There are many important lessons to be gleaned from this year’s primary process, lessons that can have both positive and negative implications across the political spectrum — if, that is, they are taken to heart. They probably won’t be.
But while much of the obsessive, gaffe-hungry media honed in on the circus that is the Republican Party, the Democratic Party will emerge from the convention in July and the general election in November, whatever the results, fractured, ideologically confused, and scorned by those they have disenfranchised, neglected, and failed.
This state of affairs is not, as many have argued, the fault of Bernie Sanders.
Rather, it is the result of a culmination of factors, ranging from Hillary Clinton’s deep flaws and the DNC’s handling of the process to the broad perception that the Democratic Party has lost its way — and, as some would say, its soul.
Those who attempt to blame Sanders are looking for a cheap, painless way to avoid addressing the deeper flaws that are consuming their party from the inside. They are also attempting to divert attention from the fact that Sanders has not created these flaws — he has exposed them.
By running a principled campaign that has articulated goals and agendas to which Democrats often pay fealty, but rarely embrace in practice — from single-payer health care to a $15 minimum wage — Sanders has laid bare the ideological vapidity of the Democratic establishment.
Self-styled progressive Democrats like Barney Frank, for instance, was once (and still claims to be) an ardent supporter of campaign finance reform. He has acknowledged the corrupting nature of corporate money, and he has in the past been quick to ridicule those who believe that money has no effect on the political process.
If it were the case that money had no influence on politicians, Frank once observed, “we’d be the only human beings in the history of the world who on a regular basis took significant amounts of money from perfect strangers and made sure that it had no effect on our behavior.”
In other words, when a candidate insists that they are not influenced by corporate cash, they are peddling nonsense.
But in 2016, Barney Frank has changed his tune dramatically.
In an effort to justify his support for a candidate who has embraced the kind of fundraising schemes Democrats claim to repudiate, Frank has harshly criticized Bernie Sanders for engaging in what he, on one occasion, called “McCarthyism of the left.”
Instead of criticizing Clinton for raising funds in a way that subverts the basic precepts of democracy, Frank has consciously chosen to direct his ire at Sanders, who has raised funds in principled, unprecedented, and inspiring ways.
Frank’s move here — one that shifts the burden of one candidate’s flaws onto her opponent — embodies the behavior of the Democratic Party over the past several decades, and during the 2016 primary, in particular.
Confronted by a candidate who actually believes what they merely say they believe to pick up progressive votes, Democrats have, repeatedly and consistently, shown themselves to be the opponents of, not advocates for, ambitious goals and social agendas like the implementation of single-payer health care, a complete overhaul of the campaign finance system, democratization of the political process, and the cultivation of an economic system that lifts working families.
Instead, argues Connor Kilpatrick, “Democratic Party liberals have been concerned not with an egalitarian reckoning to unite the have-nots against the haves but with inclusion: bringing different ‘interest groups’ into the professional class while managing everyone else’s expectations downward.”
In an effort to win elections, Democrats abandoned their working class base in favor the professional class and the riches of corporate sponsorship — and, as a consequence, they have adopted swaths of the Republican agenda to appease, and prove themselves worthy of, this new, and far wealthier, base of support.
The Democratic Party is now, in short, doing out in the open what it has done behind the scenes for years: Shedding principled positions in favor of so-called pragmatic alternatives.
Democrats have abandoned democracy because it’s inconvenient; self-styled progressives have abandoned progress because it’s impractical.
The result is a party of doom and gloom, one that dismisses as fantastical proposals that once occupied the center of the Democratic program.
Hillary Clinton, while touting her personal history of supporting universal health care, declared, after Bernie Sanders put forward his Medicare for All plan, that it will “never, ever come to pass.” This is despite the fact that most Americans, and even many Republicans, favor single-payer.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, has presided over the reversal of rules, implemented by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, that prevented federal lobbyists and political action committees from donating to the DNC.
She, like Hillary Clinton, has been a key partner of corporate America — the payday loan industry, in particular.
And she has — despite the fact that most Democrats favor open primaries — suggested that, if she had the power, she would eliminate open primaries, allowing only officially sanctioned Democrats to have a say.
She, like many high-ranking Democrats, is far more concerned about cultivating a party in which everyone falls in line on cue — an environment that cannot exist when independents (a significant percentage of the population) are able to influence the process. Aside from the fact that this is a brazenly anti-democratic position, it also validates the view of many — including many on the left — that Democratic Party liberals embody a posture of smugness and intellectual arrogance from which they so often pretend to be immune.
It is also worth noting the loyalty politics that come into play here: While Democratic leaders present their party as one of openness, inclusion, and free thought, their attitudes toward independents — those who pay no allegiance to either major political party — are often condescending, scornful, and dismissive, revealing their distaste for those who don’t walk the party line.
This distaste has gradually emerged throughout the primary process, as Democrats have chided Bernie Sanders for not rising to the standards set by “real Democrats” — as if this were a scathing insult rather than a compliment.
And, needless to say, this hostility is often reserved for independents on the left, those who attempt to push the Democrats toward social democracy and away from the neoliberal consensus that has worsened deep poverty and inequality while providing the framework within which the wealthy can pursue their ambitions unhindered by countervailing powers.
Sanders has angered Democrats by pointing repeatedly to these trends and refusing to “tone it down” — refusing, in other words, to walk back principled positions to salvage “party unity.”
Another accomplishment of the Sanders campaign is that he has adjusted expectations upward, against the downward pressure exerted by Democrats espousing a philosophical approach to change that Matt Karp terms “fortress liberalism,” an approach that, while shrouded in the garb of pragmatism, acts to “disguise what is effectively a right-wing retrenchment.”
Because of these self-imposed blinders, establishment Democrats have, as Matt Taibbi puts it, viewed the movement Sanders has sparked not “as an honest effort to restore power to voters,” but as an oddity to be dismissed.
“If the party threw its weight behind a truly populist platform,” Taibbi argues, “if it stood behind unions and prosecuted Wall Street criminals and stopped taking giant gobs of cash from every crooked transnational bank and job-exporting manufacturer in the world, they would win every election season in a landslide.”
Instead, they have chosen the path of comfort and opulence — the path that flows nicely through corporate boardrooms and luxury galas and around the suffering of the millions the party has so flippantly abandoned.
This post first appeared in Common Dreams.