Sanders, the Movement and the Future

Some think Sanders supporters are just left-leaning Democrats. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Bernie Sanders Rally, Moda Center, Portland

The day before the California primary a friend told me he was going to vote for Hillary because “Bernie is too pure” and “we need a corrupt politician to get things done in Washington”. It’s an idea I’ve heard before in various forms. Can Sanders supporters accept it? After his defeat on Tuesday, amid the inevitable calls for party unity, the question is: Where does the movement go from here?

Some think Sanders should stay in until the convention because there is a chance that the FBI will recommend charges against Hillary. I don’t agree with this, although she certainly seems culpable; FBI ex machina is vanishingly unlikely given the record of Obama’s DOJ. Sanders supporters argue, in essence, that staying in is in the best interests of the party (i.e., “what if Hillary goes down?”). I think this is the wrong way to think about it.

Sanders often describes his campaign as a movement. It has been brewing for a long time. He is not just a Presidential candidate, and his supporters aren’t necessarily Democrats, though some already were and many others have newly registered in order to support him. The movement has its antecedents in the Seattle anti-globalization protests and the Occupy movement, though many of its new members never attended those rallies nor would have. It is not a faction of the Democratic party. It is actually an anti-oligarchy movement, and it has finally gone mainstream. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. For years, frustration with the corruption of government was cleverly exploited by Republican politicians and ignored by Democrats. Voters on both sides are skeptical of the elites in their own parties. They are now rejecting the old model, not just casting blame on the opposing side.

Yet, here we are. The choice will be between a mistrusted and shrewd influence peddler on the one hand, and a race-baiting and shambolic influence buyer on the other, which is to say between a servant of oligarchs and an actual oligarch. For partisans this is still a war between Rs and Ds. For the anti-oligarchy movement, it’s not much of a choice.

For traditional Democrats — a lot of people I like and respect — this is a primary contest like others before between two candidates for the top position in the party. However this is not how members of the anti-oligarchy movement see it. Sanders was only an incidental leader (and an imperfect one) and the Democratic party infrastructure was only an opportunity. What has become clear this primary is that Democrats and members of the movement have quite different priorities.

Image by Reddit User aledlewis

The movement seeks to break the self-reinforcing cycle of influence selling and buying. Traditional democrats don’t view this as a priority, and their leaders fear it because it means ending their business model. It is how “things get done”. Which, from the perspective of the movement, is to say rank-and-file Democrats are resigned to oligarchy and believe that we must work within it. That is what my friend meant when he said we need a corrupt politician.

Sanders’ model for raising funds could only work for a small number of candidates this cycle, and his colleagues in Congress knew that. On the other hand, they could choose the top practitioner of the existing model whereby politicians take funds from wealthy people in exchange for access and favors. Hillary would butter their bread, not Sanders. But he was not running to be their leader and fundraiser. His candidacy, if it worked, offered a break in the cycle of influence peddling. Working from the top, in tandem with a mass movement from below, there was a small chance to break the old model, but it was a chance worth taking. What down-ballot Democrats would do in the interim, however, was unclear to them. It made no sense for superdelegates to support him. Those who did acted against their self interest, or were confident in their ability to raise funds without appeal to wealthy donors.

So where does the movement go now? There is the possibility of taking the Democratic party infrastructure over from below. This means a pitched fight with the supporters of the current approach. The movement won’t have a leader in the bully pulpit to help and encourage them. Their opponents will have leadership positions, funding, and encouragement from the top. It will be a long and difficult battle.

Another is building the Greens up from below. But that is the road of isolation. No matter how much support they have, the Presidential debate committee which is run by Democratic and Republican officials will exclude them, and the media will surely ignore them. But, as with Bernie’s campaign, social media may force controlled media to pay attention.

Another possibility is that Democrats will actually take some steps to accommodate progressives without conceding anything to the movement. This is why a Warren VP nomination makes a lot of sense. But will this convince the anti-oligarchy movement? It would seem to be progress, but will it mean real change, or is it merely a means of co-opting their support? The initial signals from Warren aren’t terribly promising, and Sanders supporters reject her pivot to partisan baiting while side-stepping the oligarchy problem. Sanders isn’t just being difficult when he says Hillary must convince the movement herself. He knows the truth. He does not have the power to tell them what to do. For the time, he represents them. The movement doesn’t care about Warren or Sanders or any other politician. They care about an issue. Warren may be trading their support thus far for a VP slot. But she won’t bring them with her unless they are convinced.

One development that could surprise us is for Hillary to concede that Sanders is right (as he obviously is) about influence peddling. She could come clean and admit: “I know why people donate to me. They hope to gain access. This is the system we have now, but it must stop. I know how it works, and I will be the one to end it.” It has happened before. Nixon went to China. Offering a sincere mea culpa and a plan, Hillary might have a chance to appeal to the movement. But, given her record, any such effort would have to be sincere and sustained. More likely, however, we are seeing a split between two halves of the coalition which made up the Democratic Party. Prepare for a fight.