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Can the Democratic Party Unite Behind Bernie Sanders?

The Democratic Party struggles to defend its extreme commitment to plutocracy from the moderating influence of progressives.
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Bernie Sanders in Columbia, South Carolina, 1/20/2020 © Perry McLeod / Shutterstock

February 14, 2020 11:15 EDT

The Washington Post has published an AP-sourced article about Democratic candidates across the nation who are freaking out about the idea of Bernie Sanders becoming the Democratic standard-bearer in the November election. The various corporate media in the US are awash with pundits warning about the impending socialist takeover of capitalist America if Sanders is nominated and then elected. When selecting their headline stories, editorial boards now must choose between two major menaces facing humanity: the coronavirus or Bernie Sanders.

The surprise outcomes of the first two Democratic primaries, in Iowa and New Hampshire, have radically shifted the narrative developed by the media. Before Iowa, it consisted of calling Bernie Sanders unelectable and predicting the eventual triumph of Joe Biden. But Biden’s fourth and fifth-place showing in the first two primaries has discredited the initial version of the threat.

The Democrats and the media are scrambling to reformulate the problem. The original idea was that, if Democratic voters were so foolish as to nominate Bernie, his extremism meant that he couldn’t be elected. Now they realize not only that Sanders could be nominated, but that, given the enthusiasm he generates, he might also be elected. They see this as a threat to all the other Democratic candidates for Congress or local offices, whose chances they claim would be compromised by being associated with a presidential candidate who brands himself a “socialist.”

The article cites one California congressman, Ami Bera, who “said if Sanders were nominated, Democrats from moderate districts ‘might actually have to run away from our nominee to get elected.’” And he added wistfully: “It’s highly unlikely that Bernie Sanders will moderate his views, either.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Moderate (verb):

In politics, to betray one’s convictions in the interest of helping and showing solidarity with politicians from one’s own party who have no convictions to betray.

Contextual Note

The media avidly promote stories that begin by describing a particular group of people’s fears, expecting that it may also stoke their audience’s fears. They usually have plenty of topics to choose from, but at any given time some inspire more fear than others. ABC News, for example, reported this week on record-breaking temperatures in Antarctica, a truly frightening development. To titillate its readers, the article’s headline promised “dramatic images” of an “ice-less region of Antarctica.” Anyone curious about whether climate change is real or not couldn’t fail to be attracted to the article, if only to confirm that they should be afraid.

The article makes the scientifically validated point that warming, even in the coldest of all places on earth, has become a documented trend. The frequency of high temperatures at the south pole has been radically increasing in recent years. While this is worth reporting and does contain an authentic fear factor, it doesn’t make the front page because climate change has been around for too long to be considered news. In other words, to paraphrase Representative Bera’s fatalism: It’s highly unlikely that the climate will moderate its rising temperatures. 

But whether it’s climate change or the quandary of moderate Democrats who fear having to justify a colleague who calls himself a democratic socialist, the wisest approach in both cases would be for the media first to seek to understand the contexts in which these observable trends exist. There is little mystery about the context and causes of climate change, though there is plenty of denial of the basic facts from politicians keen on protecting their own sources of fundraising, which are clearly not coming for “socialist” sympathizers. 

But the politicians should also be able to understand the context that has made politicians like Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and (sometimes) Elizabeth Warren electable. For the centrist Democratic candidates worried about their own local election rather than the fate of the nation, the prosperity of the people or abstract notions such as social justice, recent political history provides a clue to Sanders’ unwillingness to moderate his views. And that clue could actually work even in the centrists’ favor.

Voters on both the left and the right — and to a large extent in the middle as well — no longer trust a system in which winning public office through elections has become the unique goal of politicians. The public has become increasingly aware of the politicians’ addiction to fundraising and, more broadly, the influence money has on how they govern. In 2016, Donald Trump sounded convincing even to some people on the left when he disingenuously argued that because he was a billionaire he wouldn’t be influenced by people with money. Many were taken in by their failure to recognize the obvious: that as a wealthy narcissist, Trump was influenced primarily by his own greed and implicitly by everyone who resembled him, either in terms of wealth, love of power or narcissism.

The politicians who have learned to thrive by “moderating” their opinions are those who also tend to bend their understanding of the laws and the constitution in conformity with the logic of the system that provides them with everything they need to prosper as politicians: the cash required to run their campaigns. If one politician, or even a group of politicians, arises to challenge that logic, they will be crushed by the democratic principle that says you can’t fight the majority, or rather that you can fight, but if you remain in the minority, you can’t win, even if the majority is uniformly corrupt.

Historical Note

Americans tend to prefer looking forward to an imaginary brighter future rather than examining even their most recent past. If they did deign to take an interest in their own history, they might ask themselves whether the vaunted ideal of moderation is really a winning formula. In some cases, betraying one’s values and convictions has indeed proved successful for winning an election. But this raises other questions that merit consideration. For example, Is moderating the expression of one’s ambitions the key to winning most elections? The success of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Donald Trump would seem to prove the contrary.

A second question requires a sensitivity to the deeper contours of history. Have moderate presidents and moderate Congresses — those fearful to challenge elements of the status quo — been the most successful for the American people or the economy? Although one could argue for months about how to define the criteria for evaluating success, the most obvious answer would be a resounding no.

Three of the presidents cited above effectuated serious long-lasting change to US culture. Roosevelt gave the capitalist nation a homeopathic dose of socialism (without altering its ideology), stabilizing the social order. Kennedy innovated by giving a sense of empowerment to the young, an effect that, after his assassination, turned a generation against the militaristic politics of his successor, Lyndon Johnson. Reagan effectively transformed the nation’s ideology into the worship of self-interested plutocracy.

George W. Bush famously (but contestably) won the 2000 election by claiming to be a “compassionate conservative.” This somehow suggested the best of both worlds as someone willing to moderate his views. Aligning with the neocons as soon as he was in office, he gave the nation the worst of both worlds, with compassion directed to his own class, accompanied by radical belligerence toward his designated enemies. By the time of Obama’s election, politics had reached a state of hyperreality that allowed the black newcomer to play the role of a revolutionary during the campaign — partly because of his race but also with his anti-war rhetoric — and then, as president, to affirm his authority by being ultra-moderate and renouncing all of his “extreme” objectives.

After Bush and Obama, Trump brilliantly exploited the disbelief of the people in the establishment candidates who opposed him. They represented the traditional values of the Republican Party. Trump represented something extreme that challenged those values. We are living with the result. Trump handily eliminated the complete roster of respectable Republicans he faced in the primaries and then took advantage of Hillary Clinton’s image as an establishment moderate to defeat her in the general election.

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Moderation works when things are stable and well balanced. But as soon as the course of history goes off-kilter, some form of radicality will be successful. Trump’s egotistical radicality gave him his electoral success, but few beyond his base today would acknowledge his repeated claim to have succeeded in making America great again. Even a 49%-approval rating doesn’t indicate that he has been successful. It simply indicates that nearly half of Americans think he is doing his job, and the economy seems to be ticking over.

The statistic of 49% on its own is mind-blogging to anyone with a sense of the rules and principles of democracy, but democracy itself has always taken a back seat to economic success, which tends to be perceived mainly in terms of an individual’s self-interest.

The idea that establishment politics in recent history thrives on moderation is an illusion. The system of government has itself become extremist. In the age of Citizens United and the idea that “money is speech,” the moderates are those who decry the unique and absolute influence of the moneyed interests who define public policy. 

The extreme has become the norm. If establishment politicians really think that it’s time for the extremists to moderate their views, moderating their extreme adoration of wealth might be the place to start. Oddly, that seems to be the gist of what politicians like Ami Bera consider Bernie Sanders’ “extreme views.”

The true fear of the establishment Democrats has less to do with Bernie’s socialism and everything to do with their desire to keep the party as it is and remain in control. Trump demonstrated that despite profound disagreement, the Republican Party ended up betraying its own ideology to align with the self-serving president. The idea that the Democrats might feel obliged to align with a leader whose policies are the opposite of self-serving is clearly too much for them to handle. Selfishness and the lust for control have always been the hardest emotions to moderate.

[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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