The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Establishment Democrats still fundamentally misunderstand Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at the First in the South Dinner in Charleston, S.C., on Monday. (Randall Hill/ Reuters)
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Establishment Democrats are deeply afraid of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) becoming their party’s presidential nominee. They may be right to be concerned, but they are still thinking politics is between left and right. Sanders, like Trump, understands that the new politics emerging worldwide is more about ins vs. outs.

Sanders’s politics may be socialist, but his appeal is that of an outsider. He tells the people dissatisfied with America that tinkering around the edges isn’t enough; the country need radical change. The fact that he has never been a Democrat is, for his supporters, cause to trust him. There’s a reason the PAC spun out of his losing 2016 effort is called “Our Revolution.”

The establishment is, by definition, a collection of insiders. They benefit from the current system and favor only incremental change, not revolution. They may support some of the same goals as Sandernistas, but they aren’t fundamentally angry about America itself. That’s one reason they find it so difficult to respond to Sanders’s challenge. It’s also a reason blasting Sanders as extreme or unelectable won’t make his army smaller.

Trump’s appeal is similarly based on a call for radical change. His establishment Republican foes failed because they, too, were insiders who favored only incremental change. Never Trumpers remain unreconciled to Trump’s worldview and long for a “return to normalcy.” In this decisive sense, they share more with their former adversaries in the Democratic establishment than they do with the voters in their old party.

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Voters, however, disagree with both sets of insiders. The Democratic left, reinforced in recent years by young voters and new citizens, wants transformation, not reformation. The Republican right and center-right want to reverse the 21st century’s social and economic changes, which they associate with the Barack Obama years. They are joined by the Obama-Trump voters who don’t share all of their new allies’ views but do believe that the late 20th century global liberal consensus made them worse off. The Republican Party is now largely a coalition of “outs,” while the Democratic primary battle is essentially a contest over whether the “ins” or the “outs” are a majority.

These battles mirror those being fought in almost every country in the West. Most European nations have seen formerly dominant center-right and center-left parties drop support. These “ins” frequently try to work together to stave off loss of power, with the “grand coalition” between Germany’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats being the prime example. But it hasn’t worked. Voters increasingly want radical change, and sooner or later they will get it.

Brexit is the most obvious example of the latter. Ten years ago, leaving the European Union was a fringe cause backed by parties such as Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party. Conservative insiders such as then-Prime Minister David Cameron tried to ignore UKIP’s growth, but that was no longer possible when the party won the 2014 European Parliament elections and was polling at close to 20 percent for the 2015 British general election. Cameron punctured their support by promising to hold a referendum on E.U. membership if reelected, but lost power when British voters rejected his pro-E.U. stance in 2016. It took three years of political warfare and two new Tory leaders, but pro-Brexit PM Boris Johnson has finally, in his words, “got Brexit done.”

It’s not hard to see why many voters want radical change. Economically, globalization has benefited the global poor and the developed world’s rich and skilled, but it has not significantly helped people in the middle and has hurt many in the lower-middle class. Socially, as minorities become more politically powerful, those who believe they have social status fear what it means for them. Both sides in this conflict won’t tolerate avoiding the issues and splitting the difference.

The “ins” of both U.S. parties thus face difficult choices. In Europe, the “ins” of the center-right have regained influence when they adopt many of the positions of the “outs.” Johnson’s big win in December is one example; Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has adopted many of the populist Freedom Party’s proposals on immigration, is another. “Ins” of the center-left have succeeded when they, too, restrict immigration or when they move hard to the left on climate issues. New Zealand’s Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has done both. In all cases, though, the “ins” stay in by co-opting the “outs.”

Democratic Party insiders may not be able to stop Sanders, but that’s the least of their concerns. The popular sentiments driving his and Trump’s campaigns won’t go away with either man’s defeat. How they react to those in coming years will determine whether the Democrats’ “ins” stay in, or whether they end up on the outs.

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Read more:

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Max Boot: Vote for Bernie, elect Trump

Megan McArdle: The Berniemobile is filling up with Realist-Idealists, Revolutionaries and Bandwagoners

Helaine Olen: Democratic voters are rallying around Sanders. Why can’t elites?

Fred Hiatt: How Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both reject the reality of climate change