Four years ago, I was writing the same sorts of essays about Donald Trump’s wire to wire win in the Republican Primary that are being written about Bernie Sanders right now.
There was the same handwringing by party establishment and hopes that eventually moderate establishment support would align and the electoral market would correct.
There were the same warnings from independents and reasonable members of the opposition party that claimed dark forces awaited us at the bottom of the slippery slope we had wandered onto.
The dark force last time was ethnocentric nationalism. This time it’s socialism.
There were the same calls for fringe candidates to drop out and support the right folks. There was the same panic that a certain type of president, one that we’ve never seen before, would be in office.
The pattern is presenting itself again.
I’m not one for political predictions anymore. I learned my lesson four years ago. Instead I’m going to unpack one likely scenario for the Democratic Presidential Primary and spend some time with the implications it might present.
Here’s how it may go:
Some moderate candidates drop out sometime after the South Carolina primary, in which Bernie either wins or finishes a close second. Little of the moderate support aligns behind one moderate candidate though. Instead they split. More than we might think go to Bernie because no one was really that invested in anyone other than their candidate and no one else has any energy in their politics. There’s no cause besides Bernie. It’s all just some version of status quo. Bernie is the only one different.
Sanders rolls through Super Tuesday and on to the Convention as the clear winner. He wins wire to wire in a race that wasn’t as close as the poles told us it would be. It’s Trump v Bernie in 2020.
We have the election America wanted in 2016.
We may claim that it’s not really what we want. That it’s just a loud minority that hijacked the race from more reasonable options. And that in time, things will normalize. That’s a self-soothing lie though. Two loud minorities in the last two elections makes one loud majority saying the same thing:
That the last political debate is dead.
The political debate that erupted from the calamity of the 1960’s civil unrest, survived the seventies and then gave us the pax-Americana of the eighties and nineties is dead. It was mortally wounded on 9/11. It finally died in the 2009 recession. Obama tried to resuscitate it. And he almost did. But it was too late.
RIP Neo-Liberal v Neo-Conservative.
The new rock and roll is protectionist isolationism v socialist redistribution.
It’s really hard to see it any other way.
Which leads to the best question to ask of American politics circa summer of 2020. If the scenario I just played out comes true, what do people like me do? What do the non-ideologues that simply want best outcomes for the country do?
Do we scream at the top of our lungs that we need to turn back the clock? That we need to go back to the way things were? To a more civil political discourse where the norms were more comfortable for us?
Do we insist that things were just fine the way they were?
That slow economic growth, exploding federal deficits, climate change, mass incarceration, never ending wars, crushing student debt, growing inequality, crumbling infrastructure and inefficient healthcare markets were all a fair price for political familiarity?
It’s hard to imagine that’s right.
Over the last three years I’ve tried to spend as much time with the opinions of the smartest people who supported Donald Trump during the last election. As much as Trump’s opponents like to pretend there aren’t, there are some awfully smart, moral Americans who voted for Donald Trump. I’ve found them. And I’ve listened to them. They haven’t done much to change my mind on my vote. They have helped me understand the case for President Trump though.
At the core of the strongest case for Donald Trump is a belief that the establishment elites have been selling us a lie that everything is ok. And that their way, the way that brought us to the problems we have, is going to lead us out of the problems we have.
I can rationally argue against every other aspect of the case for Trump. I have no argument against that one though. And the only candidate that does, is Bernie Sanders. Because he agrees with Trump on the problem. Just not the solution. The others continue on with the lie that there isn’t one. Which takes us to a hard reckoning if you’re someone like me.
Debates change. And the way the world was when I learned the way it was is not the way it is.
This is what tectonic political change feels like.
A long view of America tells us that the 80’s and 90’s I grew up in were unique. Wishing we went back to them isn’t a solution to the problems we have. Revising history to say that anti-immigration, anti-trade policy, hyper-politicization, polarization or socialist redistribution simply aren’t things we do or ever have done in America isn’t honest.
One does not solve hard, material problems with dishonesty. And so we have to move on to another argument…horrifying to people like me as it may be.
These are dynamic times. They always are along the folds in history.
The opinion that hyper-globalization leads to growing inequality between those that make money from their labor and those that make money from investing their capital is not a controversial one. Some re-distribution of that capital is a logical response to that inequality. This is some version of the case for Bernie.
Moreover, the belief that nations that have limited reliance on imports (yes this is us) can limit negative impacts to their workforce by taking measures to limit free trade is not particularly controversial either. In fact, the Trump administration has done it already in a way many very smart economic minds believe has changed the trade relationship with China in favor of U.S. interests. This is some version of the case for Trump.
These are two approaches to the problems we have. And so now it’s time for us to get to work on having the debate over which one we want. The rational among us will do well to insist we have the best version of the argument. To insist that the use of populist xenophobia or calls to “eat the rich” to lather up the worst in us don’t gain further footing. And to insist that we value not only the agenda but the tone and character of the candidates we will count on to deliver it.
Democracy, warts and all…
And just like that, we’re on to 2020. The most important election…since the last one.