There’s a meme from Mean Girls (2004) remixing Regina George’s (Rachel McAdams) scolding of Gretchen, “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen! It’s not going to happen!” We need that meme now, directed at the so-called adults of the Democratic Party: “Stop trying to make moderate happen! It’s not going to happen.” Or at least, it’s not that it’s not going to happen — it’s too early to know what will happen. It’s that it would be a disaster for the party, and for this democracy, if moderate happened in 2020.
Because the biggest fear the Democratic Party should have right now is not a repeat of 1972. The biggest fear is a repeat of 1968.
The parallels to 1968 are imperfect. Eugene McCarthy’s upstart anti-war campaign had come within striking distance of the sitting Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson, in the New Hampshire primary. That near victory inspired Bobby Kennedy to run, and Johnson to withdraw. But when Kennedy was murdered, the nomination spun into chaos. The convention in Chicago was among the bloodiest in American history, as activists and protesters were literally beaten in the streets, and establishment Democrats succeeded in defeating McCarthy by nominating a man who had entered no primary at all. The machine had its way, dividing the party from its activist base, and thereby electing Richard Nixon to replace Lyndon Johnson.
That last bit is the link that every American — and not just Democrats—should fear right now. Since the launch of Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2015, there has been a growing and critically hopeful movement among Americans of all ages, but especially the young, that maybe politics could matter. That movement is literally the only hope left for democracy in America. Its leaders are many, Sanders most prominently, but also Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ro Khanna, and many others. In 2018, that movement rose up to produce the highest mid-term turnout in modern American history. And in this cycle, it has rallied, with extraordinary passion, behind Bernie Sanders.
The reasons for this rally are not wonkish. They are existential. Democratic politics over the past generation has been wildly too Clintonian — compromising, triangulating, self-serving, and rich. The great “radical” as many called him in 1992, Bill Clinton, came to Washington eager to deal with the wealth that feared him most. His administration quickly sold the soul of the party to Wall Street. Every ideal was rendered “new,” meaning, compromised. Even the great reformer after him, Barack Obama —remember: “if we don’t take up that fight,” the fight to change Washington, “then real change, change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans, will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo”—turned out not to be so interested in “real change.” Never did he “take up that fight.” Instead, Obama was continuous between Clinton and Clinton. And she, despite her enormous talent and experience, was fundamentally uninspiring to too many Americans — connected and wealthy, entitled, with a whiff of improper influence.
With all that, a whole generation is now exhausted. The rally behind Sanders, a man whose brand is consistency to a fault, is a rally to a politics not owned by money. It is a rally as well for the hope that politics might be something other than calculation. Not because it is, but because this is what so many are desperate for. Sanders, more than anyone since FDR, has given Americans a sense that government could be more than “the problem” Reagan named it; government could be part of a solution. He has given millions of non-Boomers hope that through politics they could get a life that just might be better—certainly not as good or as easy as we Boomers had it, but not the soul crushing reality they face right now. There is nothing polished, or crafted, or Hollywood-like in the campaign that he has waged for the whole of his life, and now for five years on a presidential stage. Central casting certainly did not call Bernie Sanders to this role. Yet when the history of this age is written (if indeed histories will still be written), the story will be of an extraordinarily unlikely man, who persisted, regardless, and in that persistence, inspired so many who had all but given up on politics.
And yet this extraordinary success is now met with terror and outrage by even the principled elite. David Brooks, a conservative “Never Trumper,” has now declared “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever.” Sanders is not a liberal Democrat, Brooks insists. Sanders is what “replaces liberal Democrats.” He stands not in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey, Teddy Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren. He is instead, like Trump, a populist, if a populist from the left. His revolutionary politics, Brooks fears, will destroy American politics.
No doubt, there is good reason to think carefully about what happens next in American politics. Defeating Donald Trump is more important than anything else. Not because of the specific policies that Trump would advance, however bad you may believe (with me) that they are, but because of the profound corruption that he has already brought to constitutional ideals, and to the very idea of the rule of law. Every one gets that, and so it is perfectly fair to ask, will this candidate—Sanders—or this approach—progressive—get us that victory?
Yet the critical point to recognize is just this: If some moderate were now to dislodge this movement, to force it aside, and declare victory in a brokered convention, we will have done more than simply stop a progressive. We will have convinced a generation that indeed, democracy does not matter.
That’s certainly true if the victory is secured through the power of money. There was a brief moment when Michael Bloomberg could have defined his campaign as a campaign to end the corruption of money in our politics. If only Nixon could go to China, and only a southerner like Johnson could pass the Civil Rights Bill, it’s certainly plausible that only a billionaire could save democracy from the billionaires. But that window on Bloomberg’s campaign has closed. If he wins, it will be a win through the power of money, triggering enormous frustration for the progressive base.
Joe Biden is the only Democrat left in the race who has not committed to making fundamental democratic reform the first thing he does as President. (UPDATED: He now has).
Amy Klobuchar would be different, no doubt. She isn’t money. She hasn’t practiced endless influence. She’s tough and brilliant and enormously experienced. But she is just not where the heart of the party beats right now. Maybe all the power in the world could bend the process to make her the nominee. Maybe. But then she would stand in an even weaker position than Hubert Humphrey in 1968. For our Bobby Kennedy has not passed. Our Bobby Kennedy would just have been pushed aside.
None of these alternatives would do anything more than alienate the progressive base. And some — the money candidates — would drive that base batshit crazy. Sure, they’re not going to vote for Trump. But too many would just not vote at all. And way too many would walk away from this cycle convinced that democratic politics is just fake.
But then what about 1972, the establishment Democrats ask? Bernie is even more radical than George McGovern, a man who won one state, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. How could anyone responsible promote the candidacy of a man who insists on lecturing America on the meaning of “socialism,” and thinks that he can win while outraging much of Florida by saying nice things about Castro (whether or not Obama said the same).
I get the anxiety. My first choice has always been Warren. I don’t fully understand why she never eclipsed the candidate who made her politics so possible. Warren is brilliant and strong. She is the lawyer we need to cross-examine Trump. She has an Horatio Alger-like story of hard earned success that every American would come to admire. Her policies are every bit as progressive as Bernie’s, even if her democracy reform proposals are not as ambitious. And she has never called herself a “socialist,” and could never be attacked (as bizarre as it is that this is an effective attack) for honeymooning in Moscow.
But we miss how Sanders’ political “mistakes” may actually be his most valuable assets. Just as Trump’s outrageousness convinced his base that he was the real deal for them, Bernie’s refusal to bend convinces his base, and maybe a hopeless America, that he is the real deal for them. These “mistakes” evince his valuable superpower: authenticity. Boomers will remember “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.” There’s an equivalent here: If he can be so loved despite the political absurdity of engaging a fight about the meaning of “socialism,” then he’s just got to be good.
And it is an absurdity — ordinarily. Not because Sanders is wrong. He’s not wrong. America is a socialist nation — for the rich, at least. For the past 50 years, the policy of Democrats and Republicans alike has been to socialize risk, while privatizing benefits: think about the bailouts which allowed billions in bonuses to be paid to the people who had engineered the 2008 collapse, while the underwater homeowners were left to drown. And the idea that there’s any part of our economy that doesn’t get a little help from the government is just plain ignorant. Any part, at least, save perhaps those where the people need it the most.
Even so, ordinarily, a presidential campaign is not a college seminar: It is not the time to explain and educate; it is a time to rally. Except maybe this time. Because maybe this time, as the pundits get themselves worked up in a tizzy about the meaning of “socialism,” Americans see someone willing to stand by his principles, regardless.
This may just be the thing that Warren’s handlers missed. It is the through-line in Krystal Ball’s account of her reasons for reversing her support for Warren. All the politic dodging and weaving, all the plans promoted, and then withdrawn, all the clever efforts to outplay our Idiot King — they all seemed to make Warren a more normal politician, just at the moment when our side, too, demands something radically different. I get Ball’s point; I don’t agree with it. I know Warren, personally. I’ve never known anyone more focused on a principled and right result. But the reality of the moment is that Warren is not the progressive that the progressive movement has embraced. I get the passion that rallies to Bernie; if he is the nominee, I will fight for him as strongly as I’ve fought for anything in my life. Yet I will always be sorry if indeed it was this cleverness that denied us the chance of a brilliant and progressive President who is also, F I N A L L Y, a woman.
Of course, Warren remains the only alternative to Sanders who would not necessarily alienate the progressive base. She hasn’t won it. Or at least, most of it. But she’s remained (in the main) a loyal friend to Bernie, even when it has been costly. If those looking for a moderate because they fear the idea of selling “democratic socialism” rallied to Warren, who knows what would happen. It’s at least clear that it won’t be Bloomberg’s money that would be bringing about that flip.
But in the end, whether Warren or Sanders, the ultimate question is whether we’d lose as many by alienating the moderates as we’d lose by alienating the left. That’s a fair question, given the existential threat of Trump. But I don’t believe that, in the end, the moderates will defect or not show up.
Sanders is a populist, yes. Yet it is a fundamental mistake to equate the populism of Trump with the populism of Sanders. Trump’s populism is anti-government. His side rallies to the changes that would end the promise of self-government. Victory for rightwing populism is a government that ignores them, and everyone else (except in the bedroom, and except for women’s bodies). Populism on the right is a system designed to assure that the power of wealth meets no other power, ever.
The populism of Sanders is radically different. It would empower government, not defeat it. To his great credit (even if, for some of us, it seemed to take too long to get there), Sanders has committed to a platform of fundamental democratic reform in the first hundred days of his administration. And his plan for funding campaigns would radically empower Americans, and change the economy of influence in DC. If he prevails in that, the people that brought him there will continue the fight to rally more people to a politics to make change happen. There is nothing in anything Sanders has ever said to indicate an authoritarian instinct. There is nothing to suggest he would not move quickly to restore the independence and integrity of the Justice Department and the executive branch generally. And he has been as open and critical of regime change war as any, and honest about the outrageousness of American interventionism across our history. He may point to a more radical politics than any, but he would build his policies within the ordinary machinery of democratic government.
This is the part we cannot miss, and that the anxious moderates must keep in view. Presidential campaigns are waged as if they were fantasy football games. The candidates map their dreams, as if we are to pick our candidate based on which dream is also ours.
But governing in America is not by diktat. No Democratic candidate is going to get to the White House and simply enact his or her platform. The process of governing—even if the system is fundamentally reformed — is a process of convincing a majority in Congress to enact whatever programs the President advances (not to mention those that a majority in Congress wants too).
That process will never produce the socialism so many seem to fear. In the best case, it will yield, first, to the demand that we fix democracy first, and then, if we do that, it will make possible a host of critical reforms that everyone knows we must achieve.
No doubt, Bernie will not be satisfied with what Congress ultimately gives him. Campaigns are revolutions; governing requires consensus with many who are not part of the revolution. Yet regardless of Bernie’s happiness, a Congress built with the passion of his followers will give America much of what even the moderates are calling for. And then a generation of non-Boomers will see that there’s a reason for democracy, still. That change is possible through democracy. That it is a system worthy of our allegiance and endless effort. That it is something to fight for, rather than simply to check out from.
And then there’s the other side of of 1972: Nixon. Trump is not Nixon. However mean-spirited, and however politically corrupt, Nixon was an incredibly competent President, who had created the EPA, and whose reelection happened while the nation enjoyed 6.4% growth, and just 5.1% unemployment. It was hopeful a moment in America, even if that hope was soon dashed by the OPEC cartel. To most, given the good times, there was little reason to gamble.
Good times are not where we are today. Unemployment continues to be low, no doubt, but even before the Corona-recession, US growth was only expected to be 2%. The moderates might grouse about the extremism in progressive policies. But elections are not decided by a checklist of policies. And every American who can hear beyond the Breitbart/Fox bubble will walk into that voting booth knowing that we have never had a President as awful as this. Not because of his awful policies, but because of his character. Every parent has a child who looks to the king and asks why? Every American free of Breitbart/Fox knows that we can be better than this.
That knowledge could beat this President. But not if the millions who now rally to the progressive base get told, once again, shut up and sit down. This is the most important election in modern history. The progressives can win it, if we allow them their voice. Deny them that voice, and I don’t know who wins in 2020. I do know who loses: democracy.