The Democrats’ Winnowing Process

On Monday, a depleted Cory Booker dropped out of the presidential race, three weeks before the Iowa caucus.  He had been running for president for nearly a year.  The senator’s departure leaves a dozen Democrats still in the race.  In the incredibly silly yet arduous process used to sift through presidential contenders, sixteen Democrats who were running have already failed.

Yes, they recruited campaign staffs, solicited donations, spoke at rallies, sought friends in wine caves, and pontificated on debate stages, only to gnash their teeth in despair over low statistics gathered through doubtful methods but taken as proof that they wouldn’t catch on.  The reasons remain mysterious, but the polls “say” that these candidates are not what the American Tigger likes.

So Marianne Williamson, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Steve Bullock, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill de Blasio,  Eric Swalwell, Jay Inslee, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, Joe Sestak, Richard Ojeda, Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam, and now Cory Booker, have all dropped out—beaten before even a single vote has been cast.

Meanwhile, likely voters (and donors) are being looked to determine what the Democratic Party needs.  The Democratic National Committee  is being decidedly hands-off when it comes to the all-important matter of picking a standard-bearer who can beat Trump.  Given the divide that has opened up between progressives and moderates, the candidate who wins the nomination will fatefully determine the tilt of the entire party.

It’s left to the voters to judge the vast assemblage that has shown up in response to what is essentially an open casting call.  The debate stage is an audition for the presidency (a crude test, given what being an effective president actually involves).  Not surprisingly, many voters are holding off in picking a favorite, until they can see what other people think.  Who is a winner?  This is what ordinary voters expect someone else to decide.

Am I a typical voter, I who could imagine voting for Sanders, or Steyer, or Bullock, or Bloomberg?  Even very well-informed voters may well yet be holding fire.  Which makes me wonder about the meaning, at present, of those all-important opinion polls that sites like FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics keep track of for us, and which have caused so many interesting Democratic talents to drop out.

Image: from this source.
Joseph Keppler’s 1884 “An Unpleasant Ride through the Presidential Haunted Forest,” shows Uncle Sam and Dame Democracy riding in terror through a woods haunted with the ghosts of some twenty “dead” presidential hopefuls. Click to enlarge.


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Why The Parties Don’t Die

  1. They are mature bureaucracies.
  2. Incumbency: the desire of those in power to remain in power.
  3. Monied interests support and reinforce the existing structure.
  4. The absence of good alternatives (no viable insurgent parties that look like winners).
  5. At the state level, hostile conditions, along with sheer lassitude, prevent new parties from forming.
  6. The specialized intellectuals (editors, ideologues, strategists) needed to create new parties have grown up with the existing parties and are loathe to abandon them.  Professional loyalty to party interests perpetuates their power.
  7. Candidates know it’s easier to get votes through one of the two major parties: this is what Trump and Sanders both discovered.  So grass-roots/breakaway movements that might formerly have chosen to build something new from the ground up are instead aspiring to rehab the old parties from within.  Both major parties are living off of the parasitic energy of actors who are cannibalizing them (e.g., the Tea Party, the current-day progressives).
  8. Parties used to coalesce around outstanding individuals and their ideas (e.g. Jacksonian democracy; “radical Republicans”) but this customary way of organizing politics, which was risky and instinctive, has been superseded by methods that are bureaucratic and “scientific.”  Dependence on a bureaucratic establishment tends to become a substitute for reliance on the public will.  The monolithic character of the Republican and Democratic establishments and their tendency to thwart political innovation has become an open target of frustration and rage on both the right and left (embodied in Trump and Ocasio-Cortez).
  9. The old parties, burdensome though they are, stabilize national politics.  Americans are accustomed to the order and the limited choices they provide.  So we resist acknowledging that we should abandon these parties.  The parties no longer harmonize sentiment: they no longer stand for a single set of non-negotiable goals.  Ideologically, both parties are fractured.  Their tents are so big, what they stand for is no longer clear to the people.  They struggle to exert discipline over their supposed standard-bearers.  Iconoclasts overwhelm them.  Nonetheless, they live on because politics without these parties would open up new realms of possibility, giving American both more to hope for—and more to fear.