By Seán Patrick Donlan
As the California Democratic primary finally, mercifully, approaches, the drama intensifies. At this point, that tension has little to do with the procedures by which the party selects its presidential candidate. Their nominee was already decided as a practical matter by a clear majority of voters and delegates over the last few months. By collecting additional delegates at this weekend’s primaries in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and winning the New Jersey primary only hours in advance of the results in California, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s lead, including publicly committed super delegates, will be insurmountable.
The real drama over the next few days concerns just how much Sen. Bernie Sanders is willing to continue to undermine the party’s prospects of a victory over Donald Trump and down ticket Republicans caught in the bumpy slipstream of his inflated ego. While eking out a win in California would further embolden Sanders, it won’t change anything. It’s true that super-delegates only formally cast their votes at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia next month. But Sanders’ hopes of convincing them to switch their allegiance to him in significant numbers is deeply delusional, not least given the contempt he’s shown the party and the damage he’s inflicted on the frontrunner.
How can we lose when we’re so sincere?!
There’s an old Peanuts comic strip from the early 1960s that starts, as so many began and ended, with Charlie Brown sulking: baseball cap on, bat in hand. “Good Grief,” he groans. Stopping and looking to the heavens, he exclaims, “One hundred and eighty-four to nothing!” “I don’t understand it …” he says, before carrying on: “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?!”
It’s difficult not to imagine that Bernie Sanders and his supporters feel the same way. He is a good man. They are largely decent people. But lacking a majority of voters or delegates, both continue to convince themselves that they possess a monopoly on public virtue. Confusing their sincerity with political savvy and their passion with policy nous, they bemoan an incomprehensible loss to someone they don’t respect, despite her long service to progressive causes.
In fairness to Sanders and his flatterers, they weren’t shut out or blown out as Charlie Brown’s team so often was. They put up a good fight despite the weakness of their star player. They moved the debate further to the Left and there remains the real possibility of future victories beyond this electoral cycle. But if that’s to happen, these sophomoric socialists desperately need to snap out of the stupor, the fantasies and false consciousness, into which they’ve fallen.
Surprisingly, the 74-year-old Sanders is the opiate of the millennial masses, a false prophet leading a lost and seemingly desperate people. And rather than offering salvation, the senator is jeopardizing the possibility of both a new progressivism and a congressional majority. Apparently unconcerned by their party or the people, Sanders and his supporters are neither particularly social Democrats nor particularly democratic Socialists.
Principle and pragmatism
I take this personally. I’ve been a Social Democrat since I was old enough to give politics any thought and long before I could give my beliefs that name. This is no small thing for a son of the South. But experience has brought, if not necessarily wisdom, an appreciation for context. Real social progress isn’t merely about sincerity but requires a delicate balance of principle and pragmatism in specific situations.
Given our two-party system, belonging to the Democratic Party has been the natural, if not entirely fulfilling, choice for American progressives of all persuasions. It’s true that the political landscape is changing. It always does. Recent shifts are, in part, the continuing response to the military adventures and economic experiments of George W. Bush. But it owes something, too, to our present impasse. For all of his soaring rhetoric and real accomplishments, President Obama is no revolutionary. Many progressives are frustrated with his innate centrism. The Great Recession and the political stasis of the President’s second term have opened up both new and recycled vocabularies of criticism.
But Democrats and progressives must be careful not to be burned. This new politics is a complex, confused assault on the establishment. It reflects blind anger as much as analysis or aspiration. It mistakes simple slogans for solutions. For many on the Right, an egotistical opportunist parading as a conservative provides easy, if shifting, answers. And on the Left, Sanders marches under the banner of the Democratic Party, with the promise of political deliverance for American socialism. But his often praiseworthy principles are usually unblemished by real world considerations or the ordinary arithmetic that even socialists must master. His political faults are multiplied by his personal prickliness and the neophyte nastiness of too many of his supporters.
Indeed, many Sandernistas simply don’t see themselves in common cause with fellow Democrats and progressives. Instead, they view themselves as a uniquely visionary vanguard. The party is merely a vehicle to advance their program. For his part, Sanders is only recently a member of the Democratic Party. And while he paints himself as a populist fighting a rigged game, his actions show him to be neither a loyal Democrat nor particularly concerned with democracy. He seeks victory at all costs.
Perhaps the current not so civil war within the Democratic Party will pass quietly. The primaries of 2008 illustrate that such a happy union remains possible after a bitter contest. And for at least two decades, various progressives have tried unsuccessfully to shift the center of the party. In the past, this often-demagogic wing of the Democratic Party ultimately accepted their defeat constructively. Playing the long game, they returned to the folds of the wider party, frustrated but faithful, rejected but realistic.
Run, Bernie, Run
But this year, despite a deficit with both voters and delegates, Sanders refuses to concede. Instead of releasing his energies against a common enemy, the senator continues to assail Secretary Clinton, often with the recycled rubbish of two decades of Republican assaults. The result is that Clinton has two opponents. Money, time, and energy that might be spent seeking progressive majorities, both in Washington and in the states, are expended on a rear-guard action. She and the party, on the other hand, treat him gently for fear that he’ll pull us all over the cliff.
And where the popular vote was once everything and super-delegates were, Sanders argued, deeply undemocratic, the senator now places all of his faith in the latter to overturn the clear will of the former. He and his acolytes cite poll numbers to suggest Clinton’s vulnerabilities without appreciating that those numbers – largely meaningless at this point – are the result of their attacks, the not-so-friendly fire that she unnecessarily endures. The likely bounce of party reconciliation and the consolidation of a strategy for the contest ahead is delayed by Sanders’ actions.
This shouldn’t obscure the not-insignificant support for Sanders’ positions. His performance has been far stronger than anyone anticipated. He’s clearly tapped into something important, something his limited legislative accomplishments can’t explain. If this energetic and enthusiastic electorate moderates or matures even slightly, they can continue to amplify their influence on the party. If they can find good will and some grace, they might even bend the political direction of the country towards a mature and responsible social democracy. But putting it all on the line risks it all.
The senator, either from a lifetime of lonely self-righteousness or the infectious energy of his own enthusiastic revivals, threatens this possibility with insouciance to electoral and political reality. Prolonging the primaries looks increasingly self-indulgent, unnecessary, and irresponsible. On the whole, it appears that Sanders doesn’t want to lead the Democrats so much as to occupy them, leaving the empty husk of the party behind when it’s served his purpose.
In fact, as calls for Sanders to run independently intensify, it’s difficult not to believe that he might still leap at the opportunity to debate both Clinton and Trump, even if he gifted the presidency to the latter. His willingness to debate Trump on his own exemplifies his unique blend of political simple-mindedness, ideological single-mindedness, and contempt for the Democratic Party. Perhaps rather than being like Charlie Brown, Sanders is the Forrest Gump of the primaries. “Run, Bernie, Run,” his sycophants shout, though no one knows quite knows where he’d go finally freed from the burdens of civility and democracy.
The senator’s successes in the race are almost certainly a surprise to Sanders. Only a week or so ago, he felt the need to tell a crowd that he wasn’t a savior. But his rhetoric regularly feeds a messianic petulance and impatience, a puerile cocktail of naïveté and arrogance. He speaks and acts as if compromise was unnecessary or immoral. As a result, the firebrand has generated fire-starters rather than free thinkers. Their paranoia convinces them that every electoral loss is a theft; each defeat merely confirms the conspiracy against them.
Worse still, the senator shields his eyes as those who oppose him – as at last month’s Nevada Democratic convention – face personal insult and, sometimes, physical intimidation from his votaries. Sanders’ disciples are not merely rancorous, but for all their cant, as anti-democratic as their master. After days of silence and evasion, the senator’s prepared, public response to the events in Nevada merely doubled down on open hostility to the party. When Calfornia Sen. Barbara Boxer, a progressive champion, said she felt threatened, Sanders’ campaign manager suggested she lied.
The sum of Sanders’ actions undermine his present influence and endanger his future legacy. More immediately, they assist the election of Trump. With the war against the Republicans already underway, Sanders preaches mutiny among the troops. Indeed, while Trump has already ramped up his attacks, the senator ignores the established political conventions of a generation that would allow Clinton to fight back with all her forces. While Trump accuses the Clintons of rape and murder and unleashes in our public discourse, a racism without even the courtesy of cover, Bernie bends the news cycle to his needs.
Speaking more like an anarchist than a democratic socialist, Sanders has already promised a contested, acrimonious, and “messy” convention. He’s used his newfound clout to install provocateurs rather than reformers to the party platform committee. He’s demanded the removal of other, accomplished Democrats. And in the last week, the senator has even begun to make vague, dark hints at political intimidation at the convention. Stories are spreading now that suggest thousands of protestors may be bussed in from out of state.
The Summer of Blood
Perhaps we should have known. Sanders came of age in the 1960s. It’s clear now that his guide for this year’s elections isn’t the Democratic peace of 2008 – or even 1963’s March on Washington with Dr. King – but the party’s pandemonium of 1968. Of course, while his faithful may be too young to remember, the Senator knows that the result of that year’s Democratic disintegration was public revulsion, a grasp for “law and order,” and the election of Richard Nixon.
The prospect of a Trump presidency would be even worse, perhaps much worse. His victory would normalize the vulgarity of his polemics – his cheap sexism, Know-Nothing nativism and racism, and easy tolerance of violence – and reward the vacuity of his policies. It could bankrupt the country of its remaining international good will. It might birth a new and very lawless order.
Sanders’ monopoly on virtue will mean nothing against a majority, or plurality, of votes in the coming general election. The sincerity of his hothouse followers will provide scant comfort under a Trump administration. If the senator isn’t careful, his campaign could install an emotionally fragile member of the billionaire class as President of our republic. If he doesn’t help to unite the party arrayed against Trump, Sanders might yet give The Donald’s tiny hands access both to the levers of the state and its nuclear codes.
Good grief! If only Sanders would “Turn on, Tune in, and Drop out” instead.
Seán Patrick Donlan is a Law Professor at the University of the South Pacific School of Law.