Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hasn’t lost his ability to make Democrats mad, and once again, he has triggered an intraparty kerfuffle on social media. This isn’t a huge deal while Donald Trump is still the president, but it’s worth focusing on as a preview of what the Democratic Party is going to face between now and 2020.
As we head towards the next presidential cycle, many people — on the right, the left and in the media — will be saying Democrats are in the throes of an identity crisis, a struggle for their party’s soul that will tear them apart. But they aren’t, and they won’t be. The Democratic Party screws up plenty and contains its share of idiots, but when it comes to its identity, it’s doing just fine.
On Wednesday, Sanders spoke at a commemoration event in Jackson, Miss., to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. BuzzFeed reporter Ruby Cramer quoted Sanders as saying:
“The business model, if you like, of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure . . . People sometimes don’t see that because there was a charismatic individual named Barack Obama.”
In response, some folks revved right up to a now-familiar criticism of Sanders, namely that he always wants to subsume every issue — even the issue of racial justice, on the anniversary of King’s slaying — to economics.
In Sanders’ defense, this event was billed as “Examining Economic Justice 50 Years Later.” And if you listen to all of his remarks (you can watch them here), there isn’t that much any Democrat would object to — even if you take issue with his apparent belief that Democratic losses at the state level happened because the party didn’t provide a sufficiently leftist economic agenda, and not because there was a powerful racial backlash against the Obama presidency. But this is going to happen over and over again: Sanders is going to make the same arguments he’s been making for a long time, people are going to disagree with him, and then there will be a bunch of “Dems in Disarray!” coverage.
We’ve already seen a fair amount of this type of coverage around the intraparty battles that have taken shape during some primaries. But this pattern is going to be less consequential than it appears. For one thing, as remarkable as the Sanders phenomenon was in 2016, if Sanders 2020 happens it will be a far more diminished force. That’s because, in 2016, he became the one real alternative to the boring, establishment, seemingly inevitable nominee, which made him fascinating and cool, especially to young people. In 2020, you will likely have a dozen Democrats running, many compelling in their own ways. Most of the people who supported Sanders last time around will peel off to other candidates.
Those who remain with him will be, in no small part, a rump faction of anti-Democrat Democrats, who share Sanders’ conviction that the party is irredeemably corrupt and a collection of neoliberal corporate sellouts. This is the essence of the Sanders brand; it always has been and always will be. No matter how much the party moves to the left — and it has moved a great deal in the last few years — there will never be a point where Sanders says, “I’m really pleased with where the Democratic Party is right now.” Because once he said that, there would cease to be any need for Bernie Sanders to exist.
To be clear, Sanders has played a vital role in pushing the party to the left, and that has been a salutary development for the party and the country. In 2020, most or even all of the potential Democratic presidential candidates will support universal government-guaranteed health coverage, a $15 minimum wage, new gun regulations, legalization of marijuana and a bunch of other positions significantly to the left of where the party’s consensus was just a few years ago. Some Democrats are even talking about a federal jobs guarantee.
You may not have noticed, but there isn’t some kind of enormous pushback to this evolution from the party’s neoliberal puppetmasters. You may find a candidate here or there from a more conservative district who bucks the party on this or that issue, but it doesn’t change what the party as a whole represents. It’s true the party hasn’t become the one Sanders might prefer, which is a robust social-democratic model, but it is more to the left on many matters than it has been for decades. And while there will always be internal arguments over policy, there is a surprising degree of consensus behind that orientation. So the Democratic Party has a pretty good idea of what it stands for.
There’s another part of Sanders’ critique, however, that rings particularly hollow right now: the idea that the party’s current orientation isn’t just wrong, but is a failure at winning elections.
There is no question Democrats have suffered huge losses at the state level in recent years, and the party’s lack of investment in its down-ballot infrastructure is part of the reason. Fifteen months ago, you could legitimately have said Democrats seem to have a fundamental problem winning elections.
But today, there are serious reasons to believe a real comeback is underway. Since Trump got elected, Democrats have won nearly every off-year and special election in sight, usually improving on their prior performance by 10, 20 or even 30 points. They are poised to win back the House — and maybe even the Senate. No one in either party doubts they are going to make huge gains at state and local levels this fall. Whatever else you can say about them, you can’t say they are not having success at the ballot box.
Is that just a reaction to the Trump presidency? Sure, but parties win by reacting to the president; that is one of the best ways to gain power. Being the opposite of Trump is another key part of how Democrats currently define themselves: as a party that is pro-immigrant, against tax giveaways to corporations and to the wealthy, in favor of international alliances, committed to racial justice, opposed to a new war on drugs, eager to address climate change, and is one that believes the most powerful person on earth shouldn’t be an ignorant buffoon with the impulse control of a toddler. What’s wrong with that?
Bernie Sanders should go ahead and keep offering his critique of the Democratic Party, and anyone who thinks he’s wrong should say so. It’s a healthy debate to have. But it doesn’t mean the Democrats have an identity problem.