Just over four years ago, the hottest book of the political cognoscenti was The Party Decides. The attraction of this staid political-science volume was that it perfectly fit what had happened in the last presidential primary, in 2012, and seemed to to predict what would happen in the next. Its thesis was that party elites, like elected officials and activists, had ways of getting their views across to the voters of their party and steering the nomination toward figures whom they deemed a good fit. Its analysis explained why Republican voters flocked to a series of demagogues (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich) before ultimately settling on respectable Establishmentarian Mitt Romney. And it seemingly explained why they would ultimately come to their senses and nominate somebody other than Donald Trump.
When the thesis failed in the most spectacular possible fashion, the reporters and pundits who touted it stampeded in the opposite direction. The example of 2016 has been cited over and over to prove the party can’t decide. Just as Republicans had failed to block Trump, the new conventional wisdom proclaimed Democrats were doomed to watch helplessly as Bernie Sanders carried out his hostile takeover.
And yet the last few days of the Democratic primary have given us some evidence that the argument still has some power. In South Carolina, Representative James Clyburn’s endorsement helped power Joe Biden to a blowout victory. And now Democratic officials are joining en masse to support Biden. Two of his mainstream opponents, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, have dropped out and plan to endorse him.
A few weeks ago, I made the case that the political world had overreacted to 2016 — we had gone from 100 to zero on the party deciding, when a smaller correction was warranted. Not all my primary predictions have been borne out. (I buried Biden after New Hampshire.) But this one seems like it may be prescient.
Some of the more fervent supporters of Bernie Sanders treated this argument as a confession that the Democratic elite planned to subvert the will of the voters:
Here they were repeating a line Trump himself has gleefully promoted. But there is no conspiracy involved. The way the dynamic works is that party officials communicate their view to voters, who can choose what to make of that information. There’s nothing sinister or undemocratic about it. It is worth thinking about why the process may work better for Democrats than for Republicans.
One reason why the Republican Party failed to stop Trump is that its voters were intensely skeptical of their leaders. Conservatism never fails, it is only failed, as Rick Perlstein famously remarked. The movement’s radical and impractical ideology was never going to be carried out, and so it was necessary to blame its failings on the shortcomings of the party leadership. Conservative-movement politics has spent decades telling its audience that they have failed because they were sold out by weak-willed leaders in Washington. Trump used that exact message to discredit his intraparty adversaries, painting them all as losers, and promising that he would finally enable them to win.
The Sanders campaign is, in many ways, an attempt to run the same play in a different party. Sanders may not be Trump’s perfect ideological mirror image, but his notion of a political revolution that mobilizes the people to destroy an Establishment has much of the same flavor.
And while it has found an enthusiastic audience, the Democratic Party has a much smaller constituency for this kind of radical populist anti-politics. Democratic voters are far more likely than Republican voters to want their leaders to compromise. It stands to reason they will be more open to the sort of pragmatic appeal that is the basis of Biden’s candidacy.
Perhaps it will all be for naught. Sanders has a far more intense base of support, a larger infrastructure, and vastly more money. The Biden shortcomings that caused so many Democrats to initially withhold their support have not disappeared entirely. Yet to watch the wave of momentum appear suddenly, on the most important day in the entire primary, is a reminder that the Democratic Party as an institution remains a force to be reckoned with.