On Thursday, the ten leading Democratic candidates will take the debate stage in the first showdown to include all top candidates like Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders together. Somewhat ironically for a man running on his experience and steady hand, how Biden performs will determine whether he can convince an increasingly progressive party base that he’s not the candidate he used to be.
While some establishment Democrats scoff at “The Squad” and other far-left members of the party, the reality is that AOC is closer to the heart and soul of Democratic voters than is Joe Biden. The future of the Democratic Party is a toxic mix of socialist economics coupled to campus identity politics; a sort of soft Marxism updated for the American context, where faultlines between racial groups in a diverse country run much more deeply and spark more resentment than those merely along class lines.
Recent polls that show Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders snapping at Biden’s heels also show deeper Democratic skepticism of President Obama’s legacy, a legacy that at once forms the heart of the former vice president’s appeal and an albatross he has to run away from.
When asked by CBS whether they preferred to “return the country to the way it was before Donald Trump took office” or “to advance a more progressive agenda than the country had under Barack Obama,” a solid majority of Democrats answered that the direction they wanted the party to take was the latter. And the undercovered fact of the candidates’ near-universal rejection of Obamacare, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s legacy, in favor of Medicare for All and socialized medicine, speaks for itself.
Voters in both parties are in no mood for a “return to normalcy.” A large-scale university study of mostly Americans (but also a minority of participants in Europe) found that 40 percent concurred with the statement, “When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn,’” and the same percentage agreed that those institutions just needed to be torn down and restarted from scratch.
Every institution in American life, from Congress, the Presidency, and the Courts, to the media and universities – save one, the U.S. military – is “underwater,” garnering less than half of Americans’ trust. This sharp disillusionment with the consensus of both party establishments is broader than Democratic Party politics, but its effect will be felt as massively on America’s leftward party as it was felt in 2016 on the right.
In the upcoming debate and the race as a whole, Biden will either manage to kowtow enough to the new order to satisfy voters, or be washed away by it, but either way, his candidacy will show its strength within the Democratic politics. The larger question is what judgement voters will be render when the new Democratic Party is presented to Americans across the country.