With the results of Tuesday’s mid-Atlantic state primaries now in, it is clear that Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders won’t be the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in this fall’s presidential contest.
What’s less clear is where the Democratic Party and, more importantly, the issues raised by the Sanders campaign, go from here. If the past is prologue, we would expect the usual post-primary consolidation of support behind the presumptive nominee. We would expect Sanders to fall in line, and be the loyal foot soldier to the Clinton campaign.
I suspect that’s unlikely, both because it would be out of character for the independently-minded Sanders and because it would be damaging to the issues that he, unlike so many politicians, truly cares about.
One thing is certain— while the Democrats may not the face the train wreck potentially awaiting the Republicans later this summer and fall, negotiating the next several months won’t be as easy for the Democrats as it was in 2008.
While the establishments of both parties may not recognize it, the Great Recession has left an enduring impression on the body politic. After watching as the federal government literally poured trillions of dollars in free money into the financial sector even as they left millions of middle-class American homeowners and Main Street businesses circling the drain, the electorate is rightfully angry. The 2010 Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to big, unaccountable money in our political system, has left the electorate justifiably cynical about whose interests the two major parties truly represent.
Both the Sanders and Trump campaigns have been fueled by a sense of betrayal and outrage over the future of a country that two-thirds of its citizens believe is badly off-track. Hearing the Clinton campaign’s historically-inaccurate suggestion that political change is a slow and incremental process (big ideas are unrealistic and should never be voiced, according to her supporters) sounds to the ears of many Sanders supporters like the siren song of the establishment’s status quo. Many Americans, all across the political spectrum, recognize the rot at the heart of Washington and they aren’t interested in baby steps. They want to blow it up and start from scratch.
For Sanders to embrace that establishment by unconditionally backing a candidate as compromised as Clinton, would do little to advance her candidacy, and would only undermine Sanders’ credibility as a standard-bearer of a real political reform movement. And that is the real effort to which Sanders and his supporters should now turn their attention.
Contrary to the Clinton message, meaningful political change rarely comes in baby steps. It never starts in Washington, and often doesn’t even come from the ballot box.
Sanders’ message of income inequality resonated with many, because the Occupy movement had framed the concept of the One Percent in the nation’s subconscious. The push for a $15 minimum wage isn’t gaining ground because of the courage of most political leaders, Sanders being an obvious exception. It’s because hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers around the country have marched in the streets or stayed off the job to demand fairer pay. The Democracy Spring movement, which has received little attention by the establishment media even as nearly 1,400 protestors have been arrested in recent days in massive sit-ins in Washington, is making the case for reform of our corrupt campaign finance system, another issue that Sanders has helped to elevate in the public’s mind.
This country didn’t legalize same-sex marriage because of the politicians, it was because activists, both gay and straight, made the case and changed society’s views on the subject, with a speed that left many politicians, such as President Obama and Hillary Clinton, scrambling to evolve (i.e. switch sides) on the issue.
The presidency, which is, by definition, the embodiment of the political establishment, would have been a difficult fit for someone like Sanders, anyway. His campaign may not have led to the White House, but it has undeniably advanced the causes for which he has advocated for his entire political life, and left him as the best-known leader of a movement that I suspect will have considerable staying power. He has also demonstrated, unequivocally, that a candidate can raise the money necessary to run a presidential campaign, without compromising him or herself to the imperatives of big moneyed interests.
Sanders can continue his important work, but only by maintaining a significant degree of independence, which is why the next few months are likely to be a careful, perhaps even awkward, political dance between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns and their supporters.
Sanders supporters, contrary to the view of many in the Clinton campaign, owe nothing to Clinton, including their support. Clinton has an immense amount of work to do if she hopes to earn the backing of Sanders’ supporters. Her vice-presidential selection and her willingness to give space for the Sanders campaign to make its mark on the party’s platform and other aspects of the general election campaign will go a long way towards determining her success in channeling the fervor of the Sanders backers into a successful, if temporary, coalition. So far, there’s little sign that the Clinton campaign will be willing to make any concessions.
And that could be a challenge to a meaningful rapprochement. Many, if not most, of Sanders’ supporters, after all, have no particular alignment or loyalty to the Democratic Party. Many are young, with no strong political identity at this point, and many are independents, Green Party adherents, or people who’d not bothered to participate in the past out of disinterest in the offerings of the two-party system. The suggestion that these people must now fall into line and support a Clinton candidacy is as far-fetched as it is offensive. That’s particularly the case considering that many of these Sanders supporters, thanks to Democratic Party rules, were denied the right to vote for the candidate of their choice.
In a normal election year, the Democrats would be in serious trouble. Nearly six-in-ten voters view Clinton, now the presumptive nominee, unfavorably, which is usually a recipe for electoral disaster. But thanks to similar anti-establishment fervor among Republicans, the GOP is badly fractured and will face an almost unbridgeable rift no matter who is that party’s nominee.
Clinton can still avoid that on the Democratic side. But doing so isn’t going to be easy. Times have changed, and establishment politics appears to be living on borrowed time.