After weeks of hard and increasingly heated campaigning, Hillary Clinton scored a decisive victory over Bernie Sanders in last night’s New York Democratic primary. Despite losing a majority of the state’s counties, she won in huge margins in New York City and the popular vote overall. The triumph was a potential serious blow to Sanders’ progressive momentum and a just as dramatic boom to her now seemingly inevitable march to the nomination.
"A funny thing happened on the way to the end of history – it started to change rapidly."
A crucial question in the wake of such a defeat is whether Sanders should continue to soldier onwards. He has both the resources and a vast amount of popular support to do so. Nevertheless, his often media cited path to the nomination just got significantly narrower and less straightforward.
Yet the fate of Sanders’ candidacy pales in comparison to the future success of the political revolution he is trying to create and ferment. What does losing the Empire state mean to the progressive movement he is helping to inspire? What does it say about its own long march to changing the country and the world?
A key takeaway from the Primary is that regardless of where the movement goes from here – it must recognize the affective hold that establishment Parties and candidates still have on voters, even those committed to and desiring of real change.
Kidnapped by the Establishment
A crucial narrative driving the Sanders’ candidacy is that he and his movement are the real standard-bearers for 21st century progressive values. While this may be substantively true, it misses how and why so many see Centrist Democrats like Clinton as their advocate even when they are so willing to betray them when in power. They represent a now established fantasy of incremental rearguard progress that seeks to inspire not by its idealistic ambition but its clear eyed “realism”.
In the wake of Reagan’s Conservative revolution, this narrative arguably made more sense. The writing appeared to be on the wall – Americans had chosen social conservatism and economic capitalism. The only answer for the mainstream left - always bordering on a contradiction in terms during the best of times - was to moderate the negative effects of this rightwing turn through a pronounced politics of moderation.
Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the end of history – it started to change rapidly. Once third rail issues of gay marriage and drug legalization became not only part of the public conversation but also increasingly the law of the land. The fight for a 15 dollar minimum wage began to gain traction and real legislative victories.
The immediate fear is that the Centrists will unfairly hijack these progressive triumphs to their political advantage. Already, Clinton has been rightly criticized for suddenly being at the forefront of the campaign for increasing the minimum wage – using its victory in New York as a photo-op for her campaign. More broadly, unions and progressive groups like the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood have been critiqued for supporting Clinton despite her inconsistency on the issues that are most important to their members.
These objections are not, furthermore, overshadowed by the argument that Sanders has substantively moved Clinton and her ilk to the left policy wise. Undoubtedly he has changed the public debate. So too have movements like Black Lives Matter. This should not be underestimated. Yet even after a heated primary season, Clinton remains as hawkish on foreign policy as ever and only slightly less compromising on domestic issues.
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Her victory would do more than simply put another middle of the road candidate into the Whitehouse. Indeed it would be worse in that while Clinton is an absolute opportunist domestically, she is a principled neo-con internationally. Still her victory would only be the symptom of a much more serious disease. It would represent the continued kidnapping of progress by the political establishment.
Loving your Captor
There is perhaps an understandable tendency by those on the growing left to simply dismiss establishment voters. Yet to do so would be to miss a crucial part of the staying power of these establishment candidates. It is not only that they have kidnapped progress for their own political gain. It is also that they have accomplished this task by getting many of their supporters to love them even as they occasionally loathe their actions.
While supporters justify an establishment politics of “working within the system” as rational and pragmatic, its appeal largely resides as a progressive fantasy. Even after three decades worth of evidence of the profound limitations of such a strategy – it remains emotionally resonant. Hollow victories such as the compromised legislation of Dodd-Frank and Obamacare are celebrated as landmark progressive achievements. Centrist candidates are hailed for their courage in standing up to an “intractable” Republican enemy – doing what little they could to make things better in a political war that has already been lost.
It plays into a belief that all that is needed is to elect more Democrats. That they have the best interest of the country at heart even if they regularly feed from the same corrupt cesspool as their Conservative rivals. That to dream big means to consign the nation to a century of failed idealism rather than hard won compromise.
In the recent election this affection for the exact politicians who are holding real progress hostage has grown even stronger. Whereas Clinton was once seen as the epitome of the “lesser of two evils”, in New York according to exit polls she was viewed as the “more inspiring” candidate than Bernie Sanders. There are definite reasons that have little to do with her lack of any progressive accomplishments for this rosy view – not the least that she would at long last break the executive glass ceiling by becoming the first female President.
The Democratic Stockholm Syndrome
However, there is something else at play as well. She is heralded for her promises to continue the “progressive” legacy set by Obama. Suddenly the President who has pushed for Drone Wars, further Wall Street bailouts and the TPP is a paragon of modern progressivism. The New York triumph of his all but publicly endorsed predecessor Hillary Clinton is a paean of love to the very establishment that many of their voters are demanding to be changed.
For progressives to achieve mass success they must do all they can to break up this abusive relationship. To not accept the myth that Clinton represents “incremental change” or that she is committed to fighting climate change or that you can trumpet gun control at home and the international arms industry abroad.
This does not mean abandoning the fight to ensure that a more retrogressive Republican alternative does not take power. The reign of a Trump or Cruz would be similar but worse than that of Clinton. Nevertheless, it also means not minimizing the passion felt for the establishment. It may be misplaced but it is real and when mobilized can be potent.
Instead, it demands that even in defeat we continue the struggle to deprogram the victims of the New Democrats. To point out consistently that change only happens from the bottom up. That one cannot claim to be a progressive and support anti-democratic oligarchic regimes around the world. That what Democrats and Republicans alike legitimize as national security is really just a bloated corporate security force subsidized by the American taxpayer. That you may “be with her” but when the moment it is politically expedient she certainly will not “be with you.”
The path the nomination for Bernie Sanders undeniably narrowed yesterday. The path to revolution and genuine progress depends on breaking America free from its Democratic Stockholm Syndrome.