Stop laughing, Democrats! As the GOP goes down in flames, your post-Bernie civil war is almost here

While the Republicans compare dick sizes and howl at the moon, the fight for the Democratic Party is just starting

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 5, 2016 5:00PM (EST)

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton   (AP/Stephen B. Morton/Carlos Osorio/Gerald Herbert/Photo montage by Salon)
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton (AP/Stephen B. Morton/Carlos Osorio/Gerald Herbert/Photo montage by Salon)

It was easy to laugh at that gruesome Republican debate on Thursday night. Easy and fun! At least for a while. We laughed in incredulity; we laughed in horror. We laughed because there is some statistical possibility that one of those four men on that stage in Detroit will end up becoming president of the United States, and because the only one of them who remotely resembles a decent and normal human being is a notorious union buster and foe of reproductive choice who opposes raising the minimum wage and used to work at Lehman Brothers, the most notorious failed bank of the 2008 collapse. We did not laugh at John Kasich. We sighed and we swooned, because he would be a pretty bad president but that's no longer the relevant standard. Compared to those other guys, Kasich is Mother Teresa wrapped in puff pastry and drizzled with Oscar Wilde. He probably means well, after his own limited fashion, and he does not resemble the Lizard Man of Zanth (Trump), the birthday clown with piles of bodies in the basement (Cruz) or Little Marco, who will say anything and do anything in service of his brilliant plan to win the nomination by continually finishing third.

So the Republican Party has finally turned against Donald Trump, the monster it created, in an excess of self-righteous hypocrisy. It's a classic case of what historian Ian Kershaw once described as “the sinking ship leaving the rat.” Anytime you trot out Mitt Romney to accuse someone else — literally anyone else — of being a fraud and a phony who is trying to play the American people for suckers, you have officially triggered on the Historical Irony alarm. But here's what I have to say to gleeful Democrats, eagerly looking forward to a November massacre: Laugh, fools, laugh! Because the crazy is coming for you too. When you look in the bathroom mirror, what's that mad glint in your eye? I know it's hard to see, because someone has written REDRUM across the mirror in lipstick over and over again, and the writing looks familiar somehow.

I'm not saying we will see a Democratic debate, in 2016 or 2024 or any other year, when the frontrunner will feel compelled to discuss his or her genital organs. (If Hillary Clinton actually makes a joke about that within the next week, and more or less lands it, I promise not to say anything mean about her for an entire month.) But a more polite version of the Republican knife fight is waiting to happen, and in some ways has already begun. The post-Bernie landscape is fraught with danger for the electoral left, and also with opportunity. You can feel both of those things in the combination of smugness and high anxiety found among Hillary Clinton supporters, who are not content to be victorious but must also seek to prove the unprovable thesis that their Potemkin political party is “progressive” and that their victory points toward the future rather than the past.

To the extent that the Hillary wing of the Democratic Party believes that the war is over and they won and it's safe to retreat into the ossified institutional politics that have brought them nothing but misery and defeat and have rendered their party nearly irrelevant in most non-coastal states, they are inviting their own version of Trumpian apocalypse. For the insurgents of the Sanders wing, the question now becomes how many of them are willing to turn to the more difficult and less exciting work of rebuilding democracy from the ground up, and taking the Democratic Party back from the lawyers and technology millionaires and Hollywood executives and foreign-policy apparatchiks who have become its principal proprietors. Because presidential campaigns can be great drama, but they also serve to distract us from more important things. They are political theater more than political change.

Since the rich people who bought the Democratic Party from Hillary Clinton’s husband have all but destroyed it, and long ago severed it from any semblance of class-based politics and any coherent ideology beyond “not as mean as the other guys,” the field is wide open. Millions of people of all ages were energized by an oddball candidate who started talking about things no one in American politics has talked about seriously for at least 50 years. “Socialism” suddenly isn't a bad word anymore, and that’s amazing. But now what? Can those people do what activists on the right did over a period of several decades, electing school board members and county committee members and state legislators on the way toward the Reagan revolution and the Tea Party insurgency? Because those true believers on the right dug in and worked hard and changed political reality. They created the conundrum of the present, when a minority party with a wide range of extreme anti-government and xenophobic views, supported almost exclusively by white people, dominates the political agenda in 39 of the 50 states and holds an unbreakable majority in Congress.

Yeah, I know, let's back up for a minute. I said “post-Bernie landscape.” Deal with it. I'm not going all “I told you so,” even though I did. There really was an opening after New Hampshire, a moment when we all sensed a potential tipping point that could have happened but didn't quite. That window slammed shut in Nevada and South Carolina and across the South, and I'm not buying the higher-math hypotheses about how Sanders might make inroads with African-American voters in other regions in a way he spectacularly failed to do in the South, and then might win Michigan or Ohio or Florida and push on toward a big victory in New York that flips the race upside down again. I could certainly be wrong, because wrongness is the order of the day in 2016. But I think the next few weeks are about Bernie's supporters moving through the stages of the Kübler-Ross model and coming to grips with reality, helped along ever so much by uneasy Clintonite gloating.

But here’s the real point: None of that is actually the point. What happens next is far more important. If the Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016 had a purpose, and still has one, it goes far beyond Bernie Sanders. If the question was whether a septuagenarian senator from Vermont who calls himself a socialist could win the Democratic nomination or the presidential election, the answer was always exceedingly likely to be no. We were all startled to discover how possible and even plausible “yes” looked, for a moment there, and in that possibility we caught a glimpse of a possible future. Bernie Sanders was at best a highly imperfect messenger for such possibilities of political revolution and democratic redemption. If you were designing a candidate to be unelectable on a national scale, you could hardly do better than a crotchety old Jewish guy from Brooklyn whose political ideology has not budged since 1963 and who represents the smallest and most liberal state in the nation. (OK, I exaggerate: Wyoming actually has fewer people than Vermont, not to mention a lot fewer NPR listeners.)

Indeed, the most striking aspect of the Sanders phenomenon is that he came as close as he did, given how poorly suited he was for the role. Let me say it again: Bernie Sanders was never the solution, and Hillary Clinton, much as she has done to earn the ire and mistrust of critics on the left, was never the problem. They are both symptoms or symbols, and in the short run the outcome of their symbolic collision was not in doubt. But the long run, and the collision between the forces behind Clinton and Sanders — that’s an entirely different matter.

As Sanders' most 'roid-raged and testosterone-fueled supporters will ultimately admit, Hillary Clinton is vastly preferable as president to any possible Republican, semi-lovable Rust Belt New Ager John Kasich included. If Clinton runs against Trump or Cruz or Rubio, each of whom is a dangerous opponent in a different register, the distinctions are stark and undeniable. She represents what I recently heard Jeb Bush describe as “regular-order democracy,” and look where that got him. Those guys represent pitchforks and screaming and strange things on fire and the most gruesome scenes from “Game of Thrones.” You won't catch me hauling out the “Coke vs. Pepsi” line from the Ralph Nader era in this particular election. The 2016 choice is more like last week's Nestea from the back of the fridge versus a foul-smelling mystery beverage that might be diesel fuel or lawn chemicals or sorority-house vomit, but that someone in a Halloween mask has promised will get you really wasted.

That does not mean I'm endorsing the Democratic Party's delusional Kumbaya narrative: Well, we had a terrific debate about actual issues and, gosh, Bernie and Hillary agree on almost everything, and aren't we in great shape for a happy future of pay equity, endless government surveillance and glassy-eyed consumerism? Take that and shove it. Clinton's Borg-like absorption of Sanders' central issues and positions has been politically effective, no doubt about it. It may even compel her to pursue some modest progressive reforms if she is elected (though I wouldn't hold my breath). But it cannot conceal the fact that she and Sanders represent diametrically opposed visions on a wide range of social, economic and political issues that affect the life of every person on this planet.

For Hillary Clinton and the political faction she embodies or represents, America is pretty much OK, both in itself and in its relationship to the world, and American politics are mostly OK too. Yeah, the Republicans have gotten really weird and increasingly crazy and some significant tweaks are needed to correct for that: We need to consolidate gains in LGBT rights and push back on women’s reproductive freedom and confront the lingering legacy of racism. We can make guns a little tougher to buy, make college a little more affordable and make sure that working people have slightly more resources and better healthcare. Those are not bad things! Moreover, it’s understandable that to many Democratic voters those sound like realistic and potentially achievable goals, whereas the Sanders agenda of “political revolution” and free stuff for everyone sounds unhinged and impossible.

The problem with all that is not the agenda itself but the reassuring frame of “regular-order democracy” around it, in which such things might actually happen. No such democracy exists, which was and is the fundamental point of the Sanders campaign. You won’t hear Hillary Clinton use the term “oligarchy” to describe the way the United States is governed, as Sanders does in every stump speech. Why should she? She’s one of the oligarchs, or more properly one of their trusted employees. You won’t hear her say that free-market capitalism has utterly failed to improve the lives of ordinary people, or that the neoliberal economic regime of low taxes and government austerity is a disastrous scam that has robbed from the poor and given to the rich. Or that much of this resulted from the deregulation of financial markets carried out by her husband’s administration and a Democratic Congress, as directed by their oligarch overlords.

Hillary Clinton genuinely believes, I suspect, that things are not nearly as bad as hothead Bernie makes them sound, that most of the problems are things a competent and compassionate administrator can fix, and that the Democratic Party hasn’t made any fundamental mistakes. Change a couple of the proper nouns and that is exactly, word for word, what Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney believed too. A similar comeuppance may be on the way. The Democratic establishment is desperately trying to ignore the moment of popular awakening embodied by the Sanders campaign, or to explain it away. Hence we are told that only young white people want single-payer healthcare, tuition-free public universities or a $15 minimum wage. The undeniable fact that African-American voters prefer Clinton to Sanders (thus far) is presented as prima facie evidence for various far-reaching but unspoken conclusions: the Democratic mainstream possesses a demographic or cultural legitimacy that the Sanders insurgency lacks; people of color are A-OK with capitalism and the existing political order; all this talk about economic inequality and political corruption is needlessly unpleasant.

We’ve heard the arguments from advocates of the Democratic Long March for many years: On some uncertain day that lies just beyond the visible horizon, we will have our permanent demographic majority and we can start nudging the party away from being the Slightly Gayer Republicans and back toward genuine progressive priorities and policies. We promise! A few things need to happen first, though. We need to take back the Senate in 2016 (and then take it back again in 2020, after losing it in between), take back the House in 2022 or 2024 (since no date sooner than that is plausible), begin to win back all the governorships and state legislatures and county boards we’ve coughed up like hairballs over the last decade or two, and rebuild a party organization that has been gutted and filleted at the state and local level clear across the country. (The codicil to all this, of course, is that until we reach the glorious morning at the end of that path, it’s pretty much all Hillary-style triangulation all the time. Because Supreme Court!)

What those people generally don’t explain is who’s going to make that happen in a political party that has deliberately stripped itself of any core ideology or fundamental set of principles (I’m sorry, but “niceness” and “tolerance” do not count), a party that lacks any coherent socioeconomic base and whose voters no longer even pretend to care unless there’s a charismatic presidential candidate at the top of the ticket. We already know that the devastating GOP sweep of the 2014 midterms, which produced the largest Republican congressional majority since Herbert Hoover was president, resulted from record low turnout and widespread voter apathy: Democratic House candidates received about 35.6 million votes, the party’s lowest total since 2002, when the overall electorate was significantly smaller.

Party insiders and “activists,” if any can still be found in that demoralized institution, can’t and won’t make any of that possible. It will take a rebel incursion, an invading force of newcomers from outside the Democratic Party and outside politics, to inject the necessary vitality. It will take a new generation who don’t carry the scars of the Cold War and the Reagan era, who are uncontaminated by the party’s ideological decay and free of its defensive assumptions about the nature of political reality.

Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be the 2016 Democratic nominee, and of course our attention will now shift to the historic nature of her candidacy. But the strange curse that has followed Clinton’s entire career refuses to release its grip, and in the year of the Sanders revolution and the Trump garbage fire she feels a little bit like yesterday’s papers. I think that’s a big reason why Clinton supporters seem so angst-ridden; even in victory she’s had the rug pulled out from beneath her once again.

It was the campaign of Bernie Sanders — quixotic, doomed and fighting uphill against enormous odds — that struck genuine terror into the hearts of the political establishment. Even in apparent defeat, it introduced us to a newly politicized generation and a whole range of unimagined possibilities, and made clear that the Democratic Party fortress is not as well defended as everyone thought. As we have seen so vividly at the other end of the spectrum, a political party that has drifted off its moorings and alienated its base can become a zone of invasion and conquest and heated internal conflict. Such a conflict has been brewing on the left for decades, and now it’s here. As we have also seen, it could get ugly.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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