Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Advantage Sanders

Historians will no doubt mark last night's Indiana primary as a watershed moment in American politics. Imagine, one year ago, suggesting to a random selection of pundits and elected officials that Donald Trump would, on May 3, 2016, become the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. On asking them for a written response to that proposition, you would have received a stack of essays that, whatever their stylistic and thematic differences, concurred in framing the notion as insane. Today the world is a different place.

This restructuring of fundamental laws, moreover, applies on both sides of the aisle. In the old world, the natural course for the second-place candidate in the Democratic nominating contest would be to close ranks with the front runner and form a unified front for the upcoming general election. This is, in fact, what Hillary Clinton did during the race of 2008, when despite having won more votes and only 4% fewer pledged delegates, she conceded the contest to Barack Obama and formally nominated him on the floor of the Democratic convention.

Those who view the current race through the prism of the old rules will no doubt expect Bernie Sanders, given world enough and time, to behave in the same way as the Hillary Clinton of 2008. They will be sorely disappointed. To understand why this is so it is useful to imagine an alternative past. What would have happened if, in 2008, Hillary had persisted in framing the nominating process as a "contested contest"? She could have forced the superdelegates at the 2008 convention to choose between herself and Barack Obama, and perhaps even wrested the nomination from him. She refrained from that course because it would have fractured the Democratic coalition and, whether she succeeded in seizing the nomination or not, thrown the election to the Republicans. In the long run, forcing a contested convention would have foreclosed Clinton's future in Democratic elected politics.

Sanders is operating under none of the constraints of Clinton circa 2008. He does not worry about his future in Democratic elected politics because, by the old rules, he should not have a present in Democratic elected politics. If one year ago you had told the same random group of pundits that, at this point, an avowed socialist would hold more than 40% of the delegates to the Democratic convention, the written response would have been comparable in tone to that produced by the Trump exercise. Sanders has consistently sought the nomination of the Democratic party in the service of an economic populist agenda, and anyone who is waiting for him to compromise his agenda in service of the party's electoral hopes will wait in vain.

Moreover, anyone who believes that Sanders's constituency is frivolous or ephemeral in their support, ready to rally behind Clinton in the face of a Trump candidacy, is likewise self-delusional. Free trade agreements, wage stagnation, the erosion of organized labor, infrastructural decay, and a shrinking public sector have debilitated large swaths of the American public, leaving them feeling angry at and betrayed by the entire political system. Their support of Bernie Sanders has been given in clear understanding of and approval for his agenda, and if he breaks ranks with the Democrats they will follow him, or throw their support to Donald Trump, who is offering different solutions to similar problems.

Sanders has it in his power to scuttle the election for the Democrats, and he will use it if they do not bend to accommodate his agenda. What, then, should the Democrats give him? Short of the nomination, anything he wants.

The situation of the Democratic party exemplifies the shibboleth about "crisis" and "opportunity" being synonymous in Chinese. A wrong move at this point will hand the country over to the tender mercies of Donald Trump. But the Democrats still have a chance, that the GOP has forfeited, to capitalize upon this historic moment. By nominating Donald Trump the Republicans have forgone the opportunity to forge a new electoral coalition in favor of a malignantly nativist politics that has no long-term future. By contrast, if the Democrats can compromise and cooperate, they stand the chance of bringing constituencies back into the fold that have been abandoning the Democratic party since the days of Ronald Reagan. A new progressive politics could be on the horizon. It only awaits Clinton and Sanders to meet the test of leadership.


Gareth Russell said...

When she gets the nomination, Hilary should say this to the Bernie supporters:
"You think I'm not a progressive, but I am. You say my policies are not progressive enough, but that's because I'm also a pragmatist. I'm offering solutions that I think I can achieve in the face of strong opposition. But I can be the progressive president you are looking for, if you do two things: 1) Get out and vote for me in massive numbers, so that we absolutely crush Donald Trump, and it's crystal clear what the majority of the people of this country want. Then I will have a mandate. 2) Get out and vote in your local elections, in November and especially in two years. Sweep away the idle obstructionists at all levels and replace them with those more to your liking. If you do those things, I will be able to do the things you have been hoping for."
She might or might not mean it, but that is what she should say...

Madman of Chu said...

Thanks for reading, Gareth, and for your feedback. I agree that that is the most effective message that Hillary can deliver, and it has been the one she has consistently fielded against Sanders. If he doesn't join her in broadcasting it, however, it will have a dubious impact. If Sanders comes out of the convention saying that his defeat was a defeat for progressivism, it will blunt the effect of even the most effective messaging Hillary could muster. All of his supporters won't sit out the general election or switch sides, but enough of them will to make a good outcome unlikely. Clinton is going to need Sanders's support if she wants to achieve anything like the mandate you describe.

Susan B. said...

Her message to Sanders supporters has been pretty consistent, but more along the lines of, "It's my turn! Vote for me, you stupid kids! or apocalypse!"

Madman of Chu said...

Thanks for reading, Susan. I've heard something different in Clinton's messaging, she consistently portrays herself as a "progressive who can get things done," which I read as shorthand for Gareth's formulation of "a pragmatist...offering solutions that I think I can achieve in the face of strong opposition." She has issued some very detailed policy papers on domestic and foreign affairs, which seems like hard work for someone entitled enough to insist that it is "her turn." One thing I do agree with in your picture, though...if it does come down to a Clinton-Trump contest, the alternative to voting for Clinton might ultimately look pretty apocalyptic.