In the Republican race for president, there are few slurs more cutting than when one candidate says another is too close to “the establishment.” But we hadn’t heard that from the Democrats until yesterday, when Bernie Sanders tarred Hillary Clinton with the dreaded “E” word. The problem is that it isn’t so dreaded among Democrats, and if Sanders thinks it is, then he may be misreading the nature of his revolution and the voters who are rallying behind it.
This started last night on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC, when Maddow asked Sanders about Clinton’s endorsements from Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign. Here’s what Sanders said:
“I would love to have the endorsement of every progressive organization in America. We’re very proud to have received recently the endorsement of MoveOn.org. We’ve received the endorsement Democracy for America. These are grassroots organizations representing millions of workers.
“What we are doing in this campaign, it just blows my mind every day because I see it clearly, we’re taking on not only Wall Street and economic establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment.
“So, I have friends and supporters in the Human Rights [Campaign] and Planned Parenthood. But, you know what? Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time. Some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.”
This argument would be unworthy of note if it came from a Republican, but Clinton quickly criticized Sanders, tweeting, “Really Senator Sanders? How can you say that groups like @PPact and @HRC are part of the ‘establishment’ you’re taking on?”
On one level, Sanders is absolutely right: Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign are indeed part of the Democratic establishment. They’ve been around for a long time, they have deep ties with other left-leaning advocacy groups and Democratic politicians (not least the Clintons), and they’re the kind of place where you’ll find former and future members of Democratic administrations. They endorsed Clinton for a lot of reasons — because she has a history of supporting their issues and interests, because people within the organizations have personal ties with her and the people around her, and almost certainly because they see her as the most likely nominee, and they want as much access and influence in the next Democratic administration as they can get. That’s what advocacy groups do.
But Sanders is wrong if he thinks that significant numbers of Democratic voters look at groups like those and say, “Yuck, the establishment.” Or even that the dissatisfaction that is driving voters to him is directed at the Democratic establishment itself.
(A brief aside: There are some gay activists and intelligentsia who do indeed believe that the Human Rights Campaign is a bunch of sellouts. Without wading into the substance of that question, it’s safe to say that the proportion of Democratic voters who have any idea what that might be about is tiny).
This is where the difference with the Republican side is so stark, and where Sanders’s success is a product of a fundamentally different phenomenon than what’s fueling the campaigns of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. On the Republican side, anger at their elected officials, their party leaders, and the broader network of Washington-based organizations and individuals that make up that thing we call the establishment is intense. That anger almost constitutes its own ideology, even though it’s barely about issues at all, but is more concerned with tactics. It has been nurtured by “outsider” candidates, and by conservative media figures like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham who fancy themselves a kind of counter-establishment. It vilifies people like Mitch McConnell and the departed John Boehner who are supposedly too willing to knuckle under to Barack Obama without forcing dramatic and quixotic confrontations. It promotes intra-party revolts and primary challenges to Republicans, and promulgates a narrative in which everything that has gone wrong for them in the last seven years is because of that establishment’s weakness and betrayal.
There’s nothing like that on the Democratic side. Yes, Sanders voters are dissatisfied. But they’re drawn to Sanders because of his ideological purity, his frank discussion of fundamental progressive values, his big ideas unencumbered by any buzz-crunching pragmatism about the mundane realities of governing, and his focus on the pathologies of the political system, particularly the influence of big money. They don’t despise Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid the way so many Republican voters despise McConnell and Boehner. They certainly aren’t going to take Clinton’s endorsements from the likes of Planned Parenthood as a reason to vote against her.
There’s also nothing comparable on the left to what those on the right hear from their favorite media figures. To begin with, liberal media isn’t nearly as central to the progressive movement as conservative media is to the conservative movement, either in influence or audience size. But even if it were, people like Maddow aren’t on the air every day railing against the Democratic establishment the way Limbaugh, Ingraham, and others rail against the Republican establishment.
Sanders is right that the Democratic establishment isn’t going to support him, but the biggest reason for that is that they don’t think he’s going to win the nomination and they don’t think he could win the general election if he were the nominee. Now it may be that this is the last time he brings this up, and he’ll go back to talking about the things that actually draw people to his revolution. But if he thinks it’s because they want to fight the establishment, he may have been spending too much time watching what’s going on in the Republican race.