Color me surprised. Bernie Sanders’ win in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii yesterday was surprising in its scope (I’d have thought a closer victory, similar to what he pulled off in Michigan). It puts Bernie in play for the nomination for the first time, really. (It hasn’t really been the case beforehand because Bernie’s path to the nomination has always been uphill running backward, at best. Now at least he’s facing the right direction, so to speak.)
It isn’t over yet, and technically, the nomination is still Hillary Clinton’s to lose. (And she could well do it, too, through some ham-fisted gaffe of her own making that just pisses off a certain segment of the Democratic voting bloc at just the wrong time.) The numbers still favor Hillary: if you’re tracking delegates, Sanders’ sweep was a big help: According to Fivethirtyeight.com, he needed 81 delegates from of Washington, Alaska and Hawaii in order to still be “on track” (as in, not keep falling further behind.). Sanders won 98, and his campaign is now trying to persuade Washington’s 17 superdelegates, most of whom have endorsed Clinton, to feel the Bern. In yesterday’s contests, Clinton won just 32 delegates, and needed 61 to stay on track.
And yet, these victories are all relative. Hillary is still ahead in the delegate count, and is in fact ahead of the curve; she’s still on a path to lock this up by the June 7 California primary, if not sooner. Bernie can still win, but it probably won’t happen until the very last minute: June 7 at the earliest, and who knows? Maybe tiny Washington, D.C.’s 20 delegates up for grabs one week later will come into play for the first time ever. Because every race on the Democratic side awards its delegates proportionally the guiding rule in all this is that for Bernie to win, he needs to win big every time. He hasn’t done that so far, and he’s fallen behind. Even narrow victories mean he’s just falling behind a bit slower than before. Saturday’s victories were a bit of a change, but he’s yet to show he can sustain it in states that aren’t largely white in their demographic makeup. With big multiethnic states like New York and California still on tap — and they’re holding primaries, which tend to favor more centrist candidates, not caucuses, which draw out the activist element in both parties — it’s still uphill all the way for Bernie.
As the campaign gets hotter and nastier, there’s a different calculus at work. I’m see two possible calculations to consider, and I honestly don’t know which one is correct. Is A>B? Or is B>A? Wherein A = Aghast Republicans Who Remember Eisenhower and Goldwater and Can’t Believe This Is the Best We Can Do and therefore will stay home or secretly vote Democratic come November, and B = Berniacs in a Righteous Snit Who Ragequit the Election Because There’s No Difference Between Shillary and the Rethuglicans and the Country Needs to be Taught a Lesson, and therefore will stay home or secretly vote Republican come November.
That assumes that Clinton ultimately prevails on the Democratic side. If Sanders wins, I see a slightly different equation: B = Bourgeois Moderate and Working Class Democrats Scared of Change who stay home (and maybe switch sides, but that would only be in the case of white male Democrats, mostly).
But on the Republican side, it’s Trump all the way. The party brass may be clutching their pearls and diligently planning out how mathematically they will unite around some unidentified moderate candidate to deny Trump the nomination. But while they’re huddled over their calculators and smelling salts, Trump is driving over and past them in an Abrams tank. His momentum slipped a little in the last couple races as the party got a little more scared, but not enough to fundamentally change the overall vector of the race.
The GOP could do one of two things at this point. One is they stage a coup at the convention, abandoning any kind of lip service to the democratic process to ensure that Trump is not the nominee (and therefore almost surely triggering a third-party Trump spite-run, which would completely splinter the party, possibly for good). The more likely alternative is that the party leaders will make peace with their inner fascists, swallow their vomit and pull the lever for a candidate they all secretly hope dies the moment after he is sworn in.
Given how toxic some of the Sanders politicking has become (and some Berniacs have been mumbling they’d rather see the country flushed down the Trump toilet than hand the White House to a warmongering scandal-prone conservative-in-sheep’s-clothing), I suspect the equation at work is B>A, because (1) Berniacs already are threatening to quit, and a certain subset of them will probably follow through because they truly believe some of the attacks they’re pushing against Hillary (even if they originated in the Republican playbook), and (2) Republicans making peace with their inner fascists isn’t that much of a stretch these days, since their politics over the past 30+ years has been precisely what Trump has been advocating: protecting rich white male privilege and making sure the takers don’t get uppity, keeping (or kicking) out the unwashed Mexicans, Muslims, and other swarthy foreigners coming to America to blow us up, take our white-collar jobs, or both, and so on. It’s the politics of self-entitlement from a party that perennially tries to cast that term on the opposing side.
I say this as someone who likes Bernie Sanders, and even prefers him over Hillary Clinton: I’ve had to mute several Berniacs on social media because their constant my-way-or-blow-it-all-up moralizing is having precisely the opposite intended effect on me, and on many other would-be Bernie sympathizers, I’d wager. There’s a bit of angst on the Clinton side as well, and I think the accusations of misogyny from the Bernie camp are way overblown. But the intraparty hate is nowhere near as strident as that originating with the hardcore Berniacs, who are starting to sound like left-wing versions of Ted Cruz. I know, party unity, blah blah blah, but November matters more. We had a real bad run of things in the early 2000s when we had unthinking reactionaries running the show who didn’t care about context or planning. I’m not sure in which universe a president Trump won’t be several orders of magnitude worse than the Bush years, but it isn’t this one.
This seems like the appropriate place to point out that I did not attend Washington state’s Democratic caucuses, for two reasons. One: I’m a journalist, and caucusing is more persuasive and political than I think I should have a role in — it’s for the party insiders to argue and decide who their representative will be, and who their delegates to the convention. And two: Either Democrat is preferable to Trump, by any measure, unless your qualifications for the presidency include anger, spitefulness and capriciousness and notably don’t include things like policy knowledge, a diplomatic temperament, a track record and an understanding of history.
I like the fact that Bernie has been in the race, not for the least because he’s been holding Hillary’s feet to the fire. We wouldn’t even be having discussions about income inequality, campaign finance reform, free college education and small-s socialism (long a dirty word in both parties) without Bernie in the mix, and his success so far has shown the party establishment that they can’t take for granted progressive voters — the same ones who put Barack Obama in the White House twice. I say this even though I think that Bernie would have a hard time getting any of his policy proposals passed by a Republican obstructionist-controlled Congress, or even a Democrat-controlled Senate (it’s almost impossible that the House will flip before 2022, because most House districts are gerrymandered to be completely safe, and a majority of those are safe-Republican seats). I like Bernie because he truly is a progressive and he’s forced Hillary to pay attention to issues she probably would rather have not had to on the way to her coronation. While Hillary’s perceived hawkishness is worrisome, I think we do need an experienced foreign policy hand to counter the very real belligerence from Russia, China, North Korea and ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh.
And if the hypothetical Berniac is worried about Clintonian hawkishness, you’d think they’d be lining up behind whoever wins the Democratic nomination, because Trump is downright frightening. Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo points out that the overall dynamic of Trump’s campaign isn’t the words “Make America Great Again.” Those are just words. Trump’s real message is exerting dominance and taking revenge on everyone who has “laughed at” or humiliated America. He’s talked casually about using nuclear weapons to combat terrorists. “It’s payback time,” he’s said. Revenge does not make for a peaceful foreign policy, and that’s scarier than anything the Democrats could come up with.
Read the transcript of Donald Trump’s interview with the Washington Post editorial board. What comes across more than anything else is someone with no core values other than to promote himself, and who is mentally unstable to boot. He is not the kind of person that any sane individual should want anywhere near the nuclear button.
Hence my worry about the Democratic primary. Sanders decided to run as a Democrat to get access to the fundraising apparatus, true, but I also think he recognized that splitting the liberal and moderate votes in the general election would accomplish nothing except allow the Republicans to take control in November — a Republican party that, even without Trump, has been governed by its most extreme elements for the past 30 years, and shows no signs of moderating. If Hillary wins, I would hope Bernie does the game thing and during his convention speech (he’s earned that, at least, plus influence over the party platform) not just endorses Hillary, but makes a plea for his followers to join forces against the common enemy. He’s a profoundly moral person, and that can go a long way toward smoothing things over. That might not sit very well for those pursing his political revolution, but Bernie at least is smart enough to realize that there’s a lot more at stake.
(Likewise, if Bernie prevails, I fully expect the Democratic Party apparatus to line up behind him, even if a few blue dog conservative Democrats don’t like it. The alternative is Trump.)
Granted, the Berniacs are not anywhere near as scary as the Trumpshirts, who can’t have a rally without assaulting someone. It’s just a matter of time before they go all Kristallnacht on the local Democratic party offices. The Republican convention in Cleveland should be interesting to watch… from a safe distance.
I hope the Berniacs carry on their political revolution by getting involved in local politics. Third-party challenges to elite power structures seldom succeed from the top down. George Wallace in 1968 split the Republican party and convinced the racists to work in the background, not out front. H. Ross Perot in 1992 was a flash in the pan. Ralph Nader in 2000 truly was a spoiler, and he didn’t have any coattails for anyone else to ride on (and in 2004, he was a joke that no-one remembered the punch line to). Revolutions start at the bottom and rise up from within. This is how the Tea Party took over the Republican Party and remade it into an extremist organization that even now threatens to tear the country apart. It’s how a group of religious zealots took over the school system in Texas, and now dictates the content of history books used across the country. It’s also how a group of moderate-to-conservative southern Democratic governors and congressmen took control of the Democratic Party and steered it to the right in 1992 — to electoral success, granted, but at the cost of a number of policies that have proven inimical to the nation.
The ultimate prize isn’t only the White House. In fact, in this particular election cycle, taking the presidency is just a way of making sure America’s slowly healing wounds aren’t ripped open again. Since the wounds inflicted during the Bush years were pretty traumatic — unnecessary wars and tanking the world economy, for starters — that makes this a really important race.
But in order for the “political revolution” to take root, the Berniacs ought to be looking at the state legislatures, city councils, school boards and local Congressional races. Politics is a numbers game, and it’s not zero-sum except in the White House. The numbers add up over time and space, and a coalition of true progressives in positions of power across the country will have a greater impact than a single person in Washington, D.C. could have. That, more than anything, is the hope of Bernie’s revolution. He’s been calling the faithful along on his crusade, but if they don’t keep moving forward after he’s gone — or even if he succeeds — it won’t have mattered at all.