AFTER DONALD TRUMP secured the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, a scholarly tome called “The Party Decides” enjoyed brief notoriety. Its authors had argued that, though party officials no longer chose their candidates with secret pacts made in “smoke-filled rooms”, they still controlled the process through an informal system of nudges and winks to voters that might be called the “invisible primary”. The way the Republican establishment had decisively folded around George W. Bush provided evidence for this. Yet the triumph of Mr Trump, a walking-tweeting challenge to conservative orthodoxy, against the wishes of almost every elected Republican, demolished it. Having ceded power to their voters through the primary system—which both parties adopted fully in the 1970s and have made increasingly autonomous since then—party leaders had now finally lost control.
This week in Charleston, South Carolina, a seat of rebellion and insurgency, the Democratic establishment learned the same lesson. In the aftermath of Bernie Sanders’s thumping win in Nevada, it was the venue for the last televised debate before the primaries looming in South Carolina and the 14 Super Tuesday states that could give the grouchy Vermonter a decisive lead. As perhaps the last chance for Mr Sanders’s moderate opponents to turn their guns on him—and so save America’s surviving mainstream party from succumbing to populism like its rival—this was billed as a historic showdown. Mr Sanders’s armies of Twitter trolls bristled in anticipation of an “establishment plot” against him. A few brave centrists, led by the think-tank Third Way, promised them one. But from the debate’s “spin-room”—a vast media hangout from which Lexington watched the fray—the pushback was hard to detect.
Mr Sanders did take some heat. Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg noted that his $60trn package of health-care and other plans was a fantasy. The former mayor of South Bend also expressed concern that Mr Sanders “telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime” might not win the heartland. Mr Biden (who had apparently been advised to shout more) attacked Mr Sanders’s past pandering to the gun lobby. And the senator, a lifelong democratic socialist and more recent Democrat, was booed when he bit back by pressing the former vice-president on trade. These hits were rehashed in the spin-room by campaign spokesmen as evidence that Mr Biden was back in the fight, that Mr Bloomberg is back on his feet, that Mr Sanders didn’t really care either way. And only the last sounded convincing. The debate to stop Mr Sanders underlined why this may now be impossible.
Start with the absurdity of counting on Mr Sanders’s moderate rivals to peg him back. They are the main reason for his rise. There are too many of them and none is a standout. Their bickering over tiny differences has fragmented the centre-left—and is utterly dull. This centre-left logjam has made Mr Sanders’s small left-wing base more potent, his leftist rhetoric more distinctive and, until now, his candidacy only indirectly threatening to his main rivals, which is why they hardly attacked him. The vanity campaigns of the Democrats’ billionaires have been even more helpful to him. Tom Steyer, a retired financier with no original ideas, has risen in South Carolina at Mr Biden’s cost by outspending the field. Mr Bloomberg, whose lavish campaign and dire political skills (again on display in Charleston) are drawing inevitable comparisons with the Wizard of Oz, has also badly reduced Mr Biden in the Super Tuesday states. Mr Sanders would be in a weaker position without them. The only way his rivals could pull back the populist senator would be by quitting and thinning the field. But, having a well-judged sense of each other’s weaknesses, they will not.
And no Democratic leader has said they should; including Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, whose cautionary words could actually make a difference. This underscores the fact that America’s populist drift is not inevitable. The paranoid, resentful style common to Mr Trump and Mr Sanders, despite their big differences, is not much more popular than it ever was. Even after bagging the first three states, Mr Sanders is backed by less than a third of Democrats. Yet he, like Mr Trump before him, is being propelled by ways in which social media, online fundraising and the free-floating primary system combine to reward extreme candidates: including chiefly that primary voters tend themselves to be unusually ideological, active on social media, and generous to politicians.
What was once invisible
The good news is that some changes to the way the parties run their nominating process could make it less vulnerable to capture by zealots and, by extension, likelier to promote mainstream views that are more broadly representative. A new paper for the Brookings Institution by Raymond La Raja and Jonathan Rauch offers some suggestions, which would essentially involve reinstituting the invisible primary. They suggest, for example, that party insiders might vet candidates by setting tighter eligibility criteria and scoring them on a range of attributes. There was no intrinsic reason, they argue, why Mr Trump and Mr Sanders should have been allowed onto the debate stage of two parties they had recently joined and never prized above their personal ambitions. And against the objections of those who would recoil against such a technocratic fix, the authors argue that fetishising voter choice is not delivering democratic outcomes. “Without professional input,” they write, “the nominating process is vulnerable to manipulation by plutocrats, celebrities, media figures and activists.”
The problem is that establishment politicians are running scared of the fringe passions they helped unleash. If Mr Obama or Mrs Pelosi cannot bear to tell Mr Steyer to get out, who would lead a fight to exclude the Sandernistas from the Democratic mainstream? The idea is now unthinkable. Which means that on the left, as well as the right, a populist fire may have to rise and spread, before it can splutter, fail and Bern out.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The primary problem”