If Bernie Sanders isn’t going to be president, what happens to the movement that coalesced behind him?
A week ago, on the eve of the New York primary, there was still a plausible scenario in which Bernie Sanders would be inaugurated as president next January: New York had elected Hillary Clinton to the Senate twice, so an upset win there — or maybe even just a photo finish that would keep her from declaring victory until Wednesday morning — would the change the narrative of the campaign in a way that could set Bernie on the road to the White House.
Until that moment, the recent string of Sanders victories could still be written off as the calendar’s fortuitous grouping of several Bernie-friendly contests. But if he won New York, no one could deny that the campaign had seen a real momentum shift. Clinton’s big margins in delegate-rich early states like Texas, Florida, and Ohio might start to seem like old news. The combination of a New York upset, Clinton’s shrinking margin over Sanders in national polls, and Sanders’ advantage in head-to-head match-ups with Republicans might be enough to turn around the polls that showed him trailing in the next round of states (Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware, which vote tomorrow), shrink Clinton’s pledged-delegate lead to insignificance by the end of the primaries in June, and convince superdelegates that he was the candidate the party needed to unite behind at the Democratic Convention in July.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, Clinton had a crushing 16-point win in New York and extended her pledged-delegate lead by an estimated 31. Polls show Clinton continuing to hold big leads in Pennsylvania and Maryland, with a smaller lead in Connecticut (and little polling in Rhode Island and Delaware). Even if he could squeak out wins those states, it wouldn’t be enough at this point. To catch up, he needs landslides — a long string of them — and there’s no indication that they’re coming.
Hillary is now virtually certain to go the convention with a sizeable lead in pledged delegates and primary votes. Back when Sanders supporters hoped to win in the primaries and were worried about superdelegates overruling the will of the people, big Bernie-supporting organizations like Democracy for America and Move On committed themselves to the position that the pledged-delegate winner should be the nominee. They would have a hard time walking that back now. And besides, superdelegates (who are precisely the kind of party establishment figures Clinton appeals to) rushing to Sanders has always been hard to picture.
In short, Hillary Clinton is going to be nominated.
What Bernie accomplished. None of that should diminish the impressiveness of what the Sanders campaign has done. A year ago, it might have seemed like a moral victory if Sanders had put up some token resistance in Iowa and New Hampshire — 25% or 30%, maybe — before fading out of the picture altogether. Instead, Bernie has won states in every region but the South, and created moments of real panic inside the Clinton campaign. Rather than a Clinton coronation, the outcome has ended up hanging on a single factor: Sanders’ inability to break through with non-white voters. (The margins Clinton achieved in New York — 75%-25% among blacks and 64%-36% among Latinos — are fairly typical. Sanders and Clinton split New York’s white vote 50-50.)
As a result, Clinton has had to shift left in ways that will be hard to undo. She’s now against the TransPacific Partnership treaty that she had a role in negotiating, and against the Keystone XL pipeline. She’s had to take a stronger position on raising the minimum wage, and to emphasize other progressive parts of her platform that otherwise she might have played down. As leaks from her staff touch off discussions of possible VPs, we’re hearing names like Elizabeth Warren rather than Democrats to Hillary’s right (like several who appear on Democrat Cafe’s list).
In the national conversation, progressive ideas have moved closer to the mainstream. Several of Occupy Wall Street’s points have stopped sounding fringy and are well on their way to becoming common sense:
- The top 1% have captured too much of our nation’s wealth
- Their institutional power gives their viewpoint too much influence in the media.
- Our virtually unregulated campaign finance system makes it too hard for politicians to stand up to them.
- As a result, their combination of market power and political power rigs the American economy in their favor.
Looking to 2020 or beyond, candidates will have to seriously consider funding their campaigns out of small donations, knowing that they’ll face criticism if they go the Super PAC route instead.
Those are significant accomplishments. So while it’s natural for Sanders supporters to be disappointed in how things are turning out, the campaign has not been a failure.
But where should it go from here?
Scorched Earth? One possibility is that Bernie could go down swinging: Keep hammering at Clinton’s trustworthiness and Wall Street ties; promote a persecution narrative that the process is rigged against him; make the convention as contentious as possible; and either encourage his supporters to vote for a third-party candidate like the Greens’ Jill Stein, or even run himself as an independent.
I think Bernie would probably encourage people to [support Hillary if he loses] because he doesn’t have any ego in this thing. But I think a lot of people are, ‘sorry, I just can’t bring myself to’.
The threat that their unwillingness to unite behind Hillary might hand the White House to Donald Trump does not move them: On this episode of The Young Turks, Cenk Uygar argues that Trump is a fascist, so “we can’t roll the dice” on a Trump presidency. But Jimmy Dore pushes back:
Think how strong the left would be. Think how strong — and also, we’d have all the independents and we would pick off Republicans. … I think it would put liberalism over the top. You know how we always say that Americans are liberal but they just don’t know it? I think they would know it.
Getting in line? A second possibility is to do what Hillary Clinton herself did eight years ago: After pushing all the way to the end of the primaries and coming up short, she endorsed Barack Obama in early June. It was not a half-hearted, check-the-box effort: She and Bill worked hard for Obama, in spite of die-hard supporters who tried to organize against him. Bill’s speech was one of the highlights of the 2008 convention.
If Sanders did something similar, if he didn’t just say “Yeah, I guess she’s better than Trump” but toured the country campaigning for the Democratic ticket, that could go a long way to unify the party for the fall.
But Clinton would have to tango as well. If after the convention she acts like Sanders has socialist cooties, or that appearing on a stage with him would threaten her image with moderate swing voters, Bernie could hardly be blamed if he spent the fall doing something else, either campaigning for progressive candidates lower on the ticket or just resting up in Vermont.
Planting seeds? An in-between possibility was outlined by Michael Lerner of Tikkun: Bernie could try to organize his supporters and contributors into a “Tea Party of the left”. (Lerner suggests the name “Love and Justice Party”).
Like the Tea Party, this wouldn’t be an attempt to break the two-party system, but would be an organized faction inside the Democratic Party. Just as Tea Partiers were adamant in voting against Obama in 2012 and understood that Mitt Romney was their only viable option, there would be no doubt that the Love and Justice Party supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But it would be forming and supporting its own identity rather than merging seamlessly into the Clinton campaign.
At the convention, Sanders delegates could push for changes in the process that would make the Democratic Party more democratic (and presumably more open to a progressive takeover) in future cycles: no superdelegates, no closed primaries, and — even though Bernie did well in them — no caucuses.
For the fall campaign, I picture a message that is honest and authentic: Hillary isn’t everything we want, and we will be watching her like hawks once she takes office. But if you want more people to have access to health care rather than less, if you want to continue talking to Iran rather than bombing it, if you want to expand women’s rights and voting rights and minority rights rather than shrinking them, if you want a higher minimum wage, affordable college, and a job-creating infrastructure program, then Hillary Clinton is the clear choice in this November’s election.
[You can argue that the Greens or an independent Sanders candidacy would represent those positions better, but I think that misses the central point of democracy: It’s not about finding a candidate who agrees with you 100%. If it were, then we should all cast write-in votes for ourselves. Rather than self-expression, democracy is about building favorable governing coalitions.
In a parliamentary system, a vote for Stein would basically be giving her your proxy to negotiate a progressive place in a center-left coalition after the election. But in the American system, voting for Stein means opting out of any possible governing coalition.]
For lower offices, L&J would like some Democrats better than others. Just as Mike Lee and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio entered office identified as Tea Party Republicans, 2017 could see a class of L&J Democrats come to Washington. Going forward, Democrats who were less progressive than their districts might begin to fear primaries, just as insufficiently conservative Republicans do.
Of course, a Love and Justice Party would lack what the Tea Party has always had bushels of: billionaire cash, the kind of seed money that can go looking for a candidate rather than the other way around. Sanders has proved that millions of liberals will give at least a little money to a campaign that excites them. But can that be turned into a lasting political identity?
Forming a party-within-the-party would test whether Bernie’s network of small donors really can assemble into a billionaire-sized megazord. Would they be willing to go on contributing to build a movement, even in years when there is no election, and when the L&J candidates for the next election haven’t emerged yet?
That’s what the Koch Brothers and their friends do for the Tea Party. Can millions of small donors balance them, year in and year out?
The lesson for 2020. As I said earlier, what Clinton’s victory over Sanders has hinged on is the support she has gotten from blacks and Hispanics. Many Sanders supporters have been frustrated by that, because Sanders’ positions on the issues ought to appeal to non-whites, who are even more likely than whites to be on the wrong side of the rigged economy. At times, that frustration has devolved into condescension: What’s wrong with those people? Why aren’t they smart enough to realize which side their bread is buttered on?
But the problem isn’t with them, it’s with us: Many progressives, Bernie included, have a 2-dimensional view of politics. Everything is about ideology and grand proposals like single-payer healthcare. But the Clintons understand that politics is also about relationships and identities. Hillary is winning this race because, long before the official campaign started, she developed relationships in black and Hispanic communities nationwide. Non-whites felt like they knew her and understood exactly how far they could or could not count on her.
Early in the campaign there was an apparently tangential argument about whether Bernie had been involved in the civil rights movement, which his campaign answered by digging up stories of his work as a student activist at University of Chicago in the 1960s. But like so many of the arguments that make up a campaign, the significance of that one was under the surface. The real question in the minds of black voters, particularly in the South, was: “Why am I only hearing about this guy now that he wants my vote?”
You can argue that the people who asked that question were just ignorant, that Bernie had been on their side for a long time and if they didn’t know about him it was their own fault. But that kind of answer doesn’t win anybody’s support.
The next Bernie. If the next progressive candidate, the one who inherits Bernie’s mantle in 2020 or 2024, is going to win among non-whites, he or she has to start building those relationships now. Over the next eight years, a 2024 wannabe needs to invest significant time and effort in working with blacks and Latinos and Asians on the local issues they care about: pushing their legislative proposals, bringing national publicity to their marches and demonstrations, fund-raising for non-white local candidates, and so on.
That runs counter to an image that Bernie has taken advantage of, one appeals to progressive whites: a man of no particular national ambition who suddenly feels the Hand of Fate upon him and realizes he has to take up leadership of the progressive cause. But a candidate who invokes that Cincinnatus image is just going to repeat Bernie’s failure: He or she is going to represent an ideology, and make proposals non-whites ought to like, but not have built the relationships necessary to win.
As much distaste as we might feel for ambitious office-seekers, and as appealing as a candidate untainted by presidential ambition might be, politics is a real profession that calls for real work and real skills. Building a multi-racial progressive coalition is a long-term political project; it needs real politicians who focus on the job for years at a time, not someone who feels the Hand of Fate the year before the election.