The Democrats After Bernie

The Democrats After Bernie

The young activists who campaigned for Bernie Sanders are clearly the Democrats’ future. Do they have the power and the smarts to remake the Democratic Party?

Bernie Sanders speaking in the Bronx, March 31, 2016 (Michael Vadon)

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What will become of Bernie Sanders’s legions now? Do they have the power and the smarts to remake American liberalism and the Democratic Party? And in their dance with the Democratic establishment, which has already commenced and will likely persist for years, if not decades, who will lead and who will follow?

In one sense, the challenge that Sanders and his enthusiasts have posed to the Democrats shouldn’t be that hard to meet: the senator’s advocacy of major reforms that would reset the scales of wealth and power has resonated well beyond the confines of his own campaign. It’s Sanders, not Hillary Clinton, who has set the agenda in this year’s Democratic primaries: on trade, on the minimum wage, on a host of other issues, he has led and she has followed, chiefly because his stances have appealed not just to his supporters but to hers as well.

In another sense, though, the Sanders challenge to the party is fundamental. He is asking the Democrats to change their mission and purpose—something the party has not done since it embraced the civil rights revolution and jettisoned the support of the white South in the 1960s. Some major jettisoning will be involved this time, too—of the financial and corporate elites who’ve provided much of the party’s funding for the past several decades. That won’t come easy, particularly since so many of the party’s elected officials have depended on those elites to finance their campaigns.

In the marathon dance of establishment and insurgents that will dominate Democratic discourse in the years to come, the insurgents’ prospects will not just depend on the Sanderistas’ tenacity. They will also depend on the willingness of key institutions within Clinton’s universe—chiefly, the unions that have supported her—to make common cause with the insurgents, to push Clinton, if she’s elected, to places and positions where she might otherwise not go, such as a wholesale downsizing of the financial sector. If nothing else, the unions’ very struggle to survive should prompt them to push her. Like Sanders’s legions, they know that they won’t be able to deliver for their members unless American capitalism is fundamentally altered.


The ability of Sanders supporters to continue to push the Democrats leftward would likely be diminished if large numbers of them fail to vote for Clinton this fall, or if they stage disruptive protests that step on their policy message. I doubt that substantial voting defections will come to pass. The specter of a Donald Trump presidency—which would have antecedents scattered along a continuum stretching from Silvio Berlusconi to Benito Mussolini—will surely bring the vast majority of Sanders supporters to cast their vote for Clinton. Though many Democrats have expressed concern that polling has shown a share of Sanders voters not yet resigned to Hillary (expect to see “Resigned to Hillary” bumper stickers this fall), that share has not been larger than the share of Clinton supporters who said in the spring of 2008 that they wouldn’t support Barack Obama if he won the nomination.

If the Sanders brigades don’t estrange the establishment by mass defections this November, their ability to capture the party becomes in part a matter of simple chronology. Never in the history of exit polls has an election year seen outcomes so completely determined by voter age as this year’s Democratic primaries. In a mid-May compilation of exit polls by ABC News, Sanders’s level of support among voters under thirty was 71 percent, matching Clinton’s level of support—72 percent—among voters over sixty-four. Indeed, in virtually every single election that was exit-polled, Clinton’s support rose steadily with each successively older age cohort. That holds true in sub-groups as well: African Americans have decisively backed Clinton, but Sanders has carried the votes of blacks under thirty, while the level of Clinton’s support has increased in lockstep with black voters’ ages.

Sanders’s base is also qualitatively different from those of such earlier insurgent Democratic presidential candidates as Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean. There, backers were disproportionately “wine track”—that is, mostly upper-middle-class whites. Sanders’s, by contrast, are “beer track”; his older white supporters tend to be more working class. Some of those working-class men, as Sanders’s critics have argued, may have been animated by sexist antipathies to Clinton, but no one can seriously argue that such antipathy is the defining aspect of Sanders’s campaign or his supporters, much less of the clear majority of young women who have backed him. (And as someone who walked precincts for Gene McCarthy in 1968, I can attest that we ran across supporters who thought what was wrong with our war in Vietnam was that we hadn’t nuked the North. Campaigns contain multitudes, for a multitude of reasons.)

Just as Clinton’s support among voters grows in tandem with their age level, so her support among white voters increases as their income level increases. It’s no mystery that she carried white Manhattan, the city’s Connecticut suburbs, or Maryland’s Montgomery County—all very upscale neighborhoods—with overwhelming margins.

It’s Sanders’s base—the beer-trackers and the young—that illustrates why his campaign differs so profoundly from previous Democratic insurgencies. What ties his base together is the experience of an economy in which they’ve encountered huge obstacles to getting ahead, a shared sense of economic grievance, an awareness that the economy no longer works for any but the topmost quintile, and particularly the top 1 percent.

But the Sanders difference runs far deeper than that. Fundamentally, he is saying that the Democratic Party needs to pivot back to class politics, to add a renewed focus on economic inequality to the party’s emphasis on the inequities of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation that has largely defined it since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

To appreciate what a sea change this would be for the Democrats, we need to go back to the assumptions that undergirded the Democrats’ transformation in Johnson’s time. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, the (somewhat later) campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment—these were all initiatives that sought to include those left out, in part or in full, from the rights and benefits, the middle-class living standards and economic security, that the reforms of the New Deal had created for vast numbers of Americans in the decades following the Second World War. From the vantage point of 1964, the economy as such didn’t appear to need further alteration: median household income was rising at the same pace as productivity, unionization was high, mass prosperity was the order of the day. It was to those denied this bounty by reason of racism that the party, rightly and understandably, turned. And it has been to still others left out—women, immigrants, the disabled, Latinos, gays and lesbians, transgender people—that it has remained focused in subsequent decades. Its advocacy for the rights of these groups became the party’s primary mission, its raison d’être. In return, Democrats gained these groups’ disproportionate support, even as they paid the price of losing the support of onetime Democrats—disproportionately white men, overwhelmingly so in the South—who felt threatened by or resentful at these groups’ claims to equality. Subsequent generations of Democratic elected officials quite properly defined themselves and their mission as supporting all these out-groups win equality and secure their rights.

But in the years since Lyndon Johnson redefined the Democrats’ mission, the assumptions that underpinned his pivot—that the macro-economy, as fortified by the reforms of the New Deal, remained fundamentally sound; that America would continue to have a growing and secure middle class; and that therefore, there was no need to renew the class politics that had defined the party under Franklin Roosevelt, with its antipathy to Wall Street and its heavy regulation of business—all those assumptions have completely ceased to be true.

It’s not that the Democrats ignored many of the changes to the economy or abandoned their concerns for working-class Americans. Their continued push toward universal health insurance, from Harry Truman through Barack Obama, testified to their understanding that they needed to do more to promote economic security. So did their sporadic and unsuccessful legislative efforts to make it easier to join unions.

But by the 1990s—with Bill Clinton’s trade policies, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and his administration’s decision not to regulate financial derivatives—it was also clear that the dominant wing of the Democratic Party had embraced Wall Street’s view of the world. And more generally, when measured against the transformations of American capitalism since the 1960s—from a manufacturing-dominated economy to a financially dominated one, from a unionized work force with defined benefit pensions to a non-unionized workforce with shrinking, if any, benefits, from affordable colleges to colleges financially out of reach, from the world’s largest trade surplus to the world’s largest trade deficit, from becoming the first nation in history with a middle-class majority to becoming the first nation in history to lose that majority—the Democrats’ response has been woefully inadequate.

Now that it’s clear that that middle-class majority—the real legacy of the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt’s most profound achievement—is gone, the magnitude of the challenge facing the Democrats is surely daunting. Globalization and technology have changed Americans’ economic world in ways that won’t be undone. But the terms on which the economy has been subjected to these forces have been and continue to be set by corporate and financial elites, and when it comes to giving ordinary Americans more power to set those terms, Democrats have been decidedly late to the party.

One reason they’ve been late is that they’ve grown dependent on those corporate and financial elites. Not all the reasons they’ve grown closer to those elites (or more precisely, those elites have grown closer to them) are sinister. When it comes to extending equal rights to the excluded, many of those elites are fully on board, as the recent corporate backlash against the anti-gay legislation in North Carolina and elsewhere makes clear. Indeed, as the Republican Party has moved steadily rightward on social issues, such onetime Rockefeller Republicans as Robert Rubin and his acolytes have found a home in Democratic ranks.

The other reason Democrats are close to those moneyed elites, of course, is that they’ve grown dependent on their campaign contributions. And whether for the good reasons or bad, that closeness and that dependence have left the party incapable of formulating an alternative to the current version of American capitalism.

Bernie Sanders supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona,
March 15, 2016 (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

That Americans want an alternative to the current version of American capitalism is clear—surprisingly so. In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse and the subsequent semi-recovery—during which virtually all increases in personal income have gone to the wealthiest 5 percent, and all the net 9 million jobs created have been temporary, contingent, on-demand, sub-contracted, or “independent” (whether genuinely or through employer mislabeling)—more and more Americans have been telling pollsters that they have a favorable impression of socialism or actually consider themselves socialist. Late last year, a New York Times survey revealed that 56 percent of Democrats, including 52 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters, had a favorable view of socialism. In 2011—a time when hardly any young people could have picked Bernie Sanders out of a police lineup—a Pew poll revealed that 49 percent of Americans (not just Democrats) under thirty viewed socialism favorably, while just 46 percent viewed capitalism that way.

Which is why, as I’ve written before, the Sanders campaign didn’t create a new American left so much as reveal it.

But there’s no question that Sanders also enlarged and mobilized it. As the campaign unfolded, pollsters for the Des Moines Register found that 43 percent of likely attendees at the Iowa Democratic caucuses called themselves socialists, and a Bloomberg survey found that 39 percent of South Carolina Democrats did the same. This April, a Harvard poll of millennials—not just Democratic millennials—found that a majority did not support capitalism, and that the only presidential candidate with a net positive rating was Sanders—viewed positively by 54 percent and negatively only by 31 percent.

What all these respondents mean by “socialism” is anybody’s guess. The number of Democrats calling themselves socialist has risen in tandem with the number calling themselves liberal, and in none of these polls were people asked to choose between those two designations. Indeed, in the South Carolina survey, not only did 39 percent deem themselves socialist but 74 percent called themselves “progressive” and 68 percent “liberal.” The conflation or confusion of these terms has only been deepened by Sanders himself, who, in his Georgetown University address last November, associated his brand of socialism with Franklin Roosevelt’s enactment of Social Security and worker rights and with Lyndon Johnson’s enactment of Medicare and civil rights.

I know of no academic deep-dives as yet as to why so many liberals now also consider themselves socialists, but the safest guess is probably that this socialist self-identification reveals a deep desire to break the stranglehold that Wall Street and corporate elites have over our economy and politics and to create a more democratic and egalitarian economy and nation. And that requires an embrace of the kind of class politics the Democrats haven’t been practicing for the past four decades.

In his election eve speech at Madison Square Garden in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt excoriated “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking” that had “begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs.” Warming to the topic, Roosevelt continued, “the forces of selfishness and of lust for power” were “unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

Roosevelt, to be sure, didn’t often draw these distinctions so dramatically—indeed, during the Second World War, his anti-business rhetoric completely ceased. Nor has there been a major Democratic politician, much less a presidential candidate, who’s spoken this way since—until Bernie Sanders. (And Sanders hasn’t even come close to the heights of Roosevelt’s anti-Wall Street rhetoric.)

Herein lies the chief, and deep, division between Sanders and Clinton. He views financial and corporate elites as an enemy, plain and simple, to the economic and political interests of the American people. She, like the clear majority of Democratic politicians of her generation, does not. (Neither does Barack Obama, whose ongoing popularity among Democrats served to mask the growing left-populist discontent over the direction of the economy and politics.)

This is why Sanders’s attacks on Clinton for making her highly compensated talks to Goldman Sachs cut so deeply and mattered so much. Clinton responded by saying her support for the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill proves that she can give a high-dollar talk and still maintain her independence. Obama, she added, also raised millions from Wall Street and still he sponsored that bill.

But Sanders’s deeper point is that neither Clinton nor Obama went nearly as far as they should have in reining in Wall Street’s power—indeed, that Obama’s top economic appointments went to Rubin protégés like Timothy Geithner, who proved far more solicitous to shoring up the big banks than they did to coming up with policies that could have kept millions of Americans in their homes. Sanders’s harping on Clinton’s Goldman talks may have cut a little into her potential support, but it also has made it far more difficult for her to appoint yet another generation of Wall Street whizzes to shape her financial policies if she’s elected.

To be sure, Clinton, like the entire center of the Democratic Party, has been moving left on economic issues in the past couple of years. In the course of her primary campaign, Clinton has proposed changing the structure of regional Federal Reserve boards to exclude bankers (who have long dominated those boards and thereby become their own not-very-vigilant regulators); has proposed to heavily subsidize child care for poor and middle-income families; has reversed her position and come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership; and has supported a substantial raise to the minimum wage, and an expansion of Social Security benefits. Think tanks associated with Clinton, such as the Center for American Progress, have issued a string of reports calling for greater worker rights, while such onetime centrist intellectual leaders as William Galston and Elaine Kamarck have called for regulatory shifts that would end the share buybacks that enrich major investors at the expense of corporate investment and worker raises.

While the leftward movement of Clinton, Galston, Kamarck, and their colleagues is real, it follows the leftward movement of the Democratic base. In exit polls from 1976 through 1992, liberals constituted between 24 to 34 percent of Democratic presidential primary voters. In 2000, 2004, and 2008, they amounted to 46 or 47 percent of primary turnout. But in this year’s primaries, the share of Democratic voters who deemed themselves liberal abruptly rose to 62 percent.

Another factor pushing Democrats to the left has been the base’s antipathy to Wall Street. Asked by exit pollsters whether they believed Wall Street helped or hurt the economy, voters in almost every state where their answer was reported said they thought Wall Street hurt more than helped. In New York, where Wall Street actually employs people, 63 percent of Democrats said it hurt; just 30 percent said it helped. Even a plurality (48 percent) of Republicans said it hurt, while only 43 percent said it helped.

If following the polls were all that mattered, the leftward march of centrist Democrats like Clinton would be like water flowing downhill. The one area where the polls still suggest some centrist caution is in raising broad-based taxes, but reaching some compromise on tax levels, while never easy, doesn’t in itself require the kind of existential redefinition that the Sanders challenge ultimately presents to the Democrats—or rather, it is just one element of that redefinition.

For the fundamental difference between the two campaigns remains: Sanders is calling for a pivot on the scale of Lyndon Johnson’s, to a new embrace of class politics and all that entails. For Clinton, who in speech after speech points out that there are a range of inequalities beyond the economic, inequalities affecting out-groups whose interests she’s long championed, that’s almost surely a pivot too far. It would require a renunciation not just of some of her husband’s landmark policies but also of a portion of the Democrats’ political universe that has supported her and many of her fellow Democrats, too.

Clinton and Sanders will likely reach a modus vivendi on a number of issues that will promote party unity going into the fall campaign. They may come up with common positions on Citizens United, perhaps on a resolution condemning the use of Super PACs to fund future Democratic campaigns. They will support increasing the minimum wage and expanding Social Security benefits.

But the work of making a pivot to a twenty-first-century Democratic Party—which encompasses the party’s support for equal rights for all groups, but also restores the harder edge of class politics that once led to the New Deal’s reforms—will fall to the generation of Sanders activists who are clearly the Democrats’ future. Causes that go beyond those that Sanders have articulated—giving workers equal power on corporate boards; requiring employers to provide decent pay and benefits to all their workers, whether in traditional employer-employee relationships or not; greatly increasing the level of public provision for healthcare, child care, senior care and education; changing tax policy so that the share of income going to work increases and that going to investment decreases—these will be the kinds of issues that the young people activated by the Sanders campaign will raise, if they’re to go forward in the same spirit that led them to Sanders in the first place.

What are the chances that the Sanderistas will become an effective ongoing force for de-plutocracizing America? As the primary season was winding down, many of the groups that had mobilized on Bernie’s behalf—both established organizations like the Working Families Party, National People’s Action, and National Nurses United, and the more ad hoc groups like People for Bernie Sanders—were working on plans to keep their members mobilized in kindred causes (such as fighting for a $15 minimum wage in cities and states) and, in some cases, on forming new coalitions and alliances that could accomplish more together than the groups could do separately. Their plans included campaigning for such Sanders-like candidates as Zephyr Teachout, running for Congress in New York, and Lucy Flores, running for Congress in Nevada, and cultivating a new generation of progressive candidates (a task at which the Working Families Party has been particularly adept) to advance their perspectives.

At a minimum, the Sanders generation is likely to shift Democratic politics in much the same way that the young veterans of the Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern campaigns of 1968 and 1972 shifted the party’s politics in the 1970s and ’80s, away from the hardline cold war politics that the party had embraced from Truman through Johnson. But to truly fulfill their potential—to turn the party against the financial and corporate elites who have funded so many Democrats and ruined so many Americans—will require more than simple generational succession.

In particular, it will require the active involvement of liberal Democratic leaders who’ve not been in Sanders’s camp this year, such as senators Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, but ultimately extending to the party’s leaders in both houses of Congress and the majority of those houses’ delegations. Even more, it will require the major unions that have supported Clinton—the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Service Employees International Union; the American Federation of Teachers; and the National Education Association—to find common ground with the Sanders forces in fights for causes such as the public funding of elections, the break-up of major banks, and the democratization of corporate governance.

If that becomes the Democrats’ dance, they’ll have themselves one swell party.

Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect, and on the editorial board of Dissent.

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