A Message to the Democratic Party
“The citizen must have high ideals, and yet he must be able to achieve them in practical fashion. No permanent good comes from aspirations so lofty that they have grown fantastic and have become impossible and indeed undesirable to realize. The impractical visionary is far less often the guide and precursor than he is the embittered foe of the real reformer, of the man who, with stumblings and shortcoming, yet does in some shape, in practical fashion, give effect to the hopes and desires of those who strive for better things. Woe to the empty phrase-maker, to the empty idealist, who, instead of making ready the ground for the man of action, turns against him when he appears and hampers him when he does work!”
Theodore Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic (1910)
This is a message to the Democratic Party.
Whatever vitality Bernie Sanders and his ardent acolytes brought to the Democratic primaries has since evaporated. As Sanders’ chance at the nomination has shrunk to nil, his campaign has exhibited a corresponding increase in belligerence. Though still ostensibly seeking the nomination, many observers have concluded that his new objective is to leverage his clout to influence the party platform at the Democratic National Convention. Democrats should seek to deny Sanders and his most zealous supporters from gaining power within the party.
Despite the fierce anti-political party rhetoric of both the Sanders and Trump camps during this campaign season, political parties are simply a means to an end. Political parties in the U.S.’s two-party system organize voters and activists into two broad coalitions. Despite growing political polarization, America’s political inertia remains in the center. While activists in the party base wield significant power in deciding party policy, they must temper their views with a pragmatic regard for the political center. Hence the uniquely American dance to the extremes to woo party activists during the primaries, followed by a hurried dash back towards sanity for November.
The marriage of the party base and centrist majority creates diversity of opinion within each party, which is good: it encourages cooperation and compromise between different intra-party groups and pulls both political parties towards the center.
Yet Sanders — an independent — thinks little of the moderating effect of the political party. Instead, Sanders has tapped into an extreme leftist sentiment that mirrors the Tea Party in its obstinacy. Many on the left would hesitate to compare Sanders to the far right group, but we liberals should not let our ideological sympathy cloud our analysis of this defects: an uncompromising devotion to ideology, an unwillingness to broker compromise even within his own political coalition, and frequent reliance on McCarthy-esque brandings of his political opponents (As an intellectual exercise, read through one of his speeches and replace the words “establishment” and “Wall Street” with “communist”).
Part of Sander’s mystique comes from his political independence, which fits neatly with his characterization of political parties as one of the villains in his narrative. As such, he has regularly undermined that Democratic Party that welcomed him into their primary contest. Though he occasionally caucuses with the Democrats, he has no long term commitment to the party. He has contributed nothing to building or sustaining this organization that serves as the political vehicle for liberalism in our country. Yet he takes readily from it. Without the organizational work and publicity from the Democratic Party, Sanders would have remained a political nobody. In return, he has vocally attacked the Democratic leadership. Some of his supporters — drawn primarily from fellow independents and normally politically apathetic young people — have a similar lack of loyalty to the party, as has been demonstrated by recent threats to disrupt the Democratic National Convention and the #NeverHillary movement. God forbid if he and his supporters attempt to recreate Nader’s Last Stand.
Sanders supporters argue that their candidate is the only one with the courage to outline ambitious liberal policies. If we don’t dream big, they argue, then liberalism will be doomed to stagnation. Yet liberalism is not so brittle that she can only be saved by extreme action. Liberals can unite behind shared principles while still remaining flexible in how these principles are to be achieved. To use a rather tired metaphor, liberalism is a mountain with many paths to its summit. Pragmatic, incremental progress is just as valid a means to liberalism as Sander’s “political revolution”.
As appealing as Sander’s revolutionary rhetoric may be — and it is nothing more than rhetoric, for I can think of few acts less revolutionary than a sitting senator leading a presidential campaign under the aegis of a major political party — we should not abandon our wisdom. Sander’s policies are viable in imagination only. In truth, he peddles a puerile phantasm of political reality differing only in details from the fantasy Trump weaves for his constituents. Sanders and Trump are both master storytellers who excel at reducing the complexity of the world into a clear cast of villains and heroes. Each riffs off the same story arc: Trump will Make America Great Again, while Sanders wants to Make Liberalism Great Again. As crowded stadiums and rallies can attest to, this style of political make-believe has proven popular. But of course we are not asking our presidential candidates to headline Coachella; we are asking them to be stewards of our country.
Sanders has had 30 years in the Senate to foment his revolution. What has he to show for it? In neither his time in the Senate nor on the campaign trail has Sanders demonstrated the ability to compromise that is essential for effecting meaningful political change. Instead, he has engaged in political moralizing, which is a supreme form of selfishness; It is the sacrifice of the common good for a better night’s sleep.
Imagine if President Obama had refused the compromises required to pass the Affordable Care Act and instead insisted on creating a single-payer system. The bill would have died and thousands of Americans would have lost out on the potential benefits of health care reform. Obama recognized fundamental principle of politics: that one imperfect law is worth more than a million perfect bills. Judging from his willingness to relive the battle over a single-payer health care system, Sanders has failed to learn this lesson, despite his many years in government. The only result of such ideological grandstanding will be gridlock. While a government standstill is an acceptable outcome for anti-government zealots on the right, it would be a disaster for the liberal coalition.
It is imperative that the Democratic Party resists the influence Sanders and his hard-line followers or we will risk falling into the same trap as the Republican Party. We have witnessed how the Republicans are held hostage by Tea Party elements that the party courted in a Faustian bargain so bad that it forced Speaker Boehner to resign in disgust. The same noose is lowering onto Democratic necks; we should cut the rope while we still can.
The Democratic Party has a choice. It can choose between radicalism and centrism. Between selfish high-horse moralism or principled compromise. Between bandwagon Democrats and loyal liberals. Between ideology and pragmatism.
Americans are willing to recognize the dangers of ideologues about half of the time. When we look at our political opponents, we see clearly that dogmatic ideology is the enemy of good governance. But will we in the Democratic party have the courage to recognize when ideology is poisoning us?