David Brooks: Biden’s rise gives the establishment one last chance

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

I don’t know about you, but the election results this week filled me with more hope than I’ve felt in years. It felt like somebody turning down the volume.

The angry and putrid shouting that has marked the last four years — and that would mark a Trump vs. Sanders campaign — might actually come to an end. Suddenly we got a glimpse of a world in which we can hear each other talk, in which actual governance can happen, in which gridlock can be avoided and actual change can come.

But the results carried a more portentous message as well. For those of us who believe in our political system, it’s put up or shut up time. The establishment gets one last chance.

If Joe Biden wins the nomination but loses to Donald Trump in the general election, young progressives will turn on the Democratic establishment with unprecedented fury. “See? We were right again!” they’ll say. And maybe they’ll have a point.

If Biden wins the White House but doesn’t deliver real benefits for disaffected working-class Trumpians and disillusioned young Bernie Bros, then the populist uprisings of 2024 will make the populist uprisings of today look genteel by comparison. “The system is rotten to the core,” they’ll say. “It’s time to burn it all down.”

Some people are saying a Biden presidency would be a restoration or a return to normalcy. He’ll be a calming Gerald Ford after the scandal of Richard Nixon.

But I don’t see how that could be. The politics of the last four years have taught us that tens of millions of Americans feel that their institutions have completely failed them. The legitimacy of the whole system is still hanging by a thread. The core truth of a Biden administration would be bring change or reap the whirlwind.

There would be no choice but to somehow pass his agenda: a climate plan, infrastructure spending, investments in the heartland, his $750 billion education plan and health care subsidies. If disaffected voters don’t see tangible changes in their lives over the next few years, it’s not that one party or another will lose the next election. The current political order will be upended by some future Bernie/Trump figure times 10.

This week’s results carried a few more lessons:

Democrats are not just a party; they’re a community. In my years of covering politics I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like what happened in the 48 hours after South Carolina — millions of Democrats from all around the country, from many different demographics, turning as one and arriving at a common decision.

It was like watching a flock of geese or a school of fish, seemingly leaderless, sensing some shift in conditions, sensing each other’s intuitions, and smoothly shifting direction en masse. A community is more than the sum of its parts. It is a shared sensibility and a pattern of response. This is a core Democratic strength.

Intersectionality is moderate. Campus radicals have always dreamed of building a rainbow coalition of all oppressed groups. But most black voters are less radical and more institutional than the campus radicals. They rarely prefer the same primary candidates.

If there’s any intersectionality it’s in the center. Moderate or mainstream Democrats like Biden, Clinton and Obama are the ones who put together rainbow coalitions: black, brown, white, suburban and working class.

The new Democrats are coming from the right. Bernie Sanders thought he could mobilize a new mass of young progressives. That did not happen. Young voters have made up a smaller share of the electorate in the primaries so far this year than in 2016 in almost every state, including Vermont.

Meanwhile there were astounding turnout surges in middle-class and affluent suburbs. Turnout was up by 76% in the Virginia suburbs around Washington, Richmond and parts of Norfolk. Turnout was up 49% overall in Texas. Many of these new voters must be disaffected Republicans who now consider themselves Democrats.

It’s still better to work the room than storm the barricades. Biden grew up in a political era in which politics was still about persuasion, not compulsion; building diverse coalitions, not just firing up your base. He’s been able to win over many of his former presidential rivals and cement a series of valuable alliances, especially with Jim Clyburn of South Carolina.

As Ezra Klein pointed out in Vox, Sanders tried to win over the Democratic Party by attacking the Democratic Party and treating its leaders with contempt. In fact, some Sanders surrogates are attacking Biden’s skill in building coalitions as a sign of evil elitism, as something only those nasty insiders do.

Biden’s wins this week, and his incredible polling surges in states like Florida that are soon to vote, make it likely that he will win and Sanders will lose this primary contest. But that doesn’t mean that legitimate crises that are driving the Sanders voters — or the legitimate crises that are driving Trump voters — will go away.

Their problems will still be all our problems. And if our current system can’t address them, then that system will be swept away.

David Brooks

David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.