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Do Elizabeth Warren And Bernie Sanders Preview A Democratic Populist Crack-Up?


After Labor Day, the Democratic presidential campaign appears to have slipped into a period of relative stasis until votes start getting counted next year. Joe Biden remains the clear front-runner, while the media seems to assume Elizabeth Warren can definitively rise above Bernie Sanders as Biden’s main rival. The remaining candidates in the large field are long-shots at best.

Political observers wait to see whether the tension between Sanders and Warren erupts into open conflict, or whether they prefer to bet on Biden’s collapse. The latter seems risky given how bad that strategy was against Donald Trump in the 2016 primary, although Biden’s performance on the trail does encourage it. However, Sanders and Warren’s strength to date may tell us less about the ideological struggle in the Democratic Party than it does about the rise of left-wing populism and the potential damage it may do the party.

Ideologically, the Democratic primary offers three paths leftward, in different degrees: restoration of the Obama era (Biden); reform of capitalist institutions (Warren); and revolutionary socialist change (Sanders). At least, this is the marketing by the candidates; Biden wants to move leftward from the Obama administration, while Warren has embraced Sanders’ single-payer health care plan.

Alternatively, the campaign can be reduced to whether Democrats want to support a more incremental move left with Biden, or gamble that President Trump is so vulnerable they can win despite the more extreme lurch they have taken in the “Great Awokening” with a candidate like Warren or Sanders.

But Warren’s recent rise and the persistence of “Bernie or Bust” voters says more about the Democratic Party than how left-wing it has become. There are plenty of other candidates like Beto O’Rourke, and former candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand, who embraced the farthest left forms of progressivism to little effect. Some of those failures are on the candidates, but not entirely. Rather, the Democratic campaign is being shaped significantly by populism.

That Sanders is not only a socialist but also a populist was well-understood during the 2016 primary campaign. He remains so today, inveighing against Wall Street, Big Pharma, companies, corporations, and one-percenters. Yet it is mentioned only occasionally in this cycle, perhaps because this message was stolen by a more viable rival.

Warren had a rocky start, but has risen as her campaign has become more overtly populist. She may market herself as the candidate with plans for everything, but she does so within the frame that her plans are needed to address a system rigged in favor of the wealthy, big corporations and their lobbyists.

It’s no accident that one of Warren’s signature moments was her debate riposte to Rep. John Delaney: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” Warren’s “plans” are white-collar populism, mostly valuable to demonstrate her commitment as a fighter to drain the swamp, the last part of which should sound eerily familiar.

Although the populism of Warren and Sanders overlaps with the right-wing populism of President Trump, the left-wing version has a distinct fascination with organized movement politics. Sanders has certainly seen himself as the leader of a movement. He took his campaign assets and converted them into “Our Revolution,” a political organization devoted to recruit, support, promote, and elect far-left candidates (and not coincidentally benefit Sanders).

Similarly, at recent campaign rallies, Warren has spoken about using movement-driven pressure from outside groups while she works inside the system. It is easy to imagine her following Sanders in repurposing her campaign assets into an outside group, regardless of the outcome of the 2020 cycle.

Indeed, Sanders can be seen as following in the footsteps of Barack Obama. The then-president used the Democratic National Committee to form “Organizing For America” (OFA), which became the so-called grassroots arm of his re-election campaign. The group was later spun off into the nonprofit “Organizing For Action,” which now assists the “resistance” to President Trump.

The Association of State Democratic Committees, which has long felt Obama’s parallel activities hurt the party overall, has secured the commitment of the top presidential candidates not to create a shadow organization like OFA. There likely would be a kerfuffle over the status and mission of Our Revolution were Sanders to become the Democratic nominee. And Warren’s recent comments might be seen as calling her commitment into question.

The state parties are probably overestimating the harm caused by OFA. Obama’s agenda and style of governance was far more responsible for the loss of 1,000 political offices during his tenure. Nevertheless, the trend of candidates creating these parallel groups underscores the corrosive effect of populism on political parties, particularly on the Democratic side.

After all, it was the Democratic Party that decided after its disastrous 1968 convention to move from a party-organization model of nominations to the primary system we have now, a distinctly populist shift. The Democratic Party was primarily responsible for pushing populist campaign finance laws that disempowered the political parties, ironically aiding the rise of billionaire candidates and super PACs.

Also, the activist, movement tendencies on the left have built an infrastructure on the internet to democratize the donor class, which is largely how Sanders sustained himself in 2016. Imagine that thick Brooklyn accent of his talking about his average donation of “TWENTY-SEVEN DOLLAHS.”

The culmination of these populist trends is a Democratic Party whose candidates are largely beyond its control. In yet another irony, the result may be a 2020 convention at least as contentious as the 2016 Democratic conclave, where Sanders supporters disrupted the coronation of Hillary Clinton in multiple ways. The difference is that there are now three candidates who could conceivably continue their campaigns into the 2020 convention.

It would be tough to top the chaos of 1968, and the odds of an actual contested convention are probably less than one-in-three, but Democrats should be uncomfortable with those odds. The Democrats’ populist trends, combined with their more populist proportional allocation of delegates, has had everyone from Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore to Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics recognizing the elevated risk of a so-called “brokered” convention in a party that really no longer has brokers.

And if the system does not break down in 2020, there is no guarantee that it will not in 2024. The success of populism within the Democratic Party, with its free-agent candidacies, will always carry this risk.