Last night Bernie Sanders, unsurprisingly, won the New Hampshire primary. FiveThirtyEight now gives him a 38% of winning the Democratic nomination—his leading rival, at this point, is a brokered convention, which the site gives a 33% chance of happening. Prior to Iowa, there were three plausible ways for the Democratic primary season to wrap up: It could follow the pattern of the Republican primary in 2012 with former VP Joe Biden playing the part of Mitt Romney—the obvious (and obviously flawed) favorite fending off a revolving door of increasingly implausible opponents. That door began to close in Iowa. It was slammed shut last night. Biden is done.
The next plausible scenario would mirror the Democratic primary in 1992: a divided field slowly gives way to the centrist from a pivotal region whose campaign slowly builds until breaking through and seizing the nomination in March. In 1992 Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton did not win his first primary until Super Tuesday and of the first 15 contests Clinton won… three.
But by March the momentum was with him and when ten states headed to the polls on March 10, Clinton won seven of them. From March 17 onward, he won every contest save five, cruising to the nomination. In this scenario, the centrist candidate could be either Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar or, least likely, Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has deep pockets, but it’s hard to see his campaign standing up to scrutiny or, indeed, how a billionaire could win the nomination in this particular Democratic party. Buttigieg and Klobuchar are the likelier choices.
The third scenario is that this would resemble the 2016 Republican primary: a candidate originally from New York who only recently joined the party and who possesses an unshakeable and rather notorious base, and who is perceived by many as a candidate who could never actually win goes on and… wins. This scenario, obviously, is the one that ends with a Trump v Sanders general election in November.
Which is most likely? Much depends on your theory of the electorate and, given the similarities to 2016, your theory of Trump. If you think the American electorate is still broadly in line with the post-Reagan consensus built around promoting free trade and free markets, then your theory of Trump is that 2016 is not at all unusual: The Republican nominee beat a deeply unpopular Democratic rival and then went on to actually govern more or less like any other Republican would, attacking Obamacare, slashing taxes, and promoting Fed Soc judges to the nation’s highest court.
If this is your theory, then you are likely betting hard on the Buttigieg/Klobuchar scenario and you’re likely fairly confident of either of them beating Trump in November. Both could, theoretically, put rust belt states in play and if Trump loses any two of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania he is probably in trouble.
But if your theory of 2016 is that we are living in a time of massive realignment, that the American people no longer trust the post-Reagan consensus these days, and that the nation is hungry for new ideas and new leadership and is, consequently, willing to countenance the most unimaginable of candidates, then you will, of course, favor the Sanders campaign.
The best argument for Buttigieg and Klobuchar seems to be built on two assumptions: First, that whatever might happen in one-off news events or what one poll might say, voters do eventually prefer stability rather than revolution. There is an inertia to politics, particularly in a system like the USA’s, and that favors a certain ‘return to normalcy’ under either midwestern moderate. Second and related, that we are not living in a revolutionary age so much as we are an era of stable decadence—we all know ours is an absurd moment, but we mostly do not care because we mostly aren’t starving, we have comfortable lives (relatively speaking), and plenty of sedatives to help suppress our revolutionary urges during moments of particularly sharp unhappiness.
The best argument for Sanders is, likewise, built on two assumptions: First, that a nation with alarmingly high rates of mental illness, opioid addiction, gun violence, and suicide is not stable. Indeed, it may be so unstable that voters are ready to overcome the forces of political inertia and usher in a genuinely new era in American public life. If our nation’s spiritual sickness is as deep as it seems to be, then we should not be surprised by rapid political swings and an increased interest in ideas once thought to be entirely implausible. Second, that the same people who most sharply feel the alienation of our moment will also feel engaged enough in our political systems to vote.
This is the key point of departure between Trump and Sanders. The politically disengaged voters that Trump animated so were not actually disengaged from the political process, but merely felt alienated and unrepresented by the actual people holding power in Washington. The most plausible way for Sanders’ base to grow, in contrast, is by appealing to groups that are notoriously unreliable as voters—young people and Hispanics. This is, in my view, the weakest part of the Sanders’ pitch. The whole thing is built on the assumption that the kind of people alienated enough from our society to find Sanders’ radicalism compelling will simultaneously not be so alienated from our actual political system that they simply opt out of participating in it entirely. This is the interesting question the Sanders campaign poses: Can we get a large enough group of alienated Americans to believe (perhaps for the first time) that American politics can actually work for them, can matter to them?
Whatever happens in the next few months, it is likely that by the end of it we will have a better sense of exactly how alienated our nation is and whether we are likely living through an era of revolution or, merely, of stable decadence.