The 2008 Democratic primary contest remains the ugliest the party has experienced for quite some time. If you could somehow travel back in time to primary season exactly twelve years ago you’d find Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama trading in deeply personal insults, torqued opposition research, and throwing anything and everything at each other in the hope that something would stick. It was a contest in which Obama openly derided Clinton as an “out of touch” insider who had “taken more money from lobbyists … than any other candidate, Democratic or Republican” in his stump speech. Clinton’s campaign and its partisans would respond in kind by suggesting many of Obama’s supporters were motivated by misogyny and, in justifying her refusal to withdraw from a race she could no longer win Clinton herself would infamously suggest that her opponent might be assassinated like Bobby Kennedy.
Some of us on the Left occasionally wonder how Democrats forget all this, preferring instead to retcon 2016’s comparatively civil contest between Clinton and Bernie Sanders as the moment cherished notions of etiquette and party unity fell apart. But the explanation, at least in retrospect, is actually a fairly straightforward one. Its toxicity notwithstanding, the divide between Clinton and Obama had much less to do with ideology than with two rival personalities and their supporters duking it out. Sure, Obama was an outsider challenging the heir apparent. Sure, he had a gift for soaring oratory and an epochal (though decidedly vague) narrative of change that set him apart from his more traditional establishment opponent. But since his politics were ultimately legible to those in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party and the liberal media, the whole episode was hastily forgotten.
2016 upset this dynamic by throwing ideology into the mix — and, unlike in 2008, the chasm that was opened has never really been closed.
Once again, Team Clinton faced an unanticipated challenge. But this time it represented a populist repudiation rather than a conventional political rivalry. Compounding the generalized sense of elite panic that greeted the Sanders campaign’s surprising success was the veritable implosion of political orthodoxy on the Right. Against all odds, Donald Trump would annihilate a cavalcade of Beltway-hatched empty suits one-by-one en route to the Republican nomination — defying the explicit commands of conservative gatekeepers and remaking the party in his own image.
What happened next can only be called a crack-up of epic proportions.
Faced with twin insurgencies it neither took seriously or understood, the American ruling class closed ranks like never before and, in a political culture typically derided as excessively partisan, Democratic and Republican elites alike slowly but surely converged into a singularity. They huffed and they puffed, equating the far-right Trump and the socialist Sanders as two sides of the same coin. They threw tantrums in marquee newspapers and magazines about how America’s stagnating institutions and demoralized electorate actually added up to an excess of democracy that was in dire need of technocratic guidance. They draped themselves in the flag and darkly implied that the takeover of the GOP from within was part of a twenty-four-dimensional plot enabled by geopolitical enemies. They crafted a risible new version of history wherein a mostly benign party of fiscal responsibility and small government had suddenly been hijacked by a racist extremist and America’s political institutions had invariably worked in harmony around the national interest. Longtime Republican apparatchiks willingly entered into de facto coalition with their supposed ideological foes and partisan liberals took to valorizing the halcyon days of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Utterly deranged as it all was, the elite freak-out of 2016 will almost certainly be eclipsed or exceeded in the months ahead; the coming meltdown is liable to be far uglier than even 2008 ever managed to be.
The simple and immediate reason for this is that a second Sanders candidacy now seriously threatens to succeed where the first one failed. Ahead of the Iowa caucuses next week, the socialist senator from Vermont suddenly seems poised to do well — quite possibly securing the first in a slew of victories that could plausibly carry him all the way to the Democratic nomination. Failing to learn anything from 2016, America’s complacent liberal establishment plainly believed it had neutralized the populist threat until a few weeks ago and, having served up a vast but largely hapless field of candidates to run against Sanders, now finds itself with a severe case of political vertigo and unsure of what to do that it hasn’t already tried before.
Predictably, the usual cadre of spin doctors, elite media figures, and political operatives paid to masquerade as “analysts” on network TV has already started dusting off many of their favorite lines from 2016 — from tired complaints about how Sanders supporters behave online to horseshoe-theory comparisons with Donald Trump that often defy belief in their sheer stupidity. Conservative commentators like Jennifer Rubin and David Frum who attack Sanders are eagerly welcomed into the liberal fold and the same figures who’ve spent the past few years trying to push Democrats to the right are suddenly Very Concerned that one of America’s most consistently progressive politicians is some kind of secret social conservative. It’s awful, bad-faith stuff, but poised to get a whole lot worse if the Sanders movement continues to defy Beltway gatekeepers and rack up even a handful of primary wins.
In all likelihood, 2020 will soon come to resemble a kind of 2016 on steroids — the same ingredients all being present, but the stakes now being far higher for Washington elites. If Trump’s ascendancy shattered their cherished political orthodoxies, Sanders’s now threatens their political power — raising the specter of a genuine and lasting populist turn in American society they may find it difficult to reverse. Accordingly, a political class incapable of marshalling basic moral sympathy for people with high medical bills, low wages, and crippling debt will instead find its élan in joining hands with capital and working to halt the Sanders insurgency at any cost. Though the exact character of the epic crack-up that is almost certainly ahead has yet to reveal itself, the basic contours were set down four years ago when elements of the Democratic and Republican establishments first decided they’d sooner unite around a staid anti-populist narrative than grapple with reality.
In 2016, Donald Trump undoubtedly served both an embarrassing humiliation. In 2020, their greatest nightmare is that Bernie Sanders could hand them a genuine political defeat.