You wouldn’t know it from watching TV last night or reading the national papers this morning but Bernie Sanders’ Michigan win ranks among the greatest upsets in presidential primary history.
Should he win the nomination it will be go down as the biggest upset of any kind in American political history.
If he wins the election it will change the fundamental direction of the nation and the world.
Some key lessons, obvious to everyone but the media:
1. The old politics is over. The fault lines of the new politics are not cultural issues like guns, abortion and same-sex marriage that divide the Democratic and Republican bases. They are issues of political reform and economic justice that divide both party’s elites from both parties’ bases, and the American people from their government. On these issues we find the elites of both parties shockingly alike. Among them: global trade; financial deregulation and prosecution of financial crimes; the social safety net including Social Security, Medicare, a living wage and health care for all; above all, the “soft corruption” of pay to play politics.
There’s a name for the bipartisan consensus of party elites: neoliberalism. It is an inconvenient name for many reasons but mostly because it seems odd that the worldview of the Republican elite would be an ideology with the root word ‘liberal’ in its name but it is true, nonetheless. and may even shed a little light on the open, bitter breach between GOP elites and the party base. Democrats stayed loyal longer to their elites for two reasons. One is their love of two very talented politicians, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, whose charm and verbal dexterity masked deep differences with the base. The other is their fear of Republicans.
I often talk to Democrats who don’t know Obama chose not to raise the minimum wage as president even though he had the votes for it; that he was willing to cut Medicare and Social Security and chose not to prosecute Wall Street crimes or pursue ethics reforms in government. They don’t know he dropped the public option or the aid he promised homeowners victimized by mortgage lenders. They don’t know and don’t want to know. Their affection for Bill and Barack -- and their fear of Republicans -- run too deep.
2. Hillary Clinton has neither their deft personal touch nor protean verbal skills. When she tries to distract the base or paper over its differences with elites, voters see through her, even if, in their hearts, they don’t want to. In Michigan she tried to smear Sanders as a foe of the auto bailout. Before that she sent Chelsea and Bill out to say Bernie would kill Medicare. Each time she ended up only hurting herself. She has tried to co-opt Sanders’ positions on global trade, climate change, military adventurism, a living wage and universal health care.
It’s always too little, too late. Voters sense she’s just moving pawns on a chess board in part because she can never explain her change of heart and often doesn’t even try. She switched horses on global trade in a blog post, on the Keystone pipeline at a grammar school event. In a recent debate she left fracking to the GOP governors who covered themselves in glory on Obamacare, as if it were a states’ rights issue. With her Super PAC (and hers and Bill’s breathtaking haul of $153 million in mostly corporate speaking fees), she is the living avatar of pay to play politics. She shouldn’t be the Democratic nominee for president because she doesn’t even know it’s wrong.
She remains woefully out of touch with the public mood in other ways. This week she began telling voters she and Bernie were pals and that it was time to wrap up their little primary so she could focus on the Republicans. As anyone outside her tone deaf campaign could have told her, she came off as entitled, presumptuous and condescending. The voters aren’t done deciding yet. When they are, they’ll let the candidates know. When party and press elites parroted her line, it had the same effect on Democrats as Mitt’s anti-Trump speech had on Republicans.
3. The performance of the press has been abysmal. Watching CNN and MSNBC last night was painful, as was reading the Washington Post or the New York Times this morning. The TV coverage was of a piece with all other 2016 election coverage. Last night FOX, CNN and MSNBC kept cameras glued on Trump for 40 minutes as he delivered a bizarre, rambling rant in which he talked about himself, his opponents and some steaks he was either selling or giving away.
As Bernie made history, CNN kept sending poor John King to its political trivia JumboTron to relate what various Michigan counties did in primaries or caucuses eight or 20 years ago. An MSNBC panel consisting of Brian Williams, Rachel Maddow, Gene Robinson, Lawrence O’Donnell and Chuck Todd dove right into a discussion of who Hillary might choose as her running mate; an actual progressive perhaps, given Bernie’s little showing in Michigan. They agreed it would probably be Elizabeth Warren, who sat this one out; or Sherrod Brown, the Ohio populist whose wife they all knew and liked. Really. The segment closed with everyone sharing a laugh about how mad Brown's wife would be to hear them flatter her. The hour ended with Maddow summarizing the state of play this way: “The frontrunners had a good night.” This morning the Times led the story this way: “Senator Bernie Sanders’s defeat of Hillary Clinton prolongs a race she seemed to have locked up, although she won Mississippi handily.” He sure did.
Clinton has been helped in her quest by her party, by big business, and by top-down endorsements from progressive lobbies many of which broke members’ hearts to deliver them. But no one’s helped her more than the media. I know full well this hasn’t always been true for the Clintons and I also know not all the help is intentional. But the media helps her in several ways.
One way it helps is just by sharing her ideology. This is especially true of younger journalists at establishment venues like the Times and NBC or at web sites like Vox. These are mostly very bright people who see the world as Hillary does. (I’d call it neoliberalism 2.0 but it’s just like the Beta version.) They are Democrats first for cultural issues. They identify with elites, even know a few power couples and view the current corrupt rules of the game as laws of nature. It’s one reason why not one of them saw any of this coming.
But it’s not the only reason. Their employers put horse-race journalism ahead of all else, so nothing ever gets illuminated -- not Trump’s business resume or Hillary’s or Bernie’s political resumes, or their very real policy differences. When Hillary sweeps vital differences under the rug to be replaced with stale tactical arguments, the reporters are perfect patsies -- because all they know are tactics.
In the end, thinking only tactically makes you a bad tactician. When revolution’s in the air polls, money and ads mean far less. Reporters who know nothing else can’t conceive how voters choosing among a democratic socialist, a pay-to-play politician and a fascist might pick door number one. They bought Hillary’s myth of inevitability, but as Lawrence of Arabia told Prince Ali in the desert, nothing is written. If Democratic voters really use their heads, they’ll see through the tactical arguments just like the voters of Michigan did -- and then walk into voting booths all over America and vote their hearts. Then there will be change.