There is a lot of hoopla being whipped up over the revelation by former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile that, yes, Hillary Clinton’s campaign may indeed have had an unfair advantage in her 2016 Democratic primary battle with Bernie Sanders. To the extent that this leads to reforms that can prevent any one candidate from having that kind of edge in the future, that is both good and necessary.
Yet this is not the existential calamity for the Democratic Party that many are making it out to be. If anything, it proves a point that progressives like myself have been making for years — namely, that the party needs to set aside its epic and perennial civil war in the name of the greater good.
Before we get into that, though, let’s clear up one thing: The underlying gripe of Sanders voters has less to do with fairness than with the fact that Clinton represents a more moderate, more “establishment” approach to governance than their champion.
Even though the Clinton critics are often loath to admit it, there was nothing illegitimate about her actual victory in the primaries. She bested Sanders by more than 3.7 million votes (55 percent to 43 percent) and was always well ahead of him among both superdelegates and the regular ones actually chosen by voters. Moreover, it’s not like there wasn’t an authentic grassroots movement behind Clinton, who came very close to beating Barack Obama in 2008 (and actually won more popular votes than him) and remained highly popular among rank-and-file Democrats for years, despite being viewed with contempt by some quarters of the left.
No, the chief problem the Sanders camp has with Clinton is what she represents, not what she did. For all the talk about how new technologies like the internet have transformed how we conduct elections, that particular feud has defined the Democratic Party for more than a century.
Every so often the party has an election year in which it becomes sharply divided between a faction that wants to make a hard left turn and the ones that want to stay on the well-worn left-center path (i.e., the “establishment”). Most of the time the so-called establishment camp wins, although not always.
There was the populist uprising that nominated William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and the New Left movement that outflanked the DNC and won George McGovern the nomination in 1972. Those candidates, it’s worth noting, went down to defeats so epic that their campaigns were often cited as object lessons what the party needed to avoid — i.e., a left-wing deviation — in the future (Bryan managed to win the Democratic nomination twice more after 1896, and kept on losing, suggesting that many Democratic delegates didn’t heed conventional wisdom.)
Yet, as mentioned before, the establishment side of the party has generally prevailed at least in those contests when it faced an outright attack from the left flank. Hubert Humphrey defeated Eugene McCarthy in 1968 by working entirely inside the party (Humphrey didn’t even run in the primaries), and likely would have done the same to Robert F. Kennedy had the latter not been assassinated. As an incumbent in 1980, Jimmy Carter staved off Ted Kennedy’s challenge from the left. Jesse Jackson mounted insurgent campaigns in both 1984 and 1988, but lost to Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, respectively. Al Gore had Bill Bradley on the ropes from the start in 2000.
What else connects all those elections? Democrats lost them all in the fall.
That’s right: For all of the establishment’s prattling on about how nominating a candidate perceived as too far left dooms their brand to McGovern-scale defeat, moderates don’t necessarily fare much better. Mondale’s 1984 defeat was every bit as catastrophic as McGovern’s in 1972, and on election night in 1980 Jimmy Carter infamously conceded while polls on the West Coast were still open. Humphrey, Dukakis and Gore all lost more narrowly, with Gore joining Hillary Clinton in the ignominious distinction of losing the electoral vote while winning the popular vote and being at least plausibly undermined by a third-party challenger from the left (Ralph Nader in 2000, Jill Stein in 2016).
None of this to say that Bernie Sanders would have won last November. We simply can’t know that. He fared better than Clinton in certain head-to-head polls against Donald Trump, but that was before Sanders’ socialist politics and long record of left-wing activism were dragged into public view and cast in the worst possible light. Just as important, Sanders would have been the first Jewish person to be a major-party presidential nominee, and given the upsurge in anti-Semitism already prompted by Trump’s ascent, such prejudice would almost certainly have hurt Sanders in a general campaign.
It’s also true that Sanders might have had just as much difficulty winning back Clinton’s core supporters as she did winning over the Bernie Bros. Hence the problem with these Democratic civil wars: The nastier they get, the easier it is for each side to revile and vow undying hatred, while then expecting full support from the vanquished opposition when the fall campaign arrives.
The moral of the story here, perhaps, is that if we want to see good policies implemented in America again, each side in the Democratic Party’s civil war must stop viewing the other one as despised adversaries.
While Clinton’s policy proposals were more moderate than Sanders’, they pointed in the same general direction and were worlds apart from the values of Donald Trump and every other Republican candidate. Indeed, the 2016 Democratic platform was described as the party’s most progressive in decades.
Clinton and Sanders agreed that America needed to move to the left on infrastructure, the minimum wage, labor rights and college affordability. While Sanders clearly supported a more radical revamp of America’s health care system, Clinton vowed to fight for the already successful changes implemented by Obamacare. Both candidates were united against the rank sexism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-LGBTQ prejudice that fueled the Trump campaign.
These weren’t just a handful of similarities; they were likely the most important issues of the entire 2016 campaign. The fact that Clinton and Sanders were on the same side on these issues and so many others matters far more in practical terms, to far more people, than all the ways in which they were different put together.
So what needs to be done to bring this civil war to an end? I reckon three things:
1. We need reforms like the ones that followed Humphrey’s controversial nomination in 1968, which — like the Clinton nomination, but far more blatantly — was plagued with accusations of being rigged. Everything that allowed the Clinton campaign to exert control over the DNC before she had been officially nominated needs to be prohibited.
2. Establishment Democrats need to start picking candidates who can be plausibly accepted as progressives by the party base. Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Harry Truman in 1948, John F. Kennedy in 1960, Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Barack Obama in 2008 — arguably the five most successful progressive presidents in modern history — were all disliked to varying degrees by more left-wing Democrats. (This was particularly true of Truman, who faced his own Nader/Stein third-party challenger that year in former vice president Henry Wallace).
Yet because they could honestly present themselves as progressives at heart, they won over enough of the skeptics to ultimately win election. By contrast, the victories of Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 were largely made possible by their ability to present themselves as more conservative than the average Democrat, a tactic that is unlikely to fly again anytime soon.
3. Left-wing stalwarts need to get over their ideological privilege. And yes, when you think it’s OK to sacrifice the interests of the poor, of women, of racial minorities, of the LGBTQ community and of the American people as a whole because the candidate representing your cause wasn’t your first choice, that isn’t just stubbornness. That is a form of privilege.
The Democratic Party is far from perfect, but it is intellectually dishonest for anyone who cares about the welfare of ordinary human beings to deny the enormous good it has done. Run your fingers through the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, the War on Poverty, the 2009 stimulus package and Obamacare; you will find millions of lives saved or massively improved as a result of the Democratic approach to governance that has prevailed since Roosevelt took over the party 85 years ago.
It is a party that deserves to be preserved, for all of its shortcomings, and it deserves to be treated fairly, despite the Sanders supporters who lashed out at me last month when I criticized their candidate for not acting in good faith toward Democratic voters. If Democrats don’t get their act together, and soon, it is quite likely that Donald Trump, Mike Pence and their merry band of bigots and plutocrats will dictate America’s future for years to come.