US 2020

Sanders vs Biden, crusader vs coalition builder

Sanders vs Biden, crusader vs coalition builder
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders (L) and Joe Biden (R) chat on stage during the tenth Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, USA, 25 February, 2020. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

One theory of presidential politics argues that periods of great turmoil are replaced by a candidate who preaches calm and normality. Does that help explain Bernie Sanders’ current circumstances?

For many people, especially younger voters or those who managed to avoid studying US history or political science, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon represents a nearly-unique moment in the US’s political culture. Here is a candidate openly calling for the creation of a grassroots revolutionary movement that would overturn the very nature of the political party whose nomination he is on the hunt to gain.

But capturing the nomination would only be preparatory to the wholesale reconfiguring of the entire national economy that he has promised. Yes, there would be Medicare for all and the decriminalisation of non-documented aliens. But there would also be the Green New Deal, and new laws for near-confiscatory taxation on the rich, thereby driving those Wall Street money traders from the US temple.

But there was more.

There would be free college and university education, the cancellation of student debt as a kind of secular jubilee year, and on and on, in a dizzying list promising the kind of reconstruction of the nation that the country had barely seen since the Great Depression gave birth to the New Deal, or when the Civil War begat the end of slavery, or even the revolutionary history of the country’s origins.

For many of Bernie Sanders’ more fervent acolytes, this movement was a unique moment in history, a hinge moment in time itself. But, truthfully, US history has always been significantly shaped by an oscillation between those who would build a revolutionary-style movement, versus those who would seek to build the broadest possible coalition (and an embrace of an array of positions and policies in support of winning elections). And thereby bring calm to a troubled land.

The revolutionary impetus, of course, reaches right back to the very beginning of the US experiment. The struggle against British rule was an effort of revolutionary proportions, but it was a military as well as a political and economic one, overthrowing an entire social order, as many British sympathisers (perhaps a third of the population) ultimately fled the new country to safer shores elsewhere in British North America, territory that later became the new Dominion of Canada. This revolutionary impulse also encouraged a rush of migration into the lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains to create new territories and states, in a movement that came to be defined as the “manifest destiny” of “American exceptionalism”.

These more open societies of the then-West helped usher in the political revolution of Andrew Jackson that pushed aside the older, established elites of the East from their place as arbiters of the national order. This energy opened up new lands for settlement (and the forced migration of the Five Civilised Tribes of the Southeast), but also strident debates over how much the federal government should spend on what used to be called “national improvements” for the ordinary citizen such as roads, railroads, harbours and canals, expenditures we now call infrastructure development.

By the 1850s, the survival — or abolition — of slavery had become the central issue defining the federal government and reorienting the country’s economic and political order. Yet another version of “movement” politics, the new Free Soil Party, helped destroy the older political order of a Democratic Party/Whig Party balance. The Free Soil Party eventually swallowed the more liberal wing of the Whigs (including Abraham Lincoln’s loyalty), thereby giving birth to the new Republican Party.

The 1860 election was a four-party contest, between the new Republican Party and its anti-slavery position, the remnant Whigs, now renamed the Constitutional Union Party, dedicated to keeping the country together by ignoring slavery as a pressing issue, and the Democrats, now divided into two factions — North and South — with deeply divergent political positions. The resulting civil war made the Republicans the preeminent national party for a generation, with the Democrats largely locked out of national power for a generation.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the growing pressures on farmers, miners, and industrial workers from the rapid economic growth of the country gave rise to the first unions as well as near-revolutionary, movement-style political forces such as the Populists in opposition to the established order aligned with the new oligarchies of wealth. By the end of the century, those forces had largely taken over the presidential ambitions of Democratic Party figures through the nomination of William Jennings Bryan, the Nebraska congressman, for president. Running three times, he never succeeded, but the demands of his supporters helped buoy the Progressive Era in US life even as a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, gave life to these ambitions at the national level.

By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the country’s Socialist Party had captured the mayorships of several major cities, as well as a sprinkling of congressional seats. While the party was unable to capitalise on this economic calamity, many of its ideas were cherry-picked by a new generation of Democratic Party politicians, preeminently Franklin Roosevelt, in the wake of his party’s overwhelming victory in 1932, and in three succeeding elections.

Now fast forward to the 1960s and ’70s. In the wake of the civil rights revolution, the sexual revolution, the vast post-war baby boom cohort then heading into universities and colleges, and growing opposition to an apparently endless, meaningless war in Vietnam, a new wave of movement politics took hold in the US again. In 1968, brigades of newly “Clean for Gene [McCarthy, the anti-war senator from Minnesota]” young people (shorn of beards and long hair) descended upon New Hampshire, nearly defeating incumbent President Lyndon Johnson, the seemingly prohibitive favourite for reelection, in that state’s primary.

Thereafter, many more young people and others galvanised by this opposition movement joined Robert F Kennedy’s even more forceful challenge to Johnson. It virtually felt like a secular crusade for Kennedy’s push for the nomination (until he was assassinated).

Then, the candidacy of George McGovern in 1972, running against the continuing war and Richard Nixon’s governance style, triggered a similar movement for vast change, although one often-overlooked statistic was that in Nixon’s overwhelming electoral victory a majority of young voters chose him over McGovern.

Fast forward to 2008. There was a sense that Barack Obama’s unexpected success in gaining the nomination and then winning the election for president had been a result of yet another revolution, a movement that gave concrete expression to the promises of racial equality in the political universe. What was overlooked far too often was that Obama’s victory was very different than those other movements. Instead, it was a superb example of successful coalition-building to achieve electoral success in the troubled economic times of the great financial collapse.

Rather than simply relying upon the idea that a new, visionary leader would entice heretofore nonvoters and the disaffected to join the candidate’s crusade, the Obama campaign relied upon the alternative idea of the construction of an increasingly inclusive coalition of voters.

Pushed along by very realpolitik political pros like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, the Obama campaign practised the kind of politics that kept bringing in interest groups, ethnicities and others, virtually all of whom could be seen as part of that old Rooseveltian Democratic coalition, until a critical, winning mass had been achieved. If the pre-civil rights era southern whites (a mainstay of Democrats for generations until 1968) were increasingly lost to Democrats, the Obama campaign then elected to compete fiercely for the country’s expanding cohort of largely white, suburban, college-educated voters who were beginning to drift away from their older, traditional Republican loyalties.

And, of course, Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, himself now hoping to gain the Democratic Party’s nomination to unseat the incumbent Republican president, seems to be attempting a variation of the Obama coalition-building exercise. This includes gaining the endorsement and support of a growing roster of other Democratic politicians, including most of his recent rivals for the nomination, besides Bernie Sanders. This approach is itself a modern revival of the Roosevelt approach and even that of Bill Clinton’s variation on it in 1992/96 with his triangulation strategy.

This should be seen in contrast to the intellectual underpinning of Bernie Sanders’ approach of building his movement out of those pledging deep loyalty to the collection of ideas animating his candidacy, and attempting to generate new adherents. These were to come from among the poor, African-Americans, Latinos, and any others who see themselves as virtually disenfranchised. But crucial to the Sanders strategy was to motivate those younger people who have declined to participate in electoral politics, save to enthusiastically attend rallies and the like. The reality, so far at least, has been that Sanders’ efforts have largely failed to elicit many new voters, save for those already excited by the ideals and promises of a Sanders candidacy.

Or, as Janan Ganesh wrote in the Financial Times the other day, “If the centre [and Biden’s natural space] has had a problem, it was not the lack of an audience so much as its fragmentation among a superfluity of candidates…. As some of these hopefuls stand down and support Mr Biden, the non-radical vote is congealing. Its awesome size is becoming unmistakable.

“And so too is its breadth. Now that black and rural voters have helped to save Mr Biden’s hide, I hope we can dispense with the idea that moderation is a narrowly elite taste, attributable to a vested interest in minimal social change.

“Populists of left and right often pretend to a unique connection with the masses. This can tip into a certain nostalgie de la boue, in which the less privileged are patronisingly credited with special virtue….

“There is no automatic tension between tepid, managerialist views and membership of ‘the people’. If anything, voters whose livelihoods are on a knife-edge have the most to lose from dramatic change. It is the coastal higher orders who have viewed Mr Biden’s candidacy as a frightful bore since its declaration almost a year ago.”

Ganesh concluded, “Mr Biden still has to see off his Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, then Mr Trump, and along the way his own demons: the meandering verbosity, the vote for the Iraq war, the signs of age that — not to be macabre about it — put a large premium on his choice of running mate. To keep the left from splintering, or sitting on their hands in November, he must also persuade them that theirs is not a revolution denied so much as one deferred. He can try warranted flattery: Mr Sanders has moved the centre to the left, even if he has not beaten it.

“Mr Biden might yet flunk one or all of these challenges. But something about him makes more sense in 2020 than in 1988 or 2008 [when he tried unsuccessfully to become the party’s nominee]. True, it is futile to gauge ‘the’ mood of a nation when that nation is more than 300m-strong, mosaical in its heterogeneity and peppered across a continent. But one feeling does seem to recur: exhaustion. It is unclear that Americans want an equal and opposite reaction to Mr Trump, at least for the time being. The latent demand is rather for a few years of quiet.

“In 1988, Mr Biden expounded his theory that the presidency oscillates between radicals and those who ‘let America catch its breath’. Thirty-two years later, in those five words, he has a potential campaign theme that is unimaginative, uninspiring and, perhaps, unbeatable.”

If this view of the oscillation of political dynamics is true, the Donald Trump-style movement of those who felt themselves emotionally disenfranchised by the changing racial dynamics emanating from the Obama era, may already be primed for an end – or at least an attenuation. And if that is true, then Joe Biden is on target with his message of inclusivity, the need for a broad coalition, and the calm that can descend up the land as a result of his dispatching of the Truman maelstrom, even as Bernie Sanders and his clarion call for a revolutionary movement is out of sync with the national temperament – or at least enough of the nation’s feelings to block his gaining the nomination.

Still, given the primaries yet to come through the rest of March — and most importantly, the one in Michigan on 10 March, a state narrowly lost by Hillary Clinton in 2016 — Bernie Sanders may yet be able to hang on until the nominating convention in July to present his alternative to the soothing Biden balm on offer. But Sanders’ fate may now be sealed by the electoral math and the sounding of the national temperature both. DM


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