Daniel Brumberg, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.
With Super Tuesday upon us, I am pondering the elections and the choices I will make. My guiding assumption is that neither Sanders nor Biden have a good shot at the White House—especially Sanders. If he gets the nomination, I believe that he will be crushed in the Electoral College. Down ballot voting may even lead to the Republicans taking over the House. But since Biden’s chances of defeating an incumbent president are not much greater, those voters who identify as Democrats might consider this question: will the Democratic Party have a better or worse future if Bernie wins the nomination but loses in the election?
I am inclined to think that from a purely cost-benefit analysis, the Democrats might be better off with a Sanders primary victory as opposed to a Biden nomination. My thinking is as follows: This election is being shaped by an existential divide between younger, mostly white middle-class and lower middle-class voters, and an older voter population that is mostly white but compromises important segments of the African American community, not to mention segments of the older Hispanic and Asian communities. The younger cohort is very worried about concrete problems such as health care, economic opportunity and climate change. Moreover, in a deeper and even spiritual sense, they are estranged from the existing political system. Sanders has offered these young men and women a gateway to re-enchantment– a visceral spiritual transformation that has all the hallmarks of a secular religion. Indeed, he represents a twenty-first century Moses; his followers believe that only Sanders will bring social, economic and political salvation.
The Internet has provided a mass arena for embracing this political creed. But a young person’s commitment to this secular faith can be vastly reinforced by attending a Bernie rally. Surrounded by a sea of supporters cheering their hero on at his every word, young people experience a kind of collective affirmation. They feel that their individual and shared lives matter, and with this, they experience an empowering conviction that anything is now possible. For these Bernie disciples, our country will now be either redeemed or condemned to a secular political purgatory. For many (but surely not all) hard-core Bernie supporters, Democrats must choose deliverance or its opposite: there is no middle ground, no room for compromise.
These sentiments and experiences create a distinct vision: a self-contained narrative that older Democratic voters cannot easily grasp and from which many recoil. These voters feel none of the magic, none of this secular faith. Nor do they grasp the charismatic allure of the man who helped to articulate and shape this belief system. Motivated NOT by a fear that Bernie will win the general election, but rather by a far greater fear–namely that he will lose–these older Democratic voters are jaded pragmatists who are praying (so to speak) that Biden can pull off a miracle.
Given this existential divide within the Democratic camp, the nature of the political contest between these two groups has taken on the feeling (and words) of an epic battle. Indeed, if Biden gets nominated and loses, Bernie’s young followers could suffer a lasting spiritual crash, one which could lead them to exit the entire political arena. For the Democratic Party this outcome might be worse than Sanders running for president and losing. After all, if he runs a determined campaign, one that has the full support of the Democratic Party and its leaders, Bernie could still celebrate his journey as a moral triumph for his cause and those who have embraced it. He may not make it to the Promised Land he envisions, but he could still work with his followers to pass the torch to a new generation and to help them to organize for a longer struggle. Perhaps this sounds unrealistic or unduly optimistic. But if Sanders and his closest allies challenge their young followers to channel their disappointment into enduring political action, perhaps they will choose to continue fighting for change rather than throwing up their arms in frustration and exiting the political arena.
Given the costs that a Biden run for the presidency could exact compared to the possible benefits of a Bernie run (and loss), perhaps older Democratic voters should cast their primary ballot for Sanders? This will be hard to do. People from my generation feel that “old people matter.” But we also face very difficult choices when we consider what counts most: the long-term political and social future. For me personally, I can’t help feeling a sense of dread if a significant swath of our young population loses or abandons their newly cast political faith that I admire and can sometimes appreciate– even if I do not share it. If young people cast aside our political system, will the Democrats ever win back power in the Congress or the Presidency? A transition to a one-party government (electoral autocracy) would be the greatest social and political loss of all. It would be tragedy not merely for Democrats but also for Republicans– and what is more, for this country and its very democratic future. The problem, of course, is that a transition to one party electoral rule could occur–and indeed might be completed–under a Trump presidency. It is this very grim prospect that inclines older Democrats to support Biden and, at least for now, risk alienating a rising generation of young people who want a revolution.