Democrats will be just as dead if they continue to let Trump-haters define their party. Democrats are struggling to adjust to the 21st century, with superannuated 2020 front-runners such as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders as a case in point. Sanders, nearly 80, is in fact the most forward-looking candidate: his socialism might be a relic of the 20th century, but he recognizes that this outmoded idea has a new chance today because what passes for capitalism is even more obviously past its expiration date. (Socialism’s decrepitude is something Americans haven’t had to think seriously about in a long time, while the senility of the quasi-capitalist, post-industrial economy is something they live with every day.) Joe Biden stakes his appeal on nostalgia for Barack Obama. Pete Buttigieg is a cipher. And Elizabeth Warren has managed the feat of failing to win over the Sanders vote even while seeming too far to the left economically to appeal to the center. But as philosophically fractured as the Democratic field may be, the activist base of the party is less concerned with choosing a clear direction than with hyperventilating about Trump.
Sanders is the most ideologically focused Democratic contender. But that focus and the devotion it inspires on the left are set to run headlong into the anti-Trump mania of the party’s other activists. There is a parallel here to Pat Buchanan’s position on the right in the 1990s. He pointed the GOP toward the nationalist future it would embrace under Trump, but in the Bill Clinton era his nationalist conservatism could never overcome those Republicans who preferred to squelch philosophical considerations and focus on partisan opposition to the Democratic president. Now Sanders and his supporters may find themselves in the paradoxical position of holding the Democratic Party’s future while being powerless to claim its nomination in the present. Anti-Trump Democrats will vote for Biden or Buttigieg (a young old man) just as fervently as anti-Clinton Republicans voted for Bob Dole in 1996. But just as that anti-Clinton vote wasn’t enough to elect Dole president, a merely anti-Trump vote will not do it for Biden or Buttigieg. And in Congress, the solidarity that Democrats derive from opposing Trump only masks the contradiction of an increasingly hard-left party led by establishment figures like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.