Voting in a liberal democracy is supposed to be about choice. You have the right to choose the person you believe is best suited to represent you. But campaigns are in the business of coopting that individual choice, making it about something greater than what a person believes in their heart of hearts. They ask the individual to think of the collective, namely who can best grab power (for what purposes is too knotty to dive into here). Good politicians play on emotions like fear and anger and sometimes joy and love. They know that as much as human beings are free to make choices, we are also prisoners of our environments, our pathologies and vexations.
The 2020 primary has been prisoner to pathologies Democrats have developed during the Trump presidency. Though the party has spent the years since the president’s election grappling with internal ideological differences — to the point where any real meaning has been wrung from the words “progressive” and “establishment” — the canvas that covers Democrats’ big tent bears one motto: “BEAT TRUMP.”
More than a year — a long year — after their first serious candidates declared, Democrats find themselves peering out into the post-Super Tuesday abyss wondering how they ended up where they’ve ended up. After spending all of 2019 of cycling through flavor-of-the-month candidates, Democrats now have a front-runner in former Vice President Joe Biden who sounds very much like the previous two Democratic nominees but looks very different, with his — not her — thinning white hair and his creased, white — not brown — skin.
Because as much as the story of the Democrats and 2020 is about Trump, it is also about how people in America confront change. It has been a monthslong argument between millions of voters about whether enough passionate ideological tempers can light the flame of persuasion, or whether a more conciliatory method is preferable.
The Democratic Party has liberalized over the past few decades, the party has whipsawed to the left since 2016 — think the rise of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Democrats’ increasing comfort with socialism. That was initiated largely by young progressive movements centered around the struggles of communities of color and fed by white, college-educated Democrats who have been rapidly liberalizing. In the the past few days, though, the party has been pulled back onto a more centrist course by a core of moderate black voters, whose experience with race in America perhaps informed their notions about what is the realistic pace of change in this country.
On Super Tuesday, white, college-educated voters fell in line behind black voters’ preferences, at least the one telegraphed by Biden’s nearly 30 percentage-point win in South Carolina. With doubts about Biden’s ability to win seeming to melt away — winning, of course, being the great American virtue of our time — the former vice president gained the confidence of even white college-educated voters. Exit polls show Biden did 31 points better with voters in this demographic who decided who to vote for late in the game than those who made their selection earlier.
The “electability” argument won out on the biggest day of primary voting. Just look to Biden’s surprise wins in Massachusetts and Minnesota, the home states of, respectively, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and ones filled with white voters. The 2020 primary had been, up until that moment, about finding the point where ideology and pragmatism best meet — former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tested where exactly that point was situated. On Tuesday, it seemed that the wind was at the backs of the pragmatists. While the party’s base might entertain liberal policies — a February survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 74 percent of Democrats favor Medicare for All — its Super Tuesday embrace of “electability” also meant embracing some fundamentally illiberal beliefs: namely, that a woman can’t be elected president in 2020.
Warren, the one serious woman contender left standing, seemed understandably bitter beneath her perma-cheer veneer on Tuesday evening. “My name is Elizabeth Warren and I’m the woman who’s going to beat Donald Trump,” she said, before admonishing the voters who have yet to cast a ballot: “What I see happening is a lot of folks trying to turn voting into some kind of complicated strategy. Pundits, friends, neighbors are all saying you have to second-guess yourself on this. They’re playing games on prediction and strategy. … Here’s my advice: Cast a vote that will make you proud. Cast a vote from your heart and vote for the person you think will make the best president of the United States of America.”
The notion almost seemed quaint. A choice free from strategic positioning — the sacred, secret ballot as an expression of real belief. We used to call that “voting your conscience.” But there’s not much talk about that these days. Not in 2020.
Warren dropped out two days later.