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Actually, the Democratic Party Is Doing Just Fine, Thanks

Bernie Sanders’ campaign is very much within the long tradition of a media-savvy candidate who ultimately ends up losing the nomination to someone popular with elites. He won’t break the party in two.

By Seth Masket


Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton shake hands before the Univision News and Washington Post Democratic Presidential Primary Debate on the Miami Dade Colleges Kendall Campus on March 9, 2016, in Miami, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The current crisis engulfing the Republican Party has been well documented. But quite a few political observers have sought to portray both major parties as being torn asunder. This is certainly understandable, as it serves a convenient media narrative, but it’s wrong. The Democratic presidential process this year is actually displaying a healthy party.

Jim Geraghty warned about the situations facing both parties in a piece at The National Review:

Within the parties, primary voters are choosing among extremely different visions and policy ideas. Chunks of each party are looking at their traditional allies and asking just what interests and ideas they really have in common any more.

Other pieces have depicted Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as channeling similar types of protest votes. Still others see Sanders as harming the Democratic establishment.

In fact, the two parties’ situations this year could not be more dissimilar. To review briefly, Republican leaders could not coordinate around a presidential candidate prior to the primaries and caucuses this year, something that very typically happens in presidential nominations. This failure to coordinate led to a potentially catastrophic outcome — the nomination of a candidate who neither knows nor cares much about major party policy goals and may deliver a substantial loss in what was a winnable election cycle. Party leaders are falling in behind Trump because they don’t know what else to do, and they’re extracting no commitments from him in the process. And now they have to distance themselves from each absurd or racist statement he makes, even as they back him. The GOP will likely survive the year, but this is a terrible situation for the party and its officeholders to find themselves in.

By contrast, the Democrats did this year what major parties have done for decades. They coordinated early around a favorite and gave her every advantage they could. This coordination scared off other more traditional challengers, and left her only real rival a self-described democratic socialist. She has successfully parlayed this support into victories and delegates, and likely this week, she will become the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

There’s basically always at least one other candidate who will serve as a conduit for those partisans who are dissatisfied with the party’s direction and choices.

What of Sanders’ insurgency, though? Hasn’t he revealed a deep rift in the party? Actually, challenges are very common in presidential nomination contests, even when the “establishment” has signaled a strong preference for one candidate. Al Gore was definitely the insiders’ favorite in 2000, but he still had to fend off Bill Bradley. George W. Bush was a clear favorite that same year in his party, but John McCain gave him a good scare. Think of Howard Dean in 2004, Jerry Brown in 1992, Gary Hart in 1984 and 1988, Adlai Stephenson in 1960, and so on. There’s a long tradition on the Democratic side of a media-savvy candidate who’s popular with liberals, college students, journalists, and intellectuals, mounts a significant challenge, but goes on to lose the nomination anyway to someone favored by party elites. Sanders’ campaign is very much within that tradition.

Now, Sanders has done better than most of those other candidates, to be sure. Partially, as Jamelle Bouie notes, that’s because of the polarization of the parties; liberals comprise a larger portion of the party than they used to. But it’s also partially a function of Sanders’ own personal decisions. Many other candidates, facing the same depressing delegate math he has been facing, dropped out considerably earlier when they ran. They didn’t see the point in continuing a doomed campaign, and they wanted to stay in the party’s good graces for the sake of their own careers. Sanders has simply chosen to stay in despite the math. That’s his choice, but it doesn’t put him any closer to the nomination. But it does mean that pretty much every active Democrat who ever had a problem with Hillary Clinton is supporting him right now. He’s all they’ve got.

With the exception of incumbents running for re-election, neither party has held a coronation for a presidential nomination. There’s basically always at least one other candidate who will serve as a conduit for those partisans who are dissatisfied with the party’s direction and choices. Those candidates almost invariably lose, and their supporters almost invariably end up backing the nominee anyway. But through that process, the party debates its issue stances. It argues over its nomination procedures. And it makes a decision. This is entirely what a healthy party looks like.

Has it been a noisy process for Democrats? Sure. They always are. Have some of the primaries, caucuses, and conventions had logistical problems and irregularities? Absolutely. Find me a year when that wasn’t true.

There’s no guarantee that an important political decision will be a smooth one. Indeed, it’s the ones where there’s no strife that should invite the most scrutiny. But what the Democrats have been going through this year looks perfectly normal and healthy.