When it comes to their take on Bernie Sanders supporters, there's a strange congruity between those who see themselves to the left of his campaign and the Clinton supporters to its right. From the one side, among the maybe two per cent of American socialists who do not support him, comes the peculiar charge that what Sanders is doing is acting as a “sheepdog” who is leading an idealistic band of mostly youthful supporters into the realm of the Democratic Party, where they will be corrupted and vote for Hillary Clinton in November. The other side seems to fear that Sanders isn't a “sheepdog.”
The Sanders campaign actually poses a couple of problems for his critics on the left. The first is that what Sanders calls democratic socialism often varies substantially from the versions found in their publications and on their websites. But even more importantly, for many of them the Democratic Party enjoys an almost metaphysical status as a sort of near occasion of sin – go near it and you never come back and you’ll never be the same. In one debate about the Sanders campaign that I participated in, the leader of one of the socialist parties went so far as to say that if Karl Marx himself were to come back from the grave and run for president of the United States, he wouldn’t vote for him if he ran as a Democrat – the triumph of ideology not only over reality, but even over imagined reality! In all, the disdain some of these organizations and individuals display for one of most successful mass movements of the left in this country’s history has to make you wonder if they haven’t become so used to being marginal to the nation’s political life that they’re now simply more comfortable with things staying that way. After all, they were a lot more special before this campaign brought the discussion of socialism into mainstream politics.
So far as many Clinton supporters go, on the other hand, the problem seems to be that they fear that Sanders won’t “deliver” the votes of his supporters to Clinton in November, should she win the nomination. Let me be clear: If Clinton wins, I expect that Sanders will endorse her – if you throw all in for the nomination of a party, it’s reasonable to expect that you’ll support the winner of the process. And personally, while I view Clinton as being more a part of the problem than a part of the solution, I have no trouble saying that she is nonetheless a decidedly better option than the likes of Donald Trump. At the same time, I’d say that in assuming that everyone that Sanders has brought into politics for the first time will or should just automatically flock to Clinton, her supporters are, not surprisingly, failing to understand what lies at the core of the Sanders campaign.
To a lot of Clinton people, their candidate is a sort of “Sanders lite,” someone who advocates more moderate versions of the positions he offers, but has more money and better establishment credentials. For many Sanders backers, however, their candidate is an exception to the rule of a corrupt political system, which his opponent simply is not. One of the best descriptions of the epiphany of a Sanders supporter came from the comedian Sarah Silverman on the Bill Maher show. Silverman told Maher she figured that after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, politicians going after corporate money was like athletes using steroids in professional sports – everyone did it just to keep up with the competition. And so she figured, “Hillary takes money from banks and big business and super PACs; so did Barack Obama; she’s no different than anybody else. She was the best choice, I thought, because all of them do it. Then someone came along who doesn’t do it, who is not for sale.”
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The most prominent American socialist of the early twentieth century, Eugene Debs, once said, “I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out.” Likewise, Sanders cannot “deliver” his supporters to Clinton or any other candidate. If Clinton wins the nomination, she will have a lot of explaining to do to persuade them as to why they shouldn’t look on her as the same old same old.
P.S. To any Clinton supporters who might read this far: None of the above should be taken as any kind of concession that Clinton’s got the nomination wrapped up. We know we’ve got an uphill fight, but we’ve always known that. Clinton’s been running for the job for ten years and she’s been treated as a virtual incumbent by party establishment and mainstream media alike. As the New York Times recently reported, if you assigned a dollar value to the “free media” that the candidates have received, the tally is $746 million for Clinton to $321 million for Sanders, an advantage well in excess of 2-1. (Trump has received coverage worth $1.898 billion, but that’s another story for another day.)
Furthermore, with the latest batch of U.S. Senators picking up the chorus of calls for Sanders to withdraw – a chorus which started before he even announced – we understand how frustrated some must be that he has not actually done so. After all, if it were Clinton who was trailing by a couple of hundred delegates, she might well have already dropped out, her campaign being far more dependent on big money, big money which sees itself as “smart money.” But the Sanders campaign is famously funded by small dollar contributions from average people who don’t think they’re buying access. And that’s why we’re going all the way to California!