Ever since Nixon uttered the taunt a year after cruising past Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Democratic Party elites have been in hot pursuit of the “silent majority.” The Coalition for a Democratic Majority rose to the challenge in 1972 and tried to recapture the Democrat’s working- and middle-class base by resurrecting the party’s more hawkish Cold War policies. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), founded after Reagan’s crushing defeat of Walter Mondale, went even further. Composed mostly of young southern and midwestern Democrats, the DLC tried to roll back much of the state-centered liberalism of the New Deal and Great Society. Arkansas’s popular governor Bill Clinton carried the momentum of this strategy, becoming the DLC’s chair in 1990 and winning the White House in 1992. He was the second Democrat to have done so since the late 1960s.
The rise of Clinton and the “New Democrats” also came with significant political and human costs. They may have won a new majority for the Democratic Party. But they also turned against many of their constituents. With the passage of NAFTA, large swathes of industrial workers found themselves out of work. With the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996, Clinton got rid of “welfare as we know it.” And with an omnibus financial deregulation bill in 1998, the party eroded many of the constraints that kept American banking from the types of practices that led to the crisis of 2008. Seeking a “third way” between the liberal egalitarianism of the old Democrats and the free-market orthodoxies of the Reagan Republicans, Clinton ended up not only alienating much of the Democrats’ young, black, and working-class bases; he helped diminish the differences between the parties. The party of “big government” had become, like its rival, a party for big businesses.
It was into this political world that my generation came of age in the early and mid-2000s. September 11 and the catastrophic “war on terror” that followed were the hallmarks of our coming of age, bringing many of us out into the streets and into politics for the first time. But so were the experiences of economic uncertainty and precarity created by policies of the Clinton and New Democrat years. None of us wanted another Republican in office. But it was also unclear how the Democrats, still under New Democrat control, could offer us much of an alternative.
For many, Obama’s insurgent 2008 campaign appeared to be the first effective rebellion against the New Democrats’ hold on the party. Insisting on building an organizing apparatus outside the party, Obama positioned himself in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, who had voted for the Iraq War and whom Obama criticized for being too close to corporate America. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren followed in 2013, joining a growing number of senators and representatives—Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Minnesota’s Keith Ellison—who sought to recover the Democrat’s egalitarian tradition.
Bernie Sanders’s primary bid this year is one more development in this longer history. His “political revolution” is an expression of an ongoing struggle, one that is taking place not only within the Democratic Party but also in the recent wave of protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Fight for $15. Even as Clinton moves to the left, she has still maintained many of her allegiances with the New Democrats. Sanders—and the large number of young working- and middle-class voters supporting him—have come to represent one more phase in an insurgency against them.
Clinton may win the primary. In fact, after Nevada and South Carolina, it appears more and more likely she will secure the necessary delegates by summer. But Sanders’ defeat will not necessarily mark a loss for this insurgent new generation of Democrats.
In Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Sanders captured large majorities between the ages of 18 and 45. He also has made large gains in lower and middle income brackets that Democrats have struggled over the past three decades to win back from the Republicans. This voting base is not going anywhere, and it will certainly rally around a new generation of Democrats—people like Keith Ellison, Lucy Flores, Zephyr Teachout, and John Fetterman—that hopes to help build a more egalitarian and diverse Democratic Party.
The zero-sum nature of elections often causes us to miss the ways in which a loss can also mark a victory. Barry Goldwater lost his presidential bid in 1964 to Lyndon Johnson. But his presidential campaign helped pave the way for the next generation of conservative politicians in the Republican Party. Sanders has not lost yet. But even if he does, a sea change already appears to be under way. A new generation of liberal Democrats and radical activists is emerging, hoping to push the Democratic Party to the left. This is not a silent majority. It is outspoken and willing to do what it needs to be heard.
David Marcus is co-editor of Dissent. A version of this article was originally published in Le Monde.
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