Another round of U.S. states held presidential primary elections yesterday. This was the first round of voting after the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination to take on Donald Trump became a two-man contest between Joe Biden, who represents the conservative wing of the party and who served as Barack Obama’s vice president, and Bernie Sanders, who represents the party’s left or, in today’s American political terminology, progressive wing.
The most important election yesterday was the one in the state of Michigan, and Biden defeated Sanders there 53% to 37%. (The numbers don’t add up to 100 because some absentee votes were cast for candidates who dropped out before election day.)
Michigan will be a crucial state in the general election in November, and Sanders had scored an upset victory there over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries. Michigan is also a state with a large white working-class population and a way of life that over decades was battered as its manufacturing industries were forced to compete with imports made by workers who lack political rights and earn very low wages.
In short, Michigan is the kind of state that resembles many “left-behind” industrial regions around the world, such as northern England, northern France, or the Ruhr in western Germany. Sanders really needed to win Michigan. The Sanders candidacy, which despite long odds continues into the next round of voting on March 17, is an attempt to demonstrate that a center-left party can again win in such regions if it convinces working-class citizens that the party will once again defend their economic interests. Seen in this light, Sanders’s defeat in Michigan yesterday to the more conservative Biden looks like a defeat for a widespread prescription for center-left regeneration, shared by many on the left in England, France, and Germany, and lots of other places.
The American case is unique in that U.S. presidential elections are now perceived by most Americans as do-or-die contests in which their party has to save the country/world from being destroyed by the opposing party. This means that the general elections are remarkably free of programmatic debate by European standards. Issues are really not debated at all in these elections, which have become little more than spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) tribal brawls — and all this in a social context that has become so polarized that large percentages of both Republicans and Democrats tell pollsters they would not want their children to marry someone from the opposite party.
The Sanders campaign has tried to buck this trend by running its campaign on a platform of concrete promises to significantly expand the American welfare state and make the richest people in the country pay for it. Although Sanders himself has garnered much attention both at home and abroad for calling himself a “democratic socialist,” it is his programmatic specificity and not the socialist self-label that makes him such a strange animal in American politics. And his promises have turned out to be quite popular: surveys show that voters — especially within the Democratic Party but even many Republicans — want things like a public universal system of health insurance, the abolition of fees at public universities, and an increase in public pension benefits. Voters also agree with Sanders’s proposal to pay for some of this program with a new tax on large fortunes.
Biden opposes every one of these proposals. But in exit polls, Biden’s own voters are telling researchers that they like the Sanders program. One explanation for why they are voting for Biden anyway is that they are conditioned to see November’s general election in precisely the terms I described above: as a do-or-die struggle to save the world from Donald Trump. And the Democratic Party’s leadership — firmly in the hands of the conservatives — has used its considerable ability to shape the narrative to argue that Sanders’s big promises are just a distraction from the “real issue,” which is beating Donald Trump.
A more prosaic explanation for Biden’s victory is that he is supported overwhelmingly by the relatively-comfortable population of old people who also happen to be the most reliable voters. While Sanders wins huge majorities among younger voters, these make up a smaller share of the electorate because they do not show up to vote. Sanders might have done better had his plans for welfare-state expansion included more benefits for seniors; instead, his program promises major benefits for students, young families, independent workers in the gig economy, and people who borrowed lots of money for education. Yes, he promises to increase benefits paid by the public pension system (known as “Social Security”), but he has not emphasized that part of the message very much.
If we consider the Sanders campaign in an international context, then, it provides a couple of interesting takeaways. First, the promise of more robust social protection is popular, as is the promise to make the rich pay for it. But, second, that doesn’t necessarily regenerate the left when the electoral context represents an “emergency” where defeating the right or far right is all that seems to matter. The U.S. institutionally creates this context every four years with its two-party system, but the unsettling behaviors of Donald Trump make the argument that “this is no time to argue over issues” seem more credible. Any observer of French politics knows this dynamic: the same “lesser-of-two-evils” decision is forced on voters in the final round of France’s two-round presidential elections. And of course tactical voting happens all the time in multi-party systems. We saw plenty of it in elections in the German state of Saxony last summer when some voters on the left voted for mainstream conservatives in the hope that this would prevent the far right from coming in first place.
It seems to me this represents another pernicious dynamic nourished by far-right domination of the political agenda: worried moderate/conservative voters double down on moderation, which prevents a truly popular left program from emerging, which further alienates the natural clientele of the left, which in turn then proceeds to vote for the far right. Then the moderates are even more worried than before…and the entire cycle continues. When you look at the statistics on voter movement across parties in Germany (they have the beautiful word Wählerwanderung to describe this) or look at the rise of the National Rally in France and the concomitant decline of the Socialists and Communists there, the same phenomenon we are seeing in the U.S. seems to be at work.
I really don’t know how to break this cycle. I was hoping Bernie Sanders would show us. But it turns out he didn’t know either.
If, as now expected, Joe Biden becomes the Democratic nominee for president, the Democrats might be able to win the big death match against Trump in November. But the larger problem of the left’s credibility among its former working-class supporters looks as difficult to solve today as it ever has.
Now, in other news, it appears that nostalgia for empire is not that rare among people in a number of European countries. Hungary and Turkey were not in the poll, I guess, but I would imagine that even higher numbers of people in those places miss their empires.
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