Progressive pundits across the spectrum have been blasting out a resounding message in the last week: it’s time for Sanders to stop attacking Clinton and the Democratic Party directly. That doesn’t mean Sanders should drop out, or refrain from making his withering and accurate critiques of unrestrained capitalism, Wall Street, and big-donor fueled politics on both sides of the aisle. Sanders can and should continue to push back against the neoliberals and incrementalists in the party and demand that Democrats offer a more visionary and bolder approach, and he should maintain his focus on corralling and curtailing the financial sector–not just the shadow banking industry but more importantly the big banks.
But in truth, the sort of political revolution the Sanders campaign ostensibly has been pushing for rarely originates in the form of a top-down presidential run or Oval Office win. It bubbles up from the bottom.
That’s why, in the wake of Howard Dean’s unfortunate 2004 loss at the hands of establishment Democrats who turned all their fire on him, he recommended that his activists run for central committees and local offices all across America to reinvigorate and renew the Democratic Party in a progressive mold, from the ground up. A large number of those inspired by the Dean campaign did just that, and used their influence in local primaries to push more progressives into statehouses and ultimately into Congress as well. Howard Dean himself made great strides in implementing the 50-state strategy as head of the DNC, ensuring that a progressive message would be heard and that organizers would be hired all across the country.
The Sanders campaign is well equipped to do likewise. For now, most of the attention is on whether Sanders will be able to influence the Democratic Party platform at convention. But that’s frankly tiny potatoes compared to making a difference downballot.
Whether you agree with Sanders and his voters or not, tactically speaking going after downballot primaries is the right approach for a populist base voter insurgency. When movement conservatives wanted to take over the Republican Party from the Eisenhower crowd, they started at the local level and moved their way up. When the Tea Party wanted to overtake the establishment, they began with primaries that ultimately engulfed and ousted even Eric Cantor. That energy has been a boon to conservative politics and pushed the country rightward. It also set the stage for Donald Trump’s run, which has torched a moribund Republican establishment that still looks to the failed decades-old policies of Ronald Reagan in an increasingly globalized and automated world that abuses and discards workers even in developed economies. Trump may be bad for the GOP brand with minorities and women, but his embrace of domestic jobs over corporate profits will ultimately be a necessary course correction and boon for the party.
Regarding Sanders, his backers are unlikely to snatch any primary victories in the short term–and the victories would need to happen for the right reasons to maintain long-term credibility. The big story at the moment surrounds Sanders voters attempting to primary DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz on account of her handling of the DNC and perceived bias against the Sanders campaign. However, while she has undoubtedly tipped the scales in Clinton’s favor, Sanders supporters would be better served reinforcing their populist, anti-Wall Street credentials by focusing on Wasserman-Schultz’ defense of payday lenders, instead.
The 2018 midterms will provide a great test of whether the brand of progressive populism championed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can actually have the lasting staying power of movement conservatism. The so-called political revolution will need to win primaries in open seats, and even potentially supplant some of the most conservative and/or finance-industry-backed Democrats. That would do far more good for the movement’s stated goals at this point, than continued attacks on Clinton and the Democratic Party itself.