In the GOP, the standard script flipped in 2016. In the primary debates, Donald Trump, sometimes accompanied by another outlandish amateur, Ben Carson, occupied center stage, while establishment moderates including Jeb Bush and John Kasich challenged them from the sidelines. Last night in Detroit, Democrats witnessed the same pattern. Sanders and Warren, the ideological hard-liners, so dominated the discussion that the leading moderates—Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, and Amy Klobuchar—faded into the background, leaving marginal candidates like Delaney to defend centrist positions held by the latest Democratic president less than four years ago.
How did the outsiders become insiders and the insiders outsiders? One answer is the financial crisis, and escalating inequality that has followed in its wake. Before it, Democrats were far more comfortable with America’s economic system than they are now. In 2000, former Goldman Sachs Chairman and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was so popular in Democratic circles that newspapers speculated Al Gore might make him his running mate. Obama chose as three of his first four chiefs of staff men who had worked in investment banks or hedge funds, with little Democratic outcry. Search transcripts of the 2008 Democratic primary debates and you’ll find variants of corporation mentioned only two, four, five, or seven times.
Last night in Detroit, the candidates called out corporations 21 times. Warren and Sanders repeatedly invoked their treachery to rhetorically dominate the candidates’ more moderate foes. During the debate, Delaney and Hickenlooper again and again touted their business experience and argued that Sanders’s and Warren’s plans were impractical. But again and again, their critiques were overshadowed when Warren denounced “the giant corporations that have taken our government and that are holding it by the throat” and when Sanders demanded a “political revolution that tells these billionaires and corporate America that they are Americans; they’ll participate in our society, but they have got to start paying their fair share of taxes, period”—after which the audience erupted in applause.
A second shift that has helped turn the Democratic Party inside out is the internet, which allows candidates to demonize business interests and the rich—the traditional source of campaign funds—yet still raise vast sums. The clearest historical precursor for Sanders and Warren’s campaigns is Jesse Jackson, whose 1984 convention speech attacked “those 90,000 corporations that made a profit last year but paid no federal taxes.” But Jackson raised less than a third of the money Mondale did. He was even out-fundraised by John Glenn, a centrist dud who withdrew from the race in mid-March.
This year, by contrast, Warren has raised almost as much money as Joe Biden while forswearing fundraisers with big donors. In the second quarter of this year, her average donor gave $28. For Sanders, it was $20.