By Seth Abramson
May 19, 2016
In 2008, Hillary Clinton — on her way to losing the Democratic nomination — won nine of the final 25 nominating contests. In 2016, she may well — despite being treated as the likely winner of this year’s Democratic primary by the mainstream media — win only seven or eight of the final 25 state primaries and caucuses.
If you’re wondering how Clinton could perform worse in the second half of the election cycle in 2016 than she did in 2008 and still be in a position to win, there’s a good explanation for it that goes beyond the fact that the neck-and-neck Democratic primary race we’ve had for over two months started with a brief but solid run for Clinton. In 2008, both Democratic candidates were sanctioned by Party elders, so super-delegates were free to pick whoever they thought was the stronger candidate without fear of reprisal. In 2016, super-delegates are expected to go with Clinton even if the insurgent Sanders has clearly shown himself, by mid-June, to be the stronger general-election candidate in terms of both head-to-head match-ups with Trump, favorability ratings among independent voters, and performance in the second half of the nominating season.
Super-delegates will fall into line — the thinking goes — not because Clinton is a strong general-election bet, or liked by many people, or a real spokeswoman for the ideology of the Party base, or able to win independents, or nearly the same candidate in May that she was in February, or capable of winning over her current Democratic opposition the way Obama did after the primary in 2008, but because Democrats in Washington have made clear that any super-delegates who back the now-stronger horse in Philadelphia this July — Sanders — will be ostracized from the Party. Fear, then, is what could make Clinton the Democratic nominee even if (a) super-delegates are officially charged with voting for the strongest general-election candidate, and (b) Clinton goes on a historic losing streak in the back half of the primary season election calendar.
But all that’s horse-race nonsense, and won’t matter very much to political historians looking back at this period in American history from the vantage point of, say, 2116.
They won’t care that in 2008 Hillary Clinton won Kentucky by 36 points over then-Senator Obama, but in 2016 only managed to beat a 74-year-old independent socialist with no super-PAC and exponentially less name recognition by 0.4 percent — despite her making 11 trips to the state, having a much larger advertising budget, and daily receiving on-the-stump aid from a popular former President who won Kentucky twice.
We used to say that Hillary Clinton, for all her flaws, handily wins closed Democratic primaries.
Well, we can’t say that anymore.
But it doesn’t really matter in the long run.
And it won’t matter in 2116 that Democratic Party elders and particularly former Goldwater-Girl Clinton are so enamored by the idea of a Nixonian strongman that they fundamentally misunderstand the relation of Bernie Sanders to Sandersism. They believe he can direct the movement he lent his name to in the same way Clinton believes progressive Democrats will fall into line no matter how much she disrespects them, but they’re wrong. And Clinton is wrong to think she doesn’t owe Sanders and his political allies the same visibility and authority in her prospective Administration that she had in Barack Obama’s; she’s also wrong to think that the benefit of rules-fixing at the state Democratic convention in Nevada is worth the November votes it’s going to cost her — especially given her huge delegate lead, which allows her to be a magnanimous rule-follower.
But all that’s only relevant to the Clinton-Sanders and Clinton-Trump horse-races.
Is it a “horse-race” issue that the DNC is publicly representing itself as a “neutral” arbiter in the Democratic primary, and publicly stating that super-delegates don’t vote until July, but according to NBC is in fact “colluding” with the Clinton campaign “behind the scenes” to begin — with millions of votes yet to be cast — the transition of the DNC from an independent operation to one run by Hillary Clinton? No, for the fact that there’s “nothing neutral” about the DNC right now (as David Chalian of CNN put it last night) merely tells you something about the ethics of the Democratic Party in 2016.
After all, this is a Party that has, in 2016, given Debbie Wasserman Schultz a job.
But not only isn’t this an article about horse races, it’s also not about 2016. It’s certainly not about the fact that Hillary Clinton is doing everything she needs to be doing right now to lose the fall general campaign — even as she sets up Bernie Sanders to be the eventual fall-guy for her own failures.
No — this article is about the future.
Conservative Republicans have largely been successful in pulling their party to the right since 1996; the GOP as it is today is almost unrecognizable from the days of George H.W. Bush, who in 2016 terms would be a Democrat. While conservatives suffered some setbacks over the last few years — owing to their leaders choosing, over and over, to ignore them or even slap them in the face publicly — the 2016 GOP primary has shown us that a party’s “base”, apropos of its name, always get the last laugh. Why? Because it’s what any political party is ultimately founded upon.
Since 1996, progressive Democrats have had their butts handed to them repeatedly by their leaders. The Democratic Party as it is today is almost unrecognizable from the days of Michael Dukakis. Bill Clinton turned out to be a “New Democrat,” in other words a triangulating neoliberal corporatist. Al Gore waited until far too late in his 2000 campaign to unveil his “progressive warrior” persona. Howard Dean was cut off at the knees by the media in 2004, when somehow everyone who reported on “The Scream” neglected to mention that it was only the media’s turning off of all off-stage mics that made Dean’s speech seem out-of-place in-context. Barack Obama has been a terrific President whose administration has been, nevertheless, not nearly as progressive as the two campaigns he waged to get into the White House led progressives to expect. When the Democrats did everything in their power to anoint Hillary Clinton before a single American had voted — giving her a 350-superdelegate lead, more than $100 million in super-PAC money, a laughably disingenuous “debate schedule,” and much more — it was presumed that progressives would take a right cross to the chin with the same good grace they always had.
Keeping progressives complacent has been particularly easy for the “New Democrat” philosophy Bill and Hillary Clinton used to take over the Democratic Party because it has, too, the complicity of the corporate media — in much the same way Republican conservatives succeeded because of their absolute dominance of American radio.
Despite being told not to do so by the DNC itself, the mainstream media began tallying superdelegates back in 2015, which ensured that Clinton would not face a real challenger from within the Democratic Party. Until it realized there was real money to be made in cable-sponsored “town halls”, the mainstream media remained largely silent on the laughably sparse debate schedule the DNC had created as a sort of “red carpet” for Clinton. The media gave Sanders only a fraction of the coverage enjoyed by Clinton. It stacked its permanent on-air “panels” with Clinton supporters, while relegating Sanders surrogates to, at most, brief interviews. And it perpetuated a single master narrative to the point it became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the idea that if a 74-year-old independent socialist from an all-white state couldn’t immediately, even instantaneously, win a majority of the black and Latino vote nationwide, it meant his “appeal” was limited to well-to-do Caucasian hipsters. That Sanders has doubled his support among blacks and Latinos over the last three months is, in this day-to-day “horse-race” perspective the media and the media alone promulgates, meaningless.
The problem is, “-isms” don’t operate at the level of a year; they unfold over decades.
Sandersism isn’t about 2016; it’s about 2024, 2044, and even — in terms of what it means for the future of this country — 2116.
The point being this: the ideological revolution within the Democratic Party has already happened, and Sandersism won. The only question now is how long Democrats and the country will have to wait to see its gains in real-time. A Clinton presidency would forestall those gains somewhat less than a Trump presidency would, but the fact remains that either a Clinton or a Trump administration would merely delay the inevitable “New New Deal” America has richly earned and will ultimately receive.
It’s not just me saying this, nor is it merely Sanders supporters. No less a staunch Clinton ally than David Axelrod said on CNN two weeks ago that not only is the “debate over” regarding the ideological future of the Democratic Party, it was actually over a long time ago.
And Bernie Sanders won it.
It was over when a 74-year-old independent socialist with no super-PAC or name recognition went from 4 percent in the polls at the beginning of 2015 to — within 13 months — a statistical dead heat with the most powerful political machine in the history of American democracy. Let’s be clear: the Clintons aren’t merely the most politically successful husband-and-wife team in American history; they’re not merely the scions of a family that has, for a quarter-century, been the most politically influential in the Democratic Party; they literally remade the party into their own image more than two decades ago. The Democratic Party today is Clintonism. And when Bernie Sanders declared what was ostensibly a fringe candidacy last spring, he was in no uncertain terms — not even the Clintons doubted it — declaring war on the Democratic Party as the Clintons had made it. He was, in short, declaring a return to the politics of FDR and the Democratic Party of the New Deal.
Contemporary journalists are tasked with seeing beyond the ends of their noses, but rarely do; they’re encouraged in this dereliction of duty by politicians like the Clintons for whom a perpetual focus on the day-to-day horse-race is good for business — specifically, the business of keeping one of the two major American political parties exactly as it already is. (Which, as noted, is exactly how they made it.) As long as reporters focus exclusively on the horse-race, it’s easy to count delegates properly — though actually, the media struggles to do even this — and see that Sanders remains unlikely to be the lead horse after the current lap is run. It’s equally easy to see that saying Clinton has “won” obscures not just how bad a politician she is; not just how poor a campaign she has run; not just how disliked she is by the general-election electorate; not just how needlessly close a general-election race her nomination would ensure; but also, and more importantly, how irrelevant her political persona — which she has shed by degrees this election cycle anyway — will be to the future of her Party and the nation.
An obsession with the horse-race — with what happens in 2016, irrespective of what will happen in 2020, 2024, and for decades after that — is the only thing that allows Hillary Clinton to declare victory in the Democratic nominating process. Any longer view, particularly one that considers that Clintonism and Sandersism didn’t start 2015 at the same starting line — indeed, didn’t even start in the same stadium— will acknowledge that Sanders finishing the 2016 election season with between 46 percent and 48 percent of the pledged delegates means Sandersism has defeated Clintonism.
The Democrats ignore this at their peril.
But make no mistake, they will ignore it — they already are, and with a particularly unpalatable smugness — and so they must therefore, going forward, be considered as existentially imperiled as the Republican Party is right now.
The Democratic Party’s perverse obsession with closed primaries has left them with a likely nominee distinctly unpopular with the independent voters who decide national elections. The Party’s reliance on superdelegates ensured a noncompetitive field of Democratic competitors (Chafee, Webb, and O’Malley) and stacked the deck against a legitimate “movement” insurgent from the ranks of the nation’s progressive-but-independent politicians — an insurgent with the sort of excitement behind him that could drive turnout in a GOTV-oriented “base” election. Clinton’s continued refusal to release her Wall Street transcripts, and the Party’s broader recalcitrance in the face of working-class suffering, isn’t an instance of Clinton or the Party standing up for itself in the face of unreasonable expectations — rather, it’s a failure to honor the generation coming up, which needs to believe that its politicians mean what they say and really do care about the things they say they do. Clinton didn’t owe Sanders supporters transcripts of all her prepared remarks on substantive economic and foreign policy, she owed that transparency to her Party and to the nation whose votes she seeks. But the Party’s esoteric fundraising schemes and infrastructure made it impossible for it to stand up to one of its best rainmakers — ironically, in part because the Party has done nothing to get money out of politics via meaningful campaign finance reform. Finally, the Party’s reliance on a set rather than variable primary schedule means that certain states and votes are every four years privileged over others; concerns about the undue influence of Southern voters on this year’s primary had nothing to do with racial demographics and everything to do with the signal sent when a Party lets its most moderate voters (white and black alike) have the biggest say in its nominating process.
Clintonism supports all of the above structural flaws only because they, in turn, support the election of Clintons to national office.
And that, in a nutshell, is Clintonism: a feedback loop whose motive engine is money and influence and the continued political success of Clintons. In the 90s it was geared toward Bill; in the aughts and tens, Hillary; and we can expect that the same forces will soon be brought to bear for Chelsea, if she desires it. Meanwhile, life has gotten worse for those Americans who don’t attend Clinton Thanksgiving in Chappaqua or help pay for the house in which it is held.
As a broader, more abstract philosophy, however, Clintonism is by no means restricted to the Clintons. All of its most cynical, Nixonian manifestations are iterable, meaning they can be used by any two-bit local, state, or national politician willing to put politics in the way of people — and vanity in the place of principle.
In Sandersism, universal healthcare is a human right that cannot be subjected to the realpolitik of incremental legislation. In this view, Obamacare must of course be maintained until the very moment we switch to a single-payer system, but it is the obligation of every person concerned with human rights to militate for such a system to the exclusion of others. In Sandersism, a college education is a public good all Americans are entitled to, meaning that whatever funding priorities must be rearranged to make this possible must be rearranged. “We can’t do it” is no more a reply to the Sandersist view of higher education than would be a similar statement with respect to other basic American rights. In Sandersism, climate change supplants terrorism as the top threat to national security, without degrading any of the current anti-terrorism efforts that respect human rights and appropriately assess the scope (and primary drivers) of our terror risk. In Sandersism, a living wage for all Americans is a human right, not something for politicians to log-roll endlessly about. A Sandersist’s first offer to her negotiating partner on the subject of a living wage is $15, and her second offer is $15, and her third offer is $15, and every offer thereafter is $15 — for saying $10 or $12 is akin to saying that minorities can sometimes be discriminated against without the immediate and utter disapproval of American law.
In Sandersism you negotiate with any and all parties of good faith up until the moment doing so requires sacrificing a principle. If, under those conditions, not enough parties of good faith remain, you spend all your time and resources writing executive orders and working for an end to gerrymandering and the defeat of all bad-faith politicians in local, state, and national primaries and generals. In Sandersism politics is an arena where ideas, not bank accounts or special interests, are contested; every American is given every possible opportunity to vote; corporate practices that maim or kill living humans are outlawed; those few economic practices that can terminally endanger basic economic justice are adequately regulated; and we spend as much money making sure our criminal justice system and law enforcement apparatuses are actually just as we do ensuring our military is capable and appropriately fearsome. Sandersism is a “we” and an “us” movement that transcends the artificial divisions of the party era and the atomization of persons and communities. A Sandersist spends the minimum amount of time running for office and the maximum amount of time doing the difficult work of governing — and in both roles places transparency ahead of political exigency ten times out of ten.
Sandersism is already the philosophy of a majority of Democrats under 45, which means by 2024 it will almost certainly be the philosophy of a majority of Democrats under 55.
And any movement with those demographic internals is already a current and future cultural dominant for the purposes of political planning and action.
That Sanders defeats Trump by more than Clinton in every battleground state and nationally only underscores that Clintonism no longer is a winning formula for a national election. That Sanders likely won’t get to carry the flag for Sandersism this fall — and Clinton will lose unless she carries that flag clearly and proudly — is merely another irony in what has been a veritable landslide of ironies this election season. Clinton saying “I don’t know if he is a Democrat” will certainly be at the top of that irony-pile, now that it’s clear that the Party’s platform will largely be Sandersist.
The Democrats under Hillary Clinton are now a “zombie party”; everyone but their leaders can see that they have the same thing coming to them in (say) 2024 that the Republicans had coming to them in 2016 because of the many slaps in the face they gave their own base in the aughts. Any presidency Clinton has now can be no more than the end of something very old and tired, not the beginning of anything new.
And the best part is, Clinton is telegraphing her own defeat to the media every single day — they’re just not picking up the signal.
Sanders has pulled Clinton to the left on every issue of consequence. Now Clinton opposes all or nearly all of the recent international trade deals; supports a $15 minimum wage; wants a single-payer healthcare option for all Americans over 50; is willing to ban fracking as part of the Democratic Party platform (per reports); opposes the death penalty in all but vanishingly rare circumstances; is committed to breaking up too-big-to-fail banks; and so on. What’s even more astonishing is that not only has Clinton stolen most of Sanders’ campaign agenda, she’s also stolen many of his best lines. Reporters frequently note that Clinton’s best-received speeches easily could have been delivered (and, indeed, previously had been, to much larger crowds) by Sanders.
It doesn’t even matter that Clinton’s embrace of Sanders’ progressivism is obviously entirely fake, and will disappear into thin air should she ever get into the White House. Sandersists know this, and nothing that happens at the Democratic National Convention will convince them otherwise. Clinton aides smugly telling reporters that Clinton will concede almost everything to Sanders with respect to the Party’s platform because “the platform doesn’t matter” and “voters don’t care about the platform” are, finally, speaking only to themselves — taking a victory lap during which their zombie appendages fall off one by one.
For the fact remains that, should Clinton win the nomination, she will have done so using Sandersism as her chief philosophical mainstay and bulwark. The fact remains that any support she now has with voters under 45 — which is to say, barely any — was gained on the explicit presumption that she could deliver on a Sandersist legislative agenda in Washington. Should she do as she definitely plans to do — drop everything she’s adopted from Sanders should she get into the White House — she’ll face another legitimate progressive challenger in 2020, and should she defeat that challenger by again remaking herself as someone totally other than who she is, if indeed she is anyone at all, in 2024 progressives will finally seal the deal and take their party back.
In other words, every action Clintonism takes in the next eight years will be part of a retreating action in the face of Sandersism. The Democratic Party as the Clintons remade it in the 1990s is dead, and the most Clinton can do is steer her little ghost-ship a few more miles until it finally wrecks itself on an offshore sandbar.
Clinton may win the battle in 2016, but only political neophytes — and a few Washington Post columnists, I suppose — fail to see that she’s already lost the war.
Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).
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