Last week, in a piece titled “How the Hell We Got Here: Why the Democratic Party is Splitting,” I detailed how America’s supposedly liberal party is on the verge of civil war. In short, this is due to the fact that it is about to nominate arguably the weakest presidential candidate in a generation—a candidate who many feel does not represent the values and ideals of the party. Today, in part two of the investigation, I’ll look at why party unity between the new progressive movement and the current Democratic establishment is impossible (for now), and why there is such enmity between the two sides.
A Cultural Shift
There is a traditional divide between social liberals and labor/economic progressives in American left wing politics. For the last 40 years we’ve seen an uneven balance between these two factions within the Democratic Party.
After the Reagan Revolution, socially liberal New Democrats, with the assistance of Blue Dog Democrats (who have since faded from politics), wrested control of the party from older New Deal Democrats. Then, in furtherance of a social agenda during a period of Republican dominance, ceded the economic narrative to the GOP, effectively abandoning economic progressives and labor.
(Note: For the purposes of this piece I am including neoliberals and Cold War liberals under the umbrella of Democrats who embraced Reagan’s economic narrative.)
The Democratic Party came to be defined by the inherent contradiction between social consciousness and complicity in the passage of policies that favored economic elites at the expense of the middle class, the poor, and minorities (especially black Americans). And when the courts opened the government’s doors to special interests under the guise of greater economic freedom, the new leadership got on board.
We are now seeing the balance fall apart. Staggering political and economic inequality which directly resulted from the policies implemented and decisions made during this time, are beginning to shift the frame through which liberalism and conservatism are defined. Both parties are realigning.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is leading an uprising of economic progressives against the status quo, by speaking earnestly about the reality of our situation. The widespread appeal of this movement has caught the party leaders completely by surprise. After years of elitism and complacency the Democratic establishment (dominated by social liberals) has found itself the target of righteous indignation and anger
Bernie’s revolution has spared nobody for their role in contributing to the problems we face today. As such, he is a threat to many incumbent Democrats and party leaders, including DNC Chair and longtime Clinton ally Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Schultz, who many feel has tipped scale for Clinton since the beginning of the race, now faces a progressive primary challenger, Tim Canova, with Sanders’ endorsement. In a recent interview Sanders also criticized her leadership:
“Frankly, what the Democratic Party is about is running around to rich people’s homes and raising obscene sums of money from wealthy people. What we need to do is to say to working-class people – we are on your side.”
A Failed Strategy
Recognizing the threat Sanders and his movement poses, Clinton’s campaign and its allies in the party leadership have fought back. However, their strategy has only alienated Sanders’ supporters.
Clinton has focused her campaign at the older Democrats who make up the establishment: socially liberal, fiscally moderate to conservative. She has largely neglected Bernie’s supporters. They’ve always been an afterthought, as her campaign admitted in an interview with CNN, when a top adviser said extending an olive branch “will come later.”
It is the appeal to social liberals which Bernie supporters have found most offensive. That strategy has been 1) find the fringe of Bernie’s new progressive movement, 2) use it to characterize all of his supporters, 3) blame Bernie for inciting those people, 4) imply that his beliefs mirror those of the fanatics, and then 5) rely on allies in the media to spread the word.
This is why Clinton surrogate (and family connection) California Senator Barbara Boxer at the controversial Nevada convention mockingly blew kisses at the Sanders crowd in an apparent effort to provoke them, only to later claim she feared for her safety. It is also why Hillary Clinton recently remarked, after refusing to debate Sen. Sanders in California, that she would only talk to the Vermont Senator about his demands “when he’s ready to talk” — as if Bernie has passed the point of being able to have a reasonable conversation. Extrapolating further, it could even be inferred that Sanders doesn’t like the idea of having to deal with a woman!
That strategy made the race personal to many Sanders supporters who consider themselves not just socially liberal, but progressive, and are tired of having their views misrepresented, and their movement smeared — especially when Clinton’s side is just as vitriolic.
However, smears are the only tactic available to the establishment which has, for years, taken the votes of left wingers for granted on the certainty that the Republicans were worse. This low bar defense has been enabled by a culture of insularity among social liberals.
Ignoring the Problem
But today, the Clinton establishment’s best argument has worn thin. Rather than promote genuine policy differences with the GOP on issues Bernie’s progressives care about, like campaign finance reform, Wall Street regulation, trade, the safety net, college debt, and the environment, all team Clinton has offered is smugness, dismissal, and obvious condescension which has reinforced the fact that the Bernie and Hillary camps have vastly different priorities.
Former President Bill Clintonaccused Bernie supporters of wanting to shoot “every third person on Wall Street.” As I mentioned before, Sen. Barbara Boxer blew kisses and mocked them in Nevada, and then claimed she feared for her safety. Debbie Wasserman Schultz also scolded their behavior. But if we really want a snapshot of the establishment’s views of Bernie supporters, we need look no further than Vermont superdelegate Howard Dean’s Twitter:
That toxic attitude has also been adopted by Clinton's allies and supporters in the media like Paul Krugman of The New York Times and Joan Walsh of The Nation. Here is Walsh being called out by Connor Kilpatrick of Jacobin Magazine for mocking Bernie Sanders campaign volunteers:
For her part, Hillary Clinton has done nothing to quiet concerns over priority differences from Sanders supporters. Indeed, she seems keen on ignoring them. She has said she feels sorry for Sanders supporters because they do not do “their own research.” She’s dismissed them as people who want free things, and has implied that they are naive.
Recently, she expressed her openness to having Mark Cuban as her Vice-President on Meet the Press, and has even reached out to him. Cuban is a known right-wing libertarian who owns a 288-foot yacht named for an Ayn Rand novel (“Fountainhead”), and has also praised Donald Trump. “I think we should look widely and broadly,” Clinton said. “It’s not just people in elective office. It is successful business people. I am very interested in that. And I appreciate his openness to it.”
Compounding the situation, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton have also both appointed people to the Democratic Platform Committee that Lee Fang and Zaid Jilani of The Intercept refer to as “professional influence peddlers,” whose ranks include one registered corporate lobbyist.
If Clinton is the nominee (which she likely will be), the Democratic Party is going to have to win back skeptical Sanders supporters in November in order to defeat Donald Trump. The two presumptive candidates are in a dead heat, but Trump is beginning to outperform Clinton in polls.
Party leaders are starting to worry. And so, amidst the acrimony that is the primary, we are hearing cries for unity or for Sanders to drop out of the race — the notion being that the Bernie is hurting the party’s chances by speaking the truth about our situation and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in creating it.
However, unity will only happen when the leadership comes to terms with its own past, comes clean with the American people, and faces the political consequences. In his rebuke of the criticism of his campaign following the Nevada Convention, Sanders perfectly captured the political moment:
“The Democratic Party has a choice. It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change — people who are willing to take on Wall Street, corporate greed and a fossil fuel industry that is destroying this planet. Or the party can choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big-money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy.”
The party has offered, and Bernie Sanders has accepted, platform concessions. He was allowed to appoint five members to the 15-member Democratic Platform Committee. However, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton get to pick the remaining 10 members (6 for Clinton and 4 for Schultz). So far, as I mentioned before, they have chosen influence peddlers.
There is also talk among top Democrats of forcing Wasserman Schultz out of her position as DNC Chair—possibly even before the Philadelphia convention. But that is only the first step. These concessions are merely symbolic, and are likely not going to be enough to make the Sanders camp back Clinton in November if she is the nominee.
After all that has happened and been said during this primary, the only thing that will unite the party is a significant changing of the guard—not just DNC leadership, but Congress, and state and local elections. There is no way the current establishment survives the revolution. Clinton will likely fail to win over Sanders movement, but if she is elected president she will still be beholden to it. Democrats now have their own version of the Tea Party to reckon with: The new progressive movement.