Democratic Party liberals have made quite a show of their desire for Bernie Sanders to leave the presidential race so that, the story goes, Hillary Clinton can focus her energy solely on the looming threat of Donald Trump.
But, judging by their behavior, and by the writings of pundits and analysts, it is these very same liberals who cannot resist a daily whack at the Sanders campaign — and at Bernie Sanders, himself. Liberals who frequently articulate both their horror at the prospect of a Trump presidency and the role we all share in preventing him from reaching the White House still, somehow, muster the energy to take pot-shots at the democratic socialist they so breezily dismissed as a non-entity just a few months ago.
Needless to say, legitimate criticism of the Sanders campaign — of its ideas and of how the campaign was run — is both fair and necessary. But the sneering that can be witnessed in some of the nation's most lauded journalistic outfits is a far-cry from legitimate.
Take, for instance, the examples compiled by Adam Johnson: Back in March, in a span of sixteen hours, the Washington Post ran sixteen stories lambasting the Sanders campaign from a variety of angles, none of which were charitable. The Post's editorial board has gone further, denouncing Sanders for running a "fiction-filled campaign," one that is merely telling progressives "everything they want to hear."
In a short period, major outlets underwent a sharp tactical turnaround — from granting Sanders little attention at all, having dismissed his candidacy as symbolic and thus unworthy of mention, to launching baseless tirades at a furious pace.
And tirades, I think, is an accurate portrayal, as many of the critiques put forward by the anti-Sanders crowd are not critiques at all. Rather, they are polemics filled with musings on the motives of Sanders and his supporters — musings that are rarely grounded in data.
Sanders backers have been classified on the basis of this flimsy framework in a variety of ways: Racist, sexist, conservative, Trump sympathizers.
Then, of course, there is the famous "Bernie bro" narrative, a tall tale that purports to demonstrate that Sanders supporters are motivated not by left politics or by a desire to improve the material conditions of Americans, but by their incessant drive, as young, white males, to regain their status in a rapidly diversifying society.
When one takes little more than a cursory glance at these claims, however, they fall apart.
Sadly, otherwise insightful commentators have latched onto these lines of attack: Paul Krugman, for instance, gleefully seized upon a faulty interpretation of survey data, exclaiming on one occasion that he had found "the truth about the Sanders movement," and on another that Sanders, himself, is becoming a "Bernie bro."
In terms of their factual weight, these smears are easily brushed aside; but, because they have been pushed by influential voices, these narratives, fraudulent as they are, have shown tremendous staying power.
But perhaps more pernicious than the strange, speculative musings and left-right combos coming from the anti-Sanders crowd are the flippant dismissals of Sanders's platform, one that contains elements that liberals are usually happy to embrace: Like, say, single-payer healthcare, (much) higher taxes on the wealthy, and an overhaul of the nation's disastrous campaign finance system.
Some commentators, in the face of a politician who seems genuinely determined to move forward with the agenda he has articulated throughout his campaign, have twisted themselves into knots to justify their emphatic rejection of the most progressive candidacy in recent history.
For instance: Last week, political scientist Mark Schmitt, writing for the New York Times, offered up a critique of the Sanders campaign that, upon examination, is ultimately as baseless as the poisonous, speculative takes that have dominated major newspapers and media outlets over the last several months.
Schmitt's beef with Sanders is that the Vermont senator is "still running the Windows 95 version of progressive politics," and that his proposals are "consistently out of step with the ideas that have been emerging from progressive think tanks like Demos or the Center for American Progress or championed by his own congressional colleagues."
First, it is fascinating that Sanders, despite, in Schmitt's view, "running the Windows 95 version of progressive politics," has been able to bring overwhelming numbers of young people into the political process, winning their support — by large margins — over his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps Schmitt, not Sanders, is the prisoner of an outmoded ideological framework, one guided by the missives of progressive think tanks rather than the needs of the population.
Further, as Matt Bruenig thoroughly demonstrates, Schmitt's objections to the Sanders platform don't hold weight from an individual policy perspective, either.
The fundamental problem is laid bare in Schmitt's criticism of Sanders's support for single-payer healthcare.
"Schmitt paints Sanders’s interest in single-payer healthcare as quaint and out of touch with modern progressivism," Bruenig notes. "But this is only true if you equate modern progressivism with the foundations that set the priorities of liberal think tanks. The largest union of nurses in the country, National Nurses United, aggressively promotes single-payer health care, and the AFL-CIO unanimously endorsed single-payer a few years ago."
The problem, Bruenig concludes, is not that Sanders is "behind the times"; rather, it is that Sanders is "in line with different modern progressive constituencies than Schmitt is."
This gets at the more subtle point that underlies Schmitt's disagreement with Sanders, one that Schmitt, himself, does a fantastic job uncovering: Self-styled progressives are willing to go to great lengths to defend status quo liberalism — represented by think tanks like the Center for American Progress — from its critics on the left, often resorting to misrepresentations, baseless character assaults, and outright falsehoods in the process.
Democratic Party loyalists cannot bring themselves to admit that the so-called pragmatic liberalism (otherwise known as centrism) of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has been inadequate and ineffective in its attempts to address growing inequality and corporate plunder.
In fact, this form of liberalism — one that has, over the past several decades, moved ever closer to the open arms of business — has often made these problems worse.
Today, as a result, the Democratic Party is overrun with what Doug Henwood calls "doom and gloom," a philosophical attitude that has led Democrats to abandon ambitious policy goals — along with their blue-collar base — in favor of a meager, unappetizing, and often actively harmful platform.
"Hillary Democrats," Henwood contends, "are running against hope."
A great strength of the Sanders campaign has been its ability to expose this thinly-veiled rift between the left and the Democratic Party, thus differentiating between "doom and gloom" liberalism and the revolutionary goals of the Vermont senator and the progressive movements that have coalesced around his successes.
"Unlike fortress liberals or professional elites," writes Matt Karp, "Sanders and his young backers recognize that the vital element in any progressive struggle is the ability to generate energy from the bottom up."
Far from running on an outdated version of progressivism, the Sanders campaign has broken through the barriers set by the Democratic Party, raised the expectations and ambitions of voters, and motivated them to reverse "the atrophy of political imagination" that has, over the past several decades, infected the Democratic agenda.
In doing so, Sanders has thrown into sharp relief the ideological bankruptcy of 21st century liberalism and has articulated an inspiring alternative.
Try as they might, analysts like Mark Schmitt cannot reestablish the legitimacy of an ideological framework that has long overstayed its welcome.