The story of 2016 was ostensibly about how political party establishments had become empty vessels, vulnerable to takeover from populists with their own platforms and megaphones. The tumult in the GOP, from successive Tea Party rebellions to the nomination of Donald Trump, seemed to confirm this thesis. And even the Democratic elite showed some signs of weakness, as Bernie Sanders mounted a stronger-than-expected primary challenge to the establishment’s anointed candidate.
But the party’s 2016 collapse followed by the easy re-election of Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democratic caucus complicates this narrative. The New York Times:
Ms. Pelosi’s victory over Representative Tim Ryan, a 43-year-old congressman from a blue-collar district anchored in Youngstown, Ohio, ensures that the party will be led in the next Congress by the established “coastal” Democrats who have increasingly defined it — Ms. Pelosi, 76, who represents San Francisco, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, 66, who has held various leadership posts since 2005.
Consider: First, the Democratic elite dutifully steered voters to Hillary Clinton, virtually clearing the field for her in the primaries despite what should have arguably been—in retrospect, at least—a disqualifying scandal. And then, after four years of electoral carnage and virtual decimation of the party outside its coastal urban precincts, the Democrats have re-installed a veteran San Francisco liberal as the face of their party’s congressional agenda. To the extent that the rank-and-file has rebelled, it has not been very successful.
As we wrote the day after the election: “Donald Trump won the Republican nomination because the GOP elite’s control over their party was weak. But he won the presidency because the Democratic elite’s control over their party was strong”—so strong that it didn’t need to listen to heed the warning signs about its preferred nominee. Pelosi’s re-election suggests that even the 2016 disaster has not yet weakened the establishment’s iron grip over Democratic power centers.
But its voters will not tolerate losing forever. And as Jeb Bush and Eric Cantor can attest, the perceived authority of party mandarins can evaporate overnight.