We can argue until the cows come home about whether it should be this way, but it looks like Hillary Clinton’s victory in California last night, combined with the stance of the majority of the Democratic Party’s superdelegates, means that the chances of Bernie Sanders winning the party’s nomination are basically done. For those of us who’ve supported Sanders, it’s a sad day. I’m not gonna get into the merits of Clinton’s candidacy here, because we have the next few months to drive ourselves insane arguing about that — for now, it’s enough to note that I hope as much as anyone else that she wins, because whatever her failings, the prospect of President Trump doesn’t bear thinking about.
In any case, though, yesterday was the day that we lost any realistic chance of having a self-described socialist in the White House. If you’re of a leftist bent, this is a moment for reflection (unless, I guess, you’re more interested in anatomically unfeasible voting methods and their social implications, in which case, bully for you.) It’s easy to be indignant and reactive about the way this has turned out, but nevertheless, the postmortem for Sanders’ campaign doesn’t need to be entirely morose.
Plenty of people have noted over the course of Sanders’ campaign that even if he doesn’t win, the fact that a candidate of his bent got as far as he did is a cause for celebration. This is true, but it’s also not quite the whole story: someone like Sanders being able to get within touching distance of the Democratic Party’s (VERY) preferred candidate is something that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago, but it needn’t represent the peak of socialist ambition. If the DNC and its cadre of superdelegates can extract their own head from their collective asses long enough to look toward the future, they’ll realize that Sanders represents the future of their party, both ideologically and — crucially — pragmatically.
I expect we’ll look back at the 2016 election as something of a watershed for American politics, because it’s the moment at which American politics really started fracturing at both its left and right ends. It’s been clear for decades that the “center,” such as it is, has been moving progressively rightward. At the moment, American politics is like a tube of toothpaste that someone has squished at one end. The majority of the contents have been squeezed into the right half of the tube, creating a whole lot of pressure that will lead, sooner or later, to an inevitable rupture. For now, Donald Trump is the weird gooey shit exuding from under the cap, but if things don’t change, there’s going to be a big mess, very soon. (I expect Colgate’s check for this analogy in the mail any day now.)
The flipside to this is that there is an awful lot of space on the left. For the last 30 years or so, traditionally left-wing parties have been dragged toward the center, mainly because they’ve played by the right’s rules: the tactic of portraying left-wing parties as irresponsible, financially untrustworthy, etc, has been so successful that left has always been on the defensive, trying to prove it’s not any of those things. The right has been aided immeasurably in this respect by the fall of communism, which has been spun as proof that pretty much anything that Republicans happen to dislike just “doesn’t work.”
This process has meant that historically left-wing parties have ended up producing people like Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair, who are — in terms of policy, at least — not hugely different to the people they’re trying to unseat. In many cases, it’s a matter of degree, rather than of fundamental difference — although, for the record, Clinton is clearly VERY different to Donald Trump. Elsewhere, the difference is often much less marked — economically, for instance, Britain’s “New” Labor was more conservative than the conservative government it replaced. This is the ultimate “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” scenario, one that’s presented unexpected challenges for the traditional right — finding themselves outflanked in their own territory, they’ve moved further still to the right. We’re seeing the results of this decades-long subtle (and not so subtle) courting of the far right now: the lunatics have taken over the proverbial asylum, yet another manifestation of American realpolitik’s unfortunate tendency to create monsters that eventually come back to bite their creators in the ass.
If nothing else, Sanders’ success shows that there is also room on the left for candidates who are not defensive, who are not trying to legitimize themselves by conventional standards, who have an actual ideology. His policies have resonated most strongly with younger voters, who are far enough removed from the specter of red terror that the tactic of branding Sanders a communist doesn’t summon the sort of instinctive distrust it might do in their older compatriots. Neither does the word “socialist,” a description that would have been political suicide for a Presidential hopeful a generation ago.
Sure, voters tend to get more conservative as they get older, but there’s nothing really to suggest that this cohort of young voters will change dramatically, especially given the way that the policies of past, center-right leaders have so demonstrably failed them. This is a generation who, as we’ve noted here before, are distinguished by being the first in living memory with no realistic expectation of a better life than their parents. They’ve seen eight years of a president they voted for in droves in 2008 being actively obstructed by the GOP, which is hardly going to endear the latter to them. In four years, there’ll be another group of younger voters voting for the first time; in eight years, another. On average, the US population is getting older, but nevertheless, as older voters die and are replaced by younger voters, the electorate will continue to move away from the GOP, especially if that party continues to be as obstreperous and reactionary as it is now. (And there’s no indication that it won’t.)
All of this represents an opportunity for the left and, if it’s smart, for the Democratic Party. If the Democrats don’t fill the void on the left, someone else will, but clearly, in a two-party system, it’s significantly more difficult for a new party to do so than it is for one of the incumbents. For decades, the left has been hamstrung by a need to prove it’s not so different from the right; Sanders’ candidacy suggests that those days are nearly over. This represents an opportunity for the Democrats to rebrand themselves as the party their supporters want them to be: a genuinely left-wing party, one that favors a discontinuation of the policies that have enriched a parasitic minority at the expense of the rest of the country. Four or eight years of Clinton won’t exactly represent radical change, but history may well judge her and her opponent as the last representatives of a dying establishment. For now, with Sanders effectively gone, we can but hope — but at least there’s reason to do so.