On Tuesday, Atlantic editor and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum appeared on BBC Newsnight to discuss the U.S. Democratic primary. Election returns that night, with the largest delegate count of any day of the Democratic primary, narrowed the lane to two competitors: the moderate, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the radical, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Frum offered a symbolic taxonomy of their supporters. “Joe Biden appeals to people who pay their cable bills on the day they arrive,” he said. “Bernie Sanders appeals to people who may forget to pay their cable bill entirely. The first group, they’re both equally morally worthy, but the first group are more reliable.”
“Joe Biden appeals to people who pay their cable bills on the day they arrive. Bernie Sanders appeals to people who may forget to pay their cable bill entirely.... the first group is more reliable.”— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) March 3, 2020
David Frum, senior editor at the Atlantic#Newsnight | @davidfrumpic.twitter.com/vrY5E2gjto
As a so-called #NeverTrump Republican who has assigned himself the task of dictating policy to the Democratic party, Frum has a vested interest here, one that disdains the kind of politics represented by Sanders, and especially by his supporters. The stance is a classic one: we’re the political establishment, we’re in charge, and we would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling kids. This positioning requires mashing up a series of oppositions: establishment against rank-and-file, affluent against poor, old against young. The jumble of these qualifications is a reliable pretext for the consolidation of power.
For older voters, Biden embodies the self-fulfilling prophecy of electability, in spite of available evidence suggesting that Sanders would fare better in a general election against Trump than any of his Democratic opponents. The skepticism largely arises from conventional wisdom, a deduction of a pattern in American electoral politics and the expectation that future results will reflect that pattern.
Here’s the problem: the pattern has barely been established. In the Atlantic, Frum has echoed a popular comparison between Sanders and George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee who lost to Nixon in a historic landslide. But the composition of the electorate that year was entirely new. It was the first election in which, after the passage of the 26th Amendment, 18-year-olds could vote. It was only the second general election after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which began dismantling obstacles to black voters under Jim Crow.
It’s uncertain how much the 2020 general election will reflect the primary, but the electorate is still in flux, developing along the lines initiated in the sixties and seventies. As the Times reported last week:
Pew Research projects that this will be the most racially diverse electorate ever, with people of color making up fully one-third of all eligible voters. The share of eligible voters from Generation Z (18-23 year olds) will be more than twice as large in 2020 as it was in 2016 (10 percent versus 4 percent).
The cross-section — young people of color — is precisely the demographic represented most formidably among Sanders supporters. It’s also characteristic of his endorsements, largely not from party stalwarts but from its freshest faces, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. If this is what the future of the Democratic party looks like, to borrow a turn of phrase from the party’s current most famous Millennial, the Democratic party should start looking like its future.
And yet, on cue, punditry has largely taken the opposite position. In Vox, Ezra Klein offered an admonishment to the Sanders campaign, after Super Tuesday results narrowly put Biden in the lead. “If you treat voters and officials in the party you want to lead as the enemy, a lot of people in that party aren’t going to trust you to lead them,” he argued. This sleight-of-hand creates an equivalence between civilians and administrators that has nothing to do with real structures of power. Biden himself has participated in this confidence game even more cynically, with a profoundly disingenuous conflation parroted by countless Democrats this week. “The establishment are all those hardworking, middle-class people, those African Americans, the single women in suburbia,” he said at a press conference. “They are the establishment!”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that voters who tend to vote Democratic would support Biden, who seems in many senses the embodiment of the Democratic party. This is especially true in South Carolina, whose “first-in-the-South” role in the primary calendar puts it squarely at the core of party politics. Biden’s major competitors on Super Tuesday were two former Republicans and an independent, while his own credentials include a lifetime of public office within the Democratic party, including a vice presidency under the president that polls consistently rank as the most popular Democrat politician in America. Biden doesn’t hesitate to remind you, ad nauseum, describing himself at rallies as “a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat.”
Needles to say, voters will represent a plurality of opinion in any election. But conflating them with party officials is an obfuscation that is tantamount to malpractice. No voter holds the power that South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn did — an Edison poll showed that 61 percent of voters in the state were swayed by his eleventh-hour endorsement of Biden. The race narrowed after that, with Biden rapidly chalking up endorsements from former competitors Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, erstwhile Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Their influence is substantial: BuzzFeed quotes one California voter switching from Warren to Biden at the last minute, saying, "I saw all these people dropping out and they were all endorsing Biden, and I thought, 'Biden is the one who can be elected.’" It was a common theme in voter testimonies.
MORE: just spoke to a man at this polling location who was leaning toward Bernie Sanders then was listening to NPR on his phone WHILE IN LINE and heard a convo about Amy, Pete, Beto backing Biden and he decided to go with Biden because he feels he can beat Trump.— Caitlin Huey-Burns (@CHueyBurns) March 3, 2020
Endorsements hold disproportionate influence publicly, but the party exercises power behind the scenes as well. A New York Times survey of 93 superdelegates showed an openness to using multiple ballots to deny Sanders the nomination at a contested convention. In fact, the Times has consulted with 100 more party officials, reporting that elements within it have actively been trying to consolidate moderate support in opposition to Sanders for some time. Last year, certain Democratic members of the House actively sought to broker a deal for a collective endorsement of a moderate candidate, failing to settle on one in a then-crowded field.
According to some sources, former President Barack Obama might have cautiously waded into the field himself. “People close to Obama said the former president has been keeping close tabs on the race,” NBC reported. “They said the signal has been sent in the past 36 hours that he sees Biden as the candidate to back, and they don’t need Obama to say it publicly or privately.”
Writing in New York magazine this week, Eric Levitz suggested that this reflects a strategic misstep by Sanders:
Because Democratic primary voters generally like their party, “Beltway Democrats” have a lot of influence over whose side they take in intraparty disputes. Which means that it’s actually important to at least try to cultivate the goodwill of Democratic insiders, rather than actively working to alienate them.
But given the unification of party leadership against Sanders, the root of the problem appears to be on the other end. The reason Sanders cannot court the support of the establishment is because the establishment has rejected him. Or at least, they have rejected the politics they see him as representing: those of youth, of social movements, of working class self-activity.
Biden himself famously said last year at an appearance in California that he had “no empathy” for Millennials. "The younger generation now tells me how tough things are,” he said. “Give me a break.” It was congruent with Obama’s disdain for “certain left-leaning Twitter feeds.” To many young observers, that’s the Obama-Biden Democrat: the antagonistic voice of an establishment that has left them facing a dire future. In contrast, Biden told wealthy donors at New York’s Carlyle Hotel last year that “nothing would fundamentally change” for them under his prospective administration. Consequently, a notion of “political revolution” resonates across the board for younger generations. Nearly half of young black voters support Sanders — three times as many as do Biden. In Texas and California, the states with the highest delegate counts on Super Tuesday, Sanders won more than 50 percent of the youth vote.
Facing widening inequality, escalating global conflict, pervasive reliance on a network of information technology, and the underlying threat of climate change, predictability looks like an increasingly unreliable metric for the trajectory of American politics. For young people, the only safe bet is that the world is going to change, in drastic and unprecedented ways, within their lifetimes. So far, it seems like the Democratic party will not.