The schism in the Democratic Party isn’t Bernie versus the establishment, it’s new versus old. New ideas. New very liberal millennial and Gen Z voters. New candidates. New grassroots. In a lot of ways, this is an exciting time to be a Democrat. The Party is changing pretty rapidly right now, and the old guard is starting to feel it. This is where Bernie comes in, as right now, he is the favored candidate of new.
The Democratic establishment—defined as senior party officials, major donors and their allies in the swamplands of D.C.—is starting to feel the heat. They know they are losing their influence over the party by the day, and Bernie is the worst possible foe for them to go up against, as any attack from the establishment on Sanders further buttresses his credibility amongst a group of voters sick of the status quo. Today’s report out of the New York Times is simply dripping with Democratic establishment fear.
Mr. Brock, who supported Mrs. Clinton’s past presidential bids, said “the Bernie question comes up in every fund-raising meeting I do.” Steven Rattner, a major Democratic Party donor, said the topic is discussed “endlessly” in his orbit, and among Democratic leaders it is becoming hard to block out.
“It has gone from being a low hum to a rumble,” said Susan Swecker, the chairwoman of Virginia’s Democratic Party.
Mr. Gifford, who has gone public in recent days with his dismay over major Democratic fund-raisers remaining on the sidelines, said of Mr. Sanders, “I feel like everything we are doing is playing into his hands.”
Everything major Democratic donors are doing plays into Bernie Sanders’ hands because most people are opposed to the conservative agenda of Democratic donors, and Bernie has tapped in to that emotion. What these major donors and establishment figures seem to be realizing is that Bernie’s appeal isn’t just his policies, but his enemies. People are angry. For good reason. Capitalism is crumbling before our very eyes, and the neoliberal agenda espoused by major Democratic donors like Steven Rattner lost to Donald freaking Trump in 2016.
Bernie practices a kind of combative politics that simply cannot be coopted or even copied by an establishment obsessed with West Wing-style civility politics. Panic is likely setting in with major donors because other candidates more closely aligned with the establishment, like Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke, have echoed Bernie’s us versus the one percent thesis. In many ways, Bernie has already won the 2020 Democratic primary.
At its core, this drama isn’t about Bernie. It’s about the Democratic electorate, and the clear majority opinion on the left that the policies of the 1990s should be eschewed in favor of a return to the much more progressive Democratic politics of the 1960s and 1930s.
Bernie is the main beneficiary of this majority opinion because the Democratic establishment has spent decades trying to subvert their progressive wing, and there simply haven’t been many (any?) nationally recognized candidates pushing the same ideas and critiques as him. To take a term from the market, Bernie has brilliantly exploited first-mover advantage. For the uninitiated, here is what that economic term means, per Investopedia:
A first mover is a service or product that gains the advantage by being the first to market. Being first typically enables a company to establish strong brand recognition and customer loyalty before competitors enter the arena. Other advantages include additional time to perfect its product or service and setting the market price for the new item.
That is a pretty spot-on description of Bernie’s success. He first gained notoriety in 2016 by simply being different from the Democratic establishment, and he established a strong anti-establishment brand while building a very loyal voter base. Since his loss, he has honed his message while infusing it with substance—like submitting legislation on Medicare for All that that doubles as public enemy number one for Democratic insurance donors. This further burnished his anti-establishment cred, while also gaining him mainstream viability when popular congresspeople like Kamala Harris co-signed his bill. What Bernie has done since 2016 is essentially put on a master class in branding, and now the Democratic establishment finds itself backed into a corner, because they are only just now realizing that his brand gains strength off the widespread opposition to their technocratic elite brand. It’s checkmate.
I am a good example of the problem the Democratic establishment finds itself in. I am not going to make a decision on what candidate I support until the debates start, but I know it’s going to be Bernie or Warren. My policy-focused educational background is extremely drawn to her policy-heavy platform, and Elizabeth Warren is probably the slight front-runner for my vote as of right now, despite the fact that she is a capitalist and I consider myself to be a Democratic Socialist. However, every single time any establishment Democratic figure takes a cheap shot at Bernie, I gravitate towards him simply because my strongest feeling for 2020 is that the Democratic status quo must deviate from this last 40-year neoliberal course, and a new state of affairs cannot arise without changing the establishment.
It’s unfortunate, but negative partisanship is a bigger factor in American politics than positive partisanship. None of us are immune to it, especially in a time where if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. Trump is a symptom of our larger structural issues, and while the desire to just get a dangerous man away from the nuclear codes is more than understandable, if that is the low bar for 2020, we will be dealing with a Trump-like figure again in the near future. That is the key lesson we all must take from 2016. We lost to a meat-filled bottle of spray tanner who couldn’t stop telling everyone how badly he wants to date his daughter, and the only logical thing to do in the wake of that complete and utter humiliation is to change course.
Which is why Bernie Sanders is the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination. He gained the all-important name recognition advantage in 2016 (if you doubt how big of a deal name recognition is, consider that we live in a country where Congress has about a 20% approval rating and roughly a 90% reelection rate—that doesn’t happen just by gerrymandering), and he has branded himself as the change candidate. Two of the last three presidential elections were “change” elections, and had the Republicans not nominated the walking embodiment of Wall Street in 2012, we may be three for three right now. People have wanted dramatic change for some time, and there is a direct line between Obama’s stunning rise in 2008 and Bernie’s anti-establishment crusade today.The Democratic establishment simply does not want dramatic change (as embodied by the fact that only 33% of Democratic Senators support Medicare for All, despite a majority of Republicans wanting it too). There is no way around that fundamental political reality, and the donor class is left with one realistic option in the wake of Bernie’s rise: shift to the left, or continue to lose power in the Democratic Party.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.