Every election is a turning point. Every election is impactful. Every election brings some level of change. But not every election blows up and remakes our party system. The election underway now — the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party — may do exactly that. The next six months will be huge.
Roughly six months from now we will have the results from Iowa, New Hampshire and Super Tuesday. We will likely know which path the Democratic Party has chosen, moderate reform or radical change. That decision will send shock waves, one way or the other, through our political system.
Party leaders like to think they control the direction of their party. They don’t. The presidential nominating process is what drives the direction of our parties. The base voters of the two parties who care enough to show up for primaries and caucuses are the decision makers.
In 2016, Republican elites, none of whom supported President Donald Trump or his policies, lost control of the GOP. Trump’s angry populist message of isolationism, protectionism and nativism was exactly what the Republican base was waiting for. Republican elites have been forced to choose: leave the party (or politics altogether) or bend the knee to Trump. For the foreseeable future, the Republican Party is Trump’s party.
The same thing nearly happened in the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders’ angry liberal populism nearly overwhelmed Hillary Clinton and the relatively moderate Obama/Clinton establishment wing of the party. Now that battle is rejoined. Will the Democrats pick Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, or another centrist, or will they fully embrace the ultraprogressive message of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?
That decision will be the next major step in realigning our party system. There are thousands of activists, and millions of voters, who will never support Trump but will also never support a Democratic Party that has moved so far left that it supports abolishing employer-provided health care. Some of these centrists are former Republicans. Others are independents. And others are moderate Democrats waiting to see which direction their party goes.
During 2019, there have been two dueling narratives about the Democratic Civil War. On the one hand, we are told that Sanders, Warren and the liberal “squad” of young house members are driving the Ds to the left. But on the other hand, we have the reality that Biden is currently the Democratic front runner, and many Democrats have spoken out against “Medicare for all” and a lurch to left. This standoff has frozen the system in place. But six months from now that will change.
If the Democrats choose Biden or another moderate, centrists will likely gravitate toward the Democratic Party, at least for 2020, if not permanently. This migration could end our era of divided government as the Democrats would once again become the governing coalition party, and the GOP would become more extreme and much smaller.
But a victory by the Sanders/Warren wing would likely set off a bomb in our two-party system. There is a cadre of politically homeless former Republican activists waiting to join some sort of new movement. If enough moderate Democrats could be induced to join them, something new could emerge. A choice between Trumpism and socialism is not something Americans will tolerate for long.
Centrists lost the battle for the GOP. The battle for the Democratic Party is underway now. Six months from now we will likely have clarity.