Perhaps it is unfortunate, in a way, that Bernie Sanders has a substantial amount of personal charisma and has won the allegiance of quite a number of people based on them liking him personally rather than for what he has to say about U.S. foreign policy and economic justice. The reason I say this isn’t because I think this number is that large, but more because it has contributed to a sense that there is a Cult of Bernie with ardent and sometimes misbehaving acolytes. Some people call them Bernie Bros., but that insulting catch-all doesn’t capture what’s driving so many Democrats into the arms of an (until recently) independent Socialist who is still a harsh critic of the Democratic Party and its leadership.
From a personal perspective, I’ve been traveling in progressive circles for more than a decade now, and I’ve been part of the liberal blogosphere almost since its inception. By far, most of the people I’ve become acquainted with, many of whom are among the most committed and experienced Democratic organizers and partisans you will find, have been Bernie Sanders supporters from the beginning of this campaign. By and large, they aren’t part of any cult and they haven’t been drinking any Kool-Aid.
The liberal blogosphere snapped into existence at a time when it seemed that the Democratic Party had lost its way. They had lost the election in 2000 (made it close enough to steal, if you will), had failed to stop Bush’s devastating tax cuts, and were showing no backbone against Bush’s post-9/11 national security insanity. In the 2002 midterms, the Democrats performed much worse than expected.
Meanwhile, the media was not questioning the assumptions behind or the factual basis for the march to war in Iraq, and they were painting concerned citizens as unpatriotic.
In the beginning, the progressive backlash against this didn’t much include any retrospective condemnation of the Clinton administration, except to the limited degree that some blamed it for letting things get so out of whack. It wasn’t until we had the 2008 primary that progressives began having an internal argument about the legacy of the Democratic Leadership Council and the triangulating ways of Bill Clinton. This was fueled further when the economy collapsed in September of that year, which eventually led to the Occupy Movement and a further split on the progressive left.
And, while there was a split between pragmatic progressives who were primarily interested in the Obama administration’s success and more idealistic progressives who were taking to the streets, they still agreed on some basics, including that our foreign policy establishment is too hawkish, we are badly in need of real meaningful campaign reform, and that wealth disparities are far too great in this country. When Bernie Sanders entered the race carrying that message, it was natural that progressives of all stripes would find it very attractive.
Many of them didn’t think Sanders was a serious candidate. Some liked his message but didn’t think he was an ideal messenger. But they supported him anyway because they wanted the message heard by the Democratic Party. And one way to get that message across was to elect delegates to the convention who would voice it. The more delegates, the better, but it wasn’t really about winning the nomination for Sanders.
What I am saying is that what began for a lot of people as a vehicle for change within the party became somewhat of a victim of its own surprising successes. Sanders has won primaries in 20 states, and won about 45% of the pledged delegates to the convention, and so he’s now seen as a serious candidate by a lot of people who have grown so committed that they’re fighting as hard as they can against impossible odds to get him elected.
And they’re beginning to irritate a lot of Democrats who want to get on with the general election and are worried about polls that show Trump uniting Republicans while the Democrats are still badly divided.
These irritated Democrats are lashing out at Sanders’ supporters, saying that they aren’t real Democrats, and they don’t care about the party. They’re saying that they’ll stay home in November or vote for Trump out of spite. They’re deluded and violent and threatening and disloyal.
But don’t forget who most of these people are and why they care about politics and policy. Because the Sanders supporters aren’t just the most obnoxious person you just encountered on Twitter. Among their rank include a huge percentage of the folks who stood up back in 2002 and said that something was terribly wrong with the country and with the Democratic Party. And they were right back then, and they got organized, and they put some backbone in the party and they got progressive-minded people elected, and they turned opposition to the war in Iraq from a liability to the official position of the Democratic Party and the president who was elected in 2008.
What they’re saying now is that we still need to question the Washington Playbook on foreign policy, and we need to have more urgency about climate change, and we have to get serious about doing something about money in politics, and that the Democrats have to pivot away from the donor class and develop programs that will appeal to middle class folks who are really struggling in this economy.
It’s hard to see where they’re wrong about any of this, at least in the big picture. Even if their critiques often break down when analyzed at a more granular level, that doesn’t mean that the aspirational nature of their critiques should be silenced.
So, what the Sanders campaign really is when you get past the idiosyncrasies of Bernie Sanders, is an expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire to change the party to meet the needs of the country on a more urgent basis. And the practical way that can be done is by having their voices heard at the convention. To the degree that this ambition is shunted, the progressive conscience of the party is marginalized and frustrated.
The focus shouldn’t be so much on personalities or the worst behavior of the loudest and most annoying people. It should be on the big picture. Young people, in particular, are vastly more attracted to the Sanders message than what is being offered by Clinton. These are potentially Democratic Party members for life, but that isn’t going to happen automatically, and especially not if they feel that their beliefs are unacceptable and have been defeated.
The youth, the committed organizers, the fighters who stood up when no one else would, these are not simple Bernie Bros. or chair-throwers or disloyal Johnny-Come-Latelys. If they are lumped all together, insulted, and told that they are not welcome, that’s going to come with a cost for the Democratic Party that the party won’t want to pay.
Clinton will be the nominee of the Democratic Party, and she wants to win. That means that dealing with this division in the party is her problem. She’s got to figure out the best way to bring the party together. If that means being a bigger person, or if that means making an uncomfortable concession, or if that means adopting or even co-opting some of the Sanders agenda, then those are things she’ll have to consider.
What won’t work is pretending that progressives are all primarily concerned with one individual named Bernie Sanders and that this is all about him.
It never was all about him. It just got to seem that way.