If the basic job of a political party is to influence voters by funneling money and endorsements toward the establishment’s preferred candidate, Trump proved that the GOP was a hollow shell. Jeb Bush spent $130 million—for nothing. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz got a slew of fancy endorsements—for nothing. The most famous Republican politicians said Trump was insane and immoral and a fraud, and none of it mattered. Trump didn’t just conquer the GOP; he colonized it.
The Democratic Party appears to be breaking in a similar manner.
Bernie Sanders is not the socialist alter ego of Donald Trump. The senator from Vermont’s political revolution does not require the jailing of political enemies. But Sanders is playing in the 2020 primary a similar role to the one Trump played in 2016: a revolutionary storming the castle of a shattered party establishment.
Like Trump, Sanders was initially rejected by party insiders. Just 10 months ago, a poll of Democratic activists by FiveThirtyEight showed that their two favorite candidates were Kamala Harris and Cory Booker—both of whom dropped out before Iowa. Meanwhile, half of them said they would not consider supporting Bernie Sanders. Like Trump, Sanders took sharp criticism from his party’s previous presidential nominee: Mitt Romney called Trump a “con man, a fake”; Hillary Clinton said of Sanders that “nobody likes him.” Like Trump, Sanders commands a passionate base that’s holding up well against a fractured field of more conventional candidates. And like Trump, Sanders is the clear front-runner in a party that has no idea how to stop him.
Sanders’s early success, like the unstoppable train of Trump’s candidacy four years ago, suggests that the United States has entered a new era of party politics that benefits rebels and ideological radicals. In this era, the most important race is not for the broadest coalition of voters, but for the largest and most passionate base of people who will support the candidate no matter what happens. Instead of encouraging the nominee to compete for the approval of party elites, the primary process rewards whoever arrives at the ballot box with the biggest, loudest base.
The parties once knew how to stop a rebel. In fact, they did it all the time. For most of the past 50 years, Democratic and Republican elites—their party organizations, politicians, cable-news regulars, and various aligned interest groups—successfully used their money and media clout to shape the public’s taste in presidential candidates. This process produced a string of establishment-approved “safe” candidates (Bill Clinton and Bob Dole; John Kerry and George W. Bush) who enjoyed broad elite and popular support. It inspired a 2008 book whose title became a political tagline: The Party Decides.
But that book’s co-author, Martin Cohen, a political-science professor at James Madison University, agrees that today the parties aren’t deciding—at all. “It’s pretty clear that the parties are failing to decide,” Cohen told me. “In the last few decades, the party establishment steered Bob Dole to the nomination in 1996, steered Al Gore to the nomination in 2000, and even steered Mitt Romney to the nomination in 2012. But today’s primaries are harder to steer. You could say the parties can’t even keep the car on the road.”
What changed? Start with the media landscape. In a bygone era of scarcer information, a handful of cable-news channels, radio stations, and print publications set the national agenda. But today, that agenda-setting power has splintered among hundreds of influential podcasts, websites, newsletters, and Twitter and Facebook commentators, all of them building niche audiences that rail against authority. Where once there were gatekeepers, there are now too many gates to keep.
More media mean more direct relationships between candidates and voters. “The sheer amount of media attention doesn’t just make it harder for the party to control the message, but also it makes it easier for candidates to bypass the elites and go directly to voters to raise not just awareness but also lots of money,” Cohen said.
More money means that more candidates are viable. Presidential-campaign spending has soared since the 1990s, and so has the number of candidates in each contest. The 2016 Republican contest featured a libertarian running against evangelical Christians running against classic conservatives—and the winner was a white-nationalist conspiracy theorist who, just years earlier, didn’t even consider himself a Republican. The 2020 Democratic-primary field at one point featured 29 candidates. Today, one could argue that the two candidates with the best chance of winning the nomination are Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg—neither of whom was a Democrat 15 years ago.
More viable candidates means endorsements are riskier than they used to be. “All this money going to outsider candidates has hindered the parties,” Cohen said. “Endorsers don’t want to antagonize a large, passionate following by endorsing another candidate. They also don’t want to pick the losing side. So today, party elites wait longer to endorse to avoid being wrong.”
Altogether, these forces have tipped the balance of power in primary politics from elites to voters. Rather than flex its power by endorsing one candidate, the party establishment waits and frets and hopes for the best.
What does politics look like in a future where each party establishment is weak; where the most successful candidates use media to build direct-to-consumer campaigns; and where a passionate, even cultish following is what makes a primary campaign succeed?
Perhaps the future of politics looks like the future of religion.
In a 1994 paper entitled “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” the economist Laurence Iannaccone noted a paradox in American faith. Religiosity was declining overall. But “strict” denominations—the ones, such as Mormonism and Orthodox Judaism, that asked their followers for the most devotion and the most social sacrifice—were growing. Iannaccone said that the devout pay a high social price (including the potential mockery of outsiders) to buy a superior religious product (membership in a congregation of passionate and like-minded people). Over time, in the marketplace of religion, niche beats general and fervent devotion beats moderation.
When I read Martin Cohen a summary of the Iannaccone paper during our interview, I could hear him saying “yep, yep, yep” before I had even finished. “It’s an interesting analogy to make for political parties,” Cohen said. Strong parties preferred moderate candidates for much of the past 50 years. But in weak parties, orthodox candidates often build the most devout followings. “The way this system is set up creates a factional survive-and-advance dynamic, with Iowa influencing New Hampshire, and New Hampshire influencing Nevada,” he continued. “In that sort of primary, the key is to have a high floor that won’t go away.”
The Bernie Sanders movement is a strict church. Sanders is more left-wing than any viable presidential candidate in modern American history. But strictness is his strength. Sanders’s forceful rhetoric and uncompromising policies have attracted a high baseline of voter devotion that will make him competitive until the end of the primary. “It’s no coincidence that Sanders made it to the end of the 2016 primary with Hillary, and he’ll likely be in it until the end in 2020, even if he does poorly on Super Tuesday,” Cohen said.
Politics, like culture, moves in cycles rather than straight lines. In American political history, weak parties become strong parties, which become weak again. If Sanders wins the nomination and loses to Trump, Democrats might empower elites and tack back to the center, as they did after George McGovern’s wipeout against Richard Nixon in 1972.
But the forces currently amplifying today’s anti-establishment fervor—the explosion of media, the democratization of fundraising, the abundance of viable candidates, and the advantage of niche products in crowded marketplaces—aren’t going away, no matter what happens in November. In an era of weak parties and strong partisanship, voters are shopping for a savior. And the strictest churches pack the pews.