The Sanders Revolution and Understanding How Presidental Elections in a Democracy Work

As the nomination process grinds to a close this month chatter on the left has increasingly trended towards discussions of consolidation or defection.

On one side, you have experienced voices like Robert Reich calling for consolidation around whoever wins the nomination (which will likely be decided when California votes next week). This increasingly looks like it will be in favor of Hillary Clinton, who has large advantages demographically and in the polls. FiveThirtyEight gives her a 96% chance of winning California. This is no fluke. Clinton has over three million more popular votes than Sanders. That is a 14% advantage. That is not a small amount– in a national election, we would consider a margin like that to be a landslide that gives the candidate a governing mandate. Hillary Clinton is clearly the more popular candidate by the measure that matters most– votes. This leaves two realistic choices for voters in the fall: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

On the other side, where you find the most rabid Bernie Sanders supporters, this is simply not acceptable. Jake Johnson, writing in response to Reich’s post, outlines why:

So I will continue to support Bernie Sanders and the movement he has sparked both because I believe it is the right thing to do, and because I refuse to fall in line behind a candidate who has, in just the past few months, repudiated basic standards of transparency,belittled those who fight for ambitious social agendas, turned her back on single-payer health care, courted Republican donors, accepted campaign contributions from Wall Streetand the fossil fuel industry, and attacked the core argument against the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision.

I will also happily join Robert Reich in the fight against Donald Trump. His ignorance is terrifying and his bigotry is reprehensible.

But I will not endure lectures on how refusing to support Hillary Clinton—a candidate who embodies the right turn of the Democratic Party that has had such devastating effects on the same people Clinton now claims to be fighting for—is, in effect, the equivalent of supporting Trump. It clearly isn’t.

As for Reich’s concerns about the future of the Democratic Party, well, I’m with Michelle Alexander: “I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.”

You may not be interested in enduring lectures on how refusing to support Hillary Clinton is the equivalent of voting for Donald Trump, Jack, but I am equally disinterested in your lectures about ideological purity.

And with all due respect to Michelle Alexander, the revolution is not coming, whether it is from inside or outside the Democratic party. And the economic revolution that Bernie Sanders is offering will do little to nothing for blacks. Indeed, it explicitly ignores them and will create more opportunities for young white middle and working class people at the expense of the black community, just as progressive measures like the New Deal and the GI Bill did in earlier eras of left-wing social and economic change. This is not the revolution you are looking for.

As for Johnson’s claims, I see nothing here but the left-wing equivalent of Tea Party outrage and activism. Hillary “belittled” Bernie supporters! Read the link. Belittling, in this case, means rightfully pointing out that Bernie Sanders agenda will be universally opposed by the GOP in both houses of Congress and would lead to gridlock. That isn’t belittling his efforts, that is pointing out the practical impossibility of tearing down the economic order in a contested democratic government (and in a prosperous, thriving society– seriously, this is not the kind of nation where dramatic, sweeping, revolutionary change typically takes place). Like Donald Trump’s revolution, the Sanders agenda is still-born. Neither stands a chance of building the necessary consensus to enact the change they seek democratically.

His “ambitious social agendas” reformers link is a whine-fest about how “corporate shills” in the Hillary camp are linking Sanders platform to the way earlier progressive programs excluded blacks. This is not ahistorical, as I have pointed out before. And they are important to keep in mind, as the programs Sanders promotes will disproportionately help whites at the expense of blacks. There is significant overlap in Sanders and Trump’s base support in the “angry, white, male” demographic. This should be pointed out and reckoned with.

Johnson fundamentally misunderstands Reich’s argument. It isn’t a simple, refusing to vote for Hillary is a vote for Trump (though in practical terms, it basically is). He is saying, unequivocally, that Hillary Clinton is not the feckless and irresponsible leader that you have painted her as. Instead, he calls her a “capable and responsible leader.” While she may not be the best choice, she is still a good choice.

This is the major problem for fundamentalists like Johnson (or Freedom Caucus folks like Jim Jordan on the right). They can’t accept reasonable candidates who appear to the left or right of them. Their ideology tells them that anything less than a full revolutionary dilutes the movement. Only rigid, dogmatic support for their ideological talking points can be accepted.

This is how North Korea works. It is not how the United States of America functions.

It is high time that grassroots activists on both the left and the right grow up. Saying derisive things about the “Democratic/Republican establishment” is childish. These traditional levers of power are no more corrupt than they have ever been. Indeed, I would argue they are less corrupt than they have been historically. They move with the will of the people. We were not led down a right-wing path by our corporate overlords or party bosses– the American people overwhelmingly voted to go this way in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It wasn’t a conspiracy, it was democracy.

Like the Tea Party and their constant scream of “RINO!!!!” at every turn of compromise or moderation, the most hardcore Bernie supporters have taken to claiming Hillary is a DINO and that there is essentially no difference between Democrats and Republicans. This is complete bullshit.

The mainstream Democratic party might not have the same passion for socialism that Sanders does, but to pretend it is for completely unfettered markets is obtuse. Free-trade is messy and has created real trauma in the world. It is also overwhelmingly in favor of the US economically. Hillary has been far too hawkish for my tastes, but to pretend that she is a blood-thirsty corporate warlord is crazy. None of her choices as Secretary of State nor as a legislator show evidence of personal profit or that she acted to fulfill the desires of her bankrollers. She made aggressive decisions that she genuinely believed to be in the best interests of the nation. To suggest otherwise is unhinged cynicism.

Worst of all, many Sanders supporters are openly pining for a Trump presidency to stick it to the Democratic party and force them to come on board with the Sanders movement. This is dangerous and juvenile behavior.

Trump is a dangerous man. His narcissism is a threat to the nation, physically and economically. He stokes racial hatred. He is an open xenophobe. He has campaigned on promoting bigotry, undermining the Constitution, and reckless international posturing. Four years of President Donald Trump will have a real impact on your world. As Reich said:

Some of you agree a Trump presidency would be a disaster but claim it would galvanize a forceful progressive movement in response.

That’s unlikely. Rarely if ever in history has a sharp swing to the right moved the political pendulum further back in the opposite direction. Instead, it tends to move the “center” rightward, as did Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Besides, Trump could do huge and unalterable damage to America and the world in the meantime.

Reich is right– President Trump is not going to lead to some widespread progressive revolution. More likely, his administration will push this country further down the path of authoritarianism. I’ll go further. The sentiments being put forward by Sanders extremists are the very attitudes that made the rise of Donald Trump possible on the right. Refusing to vote for a less than perfect candidate and demanding rigid adherence to your ideology is the path to demagoguery. Electing Donald Trump will embolden more charlatans, finding space on both the left and the right for similar candidates moving forward. The blueprint is right there: attack opponents as weak establishment puppets, point to any deviation from dogma as proof of corruption, and control the party (and the wider government) through force.

Personally, I have no more interest in a left-wing authoritarian than I do a right-wing one.

Feel free to vote for the Green party candidate #NeverHillary folks, just as the #NeverTrump Republicans will vote for the Libertarian candidate. Pretend it is your conscious driving you (I have serious doubts, given the way nearly everyone I know who plans on doing so makes a point to say how much they personally hate Hillary Clinton). But accept that by doing so you make it more likely that President Trump can happen. You have to own that.

Democratic elections are about choosing what you consider the best path forward for American society and governance.

Hillary Clinton presents one road forward– and it looks a lot like the road President Obama has paved. This road has created real change in healthcare, gay rights, limited application of military power, and (more slowly) a push to change our racist criminal justice system. It is not perfect. It might not meet every standard you would like applied– it certainly does not for me– but it will be committed to fighting for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the environment, and social safety nets. She has a long established record for much of that and there is no reason to believe she will abandon these positions when elected.

Donald Trump presents another choice– one where we will discriminate against Muslims, blacks, Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans), and where all the achievements of the Obama administration will be undone. He is unpredictable, completely unqualified, violent, and volatile– a horrible combination for a Commander-in-Chief. He will undo social progress for women and work to actively harm minority groups. And his economic policies would wreck the global economy, creating another recession and high unemployment. Rest assured he will continue the right-wing assault on labor and unions, support the unfettered access of weapons, and crusade for more militaristic policing and draconian sentencing.

The Green party and Libertarian party offer nothing more than a protest. They have no path to victory and are simply a way for you to vent that you didn’t get what you wanted.

These are your paths forward. Keep agitating for social and economic change. But pretending that if you do not immediately and fully get what you want means that you should withhold support for the path forward that is clearly safer, more inclusive, more economically advantageous, environmentally friendly, and socially just is churlish. The parties are not crazy monoliths– they are coalitions of varied interests. If you are unhappy with the play your interest group gets in the coalition, try your luck in the other major coalition or find a better, more convincing way to promote your agenda within your existing one. Taking your ball and going home is not an answer. And in the context of this particular election, doing so could do irreparable harm to the nation.





*We’ll see what Senator Sanders says if he is indeed defeated by Hillary Clinton. My gut tells me he will say something closer to Reich than Johnson. It will be interesting to see how his fanatical supporters will react to this.





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