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Sanders Versus the Stability Voters

He's the biggest winner out of New Hampshire, yet he's up against a majority that still opts for slower change.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Two big takeaways from last night’s New Hampshire primary. The first comes from an NBC exit poll of Granite State Democratic voters, which found that a combined 58 percent want either a return to the agenda of the Obama administration or more conservative policies than even Obama offered, compared to only 38 percent who crave a turn to the left. The second comes from the powerful Culinary Union in Nevada, where the next round of cauci is scheduled to be held; the union’s leadership is subtly warning its members not to back Bernie Sanders lest they lose the expansive health insurance plans they’ve negotiated with the state’s casinos.

Both stories demonstrate the same thing: a desire for stability, a rejection of the gauzy and abstract in favor of what’s been tested and tried. Against this stands Sanders, who narrowly won last night’s primary. Sanders very much does not want stability; he wants disruption, bracing change, universal health care and free college paid for by Wall Street and the nation’s billionaires. On the side of stability—even if they’re more progressive than is sometimes let on—are Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who placed second and third last night respectively, and Joe Biden, who was last seen challenging the exit polls to a hog wrestling contest. Together, they won about 52 percent of the Granite State vote.

Now that’s not to say that Sanders’ message isn’t finding resonance. He’s polling especially well among the young, who see no reason not to blow up the barbaric student loan system, appalling Wall Street greed, and pointless overseas wars they’ve grown up with. Sanders is currently the best positioned Democratic candidate in the race, even if thus far he’s only acquitted himself with that most pitiful of creatures, the white liberal. (Heavily African-American South Carolina will be his biggest test.) Yet it seems to me that the real story from last night isn’t that Sanders won New Hampshire—he did that in 2016, too, and far more convincingly. It’s that after years of relentless antagonism from Trump and woke haranguing from the left, most Democrats shrugged and went the moderate stabilizing route. Even in our age of extreme polarization, the electorate retains its old hesitance towards radicalism.

That cuts against a lot of the punditry, which insists that populism is the new normal, issues like deficits don’t matter, the culture war makes conscripts of us all. That Buttigieg and Klobuchar have succeeded by bucking these trends suggests that, as ever, the commentariat hasn’t the foggiest idea what’s really going on. Neither do I, by the way, and so we’ll see what happens in the coming weeks. To the extent that I was following the horse race last night, it was only to hope that Tulsi Gabbard would overtake Tom Steyer for sixth place. Alas.

about the author

Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.

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