Happy New Year! It occurred to me recently that I haven’t come out and said in this blog who I favor for the Democratic presidential nomination. Most readers won’t be surprised to hear that I’m for Bernie Sanders. I support him even though I don’t think he has a realistic chance of winning the nomination. But he represents the direction in which I would like to see the Democratic Party move.
In a post earlier this year, I described two contending tendencies within the Democratic party—a populist tendency and a centrist tendency. The populist tendency, well-rooted in the New Deal traditions of the party, represents Democrats who are appalled at the growth of economic and political inequality in American life and want to challenge the business interests that they see as the sources of those trends. Centrists are more comfortable with business power and in fact look actively for allies among the more moderate and enlightened sectors of the business community. Bernie Sanders clearly stands with the populist persuasion. When he said recently that he would not expect corporate America to be happy if he got elected president, I naturally thought of FDR’s proud declaration that the “economic royalists” hated him, and that he welcomed their hatred.
Can you imagine Hillary Clinton saying that she would expect, much less welcome, the discomfort of the business community at her election? There is nothing in Hillary’s record to suggest that she shares Bernie’s passionate motivation to fundamentally challenge the interests of concentrated private wealth. In that regard she is close to her husband and to our current president. Like Bill and Barak, she is more inclined to accommodate to the existing power structure than to try to change it, though like them she would seek to soften its sharper edges.
Of course, there are pragmatic objections to the Sanders candidacy: Sanders, a self-avowed socialist, would be vulnerable to a brutal smear and scare campaign in the general election. If elected, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything more than Hillary in the way of progressive change, given the Republicans’ hold on Congress. But these kinds of objections miss the point. Sanders isn’t going to be president. What his candidacy does is shift the conversation within the Democratic Party, and hopefully, within the country at large, to the left. It helps bring home the point that much of the party’s base, and much of the country, wants fundamental change. I can’t prove it, but there is good reason to believe that the Sanders challenge has already had the effect of nudging Hillary Clinton to the left. For example, she has laid out a more aggressive financial reform program than I would have expected from her—not as radical as Bernie’s but still creditable. Similarly, I am not sure that she would have taken a position against the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement had it not been for the competitive pressure from Bernie’s campaign.
The only downside of the Sanders campaign that I can see is in the risk that the contest could become heated, and embittered Sanders supporters might then choose to sit out the general election after Clinton wins the nomination. That would be a shame, because no one should have any doubt that Hillary, whatever her shortcomings, is infinitely preferable to any possible Republican opponent in 2016. But I think this risk should be manageable. The Sanders/Clinton contest thus far has been civil and I don’t see any reason to expect that to change. Undoubtedly there will be some Sanders supporters who refuse to vote for Clinton, but most of those will be diehard lefties who wouldn’t vote for her in any case.
So, I urge progressives to support Sanders with eyes wide open: help Bernie keep the heat on Hillary until she wins the nomination, but with every expectation and intention of voting for her in the general election.
I haven’t said anything in this post about foreign policy, an issue area in which Sanders hasn’t chosen to emphasize his differences with Clinton. Her hawkish instincts are the single biggest reason to be wary of Clinton. Clinton is slightly but distinctly more hawkish than President Obama; Sanders is perhaps just a bit more dovish than he.