Biden’s Agenda Is Plenty Bold

There is a large constituency for a racially inclusive form of social democracy that is not democratic socialism.

Joe Biden
Mike Blake / Reuters

Super Tuesday expresses a very good piece of news about American politics, one that Democratic voters should be able to cheer irrespective of their preferred candidate: There is a large constituency for a racially inclusive form of social democracy.

Though Vice President Joe Biden’s detractors often call him a centrist, his policy program would significantly boost the income of poor Americans and curb abuses by the rich and powerful. Among other things, Biden has pledged a higher minimum wage, a big increase in Social Security benefits for the poorest Americans, more generous health subsidies, and strengthened union rights. While unabashedly in favor of markets, Biden is just as unabashedly in favor of completing the American welfare state—making the country more similar to other developed democracies, such as Germany and, yes, Denmark.

What should be heartening for Americans who want their country to be more economically just is not only the fact that Biden has won on a social-democratic-policy program that (while sharing his general view of the world) is significantly bolder than Barack Obama’s, but the kind of coalition he has been able to unite behind it.

Most of Biden’s rivals proved to have limited appeal beyond their base. Elizabeth Warren did well with educated white voters but poorly with everybody else. (In Massachusetts, she won in Somerville, the home of many Harvard graduate students, and in Arlington, the home of many Harvard faculty members, but few other localities.) Pete Buttigieg struggled to attract younger voters. Amy Klobuchar never broke through outside the Midwest. Even Bernie Sanders, Biden’s most formidable rival, primarily appeals to voters who are robustly progressive and has performed poorly among black voters.

Biden, by contrast, has real strengths in virtually every demographic group. He did especially well among older and more moderate voters (and that matters for his ability to win the Electoral College in November). But he also did well among a host of other groups: He crushed the competition among African Americans, had significant support among Latinos, and made real inroads among educated white voters. Tellingly, his appeal also crosses ideological boundaries: In a number of states, he won a plurality of voters who consider themselves very liberal.

In 2016, it turned out that the mighty ideological commanders of the Republican Party had no more troops left. Though a pro-market economic orthodoxy had long dominated the thinking of the party’s leaders, most of their voters had never quite bought into it. In this electoral cycle, Michael Bloomberg and Sanders—in different ways— staked their chances of success on the hypothesis that the long-standing ideological commitments of the Democratic Party were equally hollow: Many voters, they wagered, are secretly hungering for a markedly different style of politics than that represented by Obama.

Bloomberg’s gambit has unambiguously failed. The former mayor of New York believed there was a widespread demand for the ideological centrism that appeals to coastal American elites: center-right economic policies that favor business coupled with center-left cultural policies. Bloomberg made for a compelling candidate on paper; he’s a political outsider with a track record as the mayor of a big city and unlimited means of financing his campaign. But the constituency for his brand of politics simply doesn’t seem to exist.

Sanders’s approach has a bit more empirical evidence on its side and may yet prove to have staying power. The senator believes that there is strong demand for a form of democratic socialism that, going beyond the abuses of the current system, paints capitalism itself as the enemy. His righteous anger at the dominance of special interests, which he expresses more forcefully than any of his rivals, has won him a lot of fans. This has allowed Sanders to remain a competitor for the nomination.

Nevertheless, Super Tuesday demonstrated that the constituency for racially inclusive social democracy may be larger than that for full-fledged democratic socialism. Evidently, a large part of the Democratic coalition—including a clear majority of black voters—remains wary of Sanders’s proposed policies. Most Americans and even most Democrats, it seems, don’t want a president who would set out to abolish capitalism; instead, they appear to favor a president who is genuinely committed to making capitalism work for them.

Sanders and his supporters have long believed that they would be able to build a new kind of electoral coalition, that by mobilizing a lot of young people and nonvoters, they would be able to reshape the nature of the American electorate. This strategy failed on Super Tuesday. The Democratic electorate continued to skew old, and Sanders proved unable to get a lot of new faces to the polls.

To win against Donald Trump in November, a more realistic strategy is to eschew false binaries. Democrats need to mobilize their base, making sure that black and brown voters turn up for their candidate. They also need to appeal to the many moderates who did not vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but returned to the party fold in the 2018 midterms. Biden’s stunning victory on Super Tuesday makes me a little more optimistic that Democrats can pull off this feat without sacrificing either their moral principles or their economic ambitions.