#2 - Patronizing voters, plus: the pivot

📰 The News

Apparently America will NOT be undergoing a Bernie Sanders-led socialist revolution.

Former Vice-President Joe Biden proved his coalition is more than just black voters and dramatically over-performed expectations on Super Tuesday, unexpectedly winning states from Minnesota to Massachusetts to Maine, not to mention Virginia, Texas, and the entire south.

Peter Beinart put it well, in a piece for The Atlantic titled The Democratic Party Wasn’t Ripe for a Takeover:

…today’s Democratic Party isn’t like the GOP in 2016. Four years ago, many ordinary Republicans wanted to overthrow their party establishment. After the 2020 primary field thinned, leaving Biden as the leading centrist candidate, ordinary Democrats showed at the polls yesterday that they like their party’s establishment just fine.

That didn’t stop the media from pre-maturely writing Biden into the history books, however:

Not long ago, commentators were declaring that “Bernie Sanders’ revolution is coming” and “It’s Bernie’s party’s now.” Pundits were delivering eulogies over the supposedly lifeless body of Joe Biden’s campaign. The moderate candidates in the Democratic presidential race who hadn’t yet dropped out were lagging behind Sanders. The only chance of stopping the Vermont senator’s socialist takeover of the Democratic Party, aides to Michael Bloomberg insisted, was for Biden to exit the race.

Oh what a difference some actual elections make.

💁‍♂️ Patronizing Theories about Voters

What happened on Tuesday has a myriad explanations, most of them extremely patronizing toward voters. Here are a few theories:

  • The Party Decides. In this theory (proven wrong by the 2016 Republican primary), party leaders and elites steer the voting public toward certain conclusions via their donations, their commentary on television, and their endorsements. Exhibits in this theory include Biden’s last-minute endorsements from Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke.

  • Money in Politics. In this theory, all the nation’s problems would be solved if only we could get the money out of politics. This theory has fallen out of favor after Michael Bloomberg’s Tuesday-night drubbing, but it remains a potent force among Bernie-supporters, Trump supporters, and a broad cross-section of disenfranchised America, all of whom are convinced that money can actually buy elections.

  • Media Narratives. In this theory, the media are responsible for outcomes by creating “narratives.” Never-mind that the media are continually surprised by the outcomes of political events (as they were on Tuesday) - many voters are convinced that media narratives are what really drive electoral outcomes.

All of these theories have something in common, which is that they suppose voters are being manipulated by large systemic forces outside of their control.

So, here is another theory for what happened on Tuesday: voters looked at Nevada, where Biden came in second, then looked at South Carolina, where Biden registered a dominating win, and those who did not want Bernie to be the nominee largely decided to break in favor of Biden.

In this reading, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and O’Rourke are (gasp!) ordinary people who, like other voters, decided it was a good time to register their support for Biden over Bernie. In this telling, voters watched the news, paid attention to what other voters had decided ahead of them, and made a strategic choice. In other words, they thought for themselves.

Frankly, to suggest that Super Tuesday was anything other than voters making up their collective minds is pretty patronizing.

🏛 A Better Way to Talk About Voters

Ever notice how partisans are quick to point out how other groups of voters are being manipulated by nefarious outside forces (the Russians! Zuckerberg!), but always maintain that they themselves are rational actors who make up their own minds? It’s always other people who are having the wool pulled over their eyes. Not us.

The fact is, voters hate being told that they are being duped.

Voters, ultimately, make up their own minds. I sure did. I bet you did too.

You may think that other people’s reasons for voting one way or another are stupid, or shallow, or based on faulty assumptions, but a better way to think about voters with whom you disagree is that they are almost always making up their minds in good faith.

This is why no candidate has ever gotten anywhere denigrating or writing off huge swathes of the electorate, from Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comments to Hillary Clinton’s "basket of deplorables” remarks.

⛹🏻‍♂️The Pivot

If indeed Biden wins the Democratic nomination - and all evidence at this point suggests he ultimately will - the American voting public will get to witness the time-honored tradition of the political “pivot,” wherein a candidate who has spent the entire primary season catering to his party’s most fervent partisans suddenly turns toward the center in an effort to convince centrists that he (or she) is not so partisan after all.

Bernie Sanders was never going to do that, if we are to take seriously his contention that the way to beat Trump was to turn out new voters. But Biden, who has been beating the “I’m a moderate” drum all primary seasons, likely will pivot, which means Biden will have an opportunity not to simply move to the center, but to truly pivot, as Trump pivoted in 2016, by taking some cherished progressive talking points off the table (trade being the big one).

As John Harris wrote recently in Politico:

Biden is perfectly credible as an ideological placeholder until the party’s reappraisal for a new generation of voters is more mature. That reappraisal is coming in any event.

Pivoting is a good strategy, but it really matters exactly how the Democrats pivot.

As I wrote in this newsletter’s inaugural post:

Democrats are currently fighting a battle over just how far to the left they should swing, and they in turn are missing a historic opportunity to seize the ground that Trump, and the entire Republican party, have given up.

Democrats need to pivot, like Trump pivoted. Not move left or center, but circle.

There is a broad, gaping ideological space that the GOP under Trump have largely forfeited, one that emphasizes the rhetoric and language of core American myths. These include the crazy idea that everyone is created equal, and that low taxes and limited government are core to the American story (we were founded on a tax revolt, after all).

This space is neither conservative, nor progressive. But it is so very American. Which is why Biden should ultimately embrace it.