Last week the New York Times published an op-ed entitled “The Center Cannot Hold.” Writing after the Iowa caucus, Elizabeth Bruenig observed that “the Democratic Party’s center is panicking” due to Bernie Sanders’s strong showing, arguing that while this result “is no guarantee that he will win the nomination . . . it is a powerful repudiation of establishment hegemony — and an inflection point in the battle between the party’s center and left wing.”
Bruenig is one of many young writers on the left to take heart from the mainstream Democratic panic over Sanders’s ascendancy. On Facebook, Alex Gourevitch, a fine political scientist and frequent contributor to Jacobin, was even more emphatic.
“The jury is out on what Bernie’s ultimate effect will be,” wrote Gourevitch, adding that Sanders represents “a more organized movement far more ready to take over and transform the Democratic Party — or possibly break it apart if resistance from the New Democrat/Clinton/Obama wing is too great.” Gourevitch welcomes the later possibility:
Should that happen, the Dems will have brought it upon themselves and they will deserve it. Having held their own constituencies in relative disdain, held its base hostage, and done everything they could to freeze out and repress the Left (outside and to the left of the party), the Democrats left no other choice but what has become the Bernie strategy. . . Part of why I support Bernie is that he brings this process to a head, forces out into the open differences that otherwise have been smoothed over. It is unclear to me that, given the constraints on American party politics listed above, there would have been any other way to really test the limits of existing institutions and show the real character of the ruling parties.
About this much, Gourevitch is right: The Democratic center is in disarray, and the Sanders campaign is sharpening the contradictions within the Party, as a Marxist might say.
But is this a good thing?
On balance, I fear not.
As I consider the most likely immediate consequences of this intra-party conflict, and weigh them against the (strong) probability of a Trump re-election, the likelihood of a political disaster looms very large.
But let’s imagine for a moment that Sanders wins, as Gourevitch hopes. Then what?
In her Times op ed, Bruenig quotes historian Michael Kazin: “If he won the nomination, I think obviously he would take over the party. . . every congressional candidate would either have to get on board with his politics, more or less, or at least make peace with him.”
But this is doubtful. If Sanders wins the nomination, this would place him in instant tension with those down ballot candidates — almost all down ballot candidates — whose Senate and House victories cannot possibly be won by running on the platform of Medicare for All and “democratic socialism” — the platform that Sanders has run on forever. Even if the Democrats, against the odds, are able to take back the Senate while running behind Sanders, then Sanders would likely face a House led by Pelosi, and a Senate led by Schumer. These leaders will not cave to Sanders the way McConnell has caved to Trump, because on most policy issues, Trump and the Republican leadership are aligned in a way that Sanders and the Democratic leadership will never be aligned. But it seems more likely that Sanders as President would face a weakened House majority and a continued Republican Senate majority.
Either way, Sanders will either be unable to govern, or else he will be forced to move to the center, where he will govern in a way little different than the way a Biden or a Klobuchar might govern. But moving to the center would entail alienating his socialist supporters, suggesting that he promised changes to his supporters that he couldn’t deliver. At the same time, the lingering threat that he might yet move more aggressively toward socialism in the future is liable to further inflame his opposition. This is a recipe for major House losses in 2022 and a one-term presidency.
This may be the best-case scenario for a Sanders victory.
To be clear, this is not worse than four more years of Trump. And it might ultimately be the best we can hope for.
But it does not represent a fundamental break with capitalism. And it presents grave risks.
For the more likely scenario is that Sanders would lose to Trump in the general election.
Trump appears emboldened and strengthened by recent developments — his so-called impeachment “victory,” rising popularity ratings, and macro-economic numbers that play to his advantage. This will make it hard for any Democrat to run against him, in spite of — and in some cases because of — the many awful aspects of his administration. But it will probably make it especially hard for Sanders to run against him. Hard does not mean impossible. I am aware of the claims that Sanders might be able to run particularly strong in the “rust belt” states that swung the 2016 election. But even if true, the same logic raises questions about whether Sanders can hold many of the other mildly blue or purple states in which Democrats were able to advance in 2016 and 2018. Yes, some surveys suggest that younger voters are enthusiastic about Sanders and even favorably disposed toward “socialism.” But surveys are a weak gauge of firm support, and there are serious doubts about whether youth turnout can compensate for other weaknesses. And even more serious doubts about whether any avowed socialist can win in the face of the relentless red-baiting that Trump has already commenced.
These doubts are hardly new. In a very sobering post mortem of the 2016 election, Kurt Eichenwald described the Trump oppo research on Sanders that he’d seen:
So what would have happened when Sanders hit a real opponent, someone who did not care about alienating the young college voters in his base? I have seen the opposition book assembled by Republicans for Sanders, and it was brutal. The Republicans would have torn him apart. . . Here are a few tastes of what was in store for Sanders, straight out of the Republican playbook: He thinks rape is A-OK. In 1972, when he was 31, Sanders wrote a fictitious essay in which he described a woman enjoying being raped by three men. Yes, there is an explanation for it — a long, complicated one, just like the one that would make clear why the Clinton emails story was nonsense. And we all know how well that worked out.
Then there’s the fact that Sanders was on unemployment until his mid-30s, and that he stole electricity from a neighbor after failing to pay his bills, and that he co-sponsored a bill to ship Vermont’s nuclear waste to a poor Hispanic community in Texas, where it could be dumped. You can just see the words “environmental racist” on Republican billboards. And if you can’t, I already did. They were in the Republican opposition research book as a proposal on how to frame the nuclear waste issue.
Also on the list: Sanders violated campaign finance laws, criticized Clinton for supporting the 1994 crime bill that he voted for, and he voted against the Amber Alert system. His pitch for universal health care would have been used against him too, since it was tried in his home state of Vermont and collapsed due to excessive costs. Worst of all, the Republicans also had video of Sanders at a 1985 rally thrown by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua where half a million people chanted, “Here, there, everywhere/the Yankee will die,” while President Daniel Ortega condemned “state terrorism” by America. Sanders said, on camera, supporting the Sandinistas was “patriotic.”
The Republicans had at least four other damning Sanders videos (I don’t know what they showed), and the opposition research folder was almost 2-feet thick. (The section calling him a communist with connections to Castro alone would have cost him Florida.) In other words, the belief that Sanders would have walked into the White House based on polls taken before anyone really attacked him is a delusion built on a scaffolding of political ignorance.
Could Sanders still have won? Well, Trump won, so anything is possible. But Sanders supporters puffing up their chests as they arrogantly declare Trump would have definitely lost against their candidate deserve to be ignored.
It is striking to me how easily many of Sanders’s hard-core supporters dismiss these concerns.
While they focus on the structural ills of capitalism and the political power of capitalists (“the ruling class”), they give short shrift to the fact that American capitalism is a political and a cultural system as much as it is an economic one.
Yes, there is a proud tradition of American socialism, and there have been important moments of synergy between socialism and American liberalism. But there is also a very strong mobilization of bias against “socialism,” rooted in decades of Cold War history, in the distorted ways that history is taught in public schools, and in the power of a politics of resentment that has targeted the left ever since the sixties.
Trump is the ultimate evil showman of American politics. Think of how he eviscerated Hillary over “Benghazi” and e-mails. That was before he was in control of the bully pulpit. Now he has the entire apparatus of the government at his disposal. He is ramping up his attacks on “the radical left,” using Venezuela as his primary example.
Is there any reason to doubt that Sanders would be a perfect target for Trump, Fox, Breitbart, and every single Republican running for elected office in 2020? Some favorable surveys about “socialism,” a plurality of primary votes, and the genuinely uplifting 2018 victories of AOC and the Squad do not a mass “political revolution” make. And while Sanders has been successful in shifting public discourse to the left, mobilizing a core of young left-wing voters, and holding his own in Democratic primaries, this does not mean that he would be a strong candidate to run against Trump now. And the risks associated with him doing so are greatly accentuated because he is running at a moment when a Democratic defeat would be a disaster for the Democratic party, for the left, and for democracy.
I thus strongly agree with Michelle Goldberg. “Sanders still has the advantage of energy and ardor,” she writes in a recent piece in the Times: “Still, with the survival of American democracy at stake, it seems like a wild gamble for Democrats to turn the fight against Trump into a referendum on Democratic socialism at a time when Americans’ personal economic satisfaction is at a record high. The way things are going, the fate of American democracy could soon be Bernie or bust. I envy those who find that exhilarating rather than terrifying.”
It is true that “the center” is now faltering. But without a center, symbolically speaking, nothing can hold. The challenge for the broad democratic left is simultaneously to defeat Trump’s imminent threat to constitutional democracy and shift the center to the left, so that real policy change becomes possible. Sanders, and the movement he inspires and leads, is playing a crucial role in doing this; the Democratic policy debate today is far more progressive than it was under Obama. But there are huge risks associated with his ascendancy to the nomination at this particular time, and attentiveness to these risks is not a sign of moral turpitude or reaction. More importantly, there are even greater risks associated with the fraying of the Democratic party’s ability to eventually unify behind a candidate. Whoever this candidate is, a Democratic victory will require compromises within the loose and frail Democratic coalition. Such compromises are possible. But they will require real political leadership from many quarters, and an immediate suspension of the “war” between the party’s factions. Differences about policy and ultimate goals surely exist and ought to be debated. But now is not the time to perform a decisive ideological confrontation, or to burn the bridges that will be necessary to defeat Trump in November, whoever emerges triumphant in this primary.
“The center cannot hold” is the most powerful line in W.B. Yeats’s poem “Second Coming.” But it ought to be read in proper context:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
. . .
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Nick Tabor, writing in the Paris Review, observed that “‘The Second Coming’ may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English.” He reminds us that “Yeats began writing the poem in January 1919, in the wake of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and political turmoil in his native Ireland”; that the poem “suggests something like the Christian notion of a ‘second coming’ is about to occur, but rather than earthly peace, it will bring terror. . . and all manner of systematized atrocity”; and that “Of course, twentieth-century history did turn more horrific after 1919, as the poem forebodes.”
I encourage everyone to think hard about this.
I am not sure whether I fully agree with my colleague Jim Miller that we are living at a “Weimar Moment.” But I share his sense of foreboding, and also his belief that now is a time for liberals and leftists to work together to avert disaster. If the “arc of history” sometimes bends toward justice, it also sometimes bends toward calamity. One of the most prescient commentaries on this appeared in a widely-read mid-nineteenth century pamphlet about political struggle, which spoke of a “now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” We have come a long way since Marx and Engels prophesied the transcendence of capitalism in their 1848 Communist Manifesto. We have seen some progress, but also much contending ruin, in the ensuing years. Hopefully we can all take a step back, and do what we can to avoid any more of it.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.