A New Year's resolution for Democrats: To win in 2020, get the f**k over 2016 already

Democrats must escape the poisonous hangover of Bernie v. Hillary. I've got terms for a truce: You'll hate it

Published January 1, 2020 10:00AM (EST)

Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) debate during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Duggal Greenhouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard on April 14, 2016 in New York City.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) debate during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Duggal Greenhouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard on April 14, 2016 in New York City. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I spent some time away from social media over the holidays, and came back with a couple of observations. Or maybe just one. First of all, everybody should do that — perhaps permanently — because social media in general is kind of nuts. But political Twitter, in particular, is insane. Second of all, and I know this comes under the heading of “no sh*t, Sherlock,” Democrats on Twitter are tormenting themselves (and each other) by endlessly rehashing the 2016 election. They have simply got to get over it.

If you already spend too much time perusing other people’s political opinions on Twitter, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, you are definitely better off. I see no point in calling out specific individuals who should know better (cough cough, Neera Tanden and Joy Reid) or the most outrageous accusations of treason and war crimes and secret allegiance to Trump or Putin or the Bilderberg Society or whatever. But the amount of grudge and grievance and name-calling and recrimination and hive-mind clapback and paranoid mythology, nearly all of it rooted in the leftover bad feelings of the Hillary v. Bernie conflict of 2016, is astonishing. It’s damaging and dangerous and downright Trumpy, and yet more evidence that the virus that produced him has infected us all.

I don’t want to be all “both sides do it.” But in fact both sides do do it, while accusing the other of being the worst people in human history. And I’m not trying to pull some Jon Stewart “Rally for Normies” bullshit about the evils of polarization and division, because I know where that boat ride takes: Across the River Styx into the land where Joe Biden muses about picking a Republican running mate

I’m definitely not suggesting there were no important differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in that campaign, or between Sanders and Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren and What’s His Name, the mayor of River City, in this one. There were and there are. I’m not lecturing anyone to Vote Blue No Matter Who, because it absolutely matters who wins the nomination, and that will clearly affect how many people Vote Blue. (You and I may well view that equation in different ways — isn’t that the point of a primary campaign?)

Apparently we will never stop hearing that Hillary Clinton is a soulless killer, the greatest war criminal since Attila the Hun, a toady to Big Capital and foe of economic justice, a mastermind of phony performative feminism and (simultaneously) the owner-operator of the most clueless and incompetent presidential campaign in media-age history. Or, on the other side of the ledger, that Bernie Sanders is a crypto-racist and crypto-sexist, a tool of the Russians and a fellow traveler of Donald Trump, a Stalinist, a Trotskyist, an agent of destruction and (simultaneously) the commander of an all-white online dude-bro army and the possessor of hypnotic powers over young women and latte-guzzling hipsters of color.

I’m here to offer both sides the terms of a truce that no one will like. (Which is kind of how it works with truces.) The first step is to recognize that all of this is the haunted legacy of an election cycle that, in case you need a little refresher, didn’t go so well. Sanders lost a close race to Clinton (that wasn’t supposed to be close), and then Clinton lost an even closer race to Donald Trump (ditto) — and ever since then, each side has never, even for a second, stopped blaming the other for what went wrong. Democrats have been gnawing on the bones of the 2016 election for three years now, and while they came out of their cave for the 2018 midterms, it honestly didn’t help that much. 

Now the most online, most committed cadre of Democrats seem to be trying — only half-consciously, but with considerable dedication — to cast the 2020 election as a fanfic reboot of the 2016 election, with all of its least appealing ingredients on endless loop. It’s like a damaged child re-enacting an especially traumatic family drama, in search of — well, what exactly? Revenge or redemption or some form of sympathetic magic in which we roll back the clock and none of the bad stuff happened and we are all OK again? (Depending of course on your conception of who “we” are and what “OK” might look like.) Or just in search of another defeat that can be blamed on someone else? I have reflected on this and, to coin a phrase, I hate it.

On one level, I get it: The 2016 election was a galvanizing experience with a dreadful outcome. It exposed a generational and ideological third rail within the Democratic coalition that also touched race and gender and class and which, by its very nature, is not likely to heal anytime soon. Political parties have a known tendency to re-enact internal grudge matches over and over, and to ignore their own best advice. Consider the Republican Party, which announced after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012 that it would seek to build a broader coalition and reach out to Latinos, Asians, women and younger voters — and then proceeded to win the next election by going in precisely the opposite direction as hard as it possibly could.

Democrats came out of the grisly spectacle of 2016 with what seemed like an obvious vacancy: They needed to find a candidate and a message that could at least temporarily bridge the gulf between “progressives” and “moderates,” between class-based politics and representational politics, between the BernieBros and Pantsuit Nation. (If you feel the need to notify me that those are inaccurate and reductive stereotypes, please don’t. I am aware!)

That didn’t happen, as Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris could tell you. Instead we have been subjected to endless, pointless, airless debates about who is more “electable,” which all boil down to the Bernie-Hillary split in barely concealed form, and which all run aground on the great reef known as Nobody-Has-a-Solitary-Clue Land.

Now we find ourselves partway through an uncomfortable remake in which Bernie Sanders is playing himself (a bit older and with a slightly different voter base) and in which Hillary Clinton has, so far and by the skin of her teeth, avoided doing the same thing. You know she wanted to! She could pretty much taste it! I encountered a thread from wounded Hillary-stans urging her to run this week, well past the ballot deadlines for nearly all the early states right through Super Tuesday. It must have been a bitter disappointment for her to hear that between Biden, Warren and Pete Buttigieg, her issues, advisers, consultants and major donors were pretty much all spoken for. (Even so, after Harris dropped out I still thought Clinton might give it a whirl.)

As stated, I have a plan for a truce between the factions, because without one the Democrats are in danger of dying in their own bonfire once again. Like any true military truce, it does not require any final agreement on who is virtuous and who is evil. I had a whole list of terms drawn up, and then I realized they all flowed from one central principle, which is then divisible into two clear propositions. Accept these terms, Democrats, and you will be free. (For the record: Ha, no — I’m not kidding myself.)

The big thing: You lost! Deal with it

Yeah, so that’s the central principle: You lost, Democrats! You fucking lost. Practice saying that in the mirror. Your candidate didn’t win the election, did s/he? And the thing that happens when you don’t win? That’s called losing. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Real Democrat who is Still With Her or a devoted Political Revolutionary ready to Burn It All Down. You lost. It's time to put on the big-girl pants. Quit creating imaginary universes where it didn’t happen, and quit whining about how you actually won except that other people were mean and weird and totally cheated. You lost. Sanders lost to Clinton and Clinton lost to Trump. There were no consolation prizes or moral victories, only the taste of blood and ashes and broken teeth. It completely sucked. That’s reality.

From that reality emerge the two planks of our truce. I already warned you that you weren’t going to like them.

  1. The 2016 Democratic campaign wasn’t rigged. Hillary Clinton won. Nobody says you have to like it.

Look, I wasn't a fan of the Democrats' 2016 nomination process either (and the revised version sucks too). But everybody understood the rules in advance, hinky as they were, and Hillary Clinton won more states and got more votes. The end. Yes, it was a much closer race than anyone expected, including Bernie Sanders, and I understand the yearning to believe that it coulda or shoulda been different. (If Sanders had won both Iowa and New Hampshire, or had won one more big state — maybe New York or California — or had kept the margins close in the South, it really might have been.) But Clinton won the nomination, approximately fair and square.

Sure, there’s a hypothetical argument that the existence of all those Clinton-committed superdelegates distorted the race from the outset and made her appear to have an insurmountable lead. There’s a more conspiratorial argument that the Democratic National Committee’s unmistakable Clinton lean depressed the Sanders vote and gave her an intangible advantage. Believe whatever you want about what might have happened under different circumstances, but to put it not-very-delicately, those are the kinds of excuses losers make.

There is no way to redeem or renew the Democratic Party without acknowledging that — at least as it was four years ago, and quite likely as it is now — Democratic voters are a lot more cautious than the party's activist base. Which, come to think of it, makes a perfect segue to Plank No. 2:

  1. Bernie didn’t give us Trump! Hate on him all you want, but Sanders and his supporters didn’t cause this.

Yeah, I’m aware of the arithmetic being waved around that purports to show that around 10 to 12 percent of Sanders’ primary voters actually voted for Trump in the general election, and that fully one in four Sanders voters didn’t turn out for Hillary Clinton. If those defectors had plugged their noses and yanked the lever for Team D, that would almost certainly have been enough to tip the scales in those three Trump states we’re all so sick of hearing about, right?

Sure. But that’s a deeply illogical, cherry-picking argument, whose only merit is that in an election that close and that flukish, you can point to any factor you want and claim it was definitive. There’s nothing special or unique about the Bernie-to-Trump voters — if you want to look at it this way, they were more than canceled out by the 10 percent of Marco Rubio supporters and the 32 percent of John Kasich supporters who wound up voting for Clinton. Perhaps more to the point, there is zero evidence that those people were ever going to vote for Hillary Clinton under any circumstances. The likeliest explanation for their voting behavior is that they hated her guts.

Those eager to blame the self-indulgent socialist BernieBros for electing Trump are deliberately ignoring data from the 2008 general election, when most sources agree that a larger proportion of Hillary Clinton's primary supporters refused to vote for Barack Obama after their acrimonious primary combat. As many as 25 percent of Clinton's supporters ended up voting for John McCain, but since Obama won easily, no one particularly noticed or cared.

Party-switching of that type isn't uncommon, and after any contested primary election there will be defectors who simply can’t stand the nominee. It’s certainly legitimate to lament the existence of Bernie-to-Trump voters. But it’s not reasonable to claim that they were loyal Democrats who were turned into evil anarchist robots by some uniquely toxic quality of the Sanders campaign.

Here's an even more important statistic: Between 3 million and 3.5 million registered Democrats or “Democrat-leaners” voted for Donald Trump in 2016. That’s more than twice as much as the most generous estimate of Bernie-to-Trump voters, yet for some reason you don’t encounter self-righteous online ire directed at those folks, who presumably were not a bunch of disgruntled leftists all het up about the oligarchy and Goldman Sachs.

Why is that, exactly? Because for the Democratic Party as currently constituted, voters who drift toward the Republicans out of racism or “economic anxiety” or culture-war issues are seen as tragic but unavoidable features of the landscape. They are mythologized and yearned after and obsessed over. Endless amounts of energy is expended on strategies meant to win them back. They are held up as compelling evidence that Democrats must “moderate” their policies in order to win elections. I probably don’t need to tell anybody reading this that the track record for that strategy isn’t all that great.

Maybe you still believe that middle-ground blandness is the only way to save democracy from the Trump threat, and Joe Biden is right that enough of the “deplorables” have repented of their 2016 vote and will come skulking back to the Democratic Party as long as its not overly radical or woke and has no goals beyond calming things down a bit. OK then! That still doesn’t explain the fact that left-wing voters who reject the Democratic Party — which a pretty small group, let’s be honest — are invariably seen as irresponsible puritans or malicious saboteurs, and are singled out for blame and shame anytime Democrats lose. 

Again, why is that? Every vote that your candidate or your party doesn’t get is equally damaging, no? Why are some treated differently from others?

Here's why: Because mainstream Democrats define themselves almost entirely in negative terms, as the opposition to the increasingly scary Republicans and the far right, and see themselves as engaged in a reasonable, responsible contest for the middle ground of American politics. Rightward pressure, even if regrettable, nurtures Democrats’ self-image. It reassures them that they stand on one pole in a Manichaean conflict between good and evil. In such a conflict, to win back voters from the Republicans at virtually any price, in order to gain or hold power, is a noble cause. 

Leftward pressure, on the other hand, is disorienting and destabilizing, and throws that moral equation into doubt. If there are more than two poles on the political compass, and if the Democratic Party has actual enemies to its left who would like to defeat it or conquer it or at least compel it to accommodate them for once, then the basic principles of America’s political duopoly and the party’s raison d’être — which foregrounds compromise, triangulation and an ideology of no-ideology — are under threat. 

Right-wing rebellion is always understood (by Democrats) as legitimate and serious, an Issue that must be addressed. Left-wing rebellion is always seen as illegitimate, perverse and contemptible, and must be crushed. Rescuing the Democratic Party from its current aimless drift — in the election year just ahead or in this new decade or just sometime in this century — is not a matter of embracing one side of that divide and rejecting the other. It's about facing an altered political landscape with honesty and clarity, and leaving behind the realm of denial, delusion and fantasy that have rendered our politics so empty and so stupid for so long.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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