald Trump, I think both of them have very similar flaws: they are angry, erratic old white men, hostile to trade, markets and cosmopolitan values. The party can and should do better.
If that judgement relegates me to the category of “centrist” then, in the words of Lord Asquith, I must face that consequence with such fortitude as I can command.