After the Democratic presidential debate Thursday night between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Democrats hungry to take the fight to the GOP have to face up to a twisted reality: Despite their dramatic differences with the Republicans, and despite having only two candidates, the Democrats are also struggling with a very fractured field.
On the GOP side, the warring partisans behind the Trump/Cruz rivalry and the Rubio/Bush beef have dug in for the long haul. This should present Democrats with an opportunity to unite behind a standard-bearer months before Republicans settle on a general-election strategy. Instead, on Thursday, Clinton and Sanders turned in performances that cranked up the enmity between each candidate's team of supporters. "We should not make promises we can't keep," Clinton said, clearly implying that Sanders will never deliver on his socialist promises. "Let's not insult the intelligence of the American people," Sanders said, deriding Clinton for claiming her mega-donors don't influence her.
This Democratic divisiveness is not quite as severe as the GOP's — where many of Trump's critics slam him for being crude and unconservative, and many of his fans celebrate him for being the same. But Thursday's Democratic debate was still defined by how sharply Team Clinton and Team Sanders differ.
Where Clinton fans see nuance, experience, and grit in her foreign policy track record, Sanders fans see, at best, Kissinger lite. Where Sanders fans see their man's laser focus on the Wall Street culprits of our economic failures, Clinton fans see a rote, reflexive, one-note campaign that can never deliver on its promises.
At this point in the election cycle, neither side is prepared to back down, neither side can win a knockout, and both sides believe that surviving to the next round of battle is a win, while mere survival for the other side is a loss. For Democrats, that must be a frightening and paradoxical reflection of the Republican race they find so much (justified) satisfaction in mocking.
Observers could be tempted to blame the attrition warfare on the all-pervading uncertainty of the times. There is nothing more important substantively this election season than the potent sense laced through both parties that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have in some key manner fallen short. But instead of these back-to-back disappointments causing a popular uprising, an elite reassertion of control, or even a come-together moment of expedient desperation, Americans have simply been left with a gigantic question mark.
For many voters, the question mark casts a bipartisan pall over domestic policy. Did Citizens United really matter? Is ObamaCare good enough? How bad is it that a lot of whites are now downwardly mobile? And in foreign policy, the question mark blots out the sun. Should we make Russia more of a foe or a friend? What is happening to Europe? Should we be more concerned that China will be hit by a crisis, or that it will precipitate one? And that's to say nothing of radical Islamism.
A race where both parties have fractured into camps that disagree on what is a political virtue and what is a political vice cannot supply coherent answers to these questions. And a candidate trying to appeal to a large enough slice of the electorate will have to keep the door open for changes in policy and new coalitions that can't be announced in advance. This is why it is unclear exactly what Rubio or Trump would do in office. It's also why there's no good answer to the question of how trustworthy Clinton "really" is on the issues, or how Sanders would try to succeed as president. There is no reliable way to measure today what is coming tomorrow, much less three years from now. We are all but voting blind.
And in the end, we are to blame. Our willingness to split off into factions, no matter how marginal or insular, is visible everywhere in the culture, from pop music to sports to college education and well beyond. This psychosis is so prevalent that more than one backlash is underway — a little socialism here, a little nationalism there. But even these potentially unifying trends are reduced down to ingredients in the factional stew. Dwarfed by a government and a future that no one seems able to master, we seek what pride we can in the narcissism of small differences and smaller groups.
Don't blame the times for these grudge matches. We, as St. Augustine said, are the times.