The last 72 hours have been truly extraordinary. Bernie Sanders had somehow become the favored candidate in the Democratic primary, but after Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the race on Monday, moderates coalesced around Joe Biden, whose campaign many had written off. Today the race looks completely different and the betting markets heavily favor Biden. What a turn of events!
Here’s my analysis. In most democracies, there are no primaries. Parties pick their standard-bearers in accord with their own criteria, often drawing heavily on electability. The US is unusual in giving so much power to party primaries. Ordinarily, this isn’t a big deal, but it occasionally allows parties to lose control of who they want to nominate. Given how polarized US politics has become, and how much trust in the political system has fallen, however, the primary system has become the main way in which anti-establishment candidates can hope to win political power. Donald Trump did precisely this in 2016. The GOP opposed him, but he was able to parlay his strong support among a minority of primary voters into the nomination. That is a very strange thing in democratic politics – for a populist, anti-establishment candidate to stage a hostile takeover of a political party. It suggests that indeed the GOP is a very weak political party. It is easily swayed and bandied about by special interests, the super rich, and right-wing media.
The Democrats, we can now see, are different. My guess is that, behind the scenes, Democratic elites successfully pressured Klobuchar and Buttigieg out of the race because they did not want Sanders to be the nominee for all kinds of reasons. This shows that they aren’t willing to be taken over in the way that the GOP was.
In my view, this is a good thing. You want parties to have their own integrity so that they can offer voters stable, distinct policy choices in order for people to be self-governing. It is also usually better for party elites to be able to formulate coherent platforms and ideological principles for similar reasons. I know that, in reality, this ideal often does not hold, but it is a reasonable regulative ideal that many countries approximate rather well, and departures from the ideal seem to make matters worse, not better.
Many Democrats are disappointed with Biden, and for all kinds of good reasons. But the overall story of Super Tuesday is a positive one: American democracy may not be ripped to pieces by populist, anti-establishment forces and extreme polarization. Maybe our hatreds and radicalisms will not be the only currents governing public life.
So American democracy had a good night. Congratulations to the Democrats for actually being a political party. Maybe Republicans can learn from them.