Smell that? It’s smoke. Smoke pouring out of the ears of establishment Democrats. It’s not because they Feel the Bern. It’s due to two reasons: (1) they are furious at Sanders; and (2) their mental wheels are continuously grinding, creating massive internal friction, as they come up with one inane reason after another to blast the senator from Vermont.
You all know what I am talking about. The endless stream of articles and posts pouring forth from the commentariat of the Democratic establishment, as well as the self-righteous comments by Clinton supporters on articles about Sanders, not to mention the vituperative remarks on Twitter. Here’s an example from yesterday’s Washington Post, by Stuart Rothenberg, “How Bernie Sanders missed his moment.” It’s worth quoting at length because it contains many of the accusations that are hurled at Sanders.
Apparently, getting five Sanders supporters on the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee wasn’t enough for the senator from Vermont. He still wants more. Of course, he always wants more. Whether it is ego, vanity or simply a political miscalculation, Sanders has over-read his mandate. . . .
Sanders pushed his agenda for months, contrasting his priorities and values with Clinton’s. Yet Democratic voters gave her more votes and more delegates. Now, Sanders is fighting for a platform that Clinton must run on. In other words, he is trying to win through the platform what he couldn’t at the polls. . . .
No, Sanders isn’t merely running for president. He is running to change the Democratic Party (to which he hasn’t even belonged) and to bring his progressive, democratic-socialist values to America. But the Vermont independent ought to realize that the Democratic Party also includes Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.). Indeed, they’ve been part of the party longer than he has.
Delaying a full-throated endorsement of Clinton until delegates arrive in Philadelphia won’t make Sanders more influential. It will merely make him look irrelevant and delusional.
So, Bernie is ego-tripping, or he’s a lame politician. He is unwilling to heed the voices of the voters who have proclaimed Hillary the winner, and in doing so shows an insufficient respect for democracy. Further, he’s doesn’t understand the big-tent nature of the Democratic Party. He looks increasingly irrelevant, even delusional, as each day passes because the Democrats have moved on with Hillary and he refuses to get on board by endorsing her. But of course Rothenberg is not alone in the continuing criticisms. For example, just two days ago we learned from Chris Cillizza that Sanders is now being condescending and dismissive of Clinton.
These Democrats doth protest too much. Why?
The criticisms are easy enough to refute, especially since they often contradict each other, and we will turn to them shortly. But point-by-point refutations run a danger here: we will lose the forest for the trees. So, first, a word about the the main reason that the Democratic Establishment is so angry at Sanders.* It’s an old story, going back at least to the elections of 1968 and 1972. After these elections, Democrats became obsessed with the notion that rifts in the Party are fatal. In this regard, they keep fighting the last war and haven’t learned yet that history doesn’t repeat itself so easily. Afflicted with this phobia, people in the party think that anything or anyone who threatens the illusion of harmony and unity among Democrats must be stifled. You know: we are one big happy family, while the GOP has taken over the Roman Coliseum.
The Democratic Party currently has significant rifts, which are in part the outcome of Bill and Hillary’s Democratic Leadership Council taking charge in the 1990s. Pretending that they aren’t significant will be catastrophic for the Party down the road. A patina of harmony isn’t harmony. For example, the Party can not depend on big money, Wall Street, and claim to champion Main Street. Thus far it hasn’t been required to face this challenge in presidential years because the other party, the GOP, has been increasingly out-of-touch, and is once again running a weak candidate. However, avoiding the tensions will no longer be possible because of increasing inequality, among other issues. Bernie’s candidacy is a constant reminder that all is not well in Never Never Land. And he knows something important: if the Democrats prove unwilling or unable to address the Party’s internal tensions, the Party will eventually crumble like a stack of cards facing a Blue Norther.
Now, about those criticisms:
1. Sanders refuses to heed the will of the voters and is trying to win through the Democratic Party’s platform what he lost at the election box.
Four significant problems with this line of criticism: (1) Clinton’s ostensible victory is not necessarily a reflection of the beliefs of the majority of Democrats, for example, on universal health care. She may have won because people thought she was a stronger candidate or found voting for a candidate who would break a glass ceiling compelling. Her victory does not tell us what a majority of Democrats may actually prefer in terms of a platform. (2) It is a mistake to overplay her “victory.” Many of her votes were wracked up in the South before most voters had learned about Sanders or his politics. There have been serious irregularities in the voting in many states, and caucus states don’t get counted properly in the total popular vote. Further, we know that the Establishment pulled out all of the stops to get her nominated, and this certainly assisted her at the start of the primary season. And let’s not forget the false charges of sexism promoted by Hillary’s camp, for example, the false stereotyping of Sanders’ supporters as white male Bernie Bros. (3) We need to be careful with transitory appeals to the majority by those with personal or ideological agendas. For example, you can’t complain, on the one hand, that Bernie is not heeding the will of the majority of Democrats by staying in the race, and then say, but let’s not worry too much about the majority because we must accommodate conservative Democrats, who are in the minority. (Rothenberg is effectively making the last point when he suggests that we must respect the voices of figures who are to the right of most Democrats.) And, lastly, a minority—assuming Sanders represents a minority for the sake of argument—doesn’t stop pressing for change because the majority has spoken. Think here of the dedication of those opposed to segregation when faced with election results favoring policies that supported segregation. To simply roll over because of an election undermines democracy, which requires continuing and active debate. One should fight through established procedures for principles that one believes in, and to change procedures when they are unfair or biased.
2. He is trying to change the Democratic Party and he’s not really a Democrat.
Wrong way to frame the situation. The question is not whether Bernie is a real Democrat, which is a weird litmus test. The question is whether his proposals currently reflect the will of the majority of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents. If they do, then he is not changing the Party—it is the leadership that is out of step with the Party’s members. He would only be trying to change undemocratic mechanisms of control. And if he is currently in the minority, he should try to change the Party. That’s politics.
3. Sanders is becoming increasingly irrelevant and out-of-touch.
Well, if this is the case, why has the stream of articles and comments criticizing him for not getting on board with Hillary not stopped? We have even heard that Hillary doesn’t need Bernie supporters any more because she will be able to appeal to moderate Republicans. Joan Walsh writes in a Nation column on June 27, 2016.
There are many Republicans available to Clinton, particularly women, if she decides that’s her best audience. As one Clinton supporter close to the platform negotiations told me: “It’s really up to him: He can determine if she does this with a progressive mandate, one that she has to be loyal to. But if his voters snub her, and she has to go to anti-Trump Republicans to get to 51 percent, they’ll have much less leverage.”
If you think he’s not relevant and not needed, then get off his back.
4. Sanders is on an ego trip. Driven by an inability to accept defeat, he selfishly carries on with his campaign, questing after more when he has already been given enough.
Talk about misreading someone’s personality and history: Sanders has lost elections many times and the losses didn’t lead him to whine or behave childishly. He moves on and tries again or tries something different. Further, Sanders’ campaign has been about bringing people together to work for change, something he has been trying to do his entire adult life. (Funny how people working to do this are often accused of selfishness.) It is shameless to try to delegitimize someone who has been fighting for certain principles based on crude psychologizing and ad hominem arguments. Of course, it’s an old tactic. If you can’t understand principled actions or disagree with specific principled actions, just accuse those you disagree with of base motives. (Go back to comments made about Martin Luther King, for example, and you will see attempts to offer demeaning personal and psychological explanations for his passion for justice, especially after he tied civil rights to the Vietnam War.)
5. And then there is the criticism, not mentioned by Rothenberg, but explicitly stated by others, that he is somehow hurting Clinton.
If Clinton is doing well against Trump—and as Hillary and her allies claim, Sanders’ supporters will come around— this has become an outdated line of attack. (Does anyone really believe that Sanders is going to cost Clinton the election? No, not at this junction.** At most, his followers might cost her a big win if she appears to be tacking too far to the right.) And for those who still support this outdated line of criticism, the question must be asked: how exactly is Bernie hurting Hillary? He’s not attacking her personally. The only way that he might be hurting Hillary is by keeping alive policy debates that she would prefer not to have on center stage. However, if this is the case, he has a moral obligation to continue. The Party’s goal can’t simply be to get Hillary into office on any terms, especially if she is going to govern to the right of where she has positioned herself during the primary. Her feet need to be held to the fire. If Bernie is now hurting Hillary, it is in the same way that Socrates “hurt” the citizens of Athens, by shaming them when they failed to live up to principles they espoused.
*There are certainly other reasons. One suggestion that has been made is that Bernie is creating a guilty conscience among more progressive Democrats who know that his policies should be those that the Party supports. See “The Psychology of Why Hillary Clinton Supporters are Still So Angry at Bernie Sanders,” by Shane Ryan.
** This is not to say that Clinton has the election in the bag. If a Black Swan event strikes—for example, she or her aids are indicted—then all bets are off. But this obviously would not be because of Bernie and his supporters.