After years of smugly pronouncing the Republican Party dead, Democrats have realized that they control a small minority of state legislatures, a small minority of governorships, a small minority of congressional offices, a small minority of Senate seats and a small minority (amounting to zero) of current American presidents.
Thrust into opposition, a stance many of them seemed to genuinely believe they would never again have to assume, the Democratic Party is now rethinking everything. An article in The Hill today finds a sudden sea change in sentiment towards Bernie Sanders. Whereas party grandees once schemed in private over how to sabotage the Vermont senator’s 2016 presidential campaign, they’re now copacetic with Sanders’ sway over the American left. “It continues to drive me a bit nuts that he continues to register as an Independent, but the bottom line is that he is a good Democrat,” conceded one Democratic strategist.
Minority status will do that to you, forcing you to rethink your precepts and toss the yellowing playbook into the trash. I think Sanders’ promise of an idyllic working-class slumber party with free medical care and Howard Zinn seminars for all is naive and dangerous, but the underlying sentiments of his message are popular, even valuable. And that’s where you start when you’re in opposition, with sentiments, and then onto the messages that build on the sentiments, then the policies that grow out of the messages, then the candidates who espouse the policies and then, assuming you haven’t swerved off-course, back into government.
This is exactly what the Tea Party did starting in 2009, responding to a general mood of anti-establishment anger with a message that government under President Obama was too bloated, which eventually begat opposition to Obamacare and Senator Mike Lee. And it’s what Democrats might be able to do with Bernie Sanders today. The Vermont senator is no policy wonk, but he has captured that fierce anti-establishment preference, which still persists today, better than anyone else on the left — step one, as any Tea Partier will tell you. The message and policies will flow from there.
A Democratic Party that rails against the corporate elite and the politicians they buy off, that tackles kitchen-table issues like income inequality and wages, that relinquishes the venomous identity politics that’s done so much to damage progressives, could not only be competitive against Trump but peel off some of his hardhat voters in states like Michigan and Wisconsin that Democrats desperately need to win back. Only Sanders checks all those aforementioned boxes.
Elite Democrats frequently whine that Sanders is too far to the left. What they miss is that the hoary conceptions of right and left don’t matter as much as they used to. In vogue now are the alternative categories of establishment and populist, with Hillary Clinton and the DNC firmly in the former and Sanders holding ground in the latter. Democrats need to go populist. They must accept that the current political and economic arrangement has proven intolerable for too many voters, and they’re only going to win if they propose sweeping changes to it.
And if that’s your criteria, who else but Bernie?