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Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally at Island Park in Springfield, Oregon on Thursday. (Photo: Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard)

Why Democrats Don't Get Sanders' Endgame (and Why It Will Hurt Them in the End)

John Atcheson

The Democratic Party establishment’s response to Sanders’ staying in the race ranges from perplexed to downright hostile.  

For example, Sam Stein reports that Senator Kent Conrad recently said:

So far [Sanders] has been riding a wave of good feelings in the sense he ran an incredible campaign … But that has a pretty short shelf life and then people start looking at you through a different lens, and that lens is: Are you a team player and do you have the larger picture in mind or are you just focused on yourself?

Then there’s Democratic Convention Chair Ed Rendell’s take on it:

I’m confused by it… If he wants to speak in primetime at the convention, then he has to suspend his campaign.

Many pundits wonder aloud whether Sanders is motivated by ego.  Paul Krugman – a reliable source of anti-Bernie sentiment – had this to say about Sanders staying in the race:

At this point it’s as if Sanders is determined to validate everything liberal skeptics have been saying all along about his unwillingness to face reality — and all of it for, maybe, a few weeks of additional fundraising, at the expense of any future credibility and goodwill. Isn’t there anyone who can tell him to stop before it’s too late?

These comments all reflect a viewpoint that is Party-centric, and steeped in the establishment media’s obsession with the “horserace” aspects of the race, and as a result they miss the real – and patently obvious – reason Sanders is taking his issues to the Convention. 

Let’s look at each.

The Horserace

Pundits love to talk about tactics, strategies and standings, but are loathe to look at politics as an expression of values.  To them, it’s about the candidate, not the things he or she stands for.  Hillary’s slogan, “I’m with her,”  exemplifies this perspective. It’s not about us; it’s not about principles; it’s about her. Sanders slogan is “a future to believe in” – but he’s said from the beginning that his campaign wasn’t about him, it was about us.  His slogan might be more accurately characterized as, “I’m with you.”

If you look at the nomination process through this lens, it is perplexing for Sanders to stay in.  It’s over, Hillary won; the trifectas, exactas, and other bets have been paid off, so what the hell is that old horse still doing on the track? It’s time for the next race, damnit.

In this paradigm, Bernie’s best bet is to fold the tent, rally his troops, return to the Democratic fold and get on the gravy train. Here the emphasis is on the candidates and the Party. The people’s interests? Well, they’re not even in the race.

Which brings us to the view through the Party lens.

Through a Lens, Darkly – Party Trumps People

Let’s examine Krugman’s quote, above.  In his view, Sanders loses credibility and goodwill by not quitting.  Quite a revealing take.  Credibility, in Krugman’s world, isn’t about sticking to the values and ethics you’ve been espousing; it’s not about being true to the people who supported you because of those values.  Rather, it is about playing by the Party rules.  Once again, Party trumps people.

Rendell, looking through the Party lens, can think of nothing more important than having a prominent speaking role at the Convention, and he is perplexed that Sanders isn’t doing all he can to get one. Values? People first?  Not even in the equation.

Then there’s the world according to Conrad. If you don’t “fall into line”, then you are not “a team player.”  And of course, if you’re not a team player, then you must be “just focused on yourself.”  Here, Conrad is looking through the doubly distorting lenses of the horserace and the Party simultaneously.  No wonder he doesn’t get it.

What Sanders wants, of course is obvious: He’s less interested in joining the Democratic Party than he is in transforming it.  And with good reason. 

Why a Values-Based Party is Good Politics, Too.

What most pundits miss is that the Democratic Party has been hemorrhaging people  since 1960, when 50% of voters called themselves Democrats, and only about 20% identified as Independents. For the most part, Republicans have bounced around in the mid to high twenties, occasionally hitting the low 30’s.

Today, only 29%  of potential voters identify as Democrats, 42% call themselves Independents, and 26% are Republicans.

Where did all those people go?  As the Democratic Party abandoned the New Deal policies that contributed to the longest sustained and most equitably shared prosperity in our nation’s history, the people abandoned the Party, as their share of the national pie plummeted and the plutocrat’s share skyrocketed.

Hillary Clinton is the second most disliked candidate and the least trusted candidate to run for the Presidency in the history of polling. That won’t inspire a big turnout, and Democrats desperately need a big turnout. In the disastrous mid-term election of 2014 in which Republicans trounced Democrats, the US had the lowest voter turnout in 75 years.

What the average person has figured out, is that neither Party represents them, and that we live in an Oligarchy.  So they’ve stopped playing. This has been bad for Democrats, since the passionately ignorant show up to vote in disproportionate numbers.

Bottom line:  Sanders’ values-based appeal to voters is in the best long-term interests of the Party, but the Party is controlled by vested interests who won’t relinquish their chokehold on it. And as for Hillary Clinton, “the progressive who gets things done?” Well, she and her surrogates are busy backtracking on her very briefly held progressive positions on trade, climate, and universal healthcare (among others) as noted by Bill McKibben.

We are fortunate to have a candidate as crazed as Trump.  It is likely that even a weak candidate like Hillary will defeat him. 

But in the long-term, the Democratic Party and the people will suffer by nominating and electing another candidate who is indebted to – indeed, an integral part of – the Oligarchy. 

And that, my clueless friends in the establishment media and the punditocracy, is why Sanders won’t quit.  And why he shouldn’t.  

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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