Effect of the Sanders Campaign?

Vox has an article that is, typical to its form, simultaneously utterly obtuse and highly insightful, although probably for all the wrong reasons.

The article is right:  there is very little incentive for the mainstream Democratic Party to accommodate the demands by the Sanders supporters.  For starter, in all likelihood, the vast majority of Sanders voters are not habitual voters.  While the prospects of winning their votes may be tempting, mainstream Democrats, in particular, have learned over the decades that relying on a group of frustrated people who are not normally connected to politics and are not likely to turn out on regular basis is not the path to a successful electoral coalition.  If the Republicans were on the ascendant, there might be a bit of desire to attempt co-opting these voters in the short run, for the coming November, but, rightly or wrongly, the mainstream Democrats do not seem to believe that it is necessary.

Numbers like recent PPP poll in Pennsylvania might be fueling this confidence:  while Clinton performs worse against Trump than Sanders, the gap is mainly driven by defections of younger voters under 45.  Many of these younger voters do not add to Trump’s totals, however but to the Green Party–for the 18-30 demographic, the entire difference between Sanders and Clinton is accounted for by the support for the Green Party.  The Democratic insiders seem convinced that enough of these voters will find sense and trickle back to the Democratic camp–as an article in the New Republic citing this poll claimed, just half of these voters will be enough to give Clinton a comfortable margin.  Of course, the polls show another pattern that no one seems to be commenting on: among the 30-45 demographic, it appears that about 1/2 of Sanders-but-not-Clinton voters do wind up switching to Trump, while most of the rest join the “not sure” column.  This is something that I’d been commenting on often:  it is not the average Sanders voter that might switch to Trump, but the significant minority among them who are not especially young or liberal.  But how many of these voters are present in the national voter pool who would turn out?  That is the big question.

Of course, it is highly likely that, for all characterization of the Sanders voters as representing the younger, more liberal block of voters, it is quite likely that they don’t really know what they want exactly.  Even if the Democrats do want to accommodate their demands, they probably cannot simply ask the Sanders voters what they want and expect a clear and consistent answer.  Hardly a surprise–this is typical of the so-called “unsophisticated” voters.

But all these miss a significant point:  as Sanders often repeats in his campaign rallies, many millions of people bothered to show up in a seemingly quixotic crusade, led by someone whom they probably never heard of ranting about a political revolution about which they had little understanding and voted for someone whom the entire Democratic Party was extolling as the “most prepared presidential candidate ever” or something like that.  This, rather than the fact that they have a coherent agenda that systematically threatens the Democratic Party’s status quo, should make the Democratic leaders worry. Many voters who would be predisposed to side with the Democrats–in that they voted in the Democratic primaries after all–are deeply unhappy with the status quo that they were willing to gamble on something crazy and unknown.  Simply replicating Sanders, or even accommodating the particulars of his policy demands–to the degree that they can be clearly articulated at the level of workable details–will not be enough.  They need to sit down and think hard about the big picture:  what are they unhappy about and what broad changes in the direction of the policy are necessary, beyond thinking up specific wonkeries of policymaking.

Barack Obama represents exactly the opposite of this:  he is, in his political instincts, a Clinton clone and, as I mentioned to a friend earlier today, a spiritual descendant of Henry Clay.  His political nature is to triangulate, to try to structure some sort of grand compromise that will satisfy everyone who will thank him for his ingenuity in crafting it. Like both of the Clintons, he loves the wonkery of policymaking but lacks a clear sense of the big picture other than maintenance of the status quo–possibly because of his triangulating nature, for most compromise requires staying as close to the status quo as possible, lest some important players’ interests be threatened.   Unlike Hillary Clinton, but like Bill Clinton, he is a skilled politician but of a different nature–someone who excels in the technical aspects of retail politics, rather than the old, person-to-person contact.  Where Bill Clinton and his underlings would have been at home backslapping and beer drinking, Obama and his minions gush over cleverly using advanced communication technology and rules technicalities to gain myriad marketing advantage.   But, overall, he is a typical modern neoliberal Democratic politician, even if a very skilled one.  What sets him apart is the symbolic value of his race:  no liberal can dispute the historicity of his presence, even if his politics might resemble Ronald Reagan more than Franklin Roosevelt–recall that his memoirs, essentially a campaign document popularized before the election, gushed over how much he admired Reagan.

Hillary Clinton is, in a sense, very much playing out of the Obama playbook:  like Obama, her strategy is a mixture of the defense of the status quo combined with an appeal to symbolic politics.  That her election, if it were to take place, would make her the first woman president in American history, is, in the end the strongest message of her campaign.  Unlike Obama in 2008, she does not have the fortuitous (from the electoral perspective) of a double disaster befalling the incumbent president of the other party–the financial breakdown and the disgust with the heavy-handed international adventurism.  She does have an advantage of sorts in that the economy and the international situation are not nearly so disastrous, but not so rosy that there are many million of unhappy people who were willing to gamble on a crazy old man in the Democratic primaries.  Instead, she instinctively chooses to call them liars and turns them aside:  if America never stopped being great, obviously these people have no right to be unhappy so they should get off her lawn.  (Although, to be fair, she probably has no choice–not only is Obama the reasonably popular incumbent Democrat, his half measures, brought about by his triangulating nature meeting the immovable object of Republican obstructionism, were better than nothing for the interests of the Democratic-leaning unhappy voters, after all.)

There is something deeply reminiscent of 2000:  Al Gore knew that the electorate, not unhappy but certainly unsatisfied with the legacy of the Bill Clinton administration, tried all sorts of tricks to show he’ll do something more and different–I remember his slogan “You ain’t seen nothing yet” that he trotted out for a while.  Unfortunately, that was a horrible slogan for an ultimate insider in the outgoing administration, inviting only a sneer, “You’re right.  We ain’t seen nothing yet.” from George W. Bush.  Hillary Clinton is, in many ways, even a worse candidate to offer the promise of a change–especially if the opponent is Donald Trump and not a Bush, when the entire campaign against her will be centered around rejection of the insular politics of Washington.

The truth is that the Democrats in Washington and their supporters don’t want to change. The world is great for them:  they are getting everything they want.  They are putting coal miners out of work, changing the world to their liking, and are making a lot of money in process. They want politics that could silence their critics while maintaining the political status quo without raising unnecessary (from their perspective) fuss.  Barack Obama has done it perfectly and they want more of him, or someone like him.  So, if the future of the Democratic Party is to their liking, yes, Barack Obama is the future that they want.  The problem, of course, is whether that is the future that will continue to feature a Democratic Party.  Henry Clay and his supporters in 1840s and 50s wanted to maintain the status quo where everything was great for them, notwithstanding unhappy voices in various far flung corners of the country.  The compromises they concocted were designed to ensure maintenance of the status quo by bringing onboard everyone that they felt were “important enough” to matter.  Unfortunately for them, events were dictated by those whom considered marginal and insignificant, agitators and madmen, holding office (like Roger Taney) or just holding guns (like John Brown) who were willing to push agendas independent of the compromises among elected politicians.  The Democrats already faced one madman fueled by unhappy masses that they left out of the equation in the primaries and will face another madman who claims to be driven by a similar set of motives in November.  However much Democratic insiders don’t want to face more madness in their future, will the future have the Democratic Party that the insiders want?  Hopkins thinks that the insiders will be able to cheat the bad future and keep the institutional status quo that they want.  Perhaps they will, but I would not be so confident.


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