Letter from Colorado: Progressive vs. Moderate

Editor’s Note: Spectator contributor Shay Carlstrom returns after an extended absence with some thoughts on the ongoing Democratic presidential primary in the United States and we are delighted to have him back.


As the state of campaigning in American presidential elections now seem to be permanent, it is less appropriate to say that the 2020 campaign has begun so much as it’s become more fevered. And with the sheer amount of cash already being spent and hoarded, on both sides, US Presidential Elections less resemble the quadrennial suffrage of ideas than a churning freight train heavy-loaded with gold and promises headed downhill fast, with no perceivable way of, nor collective interest in, stopping it. That may sound both hyperbolic and imminently catastrophic, but that’s only because it is.

At this point in American politics, the two sides are no longer simply blue or red, conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, but now view one another as existential threats to the continuation of the American experiment. Vehemence, fear, anger, jingoism, and racism feeding one side as the other wallows in more fear, outrage, uncertainty and indecision.

Democratic Debate, Nevada

Democratic Debate, Nevada


Welcome to the 2020 US Presidential Election!

Although it would be natural to begin by examining the past four years of the current administration, its accomplishments, its argument to voters for another term, I frankly struggle as much as the president himself seems to to find that substance.

Internationally, the administration can point to a bemusing and ongoing trade war with China; antagonism toward friends (sorry friends); chummy cronyism with dictators and autocrats; a brilliant scheme to purchase Greenland; and daily, constant, unending squabbles with leaders across the planet.

At home, the president has used the hydra of American governance as a machine for furthering self-interest, enrichment of self and friends, twitter trolling and the (often-pointless) destruction of anything and everything that President Obama accomplished domestically and internationally. The politics of cruelty. The politics of a sentient social media comment.

Pre-Debate gathering, Drake University, January 2020

Photos from a walk around the Drake University campus prior to the start of the Democratic Presidential Debate hosted by CNN, the Des Moines Register, and the Democratic Party, January 2020. (Photo by Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)


It’s the economy, stupid!

With the United States now in its longest-ever sustained period of economic growth, Republicans are desperate to point to the sole piece of legislation passed in the past four years as part of the reason: massive tax cuts for the super-rich and corporations – ‘Trickle-Down’ Classic. Upon Trump’s election, Republicans held both houses of the legislature and the White House, and this is how they used their power.

But has the average Jane felt any of that? Has life improved? An incumbent with a strong economy is, historically, very difficult to unseat, but…things are not always as they seem. While the stock market and corporate profits have been enjoying an invite-only rave, most Americans have seen stagnant wage growth that cannot keep pace, particularly with a coast-to-coast housing crisis and healthcare costs absurd in their profiteering.

This is not the Swinging ’90s of Bill Clinton. The American electorate is riven by deep anxieties, like fault-lines between colliding continents, and many Americans live in fear of the slightest quake. A health emergency can have catastrophic financial effects, while a chronic or terminal condition, such as cancer, can lead to bankruptcy. There are earnest and real fears in this American life, and Democrats and Republicans are speaking to them in very different ways.

So enough with preamble, let’s meet this year’s cast!


The incumbent

In the red corner, Trump, armed with a party-line cable ‘news’ network, twitter, and a rabid, unblinking, uncaring of what-tweets-may-come base of about a third of the US electorate.

His rallies continue to play the hits: build a wall on the southern border (something Canada should also consider?), Such-and-Such Democrat and Democrats generally are horrid, awful, evil people who are out to destroy “real” America and Americans in favor of immigrants and refugees, and the constant fog of nostalgia (making things “great” again) rife with white supremacy and racism. Trump’s “speeches” are rambling, occasionally incoherent and full-heartedly embraced by the throngs who come to hear them. These rallies have also begun to leave a trail of local unpaid debts and massive amounts of trash left behind, so Trump has remained true to his brand.

Trump fan near site of Democratic primary debate, Drake University, 2020.

Photos from a walk around the Drake University campus prior to the start of the Democratic Presidential Debate hosted by CNN, the Des Moines Register, and the Democratic Party, January 2020. (Photo by Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

His language is hyperbolic, divisive, dangerous, and having a massively deleterious effect on general civility and argument. Most of Trump’s days are spent shirking responsibility for the effects of his action or inaction. Everything is either the fault of the media, the ‘deep-state’ (which apparently means the entirety of the working bureaucracy of the Federal Government) or the Democrats.

Twitter has become America’s national dirty laundry hamper under President Troll.

Although Trump has maintained historically low approval and popularity ratings throughout his term, the devotion of his acolytes has seen those dials move very little through impeachment, blanch-worthy statements, brinksmanship both economic and military, clear law-breaking laws and use of the Department of Justice as a weapon of self defense. He has maintained his followers throughout it all. Demagogues will do that.

To this point, his base has seemed unassailable and the question “What will it actually take?” haunts Democrats. With the surprise introduction of a pandemic into the election, however, we may find out just how brittle this floor of popularity and approval actually is.

While there have been a few Republican primary challenges, they were not serious and decidedly unsupported by the party.


A Two-Headed Donkey

The Democratic Party’s nomination process of debates and campaigning has been raging for over a year. There are two essential ideological camps, which the media is fond of calling ‘lanes’ – Moderate and Progressive. While the number of contestants swelled at one point to 26, the process has seen many of those early contenders fade away, with the largest culls occurring after the contests or failure to qualify for debates.

The figure of former Vice President “Uncle” Joe Biden has loomed over the crowded moderate field of Democrats, despite poor initial showings in debates and contests and the fount of gaffs that is Biden’s mouth, which gave some air to the campaigns that seemed to share Uncle Joe’s vision.

Biden’s sputtering start was particularly good for Pete Buttigieg who, at 38, was by far the youngest candidate in a hoary field of Dems and had a surprisingly strong run for the mayor of the small, Midwestern, rust-belt and university city of South Bend, Indiana.  Mayor Pete made quite the splash on the national stage and in the DNC corridors — perhaps an audition for the future.

Another (upper) Midwesterner, Senator Amy Klobuchar, also found some space on the moderate highway with her folksy brand of midwestern pragmatism peppered with as much hokey humor as possible. Senator Klobuchar had a somewhat surprisingly strong finish in New Hampshire that raised her profile for a time, but faltered in Nevada and South Carolina before suspending her campaign virtually simultaneously with Mayor Pete.

Pete and Amy signs, January 2020

Photos from a walk around the Drake University campus prior to the start of the Democratic Presidential Debate hosted by CNN, the Des Moines Register, and the Democratic Party, January 2020. (Photo by Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Biden saw his first, and decisive, victory in the South Carolina primary, which was do-or-die for the VP, and is the first event to stir any energy into both his campaign and the narrative of his leading in national polls.  It was well-timed momentum.

In the weekend prior to Super Tuesday, Mayor Pete and Klobuchar both dropped out and endorsed Biden at an enormous rally in Dallas, Texas (the second-largest prize on the delegate map) in the kind of coordinated effort normally beyond the competencies of the Democratic National Committee. The result? An effective strategy for the moderate Democrats.

The candidate taking the most unique and expensive approach was former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who, unlike the president, happens to be one of the richest men in the world. Bloomberg skipped the initial states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to make his case to the massive, delegate-rich Super Tuesday states, blanketing them (including Colorado, where I am) in advertising. One recent quick check of the morning news/weather netted me three Bloomberg commercials. He spent over a half billion dollars and promises to spend up to $2 billion more to elect whomever the Democratic candidate is (since it definitely will not be Mike Bloomberg); however, Moneybags Mike fared horribly on the Nevada debate stage thanks to Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign sold coffee mugs labeled “Billionaire Tears.” For $500 million+, Bloomberg netted American Samoa and dropped out of the race.

The so-called moderate Democratic voting bloc had been fractured between these candidates, although the total number of voters supporting them usually outpaced the progressives. There were a lot of questions in the run-up to Super Tuesday, which ended in the coordinated, brokered victories for Biden, who has. it seems worth noting, been running for president for 32 years.


A Socialist in America? 

Stock US presidential candidates include Midwestern pragmatist, Texan can-doer, California dream-weaver, Southern Charmer and Hard-Nose Chicagoan.

Spectator friends, you may remember the last election’s bruising democratic primary fight between Hillary Clinton and the surprising spoiler to her coronation — a cranky-seeming old Vermonter who almost beat her — and and the bitterness and rancor within Democratic ranks afterward.

Vermont Jewish Socialist is not a common background for national politics in the US. Yet, at this point in the race for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders is unarguably the front runner. Sanders took the most votes in Iowa, won New Hampshire, dominated Nevada, took the largest prize in the country with a decisive victory in California (see Tio Bernie) and has a die-hard filled campaign that has, in many ways, not stopped since his 2016 power-brokered loss to Clinton. Sander’s organization has been developing since, and rivals that of Obama in 2008 in scope, youth (if they show up), and passion. Sanders’ supporters (and some pundits) still believe that had he been the nominee in 2016, he would have beaten Trump handily.

Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden

Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden

Sanders has the look of a crank, a cut Brooklyn accent and the rare political trait of not having changed his beliefs, stances, or even his calls to action much in 60 years of well-documented public service. Fresh off a Las Vegas heart attack late last year, Sanders seems as indefatigable as ever.

While the passion behind Sanders hasn’t followed a Democratic candidate since Barack Obama, rather than inspiring jubilation in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) it has provoked public and vocal hand-wringing over his success and momentum. Hillary Clinton took the opportunity to hurl a couple shots from the peanut-gallery.  So the Bernie Sanders campaign, once again, has as much of a nemesis in the DNC as in any other candidate.

The corollaries with the Republican nomination of 2016 are obvious: a number of establishment candidates bickering among themselves while the RNC brushed off the burgeoning populist threat from Trump. As surprising as it is to write, apparently the DNC learned some lessons.

Bernie also shares the Progressive ‘lane’ with fellow a New Englander, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. For much of their respective campaigns and debate performances, the two, who agree on most substance and differ mostly on approach, have maintained a sort of détente, which began to fray as Bernie’s star rose at Warren’s expense. A master debater, Warren has positioned herself as the “I’ve got a plan for that” technocrat who also seeks to capitalize on the identity politics of the Democrat party. And while her campaign got a shot of energy after she ran circles around Bloomberg, her popularity and intelligence have not, to this point, translated into delegates and she dropped out after Super Tuesday.



Tuesday, March 3, saw 14 separate state contests — primaries and caucuses — including California and Texas, the two most populous and therefore delegate-rich states, plus the territory of American Samoa caucus and the beginning of the Democrats Abroad primary.

With the sweeping endorsements of all the other moderate candidates, Biden managed to claim the majority of them, winning Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts (Warren’s home state, where she placed third behind Sanders), North Carolina (an important swing state), Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia (another important swing state), and narrowly defeating Sanders in Texas.

Sanders took Colorado, Vermont (he remains the most popular senator in the country), Utah and the greatest prize of all, California,which has a few million more people than all of Canada. A huge part of why Sanders lagged on Super Tuesday was that one of his key demographics, the most important one, young people, apparently stayed home, while he also still faced a similarly-minded, vote-splitting opponent in Elizabeth Warren.

Drake University, pre-Democratic Debate, January 2020

Photos from a walk around the Drake University campus prior to the start of the Democratic Presidential Debate hosted by CNN, the Des Moines Register, and the Democratic Party, January 2020. (Photo by Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

So the West went Bernie, while the East and South, including black voters, the critical foundation of Democratic support, went for Biden.

All of this leads, once again, to where Bernie Sanders began his surprising run of success in 2016: Michigan.  Michigan is the quintessential rust-belt state, and formerly, along with Wisconsin and Minnesota were called the “Blue Wall” of the Great Lakes Democrats.

However, the wall crumbled in 2016, when Michigan went for Trump in the general (by a small margin) after voting heavily for Sanders in the primary, and so for both the current Democratic race and as a bellwether for the November general contest, Michigan is critical.

It is possibly do-or-die for Bernie Sanders, who, as the man with Union support who took the state in 2016, has a shot, but Democratic voters seem less inclined toward ideals than one simple idea: who will beat Trump?  Beating Trump and perceived stability have been Biden’s platform, along with constant reminders that he was Obama’s VP.

Spectator friends, while the vexing question of what Michigan will do in the Democratic Primary will be answered upon publication, it will continue to loom large until November.

Will the Democrats create a unity ticket of some form between Progressives and Moderates?  Will the rifts that have festered since 2016 within the DNC affect the November contest? Will Joe Biden continue to refer to his sister as his wife?

Beyond these ephemeral worries and prognostications is the growing issue of the pandemic, which has now begun to have massive effects on the world economy and priorities, beyond our contemporary experience.

The handling of a global crises of this scale will have lasting and broad influence on all of us, and it upends historical corollaries in American presidential elections and raises the stakes in a way so deeply-rooted in reality, in biology, that even the Trump administration, wholely unaccustomed to such a position, will have to finally engage with the factual realities of human fragility.



Born in Walden, North Park, Colorado, Shay V. Carlstrom is an educator and writer living in Denver.