In a recent televised AP interview, Bernie Sanders was asked if he thought the Democratic Party convention this summer would be contentious. He replied, “I think if they make the right choice and open the doors to working-class people and young people and create the kind of dynamism that the Democratic Party needs, it’s going to be messy…Democracy is not always nice and quiet and gentle but that is where the Democratic Party should go…Democracy is messy. Everyday my life is messy. But if you want everything to be quiet and orderly and allow, you know, just things to proceed without vigorous debate, that is not what democracy is about.”
Sanders was right.
A number of Democrat-leaning commentators, most notably MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, were taken aback by Sanders’s statement, concerned that a divisive and rancorous convention could weaken the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
They were also right.
To be clear, Sanders was much more right. Democracy, even in the attenuated and quasi-oligarchic version practiced in the United States, is contentious and messy. There are real differences of opinion and interest. People are free to express their opinions and to act on their perceived interests. This generally involves conflict. The Sanders campaign has mobilized issues and constituencies. They are part of the political process, they will be heard, and they should be heeded, especially by Democratic Party leaders interested in expanding the party base and in winning the presidential election.
Elections are, at least ideally, about things that matter — issues, policies, reforms, legal recognition. If the Democratic Party hopes to win the election, it must care about these things, and it must take seriously the opinions of the diverse constituencies that make up its coalition. A party convention is not a coronation. It is an assembly designed to forge a platform through position-taking, argument, and compromise to generate energy for the general election and to select a candidate who can credibly represent that platform and its constituents and channel that energy.
The horror expressed at Sanders’s words is foolish and betrays a misunderstanding of both democracy in general and the very real political and partisan crisis in which we currently find ourselves. If there is a way beyond stasis — and I personally doubt that there is such a way — then it can come only from an openness of the Democratic Party to the constituencies and issues mobilized by Sanders and his supporters.
At the same time, the liberal pundits in question were also partly right. The United States is not a deliberative democracy, and presidential elections in particular are highly mediated and in many ways hyper-real performance contests, centered on “media moments” and played out, not in town meetings and citizen assemblies, but on television screens and Twitter feeds. This has never been clearer than it is at the current moment, when the Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump, is above all a reality TV star and media manipulator par excellence. If the Democratic Party Convention gets too contentious and too “messy,” it might be possible to describe the event as an exemplary enactment of radical democracy. But it might also be possible to describe the event as a public spectacle of confusion and weakness that will contrast mightily with the authoritarian, scripted, and produced TV spectacle that Trump will no doubt put on for the Republicans in Cleveland. Given the fact that the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is the first woman ever to run for president as a major US party candidate and that she has been subjected to 30 years of vilification with a strong sexist component, this eventuality is likely to severely weaken Clinton and to strengthen Trump.
This is not an argument for shutting down legitimate debate. There is never a good argument for shutting down legitimate debate, though no form of politics is an everlasting conversation without end points, and there surely are arguments to be made for resolving disagreements, at least provisionally, and moving on. This, however, is an argument for a mindfulness regarding consequences.
Among Sanders supporters, there seem to be two main responses to this situation. One is sometimes summed up in the phrase “Bernie or Bust.” On this view, there is little difference between Clinton and Trump, and seizing every opportunity to advocate for and publicize radical positions and demands is much more important than preventing a vicious right-wing populist from being elected. In one version of this view, if there is a problem, it is Clinton’s, and hers alone. In another, it is not even clear that Clinton — “warmonger” and “neoliberal” that she is — is better than Trump.
Robert Reich, one of the most visible Sanders supporters from the start, has effectively challenged this way of thinking in a number of recent Facebook posts that can be summed up simply: people who believe in equality have every reason to support Sanders over Clinton and Trump, but there is a huge difference between Clinton and Trump, and if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, those who refuse to support her election (at least by voting) will be enhancing the likelihood that Trump will be elected president (a supporter of Ralph Nader’s candidacy in 2000 has also made a similar plea). I know many people who are not (yet?) convinced of Reich’s argument. Although some are no doubt true believers in radical left organizing, many more seem to be motivated by a moralistic refusal to “dirty their hands” with Clinton or indeed with either of the two major parties. They would prefer to vote for the Green Party, or something else, or not to vote at all, come what may.
I consider this short sighted and unfortunate. But some people will go this route, choosing symbolic indignation over serious political judgment regarding the likely consequences of their action. And that is their choice, as regrettable and perhaps deplorable as I (and many others) may consider it to be.
A second response is much more serious and more political, and it contains genuine insight. Many versions of this response have come across my Facebook feed, best represented by a recent post by Corey Robin. An important and widely read blogger and writer, Robin has sought to avoid the more polarizing arguments between Sanders and Clinton supporters. He has made clear that there are good reasons why some on the left would support Clinton even if he does not. Although he supports Sanders, Robin has also made clear that if and when forced to choose (in November) between Clintonian neoliberalism and Trumpism, his opposition to the latter would trump his opposition to the former. At the same time, he takes issue with pundits who chastise Sanders supporters for their “combativeness” and their refusal to fall in line behind Clinton. He thus cites a recent Yougov.com poll showing that “half of Sanders voters are not yet ready to support Clinton in a Clinton-Trump matchup.” Robin responds, “I hope the Clinton campaign and its media surrogates understand: Their challenge is not the chatter on social media; it’s not the Bernie Bros; it’s not crypto-Trump supporters; it’s the voters.”
The implication seems straightforward: because Clinton claims to be the stronger and better Democratic candidate, and because she appears to be winning the primary balloting, the responsibility is now on her to mobilize an electoral coalition sufficient to defeat Trump. And if she believes that she “deserves” the support of most or at least many Sanders supporters moving forward, then she needs to earn that support by making credible commitments to the issues these Sanders supporters embrace and to a fairly organized convention in which these supporters will have a voice.
Robin is absolutely right. In an electoral democracy, no candidate is “entitled” to any votes. Every vote must be earned. And any politician who seeks public office must in the first instance assume responsibility for garnering the support they need to be elected. It is bad faith to invoke Weberian notions of “political responsibility” against Sanders supporters while absolving Clinton of primary responsibility for her own vulnerabilities as a candidate.
Nevertheless, precisely because no politician operates in a vacuum, no politician can be held exclusively “responsible” for their situation. It is reasonable to ask the Clinton camp, loudly and insistently, what are you doing to earn the support of Sanders adherents? But it is also reasonable to ask Sanders adherents, what can Clinton do, short of morphing into Sanders, to earn your support? To be clear, many Sanders supporters, and indeed sometimes Sanders himself, are prepared to furnish real answers to this question (more in a moment). But as I read the blogosphere and monitor my own very active Facebook page, I discern some troubling tendencies among many, though not all, Sanders supporters, including some very smart and good people with whom I am personally close. These include the following:
- Insensitivity to the decades of relentless and often misogynistic attacks that have been leveled against Hillary Clinton, the first woman (presumptively to be sure) to claim the mantle of leadership of a major political party in the history of the United States: This requires no further gloss. That it has motivated a great many prominent left-liberals — including many women who have long been deservedly respected for their advocacy of gender equality — to support Clinton should not be lost on anyone who takes gender equality seriously. This does not mean that feminists “must” support Clinton rather than Sanders. But it does mean that all people who care about gender equality should be mindful of the role of vicious sexism in shaping Clinton’s public image as well as the trajectory of her long career as a professional woman. They should be equally mindful of the horror and fear at the prospect of a Trump presidency that fills the hearts of so many important feminists.
- Tone deafness to Clinton’s real appeal to the many voters — more voters than have supported Sanders, however you count them — who have supported her because of her admirable stands on a range of issues that matter deeply to them as women or members of racial or sexual minorities or simply as liberals who believe in equal opportunity and Clinton’s brand of “inclusion” and “lowering boundaries” and “leaning in.” Clinton may be a neoliberal on economics; she may be a liberal hawk on foreign policy, and for many, these are the reasons to oppose Clinton and support Sanders. But for others, these things are not dispositive, or on balance, these voters lean Clinton because she “represents,” symbolically and programmatically, what they consider most important. Disagreeing, even strongly, with such people is fine. However, speaking and acting as if these people — apparently the majority of those who voted in the Democratic primary — are foolish adherents of “identity politics,” tools of neoliberalism, or otherwise inessential or lacking in “progressive” credibility is not fine. There are reasons why many interest groups traditionally associated with the center left as well as the most important labor unions support Clinton. Clinton has genuine strengths, in terms of the constituencies to whom she primarily appeals as well as her positions on many issues — especially when compared with the positions of her Republican contemporaries. At some point, it seems reasonable for Sanders supporters to recognize this.
- A level of vituperation about Clinton’s “neoliberalism” and “Wall Street ties” that far exceeds the rancor expressed toward almost any other mainstream Democratic politician, including Barack Obama, virtually all of whom are liable to the same criticisms. No serious commentator has gone farther down this road than Jeffrey Sachs — the Columbia University economist considered an architect of neoliberal “shock therapy” in the 1990s in Russia, Poland, and elsewhere and who has become a major Sanders supporter — who has declared that Clinton is “the candidate of Wall Street…[and] the candidate of the military-industrial complex…the list of her incompetence and warmongering goes on.” Clinton shares responsibility for many very bad foreign policies. But it is worth noting that these were policies of the Obama Administration, that they had much Democratic political support, and that Clinton is hardly uniquely responsible for them. To call Clinton a “warmonger” and “a threat to world peace” is a bit much. To be clear, Sachs is a smart man, and he is entitled to employ whatever rhetoric he chooses. But if anyone should appreciate the fact that power often involves “dirty hands,” it is he. In March 2012, he wrote a fascinating and exemplary piece, “What I Did in Russia,” in which he explained the complex intellectual and political responsibilities animating his economic interventions in the 1990s (“A successful economic advisor must chart out a feasible course of action that solves the acute economic problems”). I am sure he would blanch at being called “a capitalist tool” or “a destroyer of social security for millions,” and rightly so. He chose to engage in a difficult situation and to work with existing institutions, including financial and political institutions with “dirty hands,” to promote a conception of a “smooth” and “fair” [economic] reform. Is that so different from what Clinton, and the many establishment Democrats, including “Wall street people,” have done? Again, the point is not that Clinton is beyond criticism for her choices and their consequences. She has served many roles in what Louis Althusser once called “the political and ideological apparatuses of the state.” In these capacities, she has done many things for which she is and should be held responsible. But some sense of proportion should be considered in assessing this responsibility, especially amidst the obvious effort of the Trump campaign to revive every nasty slander ever leveled against the woman.
- Schaudenfraude attraction to right-wing scandal mongering about email servers, influence peddling, and the arrogance of “the Clintons” that sometimes exceeds credulity. These issues are important, but it is also important to recognize that much of the rhetoric on display is simply a rehashing of a vicious Republican propaganda campaign against the Clinton Administration back in the 1990s that involved the impeachment of a US President for a sexual indiscretion. That’s right, an indiscretion. In 1998, the President of the United States was impeached by a Republican-controlled House for the “high crime and misdemeanor” of being fellated by a female aide and lying about it. Are the Clintons beyond reproach? Of course not, but one would think that self-identified people on the left who support Sanders would also be able to acknowledge that much of this anti-Clinton hysteria is a well-orchestrated construction of the conservative media. “Vast right-wing conspiracy” might be a slight exaggeration. But only slight.
- Moralistic refusal to take “yes, kind of” for an answer: A common refrain among some Sanders supporters is that Clinton is an opportunist who has sought to steal many of Sanders’s issues. Sanders, for example, has long and nobly supported a $15 hourly federal minimum wage. In some of the debates Clinton waffled on whether she supported this policy or supported “getting there” over time. After much hedging, Clinton (seemingly) came out in support of a $12 minimum wage. This might be inadequate. It is also far in excess of the current $7.50 federal minimum wage. Is this opportunism or compromise — or both? A similar dynamic has unfolded regarding trade agreements, “too big to fail,” publicly supported access to higher education, and many other issues: Clinton has haltingly but clearly tacked to the left in response to the rhetorical and political successes of the Sanders campaign. It makes perfect sense for Sanders supporters to be skeptical of Clinton. It makes sense for Sanders activists to commit themselves to a relentless and long-term strategy of pressuring Clinton and the Democratic Party from the left, now and into the future. But as the primary season comes to a close, and as a Clinton nomination becomes almost a certainty, does it not also make sense to dial back some of the bitter rhetoric for now and to prepare in a serious way for the fact that, while the broader political struggle continues, the narrower electoral contest for the presidency in November will boil down to a choice between a flawed and compromised Hillary Clinton and a vicious and reactionary Donald Trump?
Here we arrive at the most knotty issue: the political responsibility of Bernie Sanders. This is complicated for three reasons: First, talk of Sanders’s responsibility can easily slide into a kind of absolution regarding Clinton, who now bears the major responsibility for the fate of her candidacy. Second, although the mass media has largely refrained (so far) from red baiting Sanders, most pundits have been happy to treat the Clinton nomination as a fait accompli and have often moralized about the “destructiveness” of a Sanders campaign that has by and large stayed focused on issues and that “owes” Clinton no deference. Third, these factors have helped to generate an extraordinary defensiveness among many Sanders supporters, who tend to regard any criticism of Sanders as an affront to decency.
All the same, Sanders is now a major public personality, the symbolic leader of a real movement, and a constant media presence. What he says matters. And what he has said on the topic of Clinton has been ambiguous. He has made it clear that he will ultimately work hard to defeat Trump. He has said and done many things that either state or clearly signal a willingness to engage the Democratic Party establishment, to negotiate and to compromise, and to play a constructive role in the convention and in the November campaign. Indeed, it seems pretty clear, at least to me, that this is his overriding intention.
Nevertheless, he has said and done things that raise doubts, suggesting he is willing to play “hardball” pretty far down to the wire or that the “price” of his “constructive engagement” will be unreasonably high, perhaps impossibly high. In late April, for example, Sanders articulated a position well summed up in this heading: “ Bernie Sanders Suggests Clinton Will Need to Back ‘Medicare for All’ to Win His Supporters .” Indeed, this brings us back to the recent comment about “messiness” with which I began. Sanders continues to maintain that his campaign, his delegates, and his supporters are planning to press their agenda at the Democratic convention. They have every right to do this. Further, their agenda represents important forms of “inclusion” about which Clinton comes up short. The pressing of this agenda is a good thing for the Democratic Party and for the cause of social justice. Insisting that the platform, or more importantly the Clinton campaign, incorporate Sanders positions on wages, banks, trade, health care, and public education is legitimate. Insisting that the Clinton campaign not simply gesture toward or compromise with these positions but embrace them in toto is a demand that Clinton cannot possibly accept. Her acceptance of such a demand would foolishly limit her campaign. Clinton needs Sanders supporters, but if she is going to win, she also needs her own supporters as well as independent voters and even some liberal Republicans .
This all boils down to a simple point, well-stated in the title of a just-published piece by Joshua Holland in The Nation: “Clinton Needs Sanders Supporters to Win, But Sanders Needs Clinton Supporters to Change the System .” Of course, there is a possible rejoinder to this, from many of Sanders’s supporters and perhaps even from Sanders: the Democratic party is not my party; it is simply the most convenient vehicle through which to pursue a “political revolution.” Although such a rejoinder is possible, it is not plausible and is not even “true” to what the Sanders campaign has been, done, and represented. Sanders has campaigned, mightily, for the Democratic presidential nomination. He continues this campaign, he plans to influence the party Convention, and he has assumed a major national role as a party leader.
Whereas some of his supporters might, legitimately, refuse to identify with the party — that is their choice — Sanders, and his campaign, has become linked to the party and is seeking change within the party. This makes the candidate, and the campaign, responsible for the party and electoral consequences of every move that is made between now and November. The “revolution” that Sanders has announced exceeds the party. But its fate is now tied to the fate of the party. This is a resource for Clinton, and an opportunity that she should not squander (recent actions provide a hopeful sign). It is bad to be a sore loser, but it is both bad and foolish to be an exultant and ungracious winner. Yet, it is also bad, and foolish, to be a sore loser, especially when in a broader sense you have not “lost.” The Sanders campaign has far exceeded everyone’s expectations, including those of Sanders, in opening up the Democratic Party to new constituencies and in shifting it leftward. Owning this accomplishment by joining forces with other Democratic constituencies is important to move the party forward in the general election.
There are no angels and demons in this contest between Clinton and her supporters and Sanders and his supporters. There are centrist, “neoliberal” Democrats on the one side and left-liberal Democrats and independent leftists on the other. Indeed, a host of issues traverse this divide in “intersectional” ways and others that transcend this divide. In the coming months, as these many issues are debated, two that transcend the differences will come to the fore — defeating a Trump candidacy and fighting to end the Republican control of Congress. In this fight, Clinton will almost certainly be the standard bearer, but she will not stand alone.
Clinton will succeed only if she is able to rally supporters to her side. These supporters must come from and cross various divides: They will include mainstream Democratic Party loyalists and believers in the Clinton vision; Democratic Party activists, such as US Representative Keith Ellison, who are insurgent leaders within their own party and whose commitment to Sanders is linked to their commitment to work within the party to move it leftward; voters who are moved by sheer lesser-evilism, who have no love for Clinton and no commitment to any version of liberalism, but who cannot bear the thought of a Trump Presidency (and these supporters will be crucial); and left-movement activists who were drawn to the Sanders vision and mobilized by the Sanders campaign, who are committed not to any particular politician or electoral victory, but to a cause and a movement that exceeds November 2016 and exceeds conventional two-party politics.
In 2001, Robert Kuttner, one of the founding editors of the liberal American Prospect, published a short piece entitled “Why Liberals Need Radicals.” Writing in the aftermath of the Seattle demonstrations, and perhaps anticipating the Occupy movements to come much later, he noted, “if the terms of global capitalism are finally becoming debatable, we can thank the young radicals for forcing the issue.” Kuttner explained why he nonetheless considered himself a liberal rather than a radical (readers of the American Prospect will know that as a liberal Kuttner has consistently written in support of the Sanders agenda). “But,” he concluded, “I’m glad my radical friends are there. American liberalism is weak today not because there are too many radicals to our left, but too few.”
At this moment, there are a few more radicals to the left of American liberals than there were in 2001, and there are many more citizens willing to avow support for left policies, to show up in thousands to political rallies, and to vote for a man who is an avowed “democratic socialist.” This is a moment of opportunity and a moment of challenge, for liberals and for those to their left. For liberals, the opportunity is to win a Democratic election and to strengthen the Democratic Party. The challenge is to be open to and willing to incorporate aspects of the Sanders agenda and, perhaps even more important, to welcome participation of activists who propel this agenda. For Sanders and his supporters, the opportunity is to shift public discourse in the United States to the left and to have a palpable impact on shaping the national policy agenda moving forward. Their challenge is to be willing to be incorporated and coopted by the Democratic Party establishment, for now, and to be willing to compromise with the neoliberal center and to back the candidate — Clinton — who represents this center.
To support a neoliberal candidate is not to sanctify her nor is it to embrace everything she stands for — though, I repeat, she stands for much that is good under the banner of “inclusion.” It is perfectly reasonable for Sanders supporters to continue supporting Sanders now; to work at the convention, in a spirit of constructive contention, to press the Democratic Party and its candidate to the left and to publicize and advocate on behalf of greater economic quality; to mobilize electorally in support of Clinton in the months leading up to the election; and to continue building a left movement, and advocating on behalf of its agenda, in the aftermath of the election. Timing is everything. I submit that now is the time to start dialing down the rhetoric, to focus on the issues, and to recognize that the November election, a few months away, is only an election, not the end of political contestation. At the same time, it is an election whose outcome really matters.
Neoliberalism is an impoverished form of politics. At the same time, it is still a kind of liberalism. And the November US presidential election offers a stark choice: neoliberalism or barbarism.