Political Vision and the Spark That Starts the Fire: A New Framework for Mapping the Democratic Primary

In the past several years, we have seen several models designed to explain different routes to success in the presidential primary process. In 2015 and 2016, there was much talk of ‘lanes,’ which was generally defined in terms of ideological coordinates. This combined with the popular ‘party decides’ model, which emphasizes acceptability to party elites as a critical factor. Earlier this year, Nate Silver at 538 provided a new approach which emphasizes the ‘five corners’ of the Democratic party, and which offers a more nuanced demographic perspective on the race. While all these approaches both have value, I want to pose an alternative framework, one which is focused not on ideology or demographics but on a broader theory of politics as such.

Specifically, I am primarily interested in how candidates frame their political vision in terms of ultimate outcomes. What is their case for how they will actually get things done? Do they believe in the persuasive power of their ideas? Are they pragmatic? Do they see politics as a battle or as merely a vigorous conversation? How do they conceive of obtaining a political ‘mandate’?

These issues increasingly define campaigns not necessarily because candidates want them to, but because there is no other way to draw serious distinctions in the context of highly polarized political parties. In a classic ‘big tent’ party that contains wide disagreement on issues of economic, social, and cultural policy candidates can carve out paths defined by clear policy positions. In the far more tightly constrained world of 2019, however, there is less room to draw those sort of distinctions. Most of the candidates agree on most issues.

Moreover, even where there is tactical disagreement (what does ‘Medicare for All’ mean, what should be included in the Green New Deal, etc.), the conflict generally functions more as an expression of deeper philosophical attitudes toward change. The argument is not about whether people should be guaranteed health care but how it will be managed.

And this is where the rubber often meets the road. Because it is very easy to articulate a policy platform that is broadly appealing to a partisan electorate, but very hard to explain how an individual campaign will translate their specific variation on the platform into tangible results in a contested political context.

Political Visions: Four Lanes of Expression

If political vision is a key defining feature in primary campaigns, how was this reflected in the most recent election?

On the Republican side, most analysts (myself included) dismissed the Trump campaign for a long time, based on existing theories about primary success. However, Trump’s success is less surprising when considered in the political vision framework. One can certainly argue that his vision was unsustainable and unrealistic (Mexico has not in fact paid for the wall, nor has the swamp been drained), but it was a clear and powerful promise: elect the outsider who doesn’t hew to political correctness and he’ll represent your authentic views. Meanwhile, more traditionally ‘electable’ candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio stumbled in many ways, but one important vector of their failure was a lack of clear political vision. Trump was plagued by inconsistencies, gaffes, outbursts, and policy confusion. But his competitors were hamstrung by an even deeper inability to describe what voting for them would mean.

Trump’s nomination raises plenty of questions, but I’m primarily concerned here with the Democratic side, so the rest of this essay will be focused on developing a rough model for understanding how competing political visions have played out in the Democratic primary process.

Here, the most recent election provided two clear examples of how political vision frames a campaign. While there were of course clear ideological differences between the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, often these were not expressed in terms of arguments over what should be done in principle, but rather as arguments over what is possible. For Sanders, there was no slippage between what was good and what should be fought for. Clinton meanwhile believed in making pragmatic choices, picking battles and looking for avenues to make incremental gains.

These, then, define two of the primary ‘lanes’ in my framework:

First, a technocratic pragmatism, which emphasizes the difficulty of politics in a pluralist democracy, particularly one as cumbersome as the American constitutional structure. These candidates emphasize the need for expertise and experience; politics is a difficult game and should be played by those who can effectively manipulate the rules. The heart of the argument is about competence.

Second, an approach focused on picking a fight, which argues that political change comes through force, not persuasion. Victory will come when elected official stand their ground on principles and refuse to accept the supposed limits of the existing political system.

The Clinton/Sanders race made the distinction between these two approaches quite clear, and it might seem as though this describes the entire available spectrum. But there are two other ways of approaching this question, which track in some ways along with the Clinton/Sanders divide, but are each also distinct in important ways. These offer two additional lanes in which candidates might cultivate public support.

The third lane is defined by its appeal to a sort of non-partisan common sense. Its proponents try to cultivate a perception of authenticity that escapes the stuffy technocratic elitism of the pragmatic approach while also avoiding the perception of radicalism attached to the ‘picking fights’ model. These candidates trade on the average voter’s distaste for politics by building a ‘just folks’ persona. To win, they must thread a narrow needle by sticking fairly close to the partisan platform within a given race while still framing their position as essentially non-partisan. This is a difficult task, especially in a highly partisan context, but a successful authenticity candidate can sneak a fairly standard partisan platform into voters’ meals by hiding it amidst an ‘aw shucks’ persona. George W. Bush is arguably a successful example of the authenticity ploy.

The final lane is one of cathartic optimism. These candidate appeal to higher principles, hoping to convince voters that politics can be better in some fundamental way. They act as prophets of a new politics, one that can escape from the grubby confines of the existing world. Their promises operate mostly beyond the scope of the presently quantifiable, and therefore succeed (or not) primarily through the emotional connection they can form with voters. Barack Obama is the ne plus ultra example of this approach.

Implications of the Four Lanes Approach to Political Vision

These four lanes provide a framework for assessing the motivational appeal of different candidates. Of course, this is by no means the only relevant way of approaching the question. Obviously, demography and ideology matter a great deal. But these four lanes help to clarify the elusive ‘excitement’ factor that explains why some campaigns catch fire while others fizzle. As such, a focus on political vision may be most useful now, in the early stages of candidate jockeying, as a way to explain who is able to step up a tier, and who does not.

A candidate’s argument about how their unique blend of personal history and political vision will translate into desired outcome might best be considered a necessary hurdle to clear for viability. Inability to articulate a coherent vision of what a campaign means may well destroy one’s chances before they ever get off the ground.

To develop this point, I offer five broad thoughts about the uses of political vision. These are mostly speculative, and should be read as initial forays into the topic, not as definitive statements:

  • First, candidates will face serious problem if they cannot establish a strong presence in one of these lanes. When policy distinctions are minor and every demographic slice is contested, achieving escape velocity depends on the ability to build emotive connections. Campaigns that fail to ignite often do so because their strengths are unable to mobilize action within one of these areas.
  • Second, it is difficult for more than one campaign to successfully occupy a given lane. The space should be treated as a scarce resource that must be fought over.
  • Third, the lanes signify potential energy. They are not a resource waiting to be picked off the ground but an opportunity which requires significant skill (and luck) to exploit.
  • Fourth, a candidate’s history in politics, personal narrative, voting record, and other background facts sharply constrain their flexibility in choosing a lane. For example, Hillary Clinton could never have restyled herself as a bomb-thrower no matter how much she tried, while Mitt Romney could never have run as a transcendental candidate. One strong explanation for many abortive campaigns that structural conditions blocked their entry into any of these lanes.
  • Fifth, the lanes are not created equal. Some are easier to occupy but harder to translate into votes. Others vice versa. For example, cathartic optimism is powerful when successfully invoked, but this is no easy feat. Countless candidates strive for this sort of appeal, but very few achieve it. It may take a generational political talent like Obama to activate this sort of connection.

Political Vision and the Democratic field

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the Democratic field.

First, the pragmatic lane, which was so thoroughly dominated by Hillary Clinton in the last cycle that it effectively shut down the race before it started, is relatively underpopulated this time. Critically, because this model is not concerned primarily with ideology, this is not a ‘moderate’ lane. Rather, it revolves around the claim that expertise, competence, and experience will be sufficient to achieve successful policy outcomes. Therefore, even the closest potential claimant—probably Amy Klobuchar—will have a hard time making a clear case for herself. Her messaging on legislative effectiveness looks more like a standard appeal to bipartisanship, which would arguably make more sense in the ‘common sense’ lane. One could also imagine someone like Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, or Kamala Harris trying to occupy this space, though nothing we have seen so far suggests they are interested in adopting such an approach.

The second lane, which I have termed ‘picking a fight,’ is once again dominated by Bernie Sanders. But, perhaps surprisingly, he appears to be relatively unchallenged in this space. While many politicians took the lesson that leftist policy was viable in the Democratic field, no one seems to have decided to follow Sanders in his broader approach to politics as such. We’ve seen candidates trying to get to Sanders’ left on individual issues—such as gun control, criminal justice reform, or poverty—but none have seriously posed a more radical theory of political action, except for possibly Tulsi Gabbard. This may simply be because none actually share Sanders’ vision of a political revolution, or it may be a tactical recognition that Sanders has a clear first-mover advantage in this area. However, as we will see, failure to challenge Sanders here may be dangerous for candidates with no other plausible lane to occupy.

The third lane, defined by an appeal to common sense, looks to be currently controlled by Joe Biden. While Biden has not technically entered the race, he is certainly competing in the invisible primary, where his appeal seems designed for ‘normal’ voters, rather than for highly engaged online progressive communities. Sherrod Brown could also make a plausible run in this lane, for much the same reasons as Biden. Notably, it is extremely difficult to picture a woman or nonwhite candidate filling this position, given the ingrained race and gender dynamics that surround the concept of authenticity. I will discuss this issue in more detail below.

The final lane, cathartic optimism, is arguably the most contested. Beto O’Rourke clearly fits here, and if Cory Booker is going to make any headway it will depend on his ability to turn abstract comments about an ethic of love into something concrete. Pete Buttigieg’s campaign also probably fits here, if it fits anywhere. The problem for all these candidates, however, is that that cathartic optimism is enormously hard to activate. Occasionally, prophetic messengers emerge and capture the impulse of the electorate, but it is very rare.

Who does this leave out? Most notably: Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand. In each case, a candidate with a strong theoretical argument, but some practical difficulties translating the theory into practice.

Harris continues to poll relatively well, and dominates in some of the other models (particularly the 538 majority coalition approach), but so far it’s not clear that she has been able to distinguish herself in this framework. Her case leans heavily on demography and identity. It’s possible that will be sufficient—arguably ‘identity’ constitutes an overarching political vision in itself—but it’s also possible that she’ll need to draw a sharper perspective on her political philosophy if she wants to sustain her strong fundamentals.

Warren was mentioned a potential occupant of the pragmatic lane, but her broader political message makes that difficult to sustain. She is not a technocrat, nor does she have significant experience in governing. She also seems like a difficult fit in the other lanes. While potentially unfair, she will have difficulty activating the forms of authenticity that drive the 2nd and 3rd approaches. She also lacks the cheerful optimism that defines the 4th. She is, however, a brilliant thinker and extremely deep in the policy literature. She might therefore be able to express a slightly new variation on the pragmatic theme, which stresses the need for practical modest gains, and promises to wield the tools of presidency to counteract the deleterious effects of money in politics. So far, such a message has not materialized. Without it, her campaign may remain stalled in the low single digits.

Finally, Gillibrand may be the perfect example of a candidate with plenty of theoretical appeal, but without a viable path to make progress in any of these lanes. Her campaign seems designed to avoid alienating any of the ‘5 corners,’ and she has clearly tried to position herself as a clear anti-Trump politician in an effort to curry favor in an ideological race. She has also used her motherhood to make an identity-based argument. But none of these seems to have sparked a flame, largely because they have no meta-structure to guide them. Gillibrand’s campaign often feels like it’s a bunch of high-quality ingredients being measured against prepared meals.

Making Their Case: New Chances to Light a Fire

There is one final point worth mentioning. The three candidates I have flagged as potentially in trouble according to this framework—Harris, Warren, and Gillibrand—share one obvious thing in common: they are all women. This is important. The framework I have described here is an attempt to offer a broad theory for who breaks through and who does not, and depends heavily on the sort of loose affective connections that can’t be easily reduced to policy positions or clear identity connections. As such, this is precisely where we might expect to find powerful sexist assumptions about women candidates at work. Three of the four lanes I have identified trade heavily on various forms of authenticity, something often denied to women even as it is granted unquestioningly to men.

However, these candidates do have several options available. First, it’s possible for a new ‘lane’ to appear. Until early 2016, it didn’t seem like picking a fight was a plausible path, but Sanders showed that it was. Perhaps one of the women in this race can cultivate a new mode of engagement, which rescues the idea of competence from its association with tentativeness and triangulation. Second, they could survive simply by operating as an acceptable second-choice for many—taking the nomination more by default than through any grand mandate in the same way that John Kerry ended up victorious in the 2004 primary. Third, ultimately demographics might in fact prove to be destiny, and Harris will ride a wave of women and nonwhite voters to the nomination despite never articulating a unique political vision.

Each of these is possible. But I consider them unlikely. Campaigns are complicated processes involving thousands of moving parts. But they are also fundamentally quite simple. Winning candidates capture the imagination of the electorate by pitching politics to them in a distinct way. Losing candidates often say all the right things but struggle because they can’t convince enough people to listen. And for all the twists and turns still to come in the Democratic race, that may ultimately be the most important factor.