One silver lining of Clinton’s victory in the Democratic Primary is that American liberals and media figures have been able to maintain the healthy and absolutely necessary fiction that there is an unbridgeable chasm of political difference between themselves and Donald Trump. Can you imagine what would have happened if, in some sequence of unimaginable events Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic nomination?
The leaks from the DNC would not have been quickly and univocally attributed to the Russians. Instead, a damaging series of leaks would continue all the way until Bernie’s resignation in late August, made by well-intentioned staffers who would want “nothing more than to beat Trump”, but who feared that the Democratic primary voters have made “a huge mistake”. There would be a series of resignations in the Democratic party, from Debbie Wasserman-Schulz (not resigning in disgrace but in honourable protest at the new regime) all the way down to state operatives. All of a sudden, the Democratic party would become non-functional. Newspapers across the board would opine that the Democratic party is tearing itself apart when all it needs to do is come together under strong leadership to oppose Trump. There would be constant reports of sexism and racism in the Bernie camp, seemingly at odds with Bernie’s egalitarian ethos.
Dem Senators and congressional representatives would give anonymous interviews making quite clear that they understood the threat that Trump poses to American democracy, but that they doubted Bernie’s capacity for leadership and his ability to win in this increasingly partisan political environment. “Bernie is too unconvincing and divisive, his message is too polarizing, and many independents might just vote for Trump because he talks more common sense,” an anonymous senior Democrat would tell the New York Times. These reports would repeat themselves on a daily or weekly basis. It would quickly become an accepted reality that the Democrats are losing the election because Bernie’s leadership is unconvincing and his message is too incomprehensible and unpopular.
“West Virginian coal miners don’t care about socialism”, Josh Barro would write, “I don’t see how Bernie’s message will get through to Middle America, which values individual freedom, hard work and entrepreneurship.”
This would be happening as Bernie would be bringing out thousands and thousands of people in rallies all over the American South. The emboldened grass-roots movement that secured the primary win would start linking up with the vast network of activist communities in inner cities: groups of antiracist, feminist, queer, and environmentalist organisers long-shunned by the DNC suddenly welcomed to help shape the message and strategy for an electoral campaign.
All this while, Dave Wiegel would tweet about the despair and depression he was hearing from former Democratic operatives privy to the Bernie campaign: “This is the most shambolic campaign operation I have ever seen in my life. We might just see Trump win because Bernie refuses to make his message accessible to the ordinary American voter.”
The famed neoconservatives, Robert Kagan et. al., would shift their allegiances from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. For them Bernie’s gentle questioning of Israel’s settlement programme would make the world an extremely unsafe place. However erratic Trump’s behaviour and rhetoric was, they would tell the Washington Post, at least he understood the importance of America’s power projection in the Middle East and the need to maintain the close and unqualified relationship with Israel to maintain American interests in the region.
“Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric questioning American foreign policy might just be the larger threat to the world peace.”, Anne-Marie Slaughter would write in the Atlantic, “For all their flaws, American interventions abroad have maintained the precarious global peace that we have come to know today. To question them on principle is to strengthen our enemies. While he is no doubt better than Trump, if he does not address his naiveté regarding the indispensability of American influence abroad, I would be very concerned about our security if he takes office next January.”
CNN would go full Trump. The redbaiting would be even worse than the mockery and anger directed at the few Bernie supporters who had the temerity to cry at the prospect of losing a meaningful political contest. Every day we would have talking heads on cable TV talking about the catastrophic failure of the Soviet Union and how politically unwise it is that Bernie is calling himself a socialist in such a volatile environment. Isn’t it irresponsible to demonise the rich like Bernie is doing? Isn’t he making the political debate much more toxic than Trump? The Bernie-Trump equivalences would be rife amongst columnists.
“Trump demonises Muslims while Sanders demonises the 1 per cent”, Andrew Sullivan would write in the New York Times Magazine, “Admittedly there is a difference between Islamophobia and banker-phobia, but clearly they stem from an absolutist, confrontational mob-like politics that would mean the end of American democracy as we know it.”
As reports of chaos, division, and self-destructive foolishness in the Sanders camp would flow continuously and variously in the liberal media, the narrative having already accepted the Democrats’ inevitable defeat to Trump because of Sanders’ utopian and impractical political message; Bernie supporters would feel increasingly under siege from all sides – as would the small American radical left. God knows we already do, but this would be much, much worse. A month after the convention, calls for Sanders to resign would grow.
The New York Times would pen a leader on August 31st: “The threat of Trump is serious while all the reports from the congressional caucus and the campaign trail suggest that Bernie Sanders isn’t. If he cares about the American left, he will resign and allow a successor to unify a divided and utterly distraught political party. This is not the time for division, this is the time for unity and hope for the American future. Bernie Sanders was given a chance and he has, sadly, proven himself inadequate to the task put to him.”
A startling aspect of this year’s media coverage has been the relentless hostility in the outlets cited above to the mild social democratic politics of Bernie Sanders and his supporters. If one only read the big papers, one would be left with this sense that somehow Bernie’s politics are illiberal and simply foolish. Which is apparently why he lost. This sort of thinking does serious injustice to the immense contribution that the Bernie campaign has already made to the American public sphere.
Liberalism is not exhausted by Clintonist incrementalism. Liberalism is not exhausted by neoliberalism. As Larry Sanders tearfully reminded us, F.D.R. was a liberal. Strong labour rights and immigrant rights are both liberal values. The 15 dollar minimum wage is a liberal value. Unions are liberal institutions. The housing crisis is a liberal issue. The privatisation of American public schools is a tragedy and ought to be an urgent liberal issue. The fast-accelerating catastrophe of global warming is a liberal issue. Palestinian rights ought to be a liberal issue. To tackle at its roots the systematic and unaccountable violence undertaken by the nation’s police against its black and minority communities ought to be a burning liberal issue. Mandatory parental leave and universal childcare are achievable liberal feminist policies. If all of these ideas are somehow outside the scope of reasonable discourse and were merely the dreams of an elderly eccentric and now obsessions of those purist, puerile leftists who are unconscionably trying to push Clinton to do more; I worry about the viability of liberalism – at its best – in the current political moment.
This is part of why I am a socialist. I understand that for the most part these disagreements have been good-faith political confrontations between different visions of the good society: for Clintonists it is to maintain, with the least contentious politics possible, the precarious order and wealth achieved in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s; for Berniecrats it is to begin anew a social democratic settlement for the twenty-first century which necessarily entails a large-scale mobilization of the American citizenry to take power from the ground up. If we are to defeat Trump and Trumpism for good, I suspect, as many socialists do, we will need much more of the latter than the former – though of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The way power is distributed however (as the DNC email leaks revealed), the Clintonist approach is much more likely to happen than the latter – and sadly Clintonists are likely to continue to be much more hostile to Bernie and his supporters than they should be. I hope we can all think about that.