In 1968, Richard M. Nixon was elected President of the United States, defeating Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Among his many promises was two in particular that appealed to weary American voters: to restore “law and order” and speak for the “Silent Majority.” At the time, the Vietnam War was weighing on the American public, and anger and resentment over the mounting death toll had destroyed President Lyndon B. Johnson’s popularity. At the same time, the antiwar movement was descending into chaos, drug use was becoming widespread and open, the Civil Rights Movement and ensuing southern backlash — including race riots — had cost many lives, and the Black Panthers were openly carrying guns. Americans wanted security.
Nixon’s time had come. Using the now infamous “Southern Strategy,” which largely entailed making racial appeals to win over disenchanted southern white Dixiecrats, the man who had been defeated by John F. Kennedy years earlier was finally at home in the Oval Office.
Hillary Clinton was 21 at the time. The Republican uprising would have had a profound impact on her. Like the rest of America, she watched as the GOP became the party of “law and order” and perceived strong man candidates out maneuvered weak liberal challengers by associating them with the violent factions of left wing movements, while preying on the prejudices of the American electorate. Over the coming decades, this trend would be reinforced time and again as liberal candidates who appealed to young people — like George McGovern — were defeated in the same manner.
By the 90’s, the Democrats had caught on. Bill Clinton implemented a strategy known as “triangulation.” He adopted the Nixonian approach to distance himself from the left in order to appeal to southern conservatives and the center. Few can forget the infamous Sister Souljah Moment. Clinton transformed the Democratic Party in a vain effort to recapture the southern states following Reagan’s Revolution.
When Hillary ran for president in 2008 the path forward seemed preordained: Follow her husband’s Nixonian strategy, and appeal to the party base her husband helped shape. That is why she played up racial fears of her opponent Barack Hussein Obama, and it’s also why appeals to identity politics were noticeably absent from her campaign. In Nixon’s America—which had become Reagan’s America—such a strategy would have been political suicide. However, just as Nixon had 48 years prior in his first debate with John F. Kennedy when he tried discussing the merits of Truman and Eisenhower, and his opponent focused on the Soviet Union, Clinton found that she had miscalculated the political moment.
Understanding this history is crucial to understanding Hillary Clinton’s strategy against Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primary. Ignoring outside assistance, Clinton became the presumptive nominee by channeling Nixon in order to appeal to the party base her husband helped create, but with a modern twist to account for changes. This time, she paired “law and order” with identity politics.
In a way, Clinton claimed to speak for her own “Silent Majority”—older, more “responsible” (economically conservative) Democrats who don’t necessarily turn up at rallies, or want sweeping changes to the status quo, but who vote. Like her, these older voters remembered Nixon, and the decades in which liberal candidates and their ‘radical’ movements driven by young, naive voters, lost to older, more experienced, ‘pragmatic’ conservatism. Clinton and her allies did their best to tie Sanders’ progressives into that long tradition by drawing a contrast between their platform and his lofty goals and most radical fringe supporters—mostly online fringe.
At the same time, Clinton 2016, correcting her mistake from 2008, focused her campaign on the symbolic victory of breaking the Glass Ceiling, and has sought to derail her opposition with appeals to identity voters that such opposition is founded in sexism.
This is why, throughout the primary, Clinton provoked Sanders’ movement by implying they were merely naive and lazy, and why her surrogates like Sen. Barbara Boxer, played up the aggressive, sexist “Bernie Bro” meme. It is also why former President Bill Clinton accused Sanders progressives of wanting to shoot “every third person on Wall Street.”
The dismissive and incendiary rhetoric was designed to generate exactly the outrage (or even violence) needed to sell these narratives, and ultimately distract from the staggering economic and political inequality that Clinton herself played a role in creating. In other words, use familiar tropes to social liberals to sell a candidate whose record would make her right at home in the ‘80s or ‘90s GOP.
Even after she became the presumptive nominee, Clinton’s camp has been continued to alienate Sanders’ supporters. Rather than make peace, Clinton’s appointees to the Democratic Platform Committee (who, as I’ve mentioned in previous pieces, but bears repeating now, include “influence peddlers”) have voted down basic progressive proposals like supporting a ban on fracking, opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and pushing for single-payer health care. In defense of her position, one Clinton appointee accused Sanders’ side of having a “litmus test” for caring about the environment.
However, while effective in the primary, this disdain-based strategy will likely be ineffective and harmful to Clinton in the general election.
For one thing, Clinton will be unable to out “law and order” presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, a quintessential Nixonian strong man—devoid of policy, but more charismatic than she is, and a populist. But most importantly, by channeling Nixon and running a smear campaign against hero opponent and his supporters, the former Secretary of State has given the impression to Sanders movement that she has little regard for the issues Bernie brought to the forefront of American politics—issues that now define the zeitgeist.
Even when Clinton did discuss those issues, she left herself open to accusations of being contradictory. Take the issue of banking reform, for example. Clinton argued on the one hand, that Sanders’ plan to break up the banks did not go far enough because it did not deal with “shadow banking.” However, on the other, she dismissed the notion of needing to go so far, arguing that Sanders’ measure was extreme and unnecessary. How can a measure be too extreme and too weak?
This approach has separated Clinton from voters, and cemented the perception of her as the untrustworthy establishment candidate who in a year of outsiders—Independents prefer Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (but mostly the former).
Progressives are also angry about being misrepresented as aggressive (sexist) bullies. I say “misrepresented” because data collected by the Rad Campaign, Lincoln Park Strategies, and Craigconnect (all unaffiliated organizations) indicates that Clinton’s online supporters are far more aggressive than Sanders’. Part of that may be due to the fact that Correct The Record (CTR), a super PAC run by Clinton ally David Brock which illegally coordinates with her campaign, spent $1 million to hire online trolls to engage Sanders supporters. But whatever the reason, the facts are the facts.
Clinton’s strategy, and her appointees to the platform committee, have also fueled concerns that she is too similar to the Republicans. These claims have dogged her throughout the primary, and are unlikely to go away as she will inevitably tack to the right against Trump in November, under the (mistaken) assumption that the controversial self-proclaimed billionaire will be enough to unite the party.
The former Secretary would do well to remember that, according to CNN exit polls from 27 states, her supporters are 85% Democrat and 13% independent or from another party, while Sanders’ are 63% Democrats and 33% independents or another party. On issues Sanders supporters care about like campaign finance reform and trade, she is not seen as the clear ‘lesser evil.’
Bernie Sanders won over 12 million votes in the primary (43 percent of the Democratic base), and estimates of the “Bernie Or Bust” movement range from a quarter to a third of his supporters. That means, roughly 3 and 4 million people might not turn out for Clinton in November — and that’s not even accounting for the fact that not all of his supporters voted or were able to vote for whatever reason — being an independent in a state with closed primaries, administrative errors, failing to change registration by the deadline, alleged fraud, etc.. In reality the number is probably higher.
To put that all in perspective, in his 2012 landslide victory over Mitt Romney, Barack Obama won by roughly 5 million votes. Assuming they hold true to their word — and with growing discontent about the primary process and media bias compounding anger and frustration over the gross inequities of the status quo, there is no reason not take the threat seriously. Without a massive influx of conservatives (which could happen) ‘Bernie Or Bust’ could cost Clinton this election.
And that is where Trump’s opportunity to win lies. In addition to benefiting from low Democratic turnout, the presumptive Republican nominee could perhaps pick up some of those voters.
Trump is already reaching out to disaffected progressives regarding the issues they care about most.
Both Trump and Sanders have tapped into the populist anger over plutocracy. Trump is a bigot, and that will inevitably turn many people away from him, but he’s also been on the right side of trade since the ‘90s, and he’s for medical marijuana when Clinton is not. And then of course, in spite of whatever platform he’s cooked up, Trump has been talking about holding “hedge fund guys” accountable and providing universal health care.
Also, though his position on them may be changing, and though he did appear at fundraisers they’ve held for him in the past, in December Trump disavowed super PACs and requested that all donations made to them on his behalf be returned. This decision has set him apart from Clinton who has flouted election law by coordinating with these independent expenditure groups. Trump could easily explain away any change in his stance to having to face the former Secretary in the general.
But the ultimate trump card that Trump holds with these voters is the fact that he donated to Clinton. The best weapon in his arsenal is that he can paint her as completely corrupt while casting himself as the smart businessperson.
It may seem far-fetched that ‘The Donald’ could win over disenchanted progressives, but it becomes more plausible when one considers just how angry those voters are, and that the lens through which we define “liberal” and “conservative” is shifting from social issues to issues of economic and political inequality.
The polling right now, while seemingly good for Clinton, still has the former Secretary “deadlocked” with Donald Trump, according to The New York Times. As Robert Reich points out, that is an alarming fact considering her campaign is run “like clockwork” and his is in shambles; her campaign is blanketing swing states with television ads, while his is not. Additionally, her RealClearPolitics polling average lead against Trump has not grown much in spite of the month plus of negative coverage the latter has received. She sits an uncomfortable six points ahead. As much as some political leaders are predicting a landslide, it would take very little to turn this race around.
Clinton is now the presumptive presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. But by channeling Nixon to defeat her opponent, she may have—to quote Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins—“sacrificed sure footing for a killing stroke.”