Sanders, the Change the Democrats Don’t Want…but Will They Have a Choice?

This New York Times op-ed piece continues the theme from the Vox piece.  The bottom line is that the agenda for “change” that the Democratic insiders want and the agenda that outside “woud-be-Democrats-but-aren’t” are different and the former would prefer to shut the latter out.  This is reminiscent of how the Republican Party decided to do things differently after 2012 election, but wound up getting Trump instead.  Sometimes, careful agenda setting can gift the politicians the people they want, but you don’t need to understand Arrow’s Theorem to appreciate how unpredictable the people are in a democratic polity–and that is a good thing (unless you believe that Brezhnev and his stagnant unresponsive stability is the epitome of “democracy.”)

PS.  An important thing to remind ourselves is that Sanders did as well as he did in spite of what he and his supporters have been calling a “rigged” system.  Those who dispute this characterization point out that the rules of the primary process, at various times, gave Sanders an advantage–e.g. the caucuses.  Now, that presupposes that the only possible instance of rigging is when those who run the institutions can change the rules willy nilly at their convenience, just to to win every match.  In NO stable polity does that kind of overt cheating prevail–not even in USSR at the height of Stalin’s power (well, maybe at the real height of Stalin’s power…just maybe.)  EVERY institution is rigged:  those who design the institutions establish the rules and procedures with the expectation that those outside the mainstream will have a great deal of difficulty breaking through.  This is the more subtle version of institutional rigging that political scientists seem to so love:  the outcomes is not explicitly predetermined, but the odds are heavily weighed to the advantage of the insiders.  It is not a surprise, then, that the only “serious” challenge to Hillary Clinton came from an obscure old senator whom no one has ever heard of.

That this obscure old senator put up as much a fight as he did is the indicator that something is fundamentally rotten at the heart of the current party politics, for the Democrats as well as the Republicans.  It is not about Sanders–all the naysayers are probably right that Sanders, himself, is not the future of the Democratic Party.  But what about the voters he drew?  That makes for a more complex question.  Precisely because Sanders was an old senator whom very few had ever heard of, it is unlikely that he is really what drew them out.  While much has been said about how they seem to lack a clear “ideology,” all that means is that they are not in sync with what defines the political landscape in the realm of the conventional wisdom.  Since most of these voters are low propensity voters, it is tempting to think that, once things calm down, they will just go away like they did in the past.

But therein lies the rub:  things are not exactly “calming down.”  The discontent is quite palpable and widespread.  While they may not have a clear idea about what should be done, they are also aware that they are not being served by the institutional status quo. While divergent in their proclivities and “affects” (to the degree that this oft-abused political psychobabble has any meaning as it applies to this group), there really is something that John Judis described as Sanders-Trump electorate, unified in their skepticism of the status quo even if they cannot clearly articulate what it is that they want.  Of course, since their politics do not and will not match up neatly with the dimensions of conventional politics, punditry will throw up their hands in the air and declare the phenomenon incomprehensible.  It is not the young and the liberals who will be driving this change, but the discontented, cynical, and skeptical–who may or may not coincide with the young and the liberal–and they will be demanding something more substantive than symbolic intersectionality, even if it will fit neither “liberal” or “conservative” mold.

The likely change is not simply whether the Democrats will move “left” or whatever.  Precisely because this electorate, or parts thereof, at any rate, defy easy spatial characterization, all manner of politicians will seek to capture their support, from the “left,” “right,” or somewhere in between.  We are already seeing this, in Sanders and Trump.  Expect even more weirdness to crop up, threatening to tear both parties apart, even while the conventional politicians attempt to maintain order much the way Debbie Wasserman-Schultz or Paul Ryan have been, by hook and crook.  The resulting change will be far more “interesting” than the naive assumptions about whether the Democrats will move towards the “center” or the “left,” whatever these words mean.

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