Let’s start with this question: Is there a Democratic Party “establishment”?
David Plouffe, who was on the News Hour last week talking about his new book and a radically pruned Democratic presidential candidate field, says there isn’t. I guess Plouffe (pronounced “Pluff” — I have been calling him “Ploofe” for years) should know. If there were an establishment, he would be in it.
On the other hand, ask various Washington policy advisors if they were members of Yale’s secret society Skull and Bones. Then watch them stand up and leave the room.
I’m just saying.
But unlike my more leftish brethren, I see “establishments” as not just inevitable in a democracy, but in the forms of socialism and communism so profoundly admired among Sanders partisans. History suggests that establishments are sometimes engines of, and sometimes brakes on, progress. As one academic colleague subtweeted this morning, it is forms of critical thinking like this, grounded in decades of historical research, that makes me a shill for neoliberalism.
But I don’t think so: I think it makes me a clear-eyed leftist (forgive me if I don’t ask you about your MA in American Studies.) And, like Elizabeth Warren, I will persist in my determination to create change within democratic processes when I can. Sometimes progress requires blood and teeth on the floor — but candidates who choose that as a default position shouldn’t be surprised if voters fear them.
It is also worth noting that “Establishments” don’t take out candidates in a democracy. Voters do. And don’t color me naive. I write this as a heart-broken Warren partisan who was appalled at the number of prominent politicians who tweeted their praise last week (yes, I am looking at you, Deval Patrick), but actively undermined Warren’s candidacy.
The voice of the ordinary Democratic voter spoke loudly last week, and it is impossible to believe that these voters had members of the Establishment frog-marching them into the voting booth and forcing a vote for Biden.
Voters, even in her home state, clearly said “no” to Elizabeth Warren, and that has been hard to hear. I saw lots of folks on Twitter begging Warren to remain in the race. But past a certain point, as Warren herself pointed out in an exclusive interview with Rachel Maddow (March 5), letting go can be the best way to repay the loyalty of staffers and volunteers. Also, the more it becomes clear that a campaign cannot succeed, the more voters migrate elsewhere, and the more rapidly the candidate’s influence on the party platform diminishes.
Another online phenomenon was women and men who had imagined all along that Bernie Sanders would be their second choice facing reality — and making noises about Biden. The consensus right now is that the Warren vote will break pretty evenly to Biden and Sanders, and thus have a negligible effect on next week’s primaries.
But I don’t think so: I believe that Warren supporters — educated, wine-drinking, progressives all! — are likely to see the Sanders campaign’s failure to engage African American voters and juice youth turnout as a sign to coalesce around the establishment-that-is-not-one.
Because of this, some online Sanders activists seem to be in the middle of a mild freak out: all of the things they presumed to be right about the electorate are not panning out. It seems to be dawning on some of them — although not others — that abusing and harassing people on social media, and ubiquitous tweets about forcing Warren supporters to “bend the knee,” won them no friends.
Still, a typical response to our failure to leave the past behind goes like this: “Just because you once got your feelings hurt, you want to deny healthcare to millions of people?”
I want to stipulate that Sanders is a genuinely unusual, visionary, and extraordinary candidate who has moved the conversation in the Democratic party dramatically. No one in the Warren camp doubts that. But he is not the only person who can reform healthcare. Furthermore, this failure to recognize that principled political radicals have also provided a safe space for a sizable number of unhinged people has, in a nutshell, caused diminished confidence in Sanders’s judgment and philosophy of governance. As Jeff Isaac pointed out last week, he has consistently failed to understand that attacking the Democratic party as inherently corrupt might cause the majority of Democrats to question his capacity to lead it.
Party politics are, at their core, the politics of compromise. Yet Sanders and his partisans have shown little talent for that so far. They believe that only Sanders can achieve the policy goals that he and Warren share. They think that the challenges we face — education, debt relief, climate change, and universal healthcare among them — can only be achieved by bludgeoning Washington into submission. They believe that Sanders is uniquely qualified for this thuggish and thoroughly undemocratic way of doing business. Moreover, they believe that everyone who does not support Sanders is acting in bad faith — but that they never do.
The campaign’s chief vulnerability is that Sanders himself has never grappled with this problem. He refuses to acknowledge the importance of online rage to his campaign’s mass appeal. Until recently, Sanders had a Twitter troll with 4,000 private followers, some of whom must have been on the campaign staff, as his Michigan field director. Graphic evidence that the monster was in the house causes many of us to be concerned that a prospective Sanders presidency might mean exchanging Donald Trump’s paranoid, executive-driven style of governance for a left-wing version of the same thing.
In other words, it is a political — not a rhetorical, or emotional — problem. As Slate’sVirginia Heffernan put it in this tweet, the toxicity of the Sanders movement reveals a troubling vision of what constitutes legitimate politics. Sanders partisans’ implicit assertion that a candidate can campaign with one style and govern with another is pure rubbish: do they not recall the constant reassurances that Donald Trump was not who he seemed to be?
Part of what a campaign season does, particularly one as long as this one, is to provide a very public stage for a candidate’s governance style. I leave it to the experts why masses of African-American voters rejected Sanders for Biden. But it is worth considering that a negative, fear-driven campaign is less than appealing to a community of voters who have a history of being historically targeted by angry white people.
There is no answer to this but to clean house, and Sanders must do it immediately to win back the Democratic party’s left-wing.
As someone who participated in the melancholy task of closing my local Warren campaign office in Northampton, Massachusetts, yesterday, I couldn’t be more distressed about voters’ unwillingness to endorse a progressive agenda. The vision we all fought for would probably only succeed in bits and pieces under a Biden presidency.
But we need a more thoughtful answer to this than to blame the “establishment.” Progressive policymaking that exceeds Obama-ism is was soundly rebuffed by a majority of voters in our party last week.
Our defeated little band took pleasure in one thing: although Warren only won 21.4% of the vote in Massachusetts to finish third — we won Northampton for Elizabeth Warren. No, you can’t run the country from Brooklyn, Northampton, or Austin. But an inclusive, progressive plan for the Democratic Party is not dead, even if we can’t have the presidency. Yet.
Warren supporters will not stop dreaming big or fighting hard. But succeed in November, we must. There is no other choice before us but to defeat Donald Trump, whoever the nominee is. I hope Sanders partisans — should they join us in the loser’s circle — can get on board with that.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.