The election of 2016, I have often remarked, showed that American politics as we have known them at least since 1960 had collapsed. A serial bankrupt and reality tv star had ridden fame and resentment to the White House--and neither major party had come up with a candidate who could beat him. The situation was obviously particularly critical within the Republican Party, which could not field an effective candidate. Hillary Clinton did, after all, win the popular vote by 3 million votes, although the Democratic nomination process showed her vulnerabilities as well. Unfortunately, the biggest lesson of the 2020 primary process so far is that the collapse of our political system continues. The Democratic Party this year is having the same problem that the Republicans had last time: it has not produced a national political figure who can win the nomination.
Many of the Democrats I know expected something completely different. They saw AOC and the squad as the wave of the future after 2018 and thought that progressives were taking over the party as a prelude to taking over the country. I think the early signs tell us clearly that this is not going to happen. Yes, Bernie Sanders narrowly won the popular vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but he got less than half the votes in New Hampshire that he got in 2016, and his fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren is rapidly dropping off the radar. Fivethirtyeight.com shows him with the best chance of winning the nomination among the candidates, but it also shows a deadlocked convention as more likely. On the Republican side, a consensus unity candidate might have beaten Trump in 2016, but no such person existed. That is happening among the Democrats this year as well. Joe Biden, upon whom the party establishment counted, is flaming out quickly, just as he did in 1988 and 2008. The relatively centrist candidates from Generation X--Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker--crashed and burned before a single vote had been cast. Pete Buttigieg (a Millennial) and Amy Klobuchar (a late-wave Boomer) have drawn some support based on their personalities and their demographic novelty, but neither one has shown much polling strength around the country. The really interesting question about Buttigieg, it seems to me, is whether his big-tent moderation will prove to be more characteristic of Millennial politicians than Ocasio-Cortez's left wing militance. I suspect that the answer is yes.
The Democratic establishment needs a savior, but they are not turning to any elected Democratic official Instead, they have seized upon Michael Bloomberg, listed this month as the ninth-richest person in the U.S., with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $61.8 billion. Bloomberg won his two terms as mayor of New York as a Republican. Like Biden, he was born in 1942 and would turn 80 in the middle of his presidential term. The billionaire (or, in Trump's case, self-proclaimed billionaire) candidate may become the norm in our politics. The other Democratic candidate who has been gaining some ground lately is hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, whose net worth is estimated at $1.6 billion. He has spent ten times more money than the next-highest candidate in both Nevada and South Carolina. Such men can finance their own big tv ad campaigns, and they seem to have a stature among the public at large that politicians lack. Our politicians, of both parties, have failed to address very real problems such as immigration, climate change, the impact of globalization, and the cost of health care for decades, and the public, at some level, knows it. From Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, the less experienced major candidate has won every one of the last seven elections. That should tell us something about the American public's taste. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has used emergency powers that accumulated during the Cold War era to rewrite our Constitution. He is building a border wall with Defense Department money that Congress appropriated for entirely different purposes. This too could be a portent of things to come.
I am afraid that the reputation of politics and politicians may get worse as the year goes on. In 1956, when I was 9, I saw the Democratic convention take two ballots to decide a hot race for the vice-presidential nomination between Estes Kefauver and John F. Kennedy. It was one of the most exciting things I had ever seen, but I did not know that it would be the last time that a convention had to take more than one ballot on anything for the next 60 years at least. There is a good chance that it will happen at Milwaukee when the Democrats meet this summer--and if it does, the result will probably be disastrous. Neither the convention chairman nor the delegations will have any experience with actual balloting, and the spectacle may make the Iowa caucuses look like a model of efficiency. Donald Trump would benefit in such a case. All this has profound causes on many fronts, and I hope to discuss them further in months to come.