Even before the debacle of the Iowa caucuses, in which the Democratic Party managed, despite its ineptitude, to deny Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a clear public victory by spiking the results entirely, there was a palpable sense of panic among the party’s conservatives. (For some reason, we have all agreed to call them “centrists” or “moderates.”) While his poll numbers remained fairly strong nationally and throughout the more heavily African-American South, Joe Biden seemed to be fading — in some cases almost literally — before our eyes.
Once-viable liberals like the prosecutor-turned-senator Kamala Harris or former HUD Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro dropped out or never caught on. The several interchangeable governors from the Mountain West — How many? Who were they? (we may never fully know) — disappeared, as did the similarly interchangeable congressmen. Warren tacked slightly to Sanders’ right but remained far too left for America’s insane political establishment despite an agenda best described as that of a Christian Democrat in Europe. Klobuchar remained, unbowed and unpopular. Buttigieg? Bloomberg? Might as well give it a try!
What had become clear, however, was that just as a fractious Republican field had failed to coalesce around an establishment figure in 2016, aiding or at least permitting the victory of Donald Trump, so too would the presence of so many Democratic candidates redound to Sanders’ advantage. (That so many Clintonites have convinced themselves that Sanders is some kind of communist Donald Trump — a brooding Stalin to Trump’s febrile Hitler — only makes their fear all the more visceral.) Meanwhile, they fretted that this failure to unite would carry into the general election, just as they believed it did in the last presidential election. If Sanders’ supporters’ original sin was backing another candidate in the primary, then their mythical failure to rally around Clinton against Trump was the evil and wickedness of man in the days before God sent the flood.
Into this fracas have swaggered several Twitter personalities, most notably the socialist lawyer and think-tanker Matt Bruenig and the hosts of the popular leftist podcast, Chapo Trap House. (Full disclosure: One of the podcast’s hosts and founders, Will Menaker, was my book editor, and I consider him a friend. I have been a guest on the show several times.)
Turning the logic of unity so often deployed against them by Clinton’s supporters, they argued that if it was the duty of Democrats to line up behind the most electable candidate, to eschew their own preferences of policy and personality in order to defeat Donald Trump, then it was necessary — obligatory — for all Democrats to support one Bernard Sanders. If Sanders diehards are the one unmovable bloc within the party, they reasoned, then a good portion of them were guaranteed to stay home if he isn’t the nominee. Only by joining them could nervous Democrats cement the full party coalition and prevail.
This argument began, I think, as an only half-earnest provocation — a dare to the many voices in professional Democratic circles who preached unity so long as it aligned with their own preferred choices but who reacted with incredulous rage if you suggested that it was they, not you, who might have to hold their noses and back a guy they didn’t really like. But over the months — perhaps because of the outraged reaction it engendered among a cadre of former Clinton backers — it solidified into something more like an article of faith, and later a battle cry of the Sanders-supporting online left.
This message makes people very, very angry. It is sabotage. It’s blackmail. It’s misogyny! It’s juvenile petulance. It is the privilege of non-immigrants and white people who, if they have suffered at all under Donald Trump, have not suffered enough and would inflict him again on the poor and the vulnerable simply because they could not have their way. It is “purity” politics. It’s unrealistic. It isn’t fair. It’s bomb-throwing. It’s masturbatory. It’s disrespectful. It is impudent and insolent for these nobodies, these outsiders, these jokers who have never consulted on a campaign or designed a media strategy or jockeyed for a West Wing job or run a think tank (although Bruenig has, in fact, done at least the last) to make demands from a position of — let’s be honest — some negotiating strength.
But the real source of the anger this “Bernie-or-bust” rhetoric engenders is rooted in a few specific kinds of incomprehension among lifelong Democrats broadly and professional-class Democrats specifically.
First and foremost, they view politics transactionally: Candidates are a product to be created, packaged and sold to consumers — you, the voter. Second, trained by a party apparatus that has been flinching since George McGovern’s defeat in 1972, they can’t understand a candidate who is actively trying to win rather than avoid losing, who is willing to say, “Fuck it; I might win and I might lose, but I’m going to do my damnedest to enact my program.” Third, and most critically, they are absolutely flummoxed by a political movement based in an actual, positive commitment to a governing agenda rather than a negative commitment simply to stop Donald Trump. A movement, in other words, that views defeating Trump as a necessary precondition but not an end in itself.
Now, I am admittedly a Sanders supporter. Representation matters, and I think it is high time we have somebody in the White House who looks like me (i.e., a weird, ungainly Jew, who talks with his hands and whose spouse has to tell him to keep his voice down in restaurants). I am not, perhaps, as devoted as his most ardent backers. In other words, I’m precisely the kind of wobbly voter that they are warning you about. I feel more warmly than most Sanders’ supporters toward Elizabeth Warren, even after her unnecessary and ill-considered attempt to smear him as a sexist, and I think I could vote for her with mild regret, knowing that the system can’t be defeated at the ballot box and hoping that she has enough Gorbachev in her to steer us through a Soviet-style collapse.
I might even be persuaded to vote for Amy Klobuchar if she were the nominee. If nothing else, she has proven she’d be willing to channel Lyndon Johnson and bully members of the Senate in increasingly florid ways. The rest of them? I suspect I’d probably stay home. Never have I seen such a collection of weirdos, billionaires and careerist dweebs without the slightest indication of a core moral code or a common sense of humanity.
Here we come to the fear that is the fertile soil in which anti-Sanders anger grows. (And here, too, their obsession with comparing him to Trump is instructive.) They saw how Trump, backed by an unshakable core of followers and supporters, not only won an election but also bent the whole professional infrastructure of the GOP — and the whole party in turn — to his program and style of government.
They see how many of the usual consultants, advisers, campaign managers and assistant-undersecretaries were either sidelined, made the sad march to “Never Trump” media sinecures that paid well but remained far, far from power, or were forced to reinvent themselves as mewling, subservient Trumpists, humiliating themselves daily and hiding in bushes until their mad sovereign tired of them and dismissed them with a tweet and an insult. They think: That could be my fate too.
The fear is probably unwarranted, in large part because Trump’s GOP came pre-radicalized — an already-ugly stew of racial resentment, nativist paranoia and violent militarism. The Democratic Party remains, by and large, a cautious and technocratic center-right institution that would passively resist a Sanders agenda, taking every occasion to play Herman Melville’s famous fictional character Bartleby, who replies to every request from his employers with, “I would prefer not to.”
But without a line to the White House, it’s still very possible that the consultant class would grow less lucrative, and that an alliance of up-and-coming, media-savvy and policy-oriented lawmakers from Rashida Tlaib to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Katie Porter to Ayanna Pressley will give Sanders a popular and quotable base of support in the legislature that will move the party, whether it prefers it or not.Print