In the midst of an intensifying primary, the mainstream media joined as one to announce Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee for President. While she lacks a clear majority of pledged delegates, the expected support of as yet to vote superdelegates has apparently handed her a hard won victory against an impassioned Bernie Sanders and the growing progressive movement propelling him forward.
Indeed, this announced “triumph” comes on the eve of a California primary where Sanders is surging in popularity and attracting hundred of thousands of new registered voters with his calls for no less than a “political revolution.” Rather than racing confidently toward the finish, Clinton is limping with desperate vigor to hold on tightly to her once inevitable coronation as the nominee. Far from celebration, her success is tinged with establishment concerns over how much she has been damaged as a candidate and broader worries over whether this will be ultimately a pyrrhic victory.
Undeniably, this is a historic moment. It is a long overdue corrective to the male-only club of the American Presidency. No matter whatever else it may bring, Clinton’s success would be momentous. Yet it should not be forgotten that a Clinton presidency, in addition to being historic in one respect, would also be a continuation—as opposed to a ground-breaking shift—of a march down the path of neoliberal folly bought and paid for by Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.
There is a more important question than whether or not Clinton has officially emerged bloody but victorious. If in fact Sanders has lost, than what have the Democrats won? And what does this mean for the future prospects of the country and world?
The Establishment Strikes Back
This election cycle was supposed to be blast from the past – an old political fight with new faces between Bush and Clinton. Marx’s famous observation that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” never seemed so apt.
It has also been apparent early on that a new era was coming into light and threatening the status quo in both Parties. Trump rose from the ashes of a disastrous Bush campaign and Sanders inspired a new generation of voter for whom the “lesser evil” of Clinton was no longer good enough. What started as a civilized succession of elites became a raging “anti-establishment” electoral uprising.
Clinton held strong even in the face of these new “barbarians” knocking at her carefully built political gates. She became – fairly or not - the living embodiment of the establishment that needed to be torn down. Her new found distaste for Wall Street couldn’t hide her deep ties to the financial industry or the exorbitant speaking fees they paid her. Her attempts to “correct the record” rang hollow in an age when anyone with an internet connection and passing desire had at their fingertips her past support for corporate friendly trade deals, her once “sacred” anti-LGTB positions, her promotion of anti-environmental policies, a history of neo-conservative hawkishness with predictably disastrous results and a willingness to “evolve” on any principles depending on where the political winds were blowing at that very moment.
Yet for all that she does represent a change of sorts. It was the promise of a more inclusive establishment. A refusal to go backwards to a time where only rich white Christian men got to run the show. The election of Barack Obama was not going to be a mere token gesture to creating a more diverse American 1%. The country was being forced to commit itself to becoming an equal opportunity oligarchy.
It was also a clear blow against any progressive force that would seek to shake up the system. It is telling how many less institutional and ideological barriers there were to the creation a rightwing authoritarian populism than a successful progressive populism. Voter suppression, changing of the rules, mainstream dismissal than “the sky is falling” terror all contributed to an “us vs. them” battle – and it appears for the time being the “them” have won. If Sanders was the New Hope, Clinton is the Empire Striking Back.
“No We Can’t”
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Yet while Clinton’s lead widened, and as the media endlessly reminded viewers at home Sanders’ “path to victory” was narrowing, a deeper change was underway. The once considered “socialist” non-entity was transforming an entire generation’s view of politics and economics. He was giving voice to the dissatisfaction of a youth increasingly across race, class and gender who were no longer willing to accept the status quo. In his rallies, speeches, interviews and spirit he was showing them that another more progressive world was possible.
Clinton, of course, was more than willing to temporarily play along for the crowds. When it was obvious that the new “gold standard” trade deal was no longer popular, she was suddenly against it with vigor. When the pipeline that she once embraced came under fire, she jettisoned her support for it. When a growing number of Americans demanded a living wage, the former Walmart board member claimed it was her idea all along.
However, there were limits to this progressive U-turn. It was simply impossible to guarantee healthcare for all – despite the fact that most other developed economies had done so successfully long ago. It was mere dreaming that public universities could be free – even though it was a reality less than a half a century ago. It was absolute fantasy that you could take a more balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict or a less militaristic approach to terrorism.
While her predecessor rushed to victory with chants of “Yes We Can,” Clinton would assume her elected throne with an implicit admonishment of “No We Can’t.”
What have the Democrats Won?
The overriding fear is that this less then resounding victory will come with a high cost. Already, Sanders’ supporters are being excised for their potential willingness to embrace “Bernie or Bust.” The existential threat of Trump makes any such gestures simply too dangerous – the ultimate act of progressives cutting off their nose to spite their country’s face. One can already hear that establishment demand for unity, with the hope that the nation’s regularly scheduled exploitation can return back to normal soon.
And it is understandable that Clinton’s many supporters would want to use this opportunity to bask in a well earned glow of victory. It has been a tough, acrimonious campaign – full of “Bernie bros” and Clinton smears – that has turned even those who believe roughly the same things in principle into sworn political enemies. Already there appeared the possibility for moving forward together with dignity, as the DNC was forced to allow Sanders to appoint genuinely progressive thinkers to the convention platform committee.
The risk, though, is that burned bridges will stay ashen and that by winning one election, the Democratic Party has lost an entire generation. Could this be the last stand of a Party who gave the country a “New Deal” then refused to fight for it when it was under attack from above?
Regardless of the actual outcome, this election continues to reveal the fundamental political divides between the major parties and the people they claim to represent. It is between those who want to escape the bread and circus of partisan fights between the parties who share a primary allegiance to the elites that feed them. It is between those voters – primarily younger ones – who believe that U.S. democracy can still be saved and its economic system radically improved against others – predominantly older – who believe the best we can hope for is to ensure that we do not to devolve into the mud of a racist-fueled fascism.
The irony is that even in defeat, the progressive movement Sanders helped to build and lead is stronger than ever. His campaign showed people that what was once thought impossible is not only possible but fully within their grasp. That the old wars against terror and drugs can be abandoned for new struggles for equality, justice and political empowerment. The Democratic Establishment may have won the battle but now the Party must decide if it wants to join progressives in winning the larger war.