Tag Archives: Democrats

Why I’m Still Skeptical About the Progressive Revolution

My social media bubble has drifted well to the left of center, so I hear a lot of frustration with the Democratic Party — particularly with the centrist Clintonite wing that has dominated the DNC in recent years, during which the party has lost the White House, both houses of Congress, and vast numbers of seats in state legislatures. The solution is supposed to be for all those people to get out of the way and let the progressive Bernie-supporting wing of the party take over. Hillary Clinton in particular should just go away, and anybody involved in the DNC in 2016 should follow her. The Left is where the youth and energy of the party are, and it has the kind of bold proposals that might get disaffected voters to the polls. Look what Jeremy Corbyn just did in the UK.

I’m almost there. The critique — lost elections at all levels — is inarguable. And I long for a more visionary approach to the future. Take gun control as a neutral example that cuts across the Clinton/Sanders line: All Democrats — and most of the rest of the country — can agree that our current gun laws are stupid. The fact that we don’t even do universal background checks on gun purchasers is insane (and so are some of the people who exploit the loopholes in the system and buy guns). But in the Ideal Democratic Future, what is the relationship between American citizens and guns? Does anybody have an answer for that?

But I have to admit, on almost every other issue progressives have a clear advantage on the vision-of-the-future front. Again and again, the centrists get lost in the next-small-step argument and never get around to saying where they want to go. But conversely, while progressives are clear on the Big Idea, they’re often vague about what the next step is. (After Congress rejects his single-payer healthcare plan, does President Sanders have a Plan B, or does he just wait for the next Congress?)

So while I’m rooting for the progressives, let me tell you exactly where I get stuck. All my political life, the left wing of the Democratic Party (and the non-Democrats who reject the party for not being liberal enough) has been suffering from the delusion that it’s more popular than it actually is. Again and again, I have heard that somebody like Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich represented what the American people really want, and then seen them get something like 2% of the vote. And then, in the next election the same people would come back and tell me the same thing, as if the last election never happened.

Polls. Why do they think this? It’s not purely wishful thinking; there are polls that say the same thing. If you ask about specific issues, and phrase your questions right, you can get sizeable majorities of the American people to agree with liberal positions.

In early 2015, for example, 68% of Americans told pollsters that the rich don’t pay enough tax; only 11% thought the rich pay too much. This February, a 60%-38% majority said the government should “make sure that all Americans have healthcare coverage”. Last year, 63% described their response to “Medicare for all” as either “very positive” (36%) or “somewhat positive” (27%). In 2013, Gallup found 72% support for “a federal government program that would spend government money to put people to work on urgent infrastructure repairs”.

Early in 2015, the Progressive Change Institute polled a wide range of issues: 71% supported letting anyone buy in to Medicare. 70% were for a “Green New Deal” to create millions of clean-energy jobs. 63% favored free community college. 70% would expand Social Security benefits. 61% wanted a special prosecutor to investigate all police killings. And more.

However, you can also get different results if you ask different questions. In 2013, a WaPo/ABC poll found 61% support for an across-the-board 5% cut in federal spending. That’s a fairly consistent pattern: As an abstract concept, government spending is unpopular, even while spending on particular programs has broad support. And while majorities always think the rich should pay more tax, nobody thinks that they themselves are rich — and hardly anybody thinks people like them should pay more tax.

So it’s naive to think that you can get those 60% or 70% majorities by running on a progressive platform. You’d get those majorities if you ran on a progressive platform, and then managed to control the narrative of the campaign so that the eventual vote turned on the issues where you have large majorities behind you.

But that never happens. Just ask Hillary; I don’t think she expected to spend the last week of the campaign answering questions about the FBI. In 1988, Dukakis had Bush nailed on the issues — so the Bush campaign invented an issue out of nothing: They were for the pledge of allegiance and Dukakis (they claimed) was against it. They won.

The 2016 primaries. Bearing that history in mind, what did 2016 really tell us? On my social media feed, I often hear the story told this way: Bernie was the people’s choice, but the Democratic establishment pushed Hillary through in spite of her unpopularity.

And here’s my problem with that story: If the people had really wanted Bernie, they could have voted for him. That’s what happened where I live in New Hampshire (where I dithered, and then voted for Bernie myself). If the power of the establishment works anywhere, it should work in the early primaries, when the upstart candidate seems most unlikely. But Hillary’s initial advantages in name recognition and money and endorsements got her only a tiny victory margin in Iowa, and then got her clobbered in New Hampshire, where Bernie got 60% of the vote and won every county.

From that point on, the race was a free-for-all. And Bernie lost that free-for-all: His total primary vote was 13.2 million, compared to Clinton’s 16.9 million. That loss can’t be attributed to some fluke of the process: He also never caught Clinton in the national polls. For a couple weeks in mid-April he got within a point or two, but then Clinton started to pull away. The late-breaking trend was entirely towards Clinton, climaxing with her 7-point win in California, a state which fits the Sanders profile as well as any.

Sanders supporters who don’t go in for a DNC-stole-the-election conspiracy theory often blame the media: Sanders couldn’t get his message out. The articles about him didn’t focus on how great his proposals were, and instead drew too much attention to stereotypes like “Bernie bros”.

But a campaign never gets the media coverage it wants. Clinton certainly didn’t. The same Harvard study that pointed out how little serious media attention Sanders got in 2015 also showed that the attention to Clinton was almost entirely negative.

Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end.

The 2016 general election. Yes, I often hear, but Clinton lost to Trump and Sanders would have won.

I don’t think that’s clear at all. Yes, Hillary would have beaten Trump if she’d gotten Jill Stein’s votes, which almost certainly would have gone to Bernie if he’d been the nominee.

But there’s another third-party possibility everybody forgets: When Bernie was surging after New Hampshire, Michael Bloomberg considered running, perhaps because he saw a big hole in the center if it came down to Trump vs. Sanders. But by early March, after the Southern primaries had given Clinton a significant delegate lead (and the day before Sanders’ surprise win in Michigan put him back in the race for a few weeks), Bloomberg backed out. So don’t compare Trump/Clinton/Stein to a Trump/Sanders race where Sanders gets all the Stein votes. Instead picture the Trump/Bloomberg/Sanders race. How many votes does Bernie lose in the center that Hillary got? More than Stein took, I’ll bet.

After a defeat, everyone sees what went wrong, so there have been a lot of articles about what a bad candidate Clinton was. But you also can’t forget this: Hillary was the only candidate in 2016 who beat Trump in a debate, and she did it all three times. That’s not a judgment call: She actually got a bump in the polls after each one. I don’t think we can just assume Sanders would have done as well.

The Tea Party parallel. When the Tea Party popped into existence in the spring of 2009, it was largely an astroturf phenomenon. Yes, there was public anger on the Right, animated by fear of what the new Obama administration might do (and also by some fairly thinly veiled racism). But the message was spread with Koch money and the early rallies given unlimited free publicity by Fox News.

But eventually it turned into a Frankenstein monster that got away from the people who hoped to control it. Rather than a simple Republican rebranding operation — it’s hard to remember now just how defeated the Republicans were after 2008 — it turned into a faction that took the Party away from its previous establishment. John Boehner rode the movement to the speakership, but then was forced out by it. Jeb Bush had all the same advantages going into 2016 that Clinton did, but got nowhere with them. The Trump presidency is the ultimate result: The Tea Party is his base.

So the Tea Party demonstrates the vulnerability of party establishments, and it also gives a road map for an insurgency to take control: win elections. In 2010, Marco Rubio was an insurgent candidate aligned with the Tea Party. He beat Florida’s sitting governor (Charlie Crist) in a primary for the Senate nomination, then won a three-way race in the fall against Crist and a Democrat. Ted Cruz had a similar path to the Senate in 2012, upsetting the sitting Republican Lieutenant Governor in a primary. In 2014, a Tea Party candidate beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary.

In short, after their horrible 2008 defeat, the Republican establishment did not just step aside and surrender the party to the upstarts. The Bush dynasty, for example, did not just go away. Tea Party candidates had to win the GOP at the ballot box. Can progressives do something similar on the Democratic side?

Prove it to me. I keep hearing that the Democratic establishment is completely out of touch with the voters. It raises no enthusiasm. It has no vision for how to regain power. The progressive agenda, on the other hand — Medicare for everybody, free college, $15 minimum wage, taxing the rich, breaking up the big banks, and so forth — is where the people are. Bernie is the most popular politician in the country.* The progressives have all the energy and momentum.

If that’s all true, then it shouldn’t be hard for candidates to run on that progressive agenda, with the support of progressive heroes like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and win elections. In particular, primary elections against those tired old DNC-supported candidates should be easy victories.

So far that’s not happening. Why not?

We just had a test in Virginia, a swing state that Clinton won in 2016 by a surprisingly large 5.3%. The two candidates in the Democratic primary for governor were probably not that far apart in reality, but the race got framed as a progressive-vs-establishment contest. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam lined up the all the big-name Virginia Democratic endorsements, while former Congressman Tom Perriello ran as an outsider with a populist message. Sanders campaigned with Perriello, and Elizabeth Warren endorsed him.

It was supposed to be close, and then it wasn’t: Northam won by 14%.

I’m still waiting for a breakthrough progressive win. So far I’m getting claims of moral victory and excuses about establishment power. A progressive candidate for Congress lost the Montana special election — but he did well in a red district and the DNC should have done more for him. (Tomorrow we’ll see an opposite test: John Ossoff is running as a centrist in a red district outside Atlanta.)

Maybe revolution is the wrong metaphor. Northam won in Virginia by adopting a lot of the progressive platform and some of its rhetoric, as politicians will do when the national mood shifts. That’s an evolution, not a revolution.

The real test will be the 2018 primaries. I hope progressives give those primaries a real Tea Party effort: Don’t just stand on the sidelines and complain that the establishment didn’t give you good candidates. Run your own candidates, and put all that youth and energy behind them.

If you do that, you might win, but you also might lose, because the Left always believes it’s more popular than it actually is. If it turns out that’s still true, then the only way to get to a majority is to find allies that you can pull partway towards your agenda. That would be evolution rather than revolution. But it would still be change.


* Getting back to my control-the-narrative theme, I wonder how Bernie’s national popularity is holding up this week, when his name keeps getting mentioned in the context of the Scalise shooting. I think it’s completely unfair to blame Bernie for something done by an obscure volunteer for his campaign, and the Scalise shooting has nothing to do with the Sanders agenda, but political narratives are unfair.

All Democrats have some introspecting to do

No matter who you supported in the primaries, you have a lot to think about.


As soon as the 2016 election winners take office, Democrats will be wielding far less power than they have for a very long time. The Presidency and both houses of Congress are under Republican control. The Senate blockade of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court has apparently succeeded, setting up a return to the 5-4 conservative majority the Court had before Justice Scalia’s death. If Justice Kennedy or any of the four liberal justices were to quit or die in the next four years — a real possibility considering that Kennedy is 80 and Justice Ginsburg is an 83-year-old cancer survivor — we could be looking at the most conservative Court since the New Deal.

It’s no better at the state level. When the 2016 victors take office, Democrats will hold only 16 of the 50 governorships, with even states as blue as Massachusetts, Vermont, and Illinois having Republican governors. In 32 states, Republicans control both houses of the legislature, in some cases by supermajorities of 2/3s or more.

Some liberals may not consider themselves Democrats — Bernie Sanders, for example, is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate — but so far they haven’t found a path to power that doesn’t include the Democratic Party. So liberalism as also out in the cold right now.

You might think this situation would cause some soul-searching, but so far it seems to have produced mainly finger-pointing. Having watched a lot of back-and-forth on social media and elsewhere about why Democrats lost in 2016, I’ve been struck by how self-serving it is, on both the pro- and anti-Clinton sides. Everyone seems to be saying, “If everybody had just listened to me, we’d be fine. So I just need to keep saying and doing what I’ve been saying and doing all along.”

I’m not finding that message convincing. Not from anybody.

The pro-Clinton case. Clinton apologists have a long list of she-could-have-won-if points, all of which have some limited amount of validity. She won the popular vote by 2%, almost three million votes, so she’d have won if not for the Electoral College. The Russian interference in the election seems real, and given how small Trump’s margin was in many key states, that probably made the difference. Jim Comey’s last-minute re-raising of the email issue, for what turned out to be no good reason, was another bit of dirty pool that helped put Trump over the top. If Clinton’s internal polling had recognized how she was slipping in the upper Midwest, campaign resources that turned out to be wasted in places like Arizona could have been brought to bear on Wisconsin and Michigan. If Jill Stein hadn’t run, if the national news media hadn’t created a false equivalence between Clinton’s integrity problems and Trump’s, if social media had the kind of anti-false-news provisions it’s trying to develop now …

There’s no end to it, and it’s all more-or-less true as far as it goes. I’m sure that in most parallel universes, it’s Clinton who is getting ready to take the oath of office. Too bad for us that we live in an unlucky one.

But let’s imagine we could look in on one of those other universes, say the one where Comey kept his mouth shut about ongoing investigations, as FBI directors are supposed to do. Let’s imagine Clinton wins the popular vote there by 3% or 4%, rather than the 2% she won by in our universe, and that’s enough to tip the Electoral College in her favor.

OK, now consider this question: Is the Democratic Party in good shape? Is liberalism on track?

We still don’t get the Senate back, because even though Pennsylvania’s seat might also flip, there isn’t a second Senate race that the Republicans won with a razor-thin margin. You could imagine that a House race flips here or there, but again, it’s not enough to give Nancy Pelosi the Speaker’s gavel. And how exactly did Comey (or Putin) influence the governors’ races, or the state legislatures?

In a practical sense, then, Clinton winds up where Obama has been since 2010: unable to push an agenda through Congress, and relying on the veto and other executive powers to keep Republicans from trashing things too badly. Maybe she makes a Supreme Court appointment, or maybe the Senate blockade continues. (I suspect she does, but again, that mostly just prevents disasters; a liberal Court majority doesn’t put us on a path to a new liberal awakening.)

So OK: Clinton beats the Orange Menace with 49% or 50% of the vote instead of 48%, ObamaCare survives another four years, and the country continues to muddle along. That’s better than the situation we’re in now, but my impression is that disaster has just been forestalled a little while, not that we’re on the path to turning things around.

Even under President Clinton, then, the Democratic Party would have some serious rethinking to do.

Anti-Clinton. Inside certain echo-chambers of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, it’s obvious that Democrats just nominated the wrong candidate. Bernie would have beaten Trump, and everything would be wonderful. Trump won because voters wanted an outsider and Clinton was an insider. Or they would have responded to an authentic liberal, but Clinton isn’t one. Or something.

The main evidence for this view is that during the primaries Bernie did better than Clinton in the head-to-head polling match-ups with Trump. A lot of polls showed him winning by double digits, sometimes as much as 15%. But of course, Clinton also had some double-digit leads in polls, some of them fairly late in the campaign. We saw how quickly such leads can evaporate. Since Sanders was less well known than Clinton, and since Republicans had largely treated him with kid gloves that would have come off in a general election campaign, I would expect opinions about him to be more volatile in a general election, not less. So a polling lead over Trump in April is not very convincing evidence.

But the real reason not to buy the liberal-victory or outsider-victory scenario is that as best I can tell, nobody made that message work in downballot elections. If the Bernie-wins theory were correct, I’d expect to see some state or congressional district where Trump beat Clinton, but some plucky liberal outsider candidate pulled an upset win over a Republican incumbent senator or governor or representative. I can’t think of any such example. (The most notable downballot candidate to win a Trump state was Roy Cooper in the North Carolina governor’s race. But he’s not an outsider and his positions on key issues seem pretty Clintonish to me.)

Take Iowa, for example. In past elections it has been a swing state leaning blue. Bush won it in 2004, but Gore won Iowa in 2000 and Obama carried it twice. Trump won it decisively, 51%-42%. So Iowans must really have been fed up with the status quo and ready to throw out all the insiders, right? Well, not exactly. Other than Mitch McConnell, probably nobody is a bigger Washington insider than Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who has been in the Senate since 1980. He got re-elected by an even bigger margin, 60%-37%.

Or look at Wisconsin, which Clinton lost very narrowly, 47.2%-46.5%. Russ Feingold, a liberal hero who in 2001 was the sole dissenting vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act, lost by a bigger margin, 50%-47%.

It’s not a hard or unreasonable test: Find some electoral district where Trump won, but a downballot Democrat also won by running either as an anti-Establishment outsider or on a Bernie-like progressive agenda. I don’t believe there is one.

Another argument is that Bernie could have won just by not being Hillary Clinton. But the voters seemed to have no special distaste for Clinton in comparison to other Democrats. In Pennsylvania, a state that hadn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since 1988, and which Obama won 52%-47% in 2012, Clinton lost by 44,000 votes out of nearly 6 million. But in the senatorial election, Katie McGinity lost a close race by a slightly worse margin, 116,000. The story in New Hampshire was similar, but on the opposite side: Clinton won by 3,000 votes, and the Democratic senate candidate won by 1,000.

In other words, it was the party that lost, not just the candidate. Simply being not-Clinton didn’t gain Democrats anything.

So what should we be thinking about? First, I think we need to lose the Clinton and Sanders labels, because I don’t see the point in refighting that. It’s not like either of them is likely to run for president again, so there’s no need to keep your arguments against them sharp.

There will continue to be a struggle going forward, but let’s focus on ideas and approaches rather than personalities. On the one hand, there are the centrist, focus-on-what’s-possible-today, work-within-the-power-structure, gradual-change Democrats. On the other, the more radical, big-picture, go-for-it, overthrow-the-power-structure Democrats (or liberals who don’t call themselves Democrats because Democrats are too tame). Each group has some important introspecting to do.

The first group needs to answer questions like this: How are we going to inspire anyone? What’s my elevator speech, the simple statement that tells low-information voters what the Democratic Party is about and why they should support it? The half of the country that isn’t interested enough in politics to vote — what in my message will wake them up and get them involved? How can I explain to people that the small step I want to take right now is just the first step on a journey that goes someplace exciting? And — maybe most important of all — does it go someplace exciting? On an issue like climate change, for example, the clock is ticking. Does the gradualist approach deliver change fast enough to avoid global disaster?

Finally, the first group needs to stop waiting for something to happen. Stop waiting for the Republicans to cross some line that will finally make Americans realize that they’ve gone insane and look to us instead. Stop waiting for demographic change to create the electorate we want. Power will not come to us because it’s our turn; we have to earn it.

The second group needs to let go of a myth: There is no hidden liberal majority in America. The non-voters aren’t disillusioned left-wing radicals who are just waiting for a true believer to blow the battle horn. Bernie did that and he lost. [1] Even if he had won, he’d be one guy dealing with the same obstacles Obama has been facing. [2] The only way there ever will be a liberal majority in America is if we figure out how to make one.

I still believe the model I put forward last February in “Say – you want a revolution?“: The vast majority of non-voters are people who don’t have a political identity at all. If you ask the right poll questions, you can get them to express liberal ideas on specific issues. [3] You can sometimes get a number of them to show up in one election just by fielding an appealing candidate (i.e., Obama) or having a good slogan (“Yes We Can”), but that doesn’t change the long-term political balance of the country. Next time it might be the other guys who field an appealing (or energizingly appalling) candidate and have a good slogan (“Make America Great Again”).

Long-term political change involves people joining things that change their identities, the way that the blue-collar union workers of the 1960s became the evangelical church members of the 1980s. Where are we making that happen now? Do we have the vision, the stamina, and the local-organizing ability to facilitate that kind of change?

The turn-the-world-around movement won’t instantly coalesce around the right presidential candidate with the right message. It will start someplace small, with a new approach to very specific, very local concerns. Where are we running those experiments and giving lightning a chance to strike? [4]

So whether you think of yourself as belonging to the Democratic Party or the progressive movement, our power is at a low ebb right now. Nobody — I mean nobody — has cause to feel smug about this. It isn’t that she failed or they failed, but I’m all right. We’re where we are right now because I failed, you failed, we all failed. Each of us needs to be looking in a mirror and asking what we’re going to do differently.

Extra credit question. While researching an article I’ll probably post next week, I read the 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer, in which he relates his conversations with ten low-level small-town Nazi Party members after the war. I was struck by this comment from a high school teacher.

For the first time in my life I was really the peer of men who, in the Kaiser time and in the Weimar time, had always belonged to classes lower or higher than my own, men whom one had always looked down on or up to, but never at. In the [National Socialist] Labor Front— I represented the teachers’ association— I came to know such people at first hand, to know their lives and to have them know mine. Even in America— perhaps; I have never been there— I suspect that the teacher who talks about ‘the common people’ has never known one, really known one, not even if he himself came from among them, as I, with an Army officer as a father, did not. National Socialism broke down that separation, that class distinction. Democracy— such democracy as we had had— didn’t do it and is not doing it now.

In other words, in a cultural sense the Nazi regime felt more democratic to him than the Weimar Republic. As a Nazi, he felt that he was part of the German Volk, no better or worse than any other German. He believed this was a common perception among his acquaintances.

There’s a lesson here about how Trump won. It seems to me that Democrats have lost that sense of cultural democracy, and that this is why the stereotypic poorly-educated white working-class Trump voter resents us. Instead, our leaders (of all factions) seem to identify with the meritocracy, which is a fancy way of saying that some people are just better than others. Hal Walker explains why this is a problem:

Economic disenfranchisement becomes an issue of who did well at school and who didn’t, not structural forces acting on society. What should be a progressive politics becomes just another version of the bootstraps myth, with grades and scholarships standing in for sweat and prudent personal budgeting. … In the end, the snobs lost to the slobs, but true to the character of the well-educated, they simply will not hear criticism that does not come from the similarly credentialed.

Trump was able to nail Clinton — and would have been able to nail Bernie and most of the rest of us — as the kid who sat in the front of the classroom and always had her hand up. Every time we fact-checked him, his fans were identifying with him, not us. “I know. They think I’m stupid too.”

I’m really not sure what to do about this. It’s one of the things I’m introspecting about. The meritocracy says that people in the lower classes are just losers, particularly if they can’t point to some form of discrimination that has kept them down unfairly. Without turning our backs on facts and science, how do we establish and project a sense that all people have worth?


[1] Legitimately. In the primaries, Clinton got about 3.8 million more votes. Bernie-or-bust folks tried to de-legitimize that result in two ways, but in neither case does the quality of the logic rise above the conspiracy-theory level.

The more specific version was a direct election-rigging claim that foreshadowed Trump’s baseless claims in the Fall. For example, there was this report from Election Justice USA. Here’s one of the points from the executive summary:

Analyses in [this report] show that voter purges [in New York] also disproportionately affected Sanders’ vote totals: the percentage of purged voters for each precinct was a significant predictor of Clinton’s vote share.

Anybody who understands the first thing about statistics should see that the conclusion doesn’t follow. If you’re aiming at a group of people, you’ll hit more of them in places where they congregate. So if a voter purge were targeted at likely Sanders voters, you’d expect to see the exact opposite result: More voters would be purged in precincts that Sanders won. (And no, the rest of the report doesn’t explain or justify that backwards conclusion.)

The whole report is like that. If something looked off somewhere, it must have been part of the grand anti-Sanders conspiracy.

The more vague argument was that the all-powerful DNC somehow manipulated those 3.8 million people into voting for Clinton. The evidence for this is supposedly in those emails that Russia hacked and WikiLeaks released.

I can’t say I’ve gone through the whole trove, but I read the emails that made headlines, the ones Bernie supporters point to. You know what isn’t in them? References to some specific anti-Sanders action that they carried out. I am not shocked to learn that when they talked among themselves, DNC folks weren’t neutral. They’re professional politicians; they couldn’t possibly be neutral in their hearts. I’m also not shocked that they discussed anti-Sanders arguments or strategies. But did they do any of them? That’s what’s missing.

Here’s the parallel that rings true for me: I’ll bet that if you bugged the umpires’ dressing room in a major league baseball stadium, you’d hear lots of resentment against players who make the umps look bad and fantasies of things they could do to those players. And since umpires are baseball people, they’re probably also fans and have players they admire. But (absent other compelling evidence) I would not interpret those conversations as a plot to throw the game.

And even if they had wanted to throw the election, they couldn’t have done it. The DNC is not a masters-of-the-universe club. Primary elections are run by state election commissions, not the national parties.

The fact needs to be faced: Clinton beat Sanders by 3.8 million votes.

[2] On Day 1, President Sanders sends a Medicare-for-everybody plan to Congress. On Day 2, Speaker Ryan assigns it to a committee that decides not to hold hearings or have a vote. What happens on Day 3?

[3] You shouldn’t interpret polls on particular issues as expressions of the public’s political identity, because issue-polling has persistent paradoxes. For example, if you ask whether the government spends too much or too little, a solid majority will say “too much”. But if you then start asking about specific cuts — “Should we cut Social Security?”, “Should we cut defense?” — all the major spending lines have majority support. If you could balance the budget by ending foreign aid to countries that hate us, the public would be all over that. But the things we actually spend big money on are fairly popular.

In short: Public opinion on a list of issues does not typically cohere into a worldview. Interpreting it as if it did will cause you to make mistakes.

[4] I think that’s the message to take from Roy Cooper’s win in North Carolina. It’s not Cooper himself, it’s the Moral Mondays movement that is changing the conversation.

Why Bernie Backed Hillary

The path to an eventual progressive victory is to take over the Democratic Party, not break it.


Monday night at the Democratic Convention, Bernie Sanders came through for Hillary Clinton in a big way.

His speech contrasted sharply with much of what we heard at the Republican Convention from the candidates Donald Trump defeated, or with the unenthusiastic support for Trump from Republican office-holders like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

Bernie didn’t have to put his heart into it like that. He could have stayed home and watched the convention on TV, like John McCain and John Kasich. He could have made the minimum necessary party-unity statement, like Marco Rubio did by video. Or he could have left his party’s nominee out of the picture entirely, restated his own principles, and then urged his followers to “vote your conscience”, as Ted Cruz did. He could even have denounced Clinton by name, as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have denounced Trump.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein has been begging for Sanders to join her, and vigorously campaigning for the votes of his frustrated supporters. So even while keeping his word by tepidly supporting Clinton, he could have winked and nodded at Stein, giving his tacit blessing to Berners who decided to turn Green.

He did none of that. Instead he endorsed Clinton with enthusiasm in prime time.

This election is about which candidate understands the real problems facing this country and has offered real solutions – not just bombast, fear-mongering, name-calling and divisiveness.

We need leadership in this country which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor. We need leadership which brings our people together and makes us stronger – not leadership which insults Latinos, Muslims, women, African-Americans and veterans – and divides us up.

By these measures, any objective observer will conclude that – based on her ideas and her leadership – Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.

He reviewed in detail all the issues where a Clinton presidency would be far more progressive than a Trump presidency: the minimum wage, infrastructure, the Supreme Court, the cost of college and student debt, climate change, health care, and immigration reform. And just in case you thought he was making a lesser-of-two-evils argument, he closed with a clear positive statement:

Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding president and I am proud to stand with her here tonight.

He didn’t have to go that far. So why did he? If you find that decision mysterious, or think it requires some dark conspiracy-theory explanation, I have three responses:

  • Bernie was never as anti-Hillary as you might think.
  • Hillary has always been more progressive than you might think.
  • Long-term, Bernie wants to capture the Democratic Party, not break it.

Bernie was never as anti-Hillary as you might think. In the beginning of his campaign, Sanders was relentlessly positive, and refused to go negative on Clinton at all. Recall his line from their first debate:

Let me say — let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.

In the MSNBC debate in March, he prefaced his response to her first comments with:

I have known Secretary Clinton for 25 years and respect her very much.

As the primary campaign got more contentious, there were three levels of criticism of Clinton: fairly mild criticism from Sanders himself, more aggressive statements from his campaign manager Jeff Weaver, and all-out Hillary-is-evil diatribes from Sanders supporters on social media. If you have feel-the-Bern friends on Facebook or Twitter, you know that everything Hillary did seemed sinister to them. Even if she put Elizabeth Warren on the ticket, it would only be to get Warren’s independent voice out of the Senate.

Memory has a way of mixing those criticisms together, so it may seem as if Sanders must be a complete hypocrite to support Clinton now. But Sanders was never running a stop-Clinton campaign. At the beginning, I doubt he thought he had any chance to deny her the nomination.

But he didn’t want a repeat of what happened in 2008, when none of the three candidates who emerged as serious contenders — Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards — proposed single-payer healthcare. As a result, when the ObamaCare discussion began in 2009, single-payer never got a hearing. It was a fringe idea that no “serious” person supported.

This year, if Clinton ran to keep Social Security as it is and the Republicans ran on cutting it, the logical eventual outcome would be to cut it a little less than the Republicans wanted. The idea that it ought to be expanded would be a fringe notion unworthy of discussion. And so on across the board.

Hillary has always been more progressive than you might think. A staple of the Bernie-or-Bust social-media posters is that Clinton is the enemy of progressive change: Whatever they want, she is opposed to, and every move she makes is part of a sinister plan to thwart their ambitions.

But again, if we return to the first debate, Clinton says this to Sanders about healthcare: “We agree on the goals, we just disagree on the means.”

That isn’t just rhetoric. All along, on a wide variety of issues, the debate between Sanders and Clinton has been more about how change happens than about where they want to go. Sanders believes you state your big idea and keep converting people to it until you have a majority, while Clinton believes change happens incrementally: You grab the small amount of progress you can get right now, and hope that its success sets the stage for the next small step. Sanders believes that you call out your opposition and take them on directly, while Clinton looks for proposals that will split the opposition.

If they were football coaches, Sanders’ team would throw deep and often, while Clinton’s team would have a bruising ground game that pushed the ball down the field 3-5 yards at a time. Sanders is always looking to the end zone, while Clinton is looking for the soft spot in the opponent’s line.

So on health care, Sanders has supported a Scandinavian-style single-payer system for as long as he’s been in politics, while Clinton’s 1993 plan was a more complicated public/private mix that she thought she could pass. When it failed, she looked for the opposition’s soft spot and found it: children. The Children’s Health Insurance Program got through Congress in 1997, moving the ball a little further towards universal coverage. And if you were surprised to hear her support putting a public option back into ObamaCare — it was taken out during the congressional debates in 2009 — you shouldn’t be: Her 2008 plan had a public option.

One reason Clinton hasn’t gotten credit for the progressive positions she’s been running on is that across the board Sanders has proposed something bigger and better. His $15 minimum wage trumped her $12 minimum wage — which in a different campaign would have been a bold increase over the current $7.25. Her quarter-trillion-dollar plan to create jobs by building infrastructure looks small next to Bernie’s trillion-dollar plan.

The units of change she calls for have always been smaller than Bernie’s units, but on the vast majority of issues the direction of change is the same.

Long-term, Bernie wants to capture the Democratic Party, not break it. At 74, Bernie is probably too old to run for president again himself. But he sees himself as part of a larger movement that will go on after he bows out of presidential politics. His hopes are not just that the movement will be a way for democracy-loving progressives to express their fine sentiments — the Greens have that covered already — but that it will someday take over the government and implement its policies.

If that’s the goal, the movement has two possible strategies: Take over one of the major parties, or break one (or both) of them and form something new out of the resulting chaos. Both strategies have worked in American history, but the last time the second strategy worked was in the 1850s, when the Whig Party ruptured on the slavery issue, and abolitionists and other slavery-restricting forces created the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln was an anti-slavery Whig who became a Republican. He was elected president in 1860 in a bizarre four-candidate race that he won with 40% of the vote. If the Southern Democrats hadn’t walked out of the convention that was set to nominate Stephen Douglas, Republican success could have been delayed a lot longer.

The last 150 years have seen third-party challenges by candidates like Eugene Debs, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Ross Perot, but none of them came close to winning the presidency. You can argue that they had their effect by changing the two major parties: Debs’ socialist campaign can be seen as a forerunner of the New Deal, while Thurmond and Wallace were part of the decades-long shift of white Southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party. But none of them created a new party that outlived their candidacies and replaced either the Republicans or the Democrats.

However, the rise of the primary system in the 1970s created a new possibility: If you can win primaries, you can take over a major party from the inside. Ronald Reagan was the first person to pull that off. At the time, many conservatives thought the Nixon/Ford Republican Party was a lost cause and urged Reagan to lead a Conservative Party. But Reagan ran as a Republican in 1976, narrowly lost the nomination, again resisted the temptation of a third party, and came back to win the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1980. The Republican Party has been the Reagan Party ever since, with the moderate-to-liberal Republicans of the mid-70s going extinct.

In recent years, the Tea Party has been a second wave of conservative revolution within the Republican Party. Despite calling itself a party, it has all along been a faction within the GOP, and has picked up a number of seats in both houses of Congress. Through primaries, it has deposed even members of the Republican congressional leadership like Eric Cantor, and has struck fear into the hearts of non-Tea-Party leaders like John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

Bernie clearly has decided — I believe correctly — that under the current rules the Reagan model is a more viable path to reform than the Lincoln model. The Lincoln Whigs had to spend 1852 and 1856 in the wilderness, and watch a Supreme Court dominated by slavery-supporting appointees produce the Dred Scott decision. By contrast, Tea Partiers have been able to maintain and make use of Republican control of Congress, while building their own revolutionary caucus inside that majority.

A Sanders/Stein Party might or might not outpoll the Democrats in some far-future election. But in the meantime the split center/left vote would virtually guarantee right-wing dominance of the government, and a far-right Supreme Court that would stymie any progressive who might eventually manage to win the presidency.

But the prospect of winning primaries at all levels — producing a strong Progressive Caucus within a Democratic Party that could reasonably aspire to a majority in Congress, and capturing the Democratic presidential nomination for a strong progressive in 2020 or 2024 — seems like a far more promising and less risky path to victory.

That vision explains not just Bernie’s endorsement of Hillary, but also its fervor and his plea for his supporters not to disrupt the Convention with protests: He foresees the day when some future Bernie will be the Democratic nominee seeking party unity. The enemies that he avoids making today may be the friends that candidate will need, if that transformed Democratic Party is going to succeed in winning elections and governing the country.

Fears of Democratic Disunity: talking myself down

What if the Nevada fracas is a preview of the national convention?


For months, I’ve been reassuring other Democrats that party unity wasn’t going to be a problem. Sure, the Bernie/Hillary rhetoric might sound bad sometimes, but that’s how these things go. When we got to the convention this summer and Hillary proved that she really did have the delegates, Bernie would do the right thing, just like Hillary did in 2008.

It’s easy: Hillary agrees to put some Bernie-like language in the platform (which won’t be that hard for her, since most of his proposals are just more ambitious and optimistic versions of something she’s proposing anyway), maybe some rule changes make things easier for the next insurgent candidate, the VP appeals to people in both camps (Elizabeth Warren would be ideal, but if she wants to stay in the Senate it shouldn’t be that hard to find somebody else), and everybody is happy. In a prime-time speech, Bernie gives his supporters a chance to congratulate themselves on a hard-fought campaign and yell really loud for him one last time, and then he lays out all the common values that make it essential that Clinton become president next January rather than Donald Trump. Everybody winds up on the podium waving their arms and smiling into the national-network cameras as the credits roll.

That could still happen. If I had to bet, I think I’d still say that most of it will happen. But this week for the first time I started to have some real doubts and some real fears. So I started looking into it.

Talking myself down. I’d don’t think she’s done it for years now, but Rachel Maddow’s show used to have a regular “Talk Me Down” feature. For one segment, Rachel would put aside her calm and collected persona and let her fears about something run wild. Then she’d bring on an expert guest to explain to her why that level of panic wasn’t warranted yet.

Sadly, I don’t have a rolodex full of experts I can call to talk me down. So (with some help from publicly available sources) I’m going to have to play both roles. But I think the basic format works for this topic. So I’ll start by letting my fears run.

The Sanders progression. For months now I’ve been watching the Sanders campaign shift its focus. In the beginning, it was a purely positive campaign about the kinds of goals Democrats ought never to lose sight of, whether they seem politically feasible right now or not: health care as a right, protecting democracy against the rule of big money, government infrastructure projects to create full employment, union rights, voting rights, a livable wage for all workers, and affordable education for everyone.

That was the message I was attracted to and ultimately voted for in the New Hampshire primary.

That positive message is still at the Sanders campaign’s core, but little by little it has been joined by an anti-Hillary-Clinton message: She is corrupt and untrustworthy. She is a Republican posing as a Democrat. She is a weak candidate who will lose to Donald Trump. She has taken money from the wrong people, so no matter what she is saying now, ultimately she will do their bidding.

Last summer I went on a Hillary research project, and I didn’t find much support for that vision of her. I came out liking Hillary. I think it’s important to keep pressuring her from the Left, but I expect to be mostly content with a Hillary presidency.

And more recently, a persecution narrative has become a third part of the Sanders campaign: The Democratic Establishment will stop at nothing to give the nomination to Clinton, no matter what the People want.

To a degree, that narrative was justified. For example, the original debate schedule — since adjusted to include more debates — seemed crafted to give unknown candidates as little room as possible to break out. But as the campaign has worn on, everything that didn’t benefit Sanders has become part of the persecution narrative. Sanders did better in open primaries where Independents could vote, so closed primaries — which have existed since the beginning of the primary process many decades ago — were part of the Establishment’s conspiracy. (Caucuses, which are even less democratic than closed primaries, benefited Sanders, so they were not a problem.) Any election-day glitch — even the ones caused by Republican officials, and even if the effect on the Clinton/Sanders race was unclear — was part of the Democratic Establishment’s plot to steal the election for Hillary.

Sometimes rationales flipped overnight, with no apparent soul-searching or justification. Initially, it was a horror that superdelegates might reverse the will of the People (as expressed in the primaries) and give the nomination to Clinton because they thought she was more electable. Then, as it because clear that the People were actually voting for Clinton in larger numbers than Sanders, the Sanders campaign embraced the opposite argument: Superdelegates should reverse the will of the People and give the nomination to Sanders because he is more electable.

Esquire‘s Charles Pierce expresses his opinion on the persecution narrative harshly, but he’s not wrong.

I voted for Bernie Sanders. I even wrote about why I did here at this very shebeen. But if anybody thinks that, somehow, he is having the nomination “stolen” from him, they are idiots.

Nevada. So now we come to Nevada. In the caucuses in February, the voters went for Clinton 53%-47%. But that wasn’t the end of the story, because in Nevada’s arcane process the statewide caucuses just lead to the county conventions, which then lead to the state convention where the delegates to national convention are supposed to be chosen.

The county conventions happened in April, and a combination of lackadaisical organizing by the Clinton campaign and Sanders backers finding an exploitable hole in the rules turned the tables: Now it looked like Sanders would have an advantage going into the May state convention. February’s apparent 20-15 national-convention delegate split for Clinton appeared likely to shrink to 18-17. (Imagine the outcry if everything had been reversed: if Sanders had won in February, but then Clinton supporters found a backdoor way to take some of those delegates away.)

But again, it’s an arcane process. Sanders supporters were entitled to more state-convention delegates than Clinton supporters, but there are rules about credentials. Those rules are available to both campaigns, and it’s a campaign-organizer’s job to make sure than your delegates jump through all the appropriate hoops. At this stage, the Clinton people did a better job than the Sanders people, so at the May 14 state convention, Clinton narrowly had more credentialed delegates than Sanders. The ultimate result was a return to Square One: Clinton will get the 20 national convention delegates it looked like she had won back in February.

There’s been a lot of charge and counter-charge about exactly what went down at the state convention, but the accounts that have the ring of truth to my ear are the ones from Politifact and TPM’s Tierney Sneed. (I also found this on-the-floor view from a Clinton delegate to be enlightening.)

Here’s how it looks to me: After the Sanders campaign leaders in Nevada realized they’d been out-organized by the Clinton people, they decided to bury that fact inside the persecution narrative: The Evil Democratic Establishment had stolen the convention for Clinton. The Sanders campaign had been seeding that ground for months, so their delegates accepted that explanation without question and reacted with an understandable amount of anger. (The insults and threats that expressed that anger were still over the top, though.)

Bernie’s reaction to Nevada didn’t increase my confidence in him. His condemnation of his supporters’ bad behavior seemed perfunctory. (“It goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals.”) The stronger message was that the process is corrupt and his people’s reaction had been justified. Josh Marshall’s response was harsh, but not too different from what I was feeling:

This, as I said earlier, is the problem with lying to your supporters. Sanders is telling his supporters that he can still win, which he can’t. He’s suggesting that the win is being stolen by a corrupt establishment, an impression which will be validated when his phony prediction turns out not to be true. Lying like this sets you up for stuff like happened over the weekend in Nevada.

Or maybe it sets you up for an even bigger mess this summer in Philadelphia.

My fear. Most primary campaigns end the way the Republicans’ just did: As candidates get to a point where they have no credible winning scenario, they drop out. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz … they all got to a point where they couldn’t predict victory with a straight face, so they quit.

Not everybody does that. In 2008, Clinton herself hung on until the last primary before dropping out and endorsing Obama (though that race was considerably closer than this one). Sometimes losing candidates go all the way to the convention, like Ron Paul did in 2012 or Gene McCarthy did in 1968.

When you take a campaign to a convention that is not going to nominate you, you do it for some other reason. Maybe you want to register your protest over an important issue, like the Vietnam War in 1968. Or you might be looking ahead to future elections. (The 1968 Democratic Convention started a process to change the rules that had allowed Humphrey to win the nomination without competing in the primaries. McGovern’s 1972 nomination couldn’t have happened otherwise.) Or maybe you want to use the convention battle as part of your narrative for the next cycle. (Hillary in some sense did that in 2008; her motion to nominate Obama by acclamation, her prime-time speech, and the way she and Bill campaigned for Obama in the fall impressed some Obama supporters — me, for instance — and set her up well for this year’s campaign.)

What I want to believe — and do, most of the time — is that Bernie Sanders is going to the convention looking for the kinds of things Hillary can offer: platform concessions on progressive issues, rules changes that will make the next insurgent candidate more viable, a prime time speech to inspire his supporters to become a long-term movement, and so on.

But after Nevada, I started worrying about something else: What if the thing Bernie wants out of the convention isn’t a concession? What if it’s a fight? What if the culmination he sees for his “political revolution” rhetoric and his narrative of persecution by the Democratic establishment is to have his supporters dragged out of the convention hall by force? That would probably hand the White House to Trump, but it might also rupture the Democratic Party in some way that leads to an overall realignment of the two-party system.

What if that’s the goal?

It’s always like this. Naturally, I’m not the only person to have this worry, or at least this area of worry, so I went looking for how others were dealing with it, in hopes that they might talk me down. Appropriately, one of the people I found was Rachel Maddow, who discussed it on her show Wednesday.

At this point in the primary process, it’s always like this. There is always acrimony and upset between remaining candidates at this part of the race. Parties just do this. It is to be expected. It’s very, very, very rarely fatal.

Making a similar point, Matt Yglesias pulled up video of an extremely harsh exchange between candidates Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton in 1992.

[The Clinton/Sanders contest] feels unusually intense and vicious to many heavy consumers of internet news. Thanks to social media, lots of supporters of both candidates are now spending their free time acting as amateur advocates for their preferred campaign. This makes the race more intense and immediate than many past campaigns, and there has certainly been a lot of name-calling on Twitter.

But the actual campaign has been, by the standards of campaigns, remarkably issue-oriented and low-key compared to past races.

I sort of knew that, but it was helpful to be reminded of just how ugly things got in, say, 2008, before they got better. It turns out that parties don’t just forgive their internal spats, we very often literally forget. So the next time it happens, it’s always like “It’s never been this bad before.”

Once I started remembering, I remembered all the way back to the first year I watched conventions on TV: 1968, when I was 11. Even that year, after Mayor Daley’s “police riot” and the chaos on the streets in Chicago, nearly all of the McCarthy Democrats eventually came home. (The Wallace Southern conservative white Democrats had begun their trek to the Republican Party and weren’t ever coming back, but that was a whole different story, which I’ve told before.) After falling ridiculously far behind in September, Humphrey came back almost all the way, making 1968 one of the closest presidential elections ever.

Both sides have the same scenario in mind. Those recovered memories helped a little, but I didn’t really regain my optimism until I started chasing the links that my Sanders-supporting Facebook friends were posting.

Yes, of course there were some Bernie-or-bust type posts, and some that put the worst possible construction on anything having to do with Clinton or with anybody who isn’t 100% for Sanders. But a lot of the voices are simply asking for “respect”. Sanders’ only supporter in the Senate, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, says:

If you want to bring people together, they have to feel heard and they have to feel respected and well-treated.

And then he sounds remarkably conciliatory:

I believe that once a candidate has a majority of pledged delegates — so not superdelegates, but the pledged delegates — (and) has a majority of the votes cast, that the party will have made its decision and we need to do the hard work of coming together,” he said. “Should Secretary Clinton win these key categories, I think the conversation will begin about how to bring the sides together so we can go into the convention united, go out of the convention even more united, and make sure that this charlatan, this self-promoting charlatan, Donald Trump, does not become president.

A lot of the other Sanders-supporters are mainly just saying that it’s up to Clinton to make the first move. Jason Linkins, for example:

the responsibility of unifying the party falls to the winner of the primary, not the loser. To anyone who thinks otherwise: Come on, now. This is literally the job of the person who becomes the presidential candidate, not the person who is going to be pursuing politics in some other office. An election is not a contest between warring factions, where the winner gets to spend the next four years stunting on the losers. The electoral process will decide which candidate will serve all Americans. And all Americans are owed something, no matter how the votes were cast.

This is how magnanimity works.

The more I read, the more I came to the conclusion that the majority on both sides have the same ideal scenario, the one I talked about in the first section. That seems like a long time ago now, so let me repeat it:

Hillary agrees to put some Bernie-like language in the platform, maybe some rule changes make things easier for the next insurgent candidate, the VP appeals to people in both camps, and everybody is happy. In a prime-time speech, Bernie gives his supporters a chance to congratulate themselves on a hard-fought campaign and yell really loud for him one last time, and then he lays out all the common values that make it essential that Clinton become president next January rather than Donald Trump. Everybody winds up on the podium waving their arms and smiling into the national-network cameras as the credits roll.

But — and here’s the real sticking point right now — large numbers of people on both sides are worried that the other side won’t play its role. Bernie’s supporters are worried that Clinton won’t reach out to them and Clinton’s supporters are worried that Bernie will spurn all offers so that he can stomp away mad.

My reading of this is that we’re all victims of one side or the other of the polarizing propaganda. Hillary won’t reach out because she’s a bought-and-paid-for tool of Wall Street, and Bernie will spit on her attempts to reach out because he’s a neo-Leninist bomb-thrower. The media is fanning both of those flames, because conflict draws eyeballs. (In reading all these stories, it’s important not just to read the selected quotes from campaign spokespeople, but to consider what they were asked, and whether there was any way to answer that question differently.)

But when I forget all that nonsense and re-anchor myself in reality, I wind up where Matt Yglesias is:

The differences between Clinton and Sanders are real and important, but they amount to an argument about whether to try to shift the country a little bit to the left or a lot to the left. Under the circumstances, it would be very odd for it to produce a lasting, unbridgeable divide if earlier elections have not.

Let’s flesh out that analysis by using the minimum wage as a proxy for a long list of issues. Sanders wants a $15 federal minimum wage. Clinton wants a $12 federal minimum wage with higher minimums established by state or local laws in areas with high costs of living. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Trump wants no federal minimum wage at all. (“Let the states decide,” he says.)

Is it really going to be that hard for Democrats to come together?

I have no way of knowing what’s going on in the minds of the two candidates right now. Maybe they really are mad at each other, or maybe not. But ultimately, I find it hard to believe that either is going to go against the general will of his or her supporters. And among Hillary supporters right now, I find very little desire to show Bernie who’s boss. Among Bernie supporters, the number who want to burn down the Democratic Party seems pretty small.

We’re due for another two weeks or so of ugliness. But after the last major primaries on June 7, the pressure on both candidates — pressure from their own supporters — to work something out is going to be enormous. So I still think we’re going to get that scene everybody wants: Clinton and Sanders standing together in Philadelphia as the credits roll.

Do We Still Have to Worry About the McGovern Problem?

In the 1990s, Clintonism was all about avoiding the fate of McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. Two decades later, is that still an issue?


If you google “Sanders McGovern”, you’ll find a fairly large number of articles debating whether Bernie Sanders is or isn’t the second coming of George McGovern, the anti-establishment, left-leaning Democrat who suffered a historic landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972.

Some writers think he is, and Democrats will be setting themselves up for another historic loss if they nominate Bernie. Others think McGovern is such ancient history that bringing him up just shows how stuck in the past the Democratic establishment is. And a few claim that Sanders is McGovern in a good way: A Sanders victory could at long last vindicate McGovern, the way Reagan’s victory vindicated Goldwater.

Reading those articles, I keep recalling a quote from the 19th-century mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss: “I have had my solutions for a long time, but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.” In every case, it looks to me like the author started with a desired conclusion, then looked for ways to justify it.

I think the question deserves something better than that, so I’m going to do the exact opposite: I’m going to write down everything I know about this issue and leave you with a cliffhanger at the end. I’ve thought about this and done some research. In the end, though, I have hopes and I have fears, but certainty escapes me. I can’t promise you that a gamble on Bernie Sanders would win or lose in November. All I can do is draw a clearer picture of what we’d be betting on.

Where I start. I’m a somewhat left-leaning Democrat who also really wants to win in November. If I could snap my fingers and install single-payer health care or a carbon tax, I absolutely would. But I also think ObamaCare is a huge improvement on the health care system we had in 2009, I’m glad we’re finally starting to do something (though not nearly enough) about climate change, and I’m afraid of losing all that under President Trump or Cruz.

I went to one of the early Bernie rallies (in Portsmouth in May) and I definitely felt the Bern when he talked not just about health care and the environment, but also about tough regulations for Wall Street, creating jobs with a big push to rebuild our infrastructure, investing in college for our young people, and reducing the influence that big-money donors have on our political system. The growing inequality of wealth looks to me like a problem that isn’t going to fix itself, and will destroy the American way of life if it goes much further.

But I’m also not willing to sign up for a Charge of the Light Brigade. If asking for the moon means that the voters will give us nothing, and that instead the gradual progress we’ve made under President Obama will be undone, then count me out. If that’s the choice, then more gradual progress under another President Clinton sounds fine to me. On the other hand, if that’s not the choice, if we really could have the kind of revolutionary change Sanders calls for, then I don’t want to leave those possibilities on the table. So I voted for Bernie in the New Hampshire primary, but with similar uncertainty to what TPM’s John Judis is feeling as the Maryland primary approaches.

For me it’s a real question: Is another McGovern-type loss really something to worry about, or is it a Boogie Man we’ve been afraid of for far too long already?

Ultimately, we can’t be certain about the answers unless we run the experiment: nominate Bernie and see what happens. But it ought to at least be possible to sharpen our understanding of the questions, and to know what we’re counting on if we decide to take the chance.

What the McGovern Problem isn’t. Often the McGovern Problem gets stated too simplistically, which makes it easy to shoot down: Democrats can’t run a candidate who’s too liberal. It’s as if the White House were a roller coaster, with a sign outside saying: “You must be at least this conservative to enter.”

If that’s the problem, then liberals are right to refuse it any consideration, because otherwise we give the game away before it starts. Important issues like single-payer or a less belligerent foreign policy are off the table by definition; we’re not even allowed to make our case to the country.

Republicans didn’t accept that lesson from their Goldwater loss in 1964. They continued making their case, and by 1980 the Goldwater wing of the GOP was electing President Reagan.

History shows that American political sensibilities change. Ideas that are “too radical” in one era — even liberal ideas like Social Security or child labor laws or the 40-hour week — can become common sense in the next. Who’s to say that free college or converting the economy to sustainable energy won’t join that list?

Plus, if Democrats can’t talk about what we believe in, the public will quite correctly perceive that we’re hiding something, and even a centrist Democratic ticket will face a suspicious electorate: What aren’t they telling us? What secret socialist agenda are Democrats planning to spring on the country after Inauguration Day?

What the McGovern Problem is. The problem I have in mind is much more specific than just being “too liberal”: Republicans have a tried-and-true game plan for running against liberal Democrats. A bunch of negative stereotypes sit in the public mind waiting to be activated, and they seem to work really well to cut our candidates off at the knees.

So the problem isn’t just that McGovern lost and then Mondale lost and then Dukakis lost. It’s that they lost in almost exactly the same way. There’s a buzzsaw attack waiting in the fall campaign, one that our candidates don’t face in the primaries, because it doesn’t work on a purely Democratic electorate. But we know it’s coming.

The issue that confronts every potential Democratic nominee, the one that gets labeled electability, isn’t “Are you too liberal?” but “Are you marching straight into the buzzsaw?” When the predictable attack comes — the attack you haven’t had to deal with at all in the primaries — will your candidacy survive it?

But even as we consider this question, we need to remember that the Dukakis wipeout was 28 years ago. If you’re one of the young voters whose energy is fueling the Sanders campaign, there hasn’t been a real test of the McGovern Problem — or a Republican presidential landslide — in your lifetime. Maybe the old dragon has lost its teeth by now, and all those gray-haired Hillary voters are quivering in front of shadows on the wall.

How can we know if that’s the case? I think we need to tell the story from the beginning. Then we’ll be in a better position to judge whether it’s ancient history or history that’s about to repeat itself.

It starts with LBJ. If we’re going to decide how relevant McGovern is in 2016, we need to go back a little further, to the last big push for progressive change in America: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

When LBJ assumed the presidency late in 1963, he was riding a wave of national grief over President Kennedy’s assassination. The Democrats already controlled Congress, and then in 1964 the Republicans played into Johnson’s hands by nominating their most polarizing candidate, Barry Goldwater. After a huge landslide with long coattails, LBJ began 1965 with a national mandate and 2-1 majorities in both houses.

He got a lot done. The accomplishments of 1964-1966 make a stunning list, especially from the gridlocked perspective of 2016. The Social Security Act of 1965 created both Medicare and Medicaid in one fell swoop. By itself that was a bigger change than anything that has happened under Obama, but Congress just passed it and moved on. The bill got bipartisan support, wasn’t filibustered, and Johnson didn’t have to spend the rest of his term fighting back attempts to repeal it or block it in the courts.

Jim Crow finally ended: Congress passed the 24th Amendment (that banned poll taxes), the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. Johnson began affirmative action for government jobs by executive order.

He declared War on Poverty: In addition to Medicaid, Johnson created food stamps, and funded urban renewal programs to clean out the slums. When Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we know it” in the 1990s, what we knew was LBJ’s version of welfare.

The backlash. The Vietnam War is usually remembered as Johnson’s undoing, but the backlash against the Great Society would have been a thing regardless. The race riots of the 1960s led to a narrative that blacks were “ungrateful” for Johnson’s anti-poverty programs and the advances in civil rights. The riots combined with rising crime and the Supreme Court’s focus on the rights of defendants to create the impression that criminals were being coddled and government lacked the will to defend public order. The phrase bleeding heart liberal referred to someone who had less sympathy for you than for the ghetto-raised black teen-ager who was mugging you.

School desegregation was finally hitting the North in a big way, leading professional-class whites to flee to the suburbs, and leaving the white working class behind to deal with urban racial conflict. Affirmative action led to the claim that restless blacks were being bought off by giving away the opportunities of working-class whites. (After all, a black kid who got into Harvard through affirmative action wasn’t acing out some legacy admission like a Kennedy.) The phrase limousine liberal referred to well-to-do Democrats who could afford to be idealistic about race and poverty, because they were insulated from the social impact of their programs.

Tax-and-spend liberal didn’t catch on until the Reagan years, but that stereotype also comes from the Great Society backlash: If there was a problem, LBJ was likely to throw money at it. The logic — that we were a rich country with way too many poor people, so we could fix things by moving money around — may seem a little simplistic now, given the complex social dynamics of poverty. (In hindsight, urban renewal  looks especially naive. Its high-rise housing projects quickly became worse than the slums they replaced.) But that’s the kind of thing you can’t know until you’ve tried it.

By 1968, the Democratic Party was badly divided. The only possible unifying figure, Bobby Kennedy, was assassinated. The Chicago convention turned violent. A third-party run by George Wallace split off what in FDR’s day had been “the solid South”. Even in the North, Wallace appealed to the kind of working-class whites who also had once been reliable Democrats (the kind who support Trump now). LBJ’s VP, Hubert Humphrey, split the rest of the vote almost down the middle with Richard Nixon, but Nixon got a slight plurality and an electoral college win.

McGovern/Nixon. George McGovern came to national attention at the 1968 convention as the leader of Bobby Kennedy’s orphaned delegates. By 1972, he was the first candidate to understand the new rules that made the primaries decisive. (Humphrey had gotten the 1968 nomination without ever entering the primaries. 1968 was the last hurrah of the smoke-filled-room era, when party leadership could do pretty much whatever it wanted.) He ran an insurgent campaign that portrayed the existing Democratic establishment as corrupt. That culminated at the 1972 convention, when the McGovern delegates disqualified Mayor Daley’s Illinois delegation in favor of a rebel slate led by Jesse Jackson. (Without the backing of the Daley machine, McGovern managed only 41% of the vote in Illinois in the fall. He won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.)

In terms of policy, McGovern wanted to push the Great Society social programs further, while rejecting the militaristic Kennedy/Johnson foreign policy that had led to Vietnam. With Wallace out of the picture (after being wounded in an assassination attempt), Nixon knew that a two-party race depended on capturing the Democrats who had defected to Wallace in 1968. So the key arguments in the campaign came from an organization called Democrats for Nixon.

DfN attacked McGovern on two fronts. First, his defense plan would leave the country dangerously weak.

And second, his social programs would tax working people (pictured as a white male construction worker) and give money to undeserving people (who aren’t pictured, but are easily imagined to be blacks or young white hippies).

Less explicitly, Nixon’s campaign associated McGovern with the counterculture: people who took drugs and despised soldiers and got involved in violent protests. Nixon himself claimed support from the “great silent majority“, people who did their jobs and raised their kids and lived by the old-fashioned American values that the counterculture rejected. The flag and patriotism belonged to conservatives; they were weapons to wield against liberals (literally, in this Pulitzer-winning photo), who should “love it or leave it“.

The anti-liberal formula. By 1976, the Republican Party had been stained by Watergate, and Jimmy Carter, a born-again Navy veteran from Georgia, won by projecting an image very different from McGovern. But Reagan unseated Carter in 1980, and in 1984, Walter Mondale challenged him. Mondale was the candidate of the Democratic establishment, which by this point was the Great Society playing defense. Reagan successfully attacked him as a liberal, and in 1988 Reagan’s VP, George H. W. Bush, ran a similar — and similarly successful — campaign against Mike Dukakis.

By now the anti-liberal attack was a formula based on a few well-defined stereotypes:

  • Liberals won’t protect us from foreign enemies. This is usually phrased in terms of naivety: Liberals want to cut defense spending and avoid military intervention because they foolishly trust treaties and organizations like the UN. They believe our enemies are like us and want to come to mutually beneficial agreements. They don’t understand that our enemies are truly evil and can only be controlled through strength.

For example, Reagan ran this commercial against Mondale. It starts “There’s a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame.”

  • Liberals won’t protect us from criminals at home. Again, they are naive about evil. They believe crime is a social problem they can solve with more welfare spending, rather than a moral problem that requires police and jails.

That led to the revolving-door ad Bush used against Dukakis.

  • Liberals don’t believe in America. They’re not patriotic, and they want to retell American history to make us the bad guys. They have no faith in the economic individualism that made this country rich, and keep telling us we should be more like France or Sweden.

Bush painted Dukakis as against the Pledge of Allegiance, and somehow a false rumor circulated that Dukakis’ wife had once burned an American flag.

  •  Liberals want to weaken moral values. The exact content of this attack varies from era to era, depending on what the moral problem of the day is. Abortion is a constant, but there’s also pornography, video games, rock music, drugs, homosexuality, promiscuity, and transgenderism. Usually, this is related somehow to religion, with the implication that whatever religion a liberal claims to practice is actually just a smoke screen that hides an underlying atheism, relativism, nihilism, or hedonism.
  • Liberals think they’re smarter than you are and want to make your decisions for you. Liberals are book-smart but don’t have common sense. They want to tell you who you can hire, which customers you have to serve, what you can drive, what you can eat or drink, how to discipline your children, what words you are allowed to say, and so on. Rhetoric about “the liberal elite” or “political correctness” invokes this stereotype.
  • Liberals want to raise taxes on working people to buy votes from lazy people. Nixon’s construction-worker ad became a paradigm. Mitt Romney’s “47%” hurt him only because it was too explicit. We still hear about “free stuff“, “dependence on government“, and “makers and takers“.

Bill Clinton and the New Democrats. If you didn’t live through it, it’s hard to communicate just how depressing the Dukakis debacle was. Entering the fall campaign, Democrats hadn’t thought of Dukakis as a McGovern-style left-winger. (Jesse Jackson had been the candidate of the party’s left wing, and Dukakis had resisted pressure to pick him as VP.) On the national scene, Dukakis was a fresh face who should have been able to slough off past stereotypes. He didn’t have a big spending program, wasn’t pushing a tax increase, and his Greek-immigrant-pride thing should have shielded him from the patriotism issue. One post-convention poll had Dukakis ahead of Bush 55%-38%.

But when the Republicans unleashed the formulaic anti-liberal attack, Dukakis proved just as vulnerable as McGovern and Mondale. His poll numbers quickly collapsed, and Bush (who had never seemed like a particularly strong candidate) didn’t just win, he romped his way to 426 electoral votes.

After 1988, Democrats had a sense of “What do we have to do?” The answer came from Bill Clinton. You can’t understand Clintonism without grasping that post-Dukakis despair.

Clinton recognized that the problem was as much image as substance: It wasn’t liberalism itself, it was getting tagged with the liberal stereotypes. You had to compromise somewhat, but you could still have broadly progressive values. You couldn’t stop Republicans from throwing the McGovern/Mondale/Dukakis attacks at you, but (like Jimmy Carter in 1976) you could still win if you maintained an image that the stereotypes wouldn’t stick to. Far-right conservatives might still believe them, but the swing voters wouldn’t.

Clinton wasn’t a “Massachusetts liberal” like Dukakis: He was a Southern Baptist with a drawl who easily projected a good-old-boy sensibility. He declared himself to be “a new kind of Democrat”, and he shifted Democratic rhetoric across the board. He “felt our pain”, but always justified his programs as fairness rather than appealing to compassion, and he rooted his case in respect for traditional American values like hard work.

We’ll think of the faith of our parents that was instilled in us here in America, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children. Filled with that faith, generations of Americans have worked long hours on their jobs and passed along powerful dreams to their sons and daughters. Many of us can remember our own parents working long hours on their jobs and then coming home and helping us with our homework. The American dream has always been a better life for people who are willing to work for it.

He also regularly did something infuriating if you found yourself on the wrong end of it. Like the kid who escapes bullying by finding the mob some weaker kid to bully, Clinton escaped the liberal stereotype by projecting it onto other people. A Sister Souljah moment (also sometimes known as hippie punching) is when a center-left politician repudiates someone further to the left as a way of establishing his non-scariness. (The phrase comes from Clinton’s denunciation of a black hip-hop artist.)

Clinton made a career out of stealing Republican issues and putting his own spin on them: Balance the budget? Reform welfare? He’d do it, and if Republicans wanted to oppose him they’d have to move even further to the right. In retrospect, some of Clinton’s “accomplishments” — Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, and his crime bill — can only be defended by observing that something even worse probably would have happened if he hadn’t gotten out in front of a popular movement that was gaining momentum.

He compromised, but he won, and it mattered that he won. That’s why Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are on the Supreme Court rather than two more Clarence Thomases. While Clinton sometimes rattled his saber and kept defense spending relatively high, America managed to go eight years without launching a major ground war. He left office with low unemployment, low inflation, a budget surplus — and a 66% approval rating.

Every Democratic presidential nominee since has in one way or another learned from Clinton’s example, and has maneuvered to project a centrist image. (I believe that’s why Obama drops his g’s.) In that time, the Democratic candidate has lost the popular vote only in 2004, and even that election was close.

One measure of the success of the Clinton strategy is that each recent Democratic nominee has been attacked in some way that was uniquely personal, rather than just being fed to the generic liberal-killing buzzsaw. Bill Clinton was “Slick Willy”, Al Gore was so wooden you wouldn’t want to have a beer with him, John Kerry didn’t deserve his medals, and Barack Obama was a shallow celebrity who palled around with terrorists. The too-liberal case was still there, but it didn’t stick for a majority of voters, so Republicans had to try other attacks.

The downside of Clintonism. As George Lakoff and others have often pointed out, there is no centrist worldview. So while stealing Republican issues and hippie-punching figures to your left may put you in a position to rein in something really bad — to turn, say, a constitutional amendment defining marriage into DOMA, which the Supreme Court (with Breyer and Ginsburg in the majority) could later find unconstitutional — along the way you reinforce the overall conservative frame, and marginalize anyone who promotes a liberal frame. That may win elections in the short term, but makes it hard to build a movement.

For example, Obama’s attempt in 2011 to strike a “grand bargain” with John Boehner to cut the long-term deficit was a Clintonian move that backfired: Not only did the bargain not happen, but treating the manufactured 2011 budget crisis as a negotiating opportunity set up the much scarier 2013 game of chicken over the debt ceiling. Obama’s grand-bargain offer legitimized the deficit as a more important concern than creating jobs, as well as the idea that long-term cuts in Social Security and Medicare might be the solution.

Even if you take a Clintonesque incremental view of change, the Democratic Party needs its idealists to produce the long-term vision that gives the party substance. Maybe we will only make progress in small steps, but somebody still needs to provide a clear vision of where we’re trying to go.

So what about Bernie? Remember: whether or not Sanders “is McGovern” isn’t about whether he can be tied to a label like liberal or even socialist. Of course he can. Everybody knows he’s challenging Clinton from the left and has called himself a socialist; that’s baked into his public image already. It hasn’t hurt him yet in those national polls that show him beating Trump and Cruz by margins far larger than Hillary’s. (One recent poll has Sanders beating Trump by 20%.)

The more important questions are first, when Republicans begin attacking him with the tried-and-true formula, will the anti-liberal stereotypes stick? And second, does that still matter the way it did in 1972, 1984, or 1988?

I think several of the stereotypes could stick to Bernie, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly.

  • Foreign enemies. So far, Sanders’ entire defense-and-foreign-policy focus has been on what he hasn’t done, wouldn’t do or wouldn’t have done: He wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. He wouldn’t give the NSA such a free hand to gather intelligence on Americans. He wouldn’t torture. He wouldn’t keep Guantanamo open. He doesn’t support defense spending at the current levels, and opposes certain specific weapons systems.

And none of that by itself is a problem. (In fact, I agree with him, and Hillary agrees with a lot of it.) But the majority of Americans are not ready to stop being a superpower. So in a general-election campaign, Sanders will at some point have to pivot back to what he would do: What level of defense spending does he support? What weapons does that buy? What Sanders Doctrine describes the situations where is he willing to use those weapons to defend our country, our allies, or our interests? (Example: Putin decides to conquer the rest of Ukraine. What do you do?)

When he does have to state a positive position on defense, is he then open to a Nixonian attack where a hand sweeps forces off the table? Is he convincing as a possible Commander in Chief, or does he look like Mike Dukakis in a tank?

  • Crime. The problem is similar: So far we’ve heard about the things Sanders wants to undo: He wants to put fewer people in jail. He wants to stop police brutality. And that’s all good: We went overboard both on the War on Drugs and on the scary-black-people image. We’ve been way too eager to interpret dark skin as a predictor of criminality, and to see prison as the solution to our fears, especially the irrational ones.

But crime is also real and has real victims. Americans want to hear that their president is serious about protecting them. Can Bernie provide that assurance? There are two Willie-Hortonish avenues of attack here: violence connected (at least in the public mind) with Black Lives Matter, like the Baltimore riots; and crimes committed by undocumented immigrants (which do exist, even though in general the undocumented are not a big crime risk).

Again, there are answers to such attacks, but (as the Reagan-era adage has it) “If you’re explaining you’re losing.” When somebody shows you a real woman who has been raped by an immigrant, quoting the statistics on immigrant crime is not a compelling response.

  • Tax and spend. Sanders admits that his Medicare-for-all plan would raise middle-class taxes. To be fair, middle-class families would still benefit from his plan, because their healthcare costs should go down by more than their taxes go up. But voters are quicker to believe in taxes than in the benefits they fund. (That’s why ObamaCare was so vulnerable in the 2010 midterm elections.) Plus, not even Sanders’ supporters are comfortable with their taxes going up. And again, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Look for an ad in which layabouts of various races endorse Bernie and look forward to the benefits they expect from him, while somebody else works thanklessly to clean up after them.
  • Moral values. The problem here is religion. Sanders admits that he is “not particularly religious” and, though a Jew by ethnicity and culture, does not belong to any congregation or synagogue and does not regularly attend services of any type.

That doesn’t kill you in a Democratic primary, and at various times Bernie has spoken about his beliefs in a heartfelt way that works fairly well for a liberal audience: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” But to a lot of the country, that Spinoza-like position is just a fancy kind of atheism, and polls consistently show that atheism (moreso than even Islam) is a deal-breaker for many voters.

I picture one of those man-in-the-street interview ads, where somebody says, “He claims to be Jewish, but he sounds like an atheist to me.” That’s a two-fer: Not only does it use the A-word, but it dog-whistles to anti-Semites by reminding them that at best Sanders is a Jew.

  • Thinks he’s smarter than you. Smart is good, if you handle it right. Bill Clinton is a Rhodes scholar. Barack Obama was president of the law review at Harvard. But both of them know how to use their considerable personal charm so as not to seem too smart or too stuck-up about it. Both have that good-teacher ability to answer a question confidently without making the questioner feel stupid.

I don’t see that in Bernie. When challenged, he has a tendency to raise his voice and wag his finger. If I were debating Sanders, I’d be trying to bring out the side of his personality that talked down to Vermont voters in this Q&A event. (“Have you heard of ISIS?” he demands.)

Smarter-than-you is a quality that unlocks other parts of the liberal stereotype. The root Republican message is that they want you to be free to make your own choices in the marketplace, while Democrats want government to choose for you. (Unfortunately, the unregulated marketplace Republicans champion often leaves you with no good choices. What good is a menu of dozens of healthcare plans, if none of the ones you can afford will keep you from going bankrupt if you get sick?) Democrats need to communicate that they appreciate the awesome presumption that regulation involves, and that they will use that power with humility. But when Bernie Sanders thinks he knows the right answer, humility seems far from his mind.

  • Believing in America. A big piece of the Clinton/New Democrat thing was being able to invoke patriotism without sounding fake or hokey. Can Sanders do that? Bernie often compares the U.S. unfavorably to more socialistic European countries like Denmark or France, and if  you dip into the archives, he’s also said good things about Cuba and Nicaragua (when the Sandinistas were in power and the U.S. was funding the opposition). Again, a man-in-the-street ad could be effective: “I wonder why he doesn’t run for president of France?”

Does it still matter? The most convincing point in the Sanders-is-not-McGovern articles is that times have changed. Thom Hartman writes:

Comparing Sanders to McGovern assumes that the country is in a similar state now as it was 44 years ago, and that’s just not true. … [In 1972] the middle class was much larger, and it was doing much better than it is today. And so the older generation voted for Nixon, they voted to keep things on track, because they simply didn’t feel as screwed over as we did in the younger generation.

And Dave Johnson says that the old manipulative tricks won’t work in the Twitter era:

Sanders’ mass appeal, big crowds and enthusiasm in spite of a virtual media blackout shows that America has grown up a lot since 1972. Thanks to the Internet, we are able to communicate past media manipulation and organize. Many people are now well aware of how Republicans use racial and other divisions to misdirect and manipulate people from seeing what is being done to us.

There’s also a demographic argument: The electorate that responded to George Bush’s racist dog whistles in 1988 was much whiter than America is in 2016. When Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was organizing against Mondale in 1984, the percentage of Christians was far higher and “Nones” far lower than it is today.

So their argument boils down to this: In a less white, more secular America, where the sufferings of the middle class and the planet are far more apparent, and citizens have better ways to figure out who to vote for than watching 30-second TV ads, the progressive message is more compelling than the old liberal stereotypes. Healthcare as a right, free college, the threat of global warming, and the rest of the Sanders message will overpower the false image of wimpy, naive, America-hating, too-smart-for-their-own-good liberals.

And here, I think we reach the point where the evidence in inconclusive: America is different now, but is it different enough? Quantitative questions — questions that center on “how much” rather than yes or no — are hard to answer without running the experiment. There’s a risk and there’s a reward. How to weigh them against each other is something we all have to decide for ourselves.

Undecided With 8 Days To Go

In a normal New Hampshire primary, undecided Democrats get courted and pandered to. But this year everyone just seems annoyed with us.


Tonight, this election cycle starts to get real: Actual voters will caucus in Iowa and we’ll get the first commitments that actually mean something. A week from tomorrow, I’ll be voting in New Hampshire.

And I’m still not sure what I’m going to do.

I know a lot of you will suspect my honesty when I say this — that in itself strikes me as a symptom of the general situation — but I have genuinely not decided whether I’m voting for Clinton or Sanders. I’m not pretending so that I can sneak my pro-Bernie or pro-Hillary propaganda past your defenses. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.

In a nutshell, the dilemma comes down to this:

  • I like the issues that Sanders has been highlighting: single-payer health care, a big public works program to build infrastructure and create jobs, breaking up the big banks, offering tuition-free college, and so on.
  • I see a huge difference between any Democratic candidate and any Republican candidate, and I have much more confidence of a Democratic victory in November if Clinton is the nominee.

I know the objections to both of those points: The Sanders proposals are all things that would never get through Congress anyway, so what difference do they make? And polls show Bernie running well against the most likely Republican nominees — better than Hillary in most cases — so why can’t I just accept that he’d be the better nominee? And besides, isn’t the lesser evil, well, evil?

I’ve considered all that. I really have. Honestly. And I have worries about both candidates.

My worries about Sanders. To me, the Sanders candidacy only makes sense when you think about how it started: Elizabeth Warren finally convinced everybody that she was serious when she said she wasn’t running, so somebody else had to represent the progressive wing of the Party. Otherwise, Clinton would run unchallenged and could take liberal votes for granted. So Bernie stood up to carry the liberal banner, to be the un-Hillary and make sure progressive issues weren’t ignored.

It isn’t clear to me that Bernie has ever had a serious intention of becoming President of the United States.

How can I say that? Well, I’ve listened to his speeches. The typical Sanders speech boils down to a list of statistics that leads to a list of proposals. [1] You know what’s not in there? Who he is.

For example, here’s a bunch of stuff I never knew until a few minutes ago when I looked it up on Wikipedia: His wife’s name is Jane. It’s a second marriage for both of them. They have no children together, but Jane had three children from her first marriage, and Bernie has a son from a non-marital relationship in the late 1960s. Bernie’s older brother lives in England, where he’s involved in politics with the Green Party.

Is that kind of stuff important? Well, if he just wants to take the liberal message to the Democratic Convention, no. In that case, the message is important and the messenger doesn’t matter.

But if we’re talking about actually becoming president, family and other personal information does matter. Americans expect to have a relationship with their president. We don’t vote for a set of policies, we vote for a person.

The President, after all, is going to come into our living rooms the next time something like 9-11 happens. He or she is going to mourn with us, acknowledge that this is really awful, and reassure us that we’ll get through it if we work together. If we have to go to war, the President is going to tell us why. If the economy starts collapsing, the President will tell us not to panic, and will outline all the things the government will do to keep the situation from getting out of hand.

We want to feel like we know that person.

Sanders has told us that he wants to do good things, but he hasn’t told us why. That may seem like a silly question to you, but Americans get suspicious of people who offer to do good things for them for no obvious reason. (Ronald Reagan used to make fun of the guy who says, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” His audiences loved it.)

Bernie has said that he’s “not particularly religious“. For some people, that’s a deal-breaker right there. But even the people who are OK with it are going to want to know what deep values motivate him and where those values come from. Abstractions won’t do; they’ll want stories. (John McCain wasn’t particularly religious either. But he could point to a family tradition of military service, leading up to his POW story.)

If he doesn’t tell those stories and answer those questions, the Republicans will do it for him. Last week, I talked about the kind of smears we’re likely to see if the opposition starts taking him seriously. I don’t think Bernie has set himself up well to respond.

The way you undo a smear is that you tell a more convincing story about yourself than the one your enemies are telling. You look straight into the camera, straight into America’s living rooms, and say, “You know me. You know what I’m really like.”

When voters were being horrified by videos of Barack Obama’s radical black pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Obama went on TV and told the story of his relationship with Wright, and his lifelong relationship with blackness. When Jimmy Carter tried to scare the country with Ronald Reagan’s extremism, Reagan just said, “There you go again.” With his delivery, with that face and voice Americans had been seeing and hearing for decades, it was devastating.

I have  a hard time picturing Bernie Sanders doing anything like that. He’s not building the kind of personal connection to the voters that could see him through a crisis. His poll numbers may look good now, but in the fall campaign he’ll be vulnerable.

My worries about Clinton. To understand Hillary Clinton, you have to know about two formative political experiences.

The first time Bill was elected governor, he came to office with an ambitious agenda that was quite liberal for Arkansas. And Hillary also was breaking the mold. She dressed more like a college student than a Southern lady — not to mention a governor’s wife — and she kept her own name, Hillary Rodham.

That first term, Bill ran into huge opposition, accomplished very little, and got tossed out of office in the next election. The NYT summarized in 1991:

In his first term, in 1978, he offered a far-ranging package of liberal proposals. Since then, he has painstakingly picked his issues, built his coalitions and chosen his fights. To admirers, that has shown a shrewd ability to use his political capital where it could achieve results. Critics have seen it as timidity in taking on powerful interests.

Hillary learned a lesson too: For Bill’s comeback campaign, she became a Clinton. They won.

But that was Arkansas, not Washington. So when Bill was elected president in 1992, he again came in with a sweeping liberal agenda, and Hillary was right in the middle of it: She would lead the effort to achieve Harry Truman’s dream of national health care.

It was a re-run on a larger scale: huge opposition, massive legislative defeat, and a backlash at the polls. The midterm elections of 1994 were a Republican sweep that ended decades of Democratic control of the House. Hillary was blamed for the disaster, and for the rest of his presidency, Bill Clinton could only accomplish anything — or even keep the government open — by making deals with Newt Gingrich. Once again, he had to pick his issues and choose his fights.

If I had that history, I’d probably be cautious too. So it’s no wonder that Hillary doesn’t cut loose and propose idealistic stuff any more.

But there’s a problem with constraining your imagination to what is currently possible: Once you do that, the range of possibility can only shrink. As David Atkins wrote in Washington Monthly:

Politics isn’t just the art of the possible today. It’s also about shaping the realm of the possible tomorrow. When the opposition is willing to compromise, pushing the envelope might come at the expense of real gains in the moment. But when the opposition is intransigent, advocating for the impossible might just be the most productive thing a president can do to lay the groundwork for gains in the future.

Maybe this year you can only afford to vacation within driving distance of home, so fantasizing about Paris is completely impractical. But if you don’t maintain a Paris fantasy at all, the year when it’s finally just barely possible, you might not notice.

The Republicans never make that mistake. Their primary campaigns are always full of ideas like abolishing the EPA, replacing the income tax with a flat tax, privatizing Medicare, banning Muslims from coming into the country, ending abortion, and all sorts of other things that I doubt the next Republican president could make happen. The conservative imagination stays fertile, and if circumstances unexpectedly give them their chance, their plans will be ready to go.

Which way from here? So that’s where I am: I like Bernie’s issues, and I like him in the messenger role, carrying the progressive flag to the convention, reminding the public that Clinton and Obama aren’t the far left wing of American politics, and making sure Hillary knows that her left flank can’t be taken for granted. But the thought of him as the nominee sets me worrying about the Trump administration. [2]

So who am I voting for in eight days? I’m still not sure, and whatever I’m thinking right now might flip after I see what happens tonight in Iowa.

No man’s land. That indecision puts me in a strange position as I peruse my Facebook news feed or wander the blogosphere. Sanders and Clinton themselves are doing a fairly good job controlling their rhetoric, but that’s not true of their supporters. On social media, things go ad hominem in a hurry: If you defend Sanders, you don’t grasp how the world works, but if you criticize him, you’re part of the evil Clinton establishment. If you try to stand in the middle and keep both sides honest, you’re both clueless and corrupt.

So on behalf of all the Democrats who are still undecided and really can see it both ways, I’ll put this plea out there: Between now and the time the nomination is decided, please work on imagining that some people might honestly and intelligently size up the situation differently than you do. Not everybody who disagrees is evil or stupid.

More similar than different. This rancor is a bit ridiculous, because what we’re mainly arguing about is whether you accomplish more by moving step-by-step or by thinking big. As Rebecca (@Geaux_RC) commented last week on my post “Smearing Bernie, a preview“:

[Clinton and Sanders] agree on the following:

Climate change is real and should be addressed. Women deserve to have control over their bodies. The wealthy should pay more than they currently are in taxes. Voting rights need to be protected and expanded, not undermined and limited. Education is an important priority and should be funded appropriately. The minimum wage needs to be raised. Health care is a fundamental human right. The criminal justice system needs reform.

The Republican candidates disagree with all of that. (OK, Rand Paul supports some kind of criminal justice reform. Any other examples?)

So Bernie wants a $15 federal minimum wage while Hillary wants $12, with state and local action to increase that wage in places with a higher cost of living. (Republicans argue about whether the current $7.25 is too high, while some are against the principle of any government-set minimum wage.)

Bernie calls for a $1 trillion infrastructure program, while Hillary’s is only $275 billion.

Bernie wants public colleges and universities to be tuition-free. Hillary wants community colleges to be tuition-free, and has a more complicated plan for making other higher education affordable.

I could go on, but trust me, the pattern is true across the board: Bernie’s proposals are simpler and bigger, while Hillary’s are wonkier and more cautious. But I can’t find an issue where they have fundamentally different goals.

Conversely, compare either of them to Republican candidates: Bernie and Hillary want the rich to pay higher taxes, while the Republicans want the rich to pay lower taxes. Bernie and Hillary want the government to do more about global warming, while the Republicans want to undo the things President Obama has done. Bernie and Hillary want to protect a woman’s right to choose an abortion, while the Republicans want to chip away at it or eliminate it entirely. And so on.

Given all that, can’t we all figure out some way to get along until the Convention? And then march united into the fall elections? I know it will be frustrating to watch your candidate lose, whichever one it is. And eating your words and voting for other one in November; that’s going to be a challenge. But none of it is going to be as frustrating or as challenging as listening to the Ted Cruz inaugural address.


[1] I’m putting this in a footnote because it’s an aside that interrupts the flow of what I’m saying, but would it kill the guy to tell a story once in a while? Not everybody thinks in statistics. All the way back to Lincoln, the great American politicians have been storytellers.

[2] One more concern: Sanders’ I-have-never-run-a-negative-ad high principles. Particularly against Trump or Cruz, I think the Democrats’ fall campaign needs to be scorched earth.

Smearing Bernie, a preview

A Murdoch paper shows us how Republicans will go after Sanders, once they start taking him seriously.


Soviet propaganda poster.

Bernie Sanders, as seen by the New York Post

So far, Republican presidential candidates have been positioning themselves to run against Hillary Clinton.

In the transcript of the most recent Republican debate, I found only five mentions of Bernie Sanders.  Two occurred when John Kasich was asked about the possibility of running against Sanders, and brushed it off:

We’re going to win every state if Bernie Sanders is the nominee. That’s not even an issue.

In the other three, Sanders’ name was invoked to tar somebody else. Marco Rubio said Ted Cruz typically joined with Sanders to vote against defense bills in the Senate. Twice, Sanders and Clinton were yoked together, so that Clinton could be associated with a position Bernie has taken more explicitly: Ben Carson said Clinton and Sanders blame everything on “those evil rich people”, and Chris Christie said both would raise Social Security taxes.

Clinton, on the other hand, seemed to come up in every answer. She was described as “a national security disaster”, “someone who lies to the families of those four victims in Benghazi”, “an enabler of sexual misconduct”, who wants “to take rights away from law-abiding citizens”, and whose weakness “will lead to greater war in the world”. In other settings, Donald Trump has speculated that Hillary is running “to stay out of jail“, and Chris Christie has promised to prosecute her.

In short, the Right’s barrage against Hillary targets far more than her vision of America’s future or her proposals for getting there. It’s personal, and has been since Bill’s candidacy first drew their attention a quarter century ago.

At times, Republicans even appear to consider Sanders an ally in the anti-Clinton struggle. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC is running an anti-Hillary ad in Iowa, echoing a Sanders-campaign charge about contributions from Wall Street. Bloomberg reports:

During Sunday night’s Democratic debate, the Republican National Committee made the unusual move of sending no fewer than four real-time e-mails to reporters defending the self-described democratic socialist from attacks by Hillary Clinton or echoing his message against her.

It’s not a complete love-fest, though. Republican leaders or Fox News or other conservative outlets occasionally trash the whole idea of socialism or a socialist president. But so far their criticisms of Sanders have mostly stayed philosophical: Bernie’s a good guy, he just has bad ideas.

You know that won’t last, if a Sanders presidency starts to look like a serious possibility. I suppose an optimist could imagine a Sanders/Trump, Sanders/Cruz, or Sanders/Rubio race becoming a national debate about Bernie’s issues: universal health care, an increased minimum wage, creating jobs by rebuilding America’s public infrastructure, making college free, breaking up the big banks, and so on. The GOP’s candidate could explain why he opposes Bernie’s agenda and try to convince the American people to agree with him.

But I suspect the Republicans will take a different approach, because they always do. In a general-election campaign, they won’t be satisfied to say that Sanders is wrong; instead, they’ll want to argue that there is something wrong with him. A campaign that is already centered on hatred and fear won’t change its character for Bernie. Once he is seen as a serious challenger, there will have to be reasons to hate and fear Bernie Sanders.

What reasons? Let’s assume for the moment that there is no legitimate scandal in Bernie’s past, nothing that would give pause to an objective, well-informed voter. Let’s go further and assume that he hasn’t had allies or acquaintances who can be demonized, like Jeremiah Wright or Bill Ayers.

Does that put him in the clear? I don’t think it does. Even if Sanders and everyone he has ever associated with are paragons of saintly virtue, “scandals” can always be manufactured out of nothing.

The Obama-birther issue is a classic example: Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. The State of Hawaii says so, local newspapers published birth announcements at the time, and there was never any reason (beyond the wishful thinking of people who didn’t like him) to doubt his birth or citizenship or eligibility for the presidency. But that didn’t keep the “controversy” from raging for years. (Trump voters still don’t believe Obama was born in America.)

Going back a little further, John Kerry served admirably in Vietnam, was wounded three times, and received both a bronze and a silver star for heroism. But all that was turned against him in the campaign that gave swift-boating its name. Mike Dukakis was accused of being against the Pledge of Allegiance, and responded too slowly because he just couldn’t believe anyone would take the charge seriously. (They did.)  The suicide of Clinton aide Vince Foster was hyped as a murder, supposedly to cover up an affair with Hillary. (But according to a contradictory rumor, Hillary is lesbian.) Al Gore said several true things that got exaggerated, and then the blame for being a “serial exaggerator” got pinned back on him. Howard Dean yelled at the wrong time, so he was clearly unhinged.

No matter how much you admire Bernie Sanders, nobody is so perfect that they can’t be lied about or ridiculed for some blameless statement or action. If Sanders becomes a threat, the Right will go after him — personally. Not his policies or political philosophy, him.

How will they do it?

We got a preview in the January 16 edition of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. In a column the Post categorized as News (not Opinion), Paul Sperry wrote “Don’t be fooled by Bernie Sanders — he’s a diehard Communist.

The article is long and full of details, but even so, the evidence Sperry assembles for his claim is … well, sketchy would be a compliment.

  • As a student in 1964, Sanders belonged to the Young Socialists League. (The article gives no evidence that YSL was all that sinister. And besides, a lot can happen in half a century. At about the same time, Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater girl.)
  • He worked for a union that was investigated by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. (That’s the one Joe McCarthy used for his witchhunts. If everyone HUAC investigated had actually conspired with the Soviets, the Republic would have fallen a long time ago.)
  • In the 1970s, he “headed the American People’s History Society, an organ for Marxist propaganda”. (No evidence is given for the Marxist-propaganda claim, other than a documentary favorable to the early-20th-century American socialist and labor crusader Eugene Debs. Elsewhere, a University of Vermont librarian elaborates: “In the brochure’s ‘Dear Educator’ section, Sanders announced that Debs was the first documentary in a new series called ‘The Other Side of American History,’ which would ‘deal with people and ideas that the major profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material will not cover because of economic and political reasons’.”)
  • Bernie’s Senate office displays a portrait of Debs, who like a lot of people at that time — George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells come to mind — was slow to recognize the dark side of the Russian Revolution. (Saying nice things about the Bolsheviks was far from the center of Debs’ political identity, which was more about organizing unions, trying to keep the U.S. out of World War I, and popularizing then-radical notions like unemployment insurance and Social Security.)
  • In the 1970s, Sanders belonged to the Liberty Union Party, which wanted banks and utilities to be publicly owned. (Contrary to the “diehard Communist” claim, the leader of that party says they parted ways because “Sanders was moving right”.)
  • As Mayor of Burlington, he supported rent control and land trusts. (In hindsight, it worked out pretty well.)
  • While he was mayor, Burlington’s minor-league team was called the Vermont Reds (possibly because it was a farm team of the Cincinnati Reds. Life imitates art here: In the 1970s conspiracy-theory romp Illuminatus!, a right-wing rabble-rouser warns an Ohio crowd that the time to thwart Communist world domination is now: “Are we going to wait until the godless Reds are right here in Cincinnati?”)
  • In the 1980s, he didn’t support President Reagan’s attempt to overthrow the elected government of Nicaragua by force, and instead attempted to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. (The Sandinistas eventually lost an election and left office voluntarily, so maybe they weren’t such Stalinist monsters after all.)
  • Burlington has a sister city in Russia (as part of a program established by President Eisenhower). As Mayor, Sanders and his new wife went on a group trip to that sister city not long after they got married, creating the sort-of-true claim that he “honeymooned in the Soviet Union“.

There’s more, but you get the idea. For decades, Sanders has been on the left side of the American political spectrum. He’s been suspicious of what unregulated capitalists might do and in favor of workers organizing unions to counter their power. Like the late Howard Zinn, he believes (correctly, I think) that the left side of American political history got misrepresented during the Cold War, and still isn’t told accurately. He’s been skeptical of the perpetual-warfare state, and its efforts to focus our attention on external enemies rather than internal injustice.

If that’s diehard Communism, then there are a lot more diehard Communists than I thought — including me, I guess.

Looking at the weakness of the case, you might be tempted to laugh it off. But swift-boating John Kerry was absurd too, and it worked. With money, media power, and a significant slice of the population ready to repeat whatever nonsense they’re told, the Right can go places with a narrative like this — especially against a candidate most of the country doesn’t know.

So if you were a Republican candidate running against Sanders next fall, why would you risk discussing single-payer health care on its merits (and defending the health insurance companies nobody likes) when you could instead turn the question to whether Bernie Sanders is a loyal American? I mean, Stalin supported single-payer health care, and Castro — so why are we even discussing how it works and who it benefits? The GOP candidate will favor American healthcare, not Soviet healthcare like Comrade Sanders.

Why bother disputing the moral and economic virtues of a higher minimum wage, when you could say: “I believe in wages that you earn fairly in the free market, while Comrade Sanders believes the government should set your wages”? Why defend the too-big-to-fail enormity of Citibank and Bank of America when you could instead rail against Comrade Sanders’ plan for a government takeover of the banking system? (If ObamaCare could be labeled a “government takeover of the healthcare system“, why not do the same to Sanders’ bank-break-up plan?) You could point out that strong American presidents of both parties, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, won the Cold War. So why are we giving in to Communism now?

And since Sanders has declared his independence from all special interests, the Republican nominee will have much more money to use setting the terms of the general-election debate. He’ll be able to launch five attacks for every Sanders defense. Even when Sanders gets free media attention, he’ll find himself confronted with questions about Soviet healthcare and government takeovers and giving in to Communism. When you talk to your crazy uncle who lives inside the Fox News bubble, those phrases will form a buzzword-wall that you’ll never get past.

That is why the decision to vote for Sanders in the primaries — here in New Hampshire, my decision is coming up faster than most — is more complicated than it seems. Because Sanders has yet to face the full force of the right-wing bullshit machine, I put no stock at all in the polls showing him running better against Republican candidates than Hillary does, or picking up Trump voters in a race against some other Republican. And while I want to see a full public debate of the issues Bernie is raising, I’m not at all sure that will happen if we nominate him.

That may sound crazy, but the campaign you get is often not the one you thought you were signing up for. Mike Dukakis knew he’d have to defend his ideas about creating jobs, but he never expected to become the Guy Who Hates the Pledge of Allegiance or the Pro Black Rapist Candidate. (Looking back, he said: “I made a decision we weren’t going to respond. That was it. About two months later I woke up and realized I was getting killed with this stuff.”) Elizabeth Warren anticipated criticism of her banking proposals, but not how much time she would have to spend denying that she invented Native American ancestors to cash in on affirmative action.

Being in the right only helps up to a point. If the other side can launch a series of attacks that have just enough surface plausibility to demand a response, the public’s attention may never turn to the issues you’re trying to run on. The voters may never listen to all those wonderful points you want to make.

So if he’s nominated, I have to wonder how much of Bernie’s message will make it out to the voters, and how much will be swamped by bullshit issues. How much time will he spend establishing that he’s not a Bolshevik (or worse, refusing to establish that he’s not a Bolshevik, on the high principle that he shouldn’t have to), or defending some easily misrepresented Burlington city ordinance from thirty years ago? Having seen how completely the Right can re-invent a recent historical figure like Saul Alinsky, I can barely imagine what they’ll do with Eugene Debs.

Dealing with bullshit issues patiently but firmly (and occasionally managing to turn them to your advantage) requires its own kind of political skill, the kind John Kennedy demonstrated when he defused fears of his Catholicism, or Obama showed when he spoke about race and Jeremiah Wright. (That speech was the moment I realized I wanted Obama to be president.) No one believes Hillary Clinton has the oratorical gifts of JFK or Obama, but she’s been facing right-wing smears for more than two decades, and has gotten pretty good at fending them off, as she showed when she stared down the House Benghazi Committee for 11 hours in October.

Does Bernie Sanders have that in him? I don’t know. So far, nothing in his career has required it. I worry that when Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones put him in the crosshairs, he’ll get testy and defensive. Baseless attacks might raise his preachy side, leading him to lecture reporters rather than answer their questions or artfully deflect them or humorously turn them around. His idealism might lead him to insist that because bullshit issues shouldn’t matter, they don’t.

They do. In election after election, we’ve seen that they do. We need a candidate who can deal with them.

Is Bernie Sanders that candidate? I don’t know. That — maybe even more than how I feel about the policy differences between Clinton and Sanders — is the thing I have to decide in the next two weeks.

Vote. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s something.

If you’ve got friends who think they’re “protesting” by not voting, send them this from the Young Turks:

And while we’re on the subject, let’s address the “Both parties are owned by Wall Street” or “neither party represents me” argument: It’s true. There’s lots of stuff I want out of government that neither party is even proposing: single-payer health care, ending the perpetual war, reining in the NSA, enforcing the antitrust laws,  … I could go on.

What that proves isn’t that voting doesn’t matter, but that voting is not enough. In addition to voting, we need to be educating ourselves and our friends, challenging cultural assumptions, mobilizing support around an agenda for more radical change, launching primary challenges to get better Democrats on the ballot, pushing better forms of voting (like instant runoff) and more.

We need to use the political process, and we need a movement like Occupy … plus whatever else you can think of. Not one or the other. Both.

Not voting isn’t a protest, it’s a retreat. Not voting means abandoning the small amount of power the system allots you.

You have a choice tomorrow. There’s one party with a way-too-small response to global warming, and another that that says climate scientists are part of a global conspiracy; one party that keeps the perpetual war simmering reluctantly, and another that would eagerly boil it over; one party that sells out to Wall Street on certain key issues, and another that is 100% owned and operated by Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry; one party with a half-hearted response to economic inequality, and another working to increase inequality; one party that won’t stand up to the theocrats, and another that stands with them. In the near term, one or the other is going to control the government. Which should it be?

Would I like a different choice? Sure I would. But in the meantime I’m going to make the choice I have. Because this one’s simple: Do you want more Ruth Bader Ginsburgs on the Supreme Court or more Anthony Scalias? That decision is going to be made by voters. So don’t you want to be a voter?

Vote. It’s not nearly enough. But it’s something.

A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System

If you’ve seen the Lincoln movie, maybe you’re still walking around with this bit of cognitive dissonance: In 1864, the Democrats are the party of slavery and the Republicans the party of emancipation and racial justice. What’s up with that? How did we get from there to here?

The story is doubly worth telling because Republicans like Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg have been misrepresenting it so grossly.

A good place to start is the presidential election of 1860, which brings Lincoln to power and convinces Southern whites (the only people who can vote in the South in 1860) that secession is their best chance to maintain slavery*.

Lincoln gets only 40% of the vote, but in a four-way race (the Democratic Convention split over whether the platform should endorse the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision) that’s enough to win. In terms of the popular vote, his closest competition is Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas (30%), but in electoral votes another Democrat, sitting Vice President John Breckenridge of Kentucky, finishes second with 72 EVs to Lincoln’s 180.

Douglas fails because he is a national candidate representing continued compromise over slavery, while Breckenridge and Lincoln are sectional candidates with clear pro- and anti-slavery positions. So Douglas gets 15% in Alabama (to Lincoln’s 0%) and 43% in Wisconsin (to Breckenridge’s 0.5%), but only manages to carry Missouri and New Jersey, giving him 12 EVs and fourth place behind John Bell’s 39.

During Reconstruction, Southern whites still blame Lincoln’s party for their humiliation in “the War of Northern Aggression“, but the new black vote makes Southern Republicans competitive — particularly in South Carolina, where blacks have long outnumbered whites. So the 1876 map looks like this:

1876 electoral map

But by 1896 the Jim Crow laws have disenfranchised Southern blacks, and Southern whites still remember how Lincoln destroyed their society, so Southern Republicans go extinct. Mississippi, for example, gives Democrat William Jennings Bryan a 91% majority. The 1896 map is almost a negative of the 2012 map — Democratic in the South and Mountain West, Republican in the Northeast, Midwest, and Far West.

1896 electoral map

1896 electoral map

2012 electoral map

2012 electoral map

The “solid South” stays Democratic through 1944, when FDR carries Mississippi with 94% of the vote.

1944 electoral map

So until 1944, there is no doubt that the Democrats are the party of Jim Crow. National figures like FDR may not be actively racist — and blacks benefit from the general anti-poverty provisions of the New Deal — but Democrats are not going to rock the boat of Southern white supremacy. Republicans, on the other hand, have nothing to defend in the old Confederacy, so it costs them nothing to champion civil rights. Their 1944 platform does them credit:

Racial and Religious Intolerance

We unreservedly condemn the injection into American life of appeals to racial or religious prejudice.

We pledge an immediate Congressional inquiry to ascertain the extent to which mistreatment, segregation and discrimination against Negroes who are in our armed forces are impairing morale and efficiency, and the adoption of corrective legislation.

We pledge the establishment by Federal legislation of a permanent Fair Employment Practice Commission.

 Anti-Poll Tax

The payment of any poll tax should not be a condition of voting in Federal elections and we favor immediate submission of a Constitutional amendment for its abolition.

Anti-Lynching

We favor legislation against lynching and pledge our sincere efforts in behalf of its early enactment.

But outside the South, Democrats are also changing. In 1941 Roosevelt bans racial discrimination in defense industries.

At the 1948 Democratic Convention, a young Hubert Humphrey leads a Northern liberal bloc that adds this Civil Rights plank to the platform:

We again state our belief that racial and religious minorities must have the right to live, the right to work, the right to vote, the full and equal protection of the laws, on a basis of equality with all citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution.

We highly commend President Harry S. Truman for his courageous stand on the issue of civil rights.

We call upon the Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental American Principles:

(1) the right of full and equal political participation;
(2) the right to equal opportunity of employment;
(3) the right of security of person;
(4) and the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation.

Southern delegates respond by walking out of the convention and establishing the States’ Rights Democratic Party, a.k.a. the Dixiecrats, who nominate South Carolina’s Democratic Governor Strom Thurmond for president and endorse “the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race”. In spite of later efforts to sugarcoat his memory, Thurmond is a racist running an openly racist campaign. He tells one rally:

There’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger** race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.

After the Dixiecrat walkout, President Truman decides the die is cast and desegregates the military.

The 1948 electoral map looks like this:

1948 electoral map

So Democrats and Dixiecrats split the South, with still no Southern Republicans worth mentioning. Tom Dewey gets only 3% of the vote in Mississippi and 4% in South Carolina.

1948-1980 is a transitional period. On the state level, the South is still solidly Democratic. Republicans often don’t even bother to field candidates, as in Alabama in 1962, where George Wallace wins the governor’s race with 96% of the vote. (Wallace previously ran in 1958 with the endorsement of the NAACP and without support from the KKK. After losing the Democratic primary to a more openly racist candidate, he said, “I was out-niggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be out-niggered again.”)

The great civil rights face-offs of the 50s and 60s are between Southern Democratic governors and presidents of either party. In 1957, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower sends troops to Little Rock when Democratic Governor Orval Faubus refuses to integrate Central High School. But Democratic President John Kennedy does exactly the same thing in 1962 when Democratic Governor Ross Barnett refuses to integrate the University of Mississippi, and in 1963 when Governor Wallace refuses to integrate the University of Alabama.

With Eisenhower’s invasion of Little Rock still rankling, 1960 is the second-to-last hurrah of the Democratic South. Putting Texan Lyndon Johnson on the ticket holds most of the South for Kennedy, but the Democrats’ hold is slipping: 15 Southern electoral votes go to Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, and Nixon is competitive in places Republicans never were before; he gets 49% in South Carolina, far more than Dewey’s 4% just three elections ago.

1960 electoral map

After JFK’s assassination, Johnson pushes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress with bipartisan support. 18 Southern Democrats and one Republican filibuster in the Senate — a rare occurrence in those days — but the bill ultimately passes with 46 Democratic votes and 27 Republicans. As he signs the bill, Johnson comments, “We have lost the South for a generation.

But will the Republicans pick the South up, or will spurned Dixiecrats be a regional party whose support no one wants? Through the 60s, moderate Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney push to uphold the Lincoln-Dewey-Eisenhower civil-rights tradition and compete for black votes. But they lose. The 1964 Republican nominee against Johnson is Barry Goldwater, one of the few non-Southern senators who voted against the Civil Right Act.

Goldwater marks the beginning of I’m-not-a-racist-but Republicanism. His stated reasons for opposing the Civil Right bill have nothing to do with race. (He thought it was unconstitutional.) And the 1964 Republican platform stands by the Party’s pro-civil-rights record:

[W]e pledge: …

—full implementation and faithful execution of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and all other civil rights statutes, to assure equal rights and opportunities guaranteed by the Constitution to every citizen;

—improvements of civil rights statutes adequate to changing needs of our times;

—such additional administrative or legislative actions as may be required to end the denial, for whatever unlawful reason, of the right to vote;

—immigration legislation seeking to re-unite families and continuation of the “Fair Share” Refugee Program;

—continued opposition to discrimination based on race, creed, national origin or sex. We recognize that the elimination of any such discrimination is a matter of heart, conscience, and education, as well as of equal rights under law.

But it also gives white racists reason to hope.

[The Johnson] Administration has failed to apply Republican-initiated retraining programs where most needed particularly where they could afford new economic opportunities to Negro citizens. It has preferred, instead, divisive political proposals.

i.e. the Civil Rights Act and what becomes the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The platform also denounces “inverse discrimination” and “the abandonment of neighborhood schools, for reasons of race”. So Goldwater is against a public school saying “no niggers”, but if a neighborhood (just by pure chance, of course) happens to be all-white, its all-white school is just fine. His party also pledges

to open avenues of peaceful progress in solving racial controversies while discouraging lawlessness and violence.

Note the change: Dewey was worried about lynchings — white-on-black violence. In 1964 lynching are still happening, the Watts riots are still in the future, and Martin Luther King’s campaign of non-violent civil disobedience is being met with murders like the infamous Mississippi Burning case. But Goldwater’s platform lumps civil disobedience (“lawlessness”) together with “violence”, and pledges to “discourage” it.

So if you’re a Southern white supremacist who worries about civil rights agitators stirring up trouble in your town, Goldwater is your guy, just like he’s Strom Thurmond’s guy. Goldwater carries the South (and his home state of Arizona) as the rest of the country soundly rejects him.

1964 electoral map

Re-elected, LBJ passes the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also with bipartisan support. LBJ addresses a joint session of Congress, in a speech that still makes me misty-eyed:

It is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

Thurmond the Dixiecrat-turned-Republican is the only Republican senator who votes No. Republicans field a candidate for governor in South Carolina in 1966 for the first time since Reconstruction. He loses 58%-42%, but erosion of support for the national Democratic Party is reaching the state level.

Goldwater’s landslide loss hardly establishes a new normal for Republicans, who still flirt with Rockefeller and Romney before settling on Nixon, whose civil-rights position is fuzzy. While few Dixiecrats are ready to follow Thurmond into the new tribe of Southern Republicans, they also can’t vote for the hated Hubert Humphrey. So in 1968 they give the regional-party thing another try with George Wallace.

1968 electoral map

But Nixon understands that Republicans have to pick up what the Democrats have dropped. His “Southern Strategy” (with Thurmond’s endorsement) captures the upper South in 1968, which is his victory margin in a close election. His long-term vision is for Republicans to absorb the Wallace vote into an unbeatable conservative coalition that Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips calls The Emerging Republican Majority.

https://i2.wp.com/ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51N4bKDcioL._SL500_AA300_.jpgPhillips writes:

The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

The Nixon re-election landslide of 1972 sweeps the South, but it’s hard to read much into that, since he takes every state but Massachusetts, and Georgia’s Jimmy Carter manages to pull the Democratic South together one last time in 1976.

But 1980 is the re-alignment election that has been brewing since 1964.

Ronald Reagan’s first speech as the Republican nominee is in the symbolic location of Neshoba County, Mississippi, site of the Mississippi Burning murders of 1964. So: symbolic time, symbolic place — what’s he say? Nothing about race at all. Just this:

I believe in state’s rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

States rights, local control — just what Orval Faubus and Ross Barnett and George Wallace wanted when they refused to enforce federal court orders to integrate their schools. Just what Eisenhower and Kennedy didn’t allow when they sent federal troops.

It’s the beginning of the dog-whistle era. After the election, Reagan strategist Lee Atwater lays it out:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, “forced busing”, “states’ rights”, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

So Reagan isn’t trying to “out-nigger” anybody, because people up North will hear him and think he’s evil. He’ll just say “states rights” — like Strom Thurmond and Jefferson Davis before him — and hope “Negrophobe whites” get the message that they are welcome in his coalition.

They get the message.

1980 electoral map

They get it not just nationally, but on the state level. Alabama and Georgia elect Republican senators for the first time since Reconstruction.

In case anybody has forgotten that message by 1988, George H. W. Bush reminds them: If you vote for Democrats, Willie Horton will rape your wife.

Locally, the transition from the “old comfortable arrangement” is gradual. Most Dixiecrat/Democrat politicians don’t follow Strom Thurmond’s path to the Republican Party, though during the 70s and 80s they often combine with Republicans in Congress to form the conservative majority Phillips predicted. But as they retire, they are replaced by Republicans like Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich. (Lott, interestingly, was endorsed for Congress by his retiring Democratic predecessor.)

The chart on the right shows a generational turnover, not a walk-out. Southern Democrats in Congress today tend to be blacks representing majority-black districts, like South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn.

Today, the old white Confederacy is solidly Republican. Nationally, Romney had a clear majority of white voters: 59%. But in Mississippi, a whopping 89% of whites voted for Romney.

How did he lock up the Mississippi white vote? Not by saying “nigger, nigger”. Republicans never did that, because they didn’t exist in Mississippi when that was a winning strategy. Instead, they are the party of traditional values in a state where “tradition” means the stars-and-bars and Colonel Reb. They are the party of property rights and business in a state where property and business overwhelmingly belong to whites. They are the party of small government in a state where only massive federal intervention gave blacks the right to vote or to attend the state university.

https://i0.wp.com/makethemaccountable.com/images/0810/ObamaBucks.jpg

Republicans don’t have to say “nigger, nigger”. Everybody gets it. They aren’t the Racist Party, but they are the party where white racists are welcome, where “Barack the Magic Negro” is funny, and people email each other photos of Obama with a bone through his nose or put his image on fantasy food stamps with ribs and watermelon. Just as Republicans aren’t anti-Hispanic, they just think police should stop people who look like they might be illegal immigrants. They aren’t even anti-Muslim, they just don’t think freedom of religion includes the right to build a mosque.

That’s the Party of Lincoln today. And now you know how they got here.


*A longstanding argument claims that secession was about “state’s rights” and not about slavery. Mostly you’ll hear this from people who have affection for the Confederacy but find slavery embarrassing. Actual Confederates did not suffer this embarrassment, and were very open about why they were seceding. South Carolina’s declaration of secession is clear:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. … On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved.

** When this recording came up in a different context a few months ago, I gave Thurmond the benefit of the doubt, that he might have said “negro” very fast and slurred. You can listen and judge for yourself.

Your 2012 Deep Background Briefing

2012 is an unusual election year. Some elections revolve around a single issue: 1860 was about slavery, 1932 about the Depression. 2002 (and to a lesser extent 2004) was about terrorism. 2006 was about the Iraq War. 2010 was about rising government spending and debt.

Some elections, particularly re-elections of incumbent presidents, are ratifications of a general direction, like Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign from 1984 or the Democratic landslides of 1964 and 1936.

There’s always a chance that an emergency will take over an election.  No matter what anybody had planned in 2008, everything changed when the economy started collapsing in late September. Obama probably would have won anyway, but the election turned into a landslide because the country wanted a calm voice and a steady hand. McCain’s “maverick” image was suddenly exactly wrong.

Barring an emergency, 2012 is about a mood: anxiety.

Obviously, President Obama can’t run a ratification campaign in a year when there is a large and growing sense that the country is on the wrong track. But at the same time, this isn’t an issue election. Unemployment, inequality, debt, corruption, national security, health care, climate change, moral decay, and so on are all serious concerns for many voters, but in 2012 they are mainly screens onto which to project a much more diffuse fear that our country is broken — that whatever the issue, we are no longer capable even of grappling with it, much less solving it.

By its nature, anxiety is full of contradictory impulses: Any program that isn’t radical seems like re-arranging the Titanic’s deck chairs, but any particular radical change seems like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. We want a hero to ride in and save us, and yet we are cynical about heroes on horseback. We look back fondly to a brighter, more confident era, and yet we resonate with Jack Burden’s cynical challenge to a nostalgic Anne Stanton in the classic political novel All the King’s Men:

What you mean is that it was a fine, beautiful time back then, but I mean that if it was such a God-damned fine, beautiful time, why did it turn into this time which is not so damned fine and beautiful if there wasn’t something in that time which wasn’t fine and beautiful? Answer that one.

Parties. An anxiety election is an opportunity for the party out of power, but which party is that?

A Democrat is president, but Republicans control the House and have the Senate blocked up with filibusters. An activist Republican majority on the Supreme Court keeps inventing new rights for corporations. Several swing states went Republican in 2010, and the radical programs of the new governors are wildly unpopular.

What makes Americans most anxious is that no one seems to have power. We spent the summer agonizing about the debt ceiling and how to lower the deficit, but in the end that issue got punted to the so-called supercommittee, which deadlocked. Neither party can force its view on the other, yet attempts to compromise also fail.

The Republican presidential opportunity. The challenger has an advantage in an anxiety election, but seizing that advantage requires threading a needle. You have to be on both sides of several contradictions: You are an outsider, but you are experienced; you’re a scrapper who will do whatever it takes to win, but you don’t fight dirty; you’re uncompromising but not rigid; principled but pragmatic; radical but not dangerous; able to get something done in Washington, but not willing to play the old game.

A Republican wins the presidency in November if he (we’ll ignore Michele Bachmann) represents Do Something Different and makes Obama represent Keep Doing What We’re Doing. That vague referendum would be a landslide for Do Something Different.

So the ideal Republican message would create the illusion of specificity without actually being specific. It could embrace a subtly self-contradictory slogan (like Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” from 2000) and embody vague themes (like the Hope and Change of Obama’s 2008 campaign). The perfect message would resemble Nixon’s in 1968: He confidently claimed to have a plan to get us out of Vietnam, but had reasons for not revealing its details.

That’s basically what worked in 2010: Republicans promised to “cut spending” without saying which spending. They implied that the federal budget was full of bridges-to-nowhere that could be eliminated without hurting anybody, but didn’t have to identify them.

Unfortunately for Republican candidates, that perfect November message flops completely in the primaries. The party is firmly in the hands of its radical base, to whom even the Republican establishment represents Keep Doing What We’re Doing.

The base is afraid of compromise and wants to nail candidates down on specifics. So it’s not enough to endorse a theme like traditional American values; a candidate has to oppose same-sex marriage and gays in the military. He can’t just be religious, he has to be a strong Christian who wants kids in the public schools to pray and learn creationism. Environmental pragmatism and balancing short-term economic interests against long-term environmental harm — that’s not good enough. The candidate must promise to abolish the EPA and agree that climate change is a scam.

Social Security and Medicare are so complicated that they are perfect for a Nixonian I-have-a-plan claim, but even Mitt Romney has been driven to endorse Paul Ryan’s voucher system for Medicare.

The Republican base is showing its own symptoms of anxiety. Again and again they have jumped at the vague idea of a hero on horseback, but then been disappointed when they tore into the details of the person and the plan. As long as Rick Perry was “the Jobs Governor” or Herman Cain was an inspirational biography plus a 9-9-9 plan, they rode high. Closer inspection has been fatal to both.

How Obama Can Win. Obama’s calm manner is well suited to an anxiety election, but it won’t be enough, even if his opponent looks scary. Even a radical challenger (like Reagan) could win in a year with a big wrong-path majority (like 1980).

Usually, though, an incumbent president facing a big wrong-path majority also faces a damaging primary campaign, like Carter’s against Ted Kennedy in 1980 or Johnson’s against Gene McCarthy in 1968. But not this year. The Left hasn’t been happy with Obama (see my own Barack, Can We Talk?), but after seeing the Tea Party governors like Scott Walker, few liberals are willing to risk helping the Republicans win the presidency.

Ditto for liberal third-party challengers like Nader in 2000 or Henry Wallace in 1948. Even those of us who lament the corrupting influence of Goldman Sachs or how many War-on-Terror abuses Obama has ratified — we can’t claim that it makes no difference which party wins.

So even if the Left is not happy, it will be united and even motivated in the fall.

Assuming a less-than-perfect Republican challenger, Obama’s winning message has these pieces.

1. I’ve done more than you think. The model here is an op-ed in Tuesday’s LA Times, in which a woman apologizes to President Obama for turning against him.

I’m sorry I didn’t do enough of my own research to find out what promises the president has made good on. I’m sorry I didn’t realize that he really has stood up for me and my family, and for so many others like us.

The reason? She was diagnosed with breast cancer and discovered that the Affordable Care Act makes it possible for her to get health insurance. Pre-ACA, she would have been uninsurable and might well have lost everything.

For decades, health care has been like the weather — everybody talked about it, but nobody succeeded in doing anything. You could wish for more or better than the ACA, but against the alternative of continuing to do nothing (and all the Republican proposals amount to doing nothing), ObamaCare looks pretty good. Voters may have hated the horse-trading process of passing the ACA, but they will love the personal stories of the people it is already helping.

In foreign policy, Obama ended our combat mission in Iraq and finally nailed Osama bin Laden. He helped the Libyans overthrow Gaddafi on their own and didn’t involve us in another Iraq-style mess. The trump card of Bush defenders was always to say, “He kept us safe” after 9-11. Well, we’ve been equally safe under Obama.

Obama gets his lowest marks on the economy, but even there he looks good if you remember just how bad things were when he took office. Expect to see more of this graph:

2. I’m on your side. Preventing big cuts in Social Security and Medicare, wanting to raise taxes on millionaires — people support that stuff. It’s going to help a lot that swing states like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida have seen how Republican governors grind down the working class and favor the wealthy.

3. You like me. Even surveys that show a low job-approval rating show that people like Obama personally. The Republican base — the folks who forward emails about his Kenyan birth and his Muslim faith — want to see red-meat attacks against him. But swing voters don’t.

4. I’m running against Congress. This was the Truman strategy in 1948. Obama’s approval ratings hover in the 40s, but Congress’ are in the teens. And if voters blame Congressional Republicans for the gridlock in Washington, then Obama becomes the do-something-different candidate.

5. My plans are better than their plans. This is where the Republican’s nomination battle is going to work against them. If Obama can make the Republican candidate stand for the specific policies he endorsed to get nominated, rather than Do Something Different, he’ll win.

A lot of moderates who aren’t usually single-issue voters will discover that certain Republican positions are deal-breakers. Can you really vote for a candidate who wants to do nothing about global warming? Or roll back gay rights that already exist and don’t seem to be hurting anybody? Or take away collective bargaining rights? Undo child labor laws? Automatically treat Hispanics or Muslims like suspects? Define a fertilized ovum as a person, which turns a doctor-patient discussion of abortion into a murder conspiracy? Or privatize Social Security and replace Medicare with a voucher program?

How far do they go? A lot hinges on how long the Republican nomination stays in doubt, and how far right the nominee has to go. Their ideal winning scenario — that an early consensus would form around a candidate with an ambiguous record like Romney’s — is already not happening.  If candidates are still competing for Tea Party votes in April and May, they’ll have a hard time coming back to get moderate votes in November.