Sanders is in trouble. And it is not simply the problem with staffers hacking Clinton’s voter database. The problem runs deeper, much of which has little to do with Sanders, per se. Instead, the forces that are perhaps beginning to do Sanders in are entirely predictable and resident in the nature of leftist politics in America and its relationship with the Democratic Party.
The Party v. Sanders
Democrats have a long history of animosity with socialist candidates. Yes many were elected at the local level in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the 1920s and 1930s, but one should also remember how fiercely Democrats and Liberals often joined in the communist witch hunts of McCarthy during the 50s. Out of fear of being red-baited or considered pinkos, Democrats were slow to condemn what he did.
But even at a less extreme level, it comes as absolutely no surprise that the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Deborah Wasserman Schultz, and the establishment Democratic Party are pressing the scales and favoring Hilary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Face it, two things are going on here. First, remember that Bernie is not a Democrat–he is an independent and self-described democratic socialist running within the Democratic Party. He and his supporters are challenging the hierarchy and establishment of the Democratic Party. He is to the Democrats as Trump is to the Republicans in so many ways. He has not build up favors within the party, he is not married to a former president of the US who was a Democrat, and he is not beholden to the same special interests that so much of the party, including Clinton is. The current Democratic Party is a pro-business corporate entity, this is not who Sanders is. Given all of that, should one be surprised that the party would shun him.
Sanders is part of a long line of progressives nationally and in Minnesota taking on the Democratic Party establishment. Think of Eugene McCarthy to Johnson, or Howard Dean v. John Kerry. Or even consider Jesse Jackson in 1988. He and hie delegates were shunned in Minnesota and across the country. Party leaders and regulars are basically conservative. They go with incumbents over challengers, old faces as opposed to new, and are loath to accept those who have not paid their dues or sworn their allegiance to party endorsements and traditions. Political parties are insular, often unable to change, adopting a strategy that is more protective of their interests than that of what the people want. In effect, often leaders think “they” are the party and not the people who attend caucuses or vote. For years I have levied this criticism against the Minnesota DFL–a party still often living in the past, basking in the legacy of Humphrey, Freeman, Mondale, and Wellstone, not realizing that times have changed and that the keying to winning is developing a strategy and narrative that will be broader than one which is only good for winning in Minneapolis and St Paul. Robert Michels classic Political Parties, published a century ago, described the oligarchical tendencies of political parties, well described this phenomena, and it still worth reading.
War and Socialism
Sander’s other problem is his narrative. He speaks of the problem of class politics–the gap between the rich and the poor, the power of corporations in American society. It is not a message of fear. Contrary to Trump, he does not blame the rational perception of many that economically it is worse for them now than in the past by attacking Muslims or immigrants. His message is one of working and middle class solidarity. Yet the events in Paris and San Bernardino have eclipsed his theme of economic justice. In so doing, he would not be the first progressive candidate felled by this.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century socialist parties of Europe were derailed by World War I and nationalism that pitted workers against workers across the continent. In the US, WW I ended Eugene Debs’ career as it did too for Norman Thomas with WW II. War is a great way to break up progressive politics. Find another enemy, fight another war, distract workers from their economic plight by playing on and to their fears and prejudices. War is a wonderful to divert peoples’ attention from domestic issues. George Bush did that with Afghanistan and Iraq. “You need to wait because we need to fight a war and you need to sacrifice for the war effort.” This is what we are again hearing. Sanders’ message of economic justice is getting eclipsed and drowned out by the drum beat of war that not only the Republicans are sounding, but so is Clinton. No she is not saying send ground troops in yet, but there is no question that her political status is benefitted by a war.
The Arrogance of Power
Perhaps the only bright side for Sanders is Clinton’s continued sense of entitlement and arrogance. Clinton’s recent debate performance was strong, but she talked right past Sanders and O’Malley. She and her supporters still act as if she is entitled to the presidency–it is her time, she is due it. Yes Clinton has a lot to offer and she is the establishment candidate for the party, but she has yet to offer a compelling narrative to why she should be president. She has lots of positions and views on subjects, but there is no compelling and overarching narrative for her presidency. She needs to solve that problem.
Sanders has a narrative and an argument, but alas, it may not be enough. With less than 45 days to the Iowa caucuses Clinton appears to be consolidating her hold there, New Hampshire, and beyond. Yes 45 days is an eternity, and yes surprises can happen during that time, but right now Sanders is in trouble, with much of his problems no surprise given what has happened in the past with really progressive candidates who take on the establishment in the US.