The party represented by Biden is clearly bigger in the voting booth. Progressives have won major policy victories in the party—as Joe Biden has put forth a platform he would vote against every year of his career before 2016—but that does not automatically translate to electoral victory. Progressives need to come to terms with the fact that the other large coalition in the party does not care about policy as much as we do, and we need to figure out how to communicate our vision in ways that can appeal to a broader coalition. If ideological victories automatically translated to votes, then these figures below would mean that Tuesday was an utterly dominant victory for Bernie Sanders.
Democratic voters just want to beat Trump. It's really that simple. This election isn't a referendum on progressivism as much as it is about listening to Democratic leaders as to who is best positioned to win in November. If voters were absolutely certain that Sanders's progressivism could not win, the consolidation around Biden would have happened much sooner and without the last-minute aid from establishment politicians. The Obama-led consolidation just before Tuesday wasn't some nefarious scheme or “coup” as one extremely unhelpful Sanders surrogate tweeted then deleted, but the right side of the Democratic Party doing the smart thing and coalescing around their own interests. That's politics. The progressives did not unify in response, and as Sanders demonstrated before Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out to endorse Biden after South Carolina, a unified front is an incredibly effective weapon against a fractured field.
On Super Tuesday the 18-29-year olds who vote for Bernie Sanders at Saddam Hussein-levels did not turn out to vote in the numbers needed to change politics the way that progressives aim to. Again. This is a perpetual tragedy of American politics regardless of the generation, and if you are smugly treating this as a victory lap instead of an ongoing decades-long crisis for democracy, then you are part of this very complex problem. Seriously bringing young people into any political coalition is all talk until we can build a system where voting is no longer a task best suited to those with an abundance of time and comfort.
But the 30+-year-olds did show up to vote. This is where we get to the tangible part of Bernie's wing of the party. Historically speaking, people tend to vote at normal rates when they get into their 30s, and that is why you saw so many TV newscasters aghast at Bernie's big victory in Nevada. Times have changed, and the children of the largest generation ever are now voting at similar rates as the (previously) largest generation in U.S. history. The progressive wing of the party is growing, while father time ensures that moderate wing of the party is shrinking.
But the Biden wing still contains much more reliable voters. Distilled down to one phrase, politics can best be summarized as “old folks vote.” Joe Biden leads a very strong black coalition that was demonstrated in the south on Tuesday, and he has been the preferred candidate of the over-65 crowd for well over a year, answering the question as to why each successive gaffe has not destroyed his support. He may not have a movement like Sanders does, but he sure as hell does have a base. This wing of the party favors stability over revolution, which is a tough nut to crack in an era defined by widespread instability.
The upheaval brought by this century has fueled the rise of a younger social-democratic coalition in the Democratic Party, and it has been activated by both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders' campaigns. It sure seems like it is a matter of if, not when these ideas universally beloved by the younger generations become reality. However, building a progressive coalition in America is very difficult, as Howard Dean recalled about his progressive insurgency that lost to a major establishment figure in John Kerry.
We live in a country that is a constant contradiction. Voters consistently tell pollsters that they are either moderate or center-right, yet when asked about specific policies, the vast majority of voters tilt towards the left, especially on economics. Voters state that they abhor socialism in the abstract, but when asked about specific socialist policies like government-run insurance or Social Security, voters enthusiastically support socialism. This is how we arrive at a situation where somewhere around two-thirds of Super Tuesday Democrats say they want socialized insurance, but most voted for a man whose platform does not even guarantee universal health care coverage, let alone government-run insurance. Progressives cannot assume that simply convincing people we have the best policies is enough. The larger wing of the party represented by Biden is defined by a majority of folks who value an amorphous standard of leadership more than they do specific policy wonkery, and progressives must alter their messaging to reach these voters.
When young people are as unified on policy matters as the endless line of polling proves, our ascension to power in this country can feel inevitable, but as it stands, we still belong to a party more enamored with moderation and bipartisanship than revolution.
Ronald Reagan dramatically shifted the Overton Window to the right and brought a generation of Americans with him, and right now we are watching the Overton Window move back to the left, primarily being driven by young women. The Democratic Party of the 1980s to 2008 is objectively more conservative than any other iteration of the party in the modern era and the policies borne from this generation have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the progressive wing of the party. The irony is that young people simply want to return the Democrats to their policy glory days which took place during the moderate wing’s youth between FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. While it seems inevitable that the party will eventually flip back to its leftist roots discovered in the early 20th century, that will likely not happen until the sands of time sweep away a generation invested in the party’s moderation to make way for the rise of the youthful and energized social-democratic wing of the party.