Let me take a moment at the beginning of this holiday week to be grateful that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have publicly buried the hatchet on last week's Dataghazi episode. Because if they had not, if the charges and countercharges of thievery and set-ups and the dark mutterings of conspiracy being thrown back and forth between the candidates’ most rabid partisans had continued, I might have purposely steered my car off the Tappan Zee Bridge while driving south from Connecticut later this week.
No one came out of this one looking good. Not NGP VAN, the gatekeeper that exposed one camp’s proprietary data to the other. Not the Democratic National Committee and Debbie Wasserman Schultz for what looked like an overreaction to the Sanders campaign’s offense. Not the Sanders campaign for its initial dissembling or the Clinton campaign for its overheated press releases on Friday. Not the vocal supporters of both camps, who brayed at each other in blog posts and comments sections all weekend.
In fact, about the only two people who came out of this contretemps looking like decent human beings were the candidates themselves, who showed enormous grace in addressing the controversy in the first couple of minutes of Saturday night’s debate. Not that it will stop the apocalyptic sniping between the Berniebros and the Hillarybots.
On one level, the rivalry between the two camps, if not this past weekend, is a healthy sign for the Democratic Party. This is after all a presidential primary campaign, when visions of a party’s future direction get argued out and hashed over. Do you want your party’s leader to be someone who will try to make a hard left? Or a person who will continue charting a modest and centrist path?
What is going to poison this debate, what has already poisoned it (hopefully not irreversibly), is the fragmented public square into which the different camps have sequestered themselves with like-minded partisans. In these echo chambers, they can pat each other on the back for being the true Democrats with true Democratic principles, as if political parties are not organic beings whose alignments and dominant ideologies shift over time. As if the party has not needed to recalibrate and adjust to the events of a particular moment in time in order to attract voters that other members might find unworthy or downright odious, but whose votes were necessary to keep the party a viable entity in the political sphere.
In such circumstances, it becomes easy to ascribe purposeful deceit as a motive to certain actions that could just as likely result from short-sightedness or incompetence -- or even just from a longstanding loyalty that only gets reinforced with every sneering reference to “neoliberal slime,” every sighting of ruthless ambition and bias in the most innocuous or logical of moves. Hell, in every move.
So accusations that Wasserman Schultz and the DNC are actively working against the Sanders campaign because they are “in the tank” for Hillary Clinton get tossed around with abandon, along with the snark about Clinton being a “corporatist” in the pocket of Wall Street. Insults that at some point become such a part of the background noise that it becomes easy for the party to ignore them.
The blow-up this weekend brought to the fore complaints that have been muttered for months about so many delegates and superdelegates committed to Clinton so far in advance as a sign that the entire party wants not a race, but a coronation. Perhaps because I’m not an activist or a Democrat, my reaction to all of this is: Why wouldn’t it? Hillary Clinton has been an active member of the Democratic Party for 40 years. She has been the First Lady of a popular governor and two-term president, a Senator, a Secretary of State. You would have to expect after all that time that she and her husband would have unblinkingly loyal followers and an almost insurmountable control of the party apparatus. I got some hate mail when I wrote about the “invisible primary” a few weeks ago, but it’s not a theory I made up. Books have been written about it. Complaints about it being undemocratic don’t change the fact of its existence.
Whereas Bernie Sanders, despite a relationship with the Party stretching back for decades, only actually joined it a few months ago so he could run for the nomination. He has loyal fans, he has scored some good endorsements, but he doesn’t have the base of support in the party. Of course Clinton loyalists, and as best I can tell the majority of Democratic Party members, will see a threat and react defensively. The party, after all, is bigger than any one candidate. It is an identity for people that is being threatened.
To put it another way, in language we Americans have become sadly familiar with, top-down regime change is difficult. There is no shortcut. You can overthrow the despot, but what comes after? How do you rally the people to your side?
Many have argued that Sanders can’t win, but he can shift the Overton Window to the left. I think this is correct. And even if he does win the presidency, he will still be hamstrung by all the structural constraints that will affect any Democratic president promising change in Washington: A House of Representatives run by a crazed GOP. A Senate that can be easily gummed up by parliamentary tricks from the minority. (And even if Democrats regain control of the Senate next year, they will not have a supermajority.) A calcified bureaucracy staffed by career civil servants who can throw wrenches in all the works. It’s a problem faced by every administration that comes to power promising change.
Then we can have a repeat of the conversations we had in the early Obama years, only this time it will be Bernie Sanders who will be the secret right-winger who sold out the left and broke his promises, as always happens when the Green Lantern theory of the presidency gets disproven. Again.
No, the work of weaving more progressive policies into the fabric of our society won’t come from electing Bernie Sanders. It will come at the local level, in thousands of municipal and state elections, ordinances, and laws. It will come from developing a base that has a vision and will do the hard, long, and necessary work of persuading the people to adopt it, and then for those people to spread it as far as they can into every level of the Democratic Party. It will come from taking over the party machinery subtly, not imposing yourself on it. It may take 40 years, but we know it works. Just look at how far to the right its insane base has dragged the Republican Party, and how the radicals running it now came up from the minor leagues of state legislatures and local governing boards.
Or you can complain long and loud about how you’re not being treated fairly, cast aspersions on motives, and throw around insults that eventually become meaningless in their constant repetition. If that’s the route people want to go, I wish them luck.