Who was the real Establishment candidate in the 2016 election?
The answer may surprise you.
I believe that the single greatest mistake Bernie Sanders made in his campaign was casting it as a “revolution.” I understand, that’s the way you stir up excitement in younger voters. But in doing so, he was was undervaluing the strength of his own position and, in doing so, ensuring that he could not win.
We are coming out of 8 years of a successful liberal President and an obstructionist Republican congress. Those years directly followed 8 years of a Republican Presidency that ended in financial meltdown.
Liberal millennials are coming of age in droves and conservative Baby Boomers are starting to die off.
The American public is drastically more liberal than our representation in government. There are a number of reasons for this: low turnout in non-Presidential elections, low turnout among younger voters, gerrymandering, and fear of change.
If Bernie Sanders had been elected President, it wouldn’t have been revolution. It would have been Democracy. Revolutionaries are outspoken minorities that bring about change through chaotic upheaval. For decades, Bernie had been a vocal minority. When the masses were finally catching up to him, he didn’t know how to switch gears and operate with the rhetoric of a legitimate front-running leader.
Most of Bernie’s supporters take it as gospel that the “system” kept him down — the media, the DNC, the ‘establishment.’ Consider that it was something else entirely.
Moderate voters — who represent the crucial difference-making segment of the voting public — do not want drastic change except in times of imminent crisis. They want continuity. They want someone to be in charge who operates from a sense of calm legitimacy and authority. So Bernie’s revolutionary rhetoric created a paradoxical behavioral response in moderate voters: the closer Bernie got to pulling even with Hillary, and the more real the possibility of his “revolution” became, the more the swing voters would pull away from him — even though they generally agree with his more progressive policy positions.
[It’s also interesting that because Bernie played the underdog, the Superdelegate system that Bernie supporters railed against actually helped him early in the process. After Bernie won his streak of primaries (most of which were caucuses, where moderates have a drastically lower effect), and Bernie pulled ‘closer,’ moderates pushed Hillary far out of reach.]
Could Bernie have won as a “Continuity Candidate?” It’s by no means certain. Hillary Clinton had a very strong claim to that mantle because she was a part of the Obama administration. But Hillary also had very high negatives. We’ll never know — at least, not in 2016.
What I do believe, is that by failing to recognize the strength of their position, and act from that position of strength, Bernie and his supporters also blamed the wrong things for their failure to capture votes. They blamed the system instead of their own rhetoric. They questioned the entire legitimacy of the system: the electoral process, the media, the DNC, everything. Nothing is more toxic to the progressive agenda that the belief that “the system is rigged.” De-valuing the current power structure is the tactic of insurgents. The irony is that the Democratic power base — moderates and all — could be the vehicle that brings about the greatest progressive policies since the new deal, if we don’t tear it down. Progressives WILL BE the Establishment — once they step up and actually claim the mantle.
Donald Trump, of course, is a genius at scooping up toxic belief systems, and he has co-opted this “system is rigged” meme for himself. The good news is that he will run into the same paradox that Bernie did. Trump is running as an insurgent (albeit, a weirdly autocratic one), at a time when moderates want no such thing. As happened after the RNC, every time Trump gets closer in the polls, the moderate edge of his support will fall away like an avalanche.
Disillusioned Bernie supporters who project too much strength onto Trump’s anti-establishment appeal are only lending credence to his false narrative.
Take heart in this — Hillary Clinton is an incredibly smart and calculating political operator. She understands that a huge progressive wave, the likes of which we have not seen since the 60s, is rising. I have every reason to believe that she can and will respond to popular pressure on progressive causes. And the good news is that she has 4 decades of experience translating political pressure into policy.
So that’s where we stand. You can choose to believe that Trump is the leader of a giant phantom wave of blue collar outrage, which gives HIM the legitimacy to be the new Mean Daddy. The new fascist autocratic face of the Establishment of a Dystopian Shadow America.
Or… you can realize that Bernie Sanders and his movement are the Establishment, and they always were. And once you believe that, the toxic resentment falls away, and it’s time to bear down and get to WORK.