Advice to Bernie Sanders from a Supporter: Keep It Positive From Here

It’s no secret to my regular readers here at Washington Monthly (and prior to that at Digby’s Hullabaloo) that I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter. It’s in my political DNA: I was a Howard Dean backer in 2004 and remain convinced that he would have won where Kerry lost. I supported Obama over Clinton in 2008 in the hope that he would bring on different and more liberal economic advisers than Clinton’s band of Rubinites (sadly, he did not) and that he would use his personal popularity to force Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress to cower in the face of a populist OFA army demanding real hope and change (sadly, that didn’t happen, either.) I know that a Clinton presidency will bring more of the same brand of cautious center-leftism that has mostly characterized the Obama administration, even as I remain convinced that the forces of automation and globalization will ultimately necessitate the (welcome) end of wage slavery as an institution and the consequent need for safety net policies well to the left of Canada or Sweden, much less the comparatively barbaric United States.

I have backed Sanders because I remain convinced that even if we were to eliminate every form of race, gender, orientation and other prejudice in the United States, the biggest and most obnoxious forms of predatory economic injustice would remain, in the form of the abuse of the 99.9% by the .1% of asset-holding rent seekers who control most of the wealth and nearly all of the political power. When Clinton responds to Sanders’ anti-Wall Street bromides by saying that there are other barriers to equality as well, it sounds less like social inclusion than it does deflection, using the aspirational economics of traditionally underprivileged groups to shield the donor classes from righteous populist anger and redirect it at Trump’s base instead–when the reality is that both Trump’s and Sanders’ voters are being most abused by the donor classes that ensure that neither party acts quickly to change the fundamental economic structures of American society. There is an aversion among comfortable upper-middle-class types in both parties to the sort of harsher rhetoric used by Sanders or Trump who decry the incivility and unseriousness of it all, when the political moment frankly demands people who are willing to tell the Washington Consensus economic elites who have failed at every level for the past 30 years to get out of the way and let someone else have a try.

That’s why I’ll be voting for Bernie Sanders when my vote-by-mail ballot arrives in my California mailbox this week. If nothing else, the future of the Democratic Party belongs to Sanders and his voters, and as Greg Sargent notes, those who sneer at Sanders are making a mistake.

So let my Sanders-backing bona fides not be in doubt when I offer this friendly advice to my candidate: keep it positive and end the attacks on Clinton.

By now it should be clear that absent some terribly unwelcome development, Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee. Which in turn means that Hillary Clinton almost certainly will be. Sanders and many of his supporters may feel frustration and anger at that fact, and at the myriad ways that the institutional Democratic party has helped to push the outcome in this direction. But that’s the reality in which we live: an aggressive takeover of a hostile centrist party apparatus is very difficult to pull off. Sanders came close, but couldn’t get over the top–in large part because of his inability to attract older and especially older minority voters.

That means the general election is now down to Trump and Clinton. Between the two, it’s not even a close call. Donald Trump’s version of the Republican Party is in some ways better than Paul Ryan’s, but in many ways it’s also worse. Trump is a racist, politically violent megalomaniac who under the right circumstances could literally bring fascism to America. Economically, his policies would only be slightly to the left of Mitt Romney’s; socially, most of his policies hearken back to the Jim Crow era for all but LGBT Americans. Hillary Clinton may not be the aggressively angry, populist, anti-fracking, anti-Wall Street messenger that many Sanders supporters might want, but she’ll be at least as good as or even better than Barack Obama on most fronts that liberals care about. And despite some complaints here and there (especially about not going after Wall Street nearly hard enough) Obama has been pretty good, all things considered.

There was a time for making personal attacks on Clinton on her record and her coziness with financial elites. With the nomination no longer in doubt, that time is now past.

As Sanders figures out a pathway forward, it is abundantly clear that his anti-Clinton message is counterproductive and unnecessarily harsh. Anyone paying attention to the primary knows that Clinton has been friendly with Goldman Sachs and has an unsatisfactory record on fracking. People like me who are going to vote for him and against her on that basis are already going to do so. He needn’t belabor the point, while providing increasing ammunition against her to the Trump campaign.

Sanders didn’t fail to gain the nomination by being too soft on Clinton. He failed because it was almost impossible to succeed in the first place against the Clinton juggernaut, because not enough older voters are angry enough to want major changes, and because for a myriad of reasons he failed to convince enough middle-aged and older people of color. 2024 or (heaven forbid) 2020 will be a different story: it will be an opportunity for Sanders’ politics to break through and dominate as millennials become an even greater force in the electorate.

For now, however, the time has come to focus on the positive. Sanders should take his case all the way to the convention, arguing for the things he has all year: a universal set of social protections for all Americans including education and healthcare; a more aggressive approach to tackling climate change; and an oppositional approach to Wall Street that understands that Wall Street’s gains are Main Street’s losses, that we not in fact all in it together, and that a rising tide will not in fact lift all boats. That message should resonate all the way through to the Democratic convention. And Sanders should continue to invigorate Democrats to vote in the primaries in all the rest of the states in order to boost our downballot candidates.

But the time for direct attacks on Clinton has now come to an end. Let’s keep it positive, stop Donald Trump in 2016 and build the movement for a better, more progressive Democratic Party well into the future.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.