Berned Out: The Stupid Democratic Primary Season

Sanders won as a Democrat, not a revolutionary, and he needed to pivot to a strategy that would unite the existing Democratic Party around him.

But it’s hard to move from treating the Democratic Party establishment with contempt to treating it like a constituency, and so far, the Sanders campaign hasn’t.

Sanders can’t lead the Democrats if his campaign treats them like the enemy, Ezra Klein, VOX, March 4, 2020
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

In a comment thread on Facebook the other day, I said that this has been the stupidest primary season I’ve seen. It might be possible my memory is faulty because all primary seasons contain stupidity. This year, however, has been uniquely ridiculous in large part due to the actions of supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders. While some of the more wild and ridiculous things posted on social media by “supporters” may well be the result of troll farms, Russian or otherwise, who benefit from the chaos created by open hostility among Democrats, quite a lot of that hostility rests on the shoulders of Vermont’s 78-year–old junior Senator.

I’ve kept at least part of one eye on Bernie Sanders since he entered Congress in 1988. I mean, who wouldn’t be excited by a real live socialist?!? It soon became clear, however, that while excellent at those one-minute morning speeches that are a long tradition of the House (usually railing against threats to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), he had neither the interest nor ability to pursue effective, structural legislative change.

The facts are, Bernie has no real legislative successes to speak of. Part of the reason for this is his refusal to work with like-minded Democrats on issues that might have been important, or even forge friendships or good working relationships with members of either party. Preferring to bring a pox upon both their houses, Sanders has claimed his outsider status as a badge of honor.

Until 2016, when he decided he wanted to run for President. Knowing that running as an Independent would be a non-starter, he registered as a Democrat and ran against front-runner Hillary Clinton in a nasty, brutal campaign in which he spent most of his time besmirching Sec. Clinton’s personal integrity, professional accomplishments, and the Democratic Party power structure. While I found enthusiasm among his followers admirable – he did shift much of the discussion during that primary leftward, always a good thing – I found much of their online carrying on both woefully (perhaps willfully?) uninformed as well as counter-productive.

This time, I feel much the same way, only it has occurred on a far larger scale. A good example is the fate of California Senator Kamala Harris. It can certainly be argued that Harris’s time hasn’t come yet, there is little doubt her tenure as California Attorney General, then as the junior Senator from our largest state offered her an excellent platform from which to begin building a coalition. Before a single vote had been cast, however, Harris’s accomplishments had been denounced, her record distorted beyond recognition, and her support disappearing like the water in the Colorado River. Much the same happened to the far more centrist junior Senator from New Jersey, Corey Booker. He quickly ran out of steam, unable to find a place from which to begin to be heard before being shouted down.

Whenever I’ve seen Bernie supporters carry on about the Democratic Party being a capitalist party beholden to large financial and corporate interests, I have to wonder if they know anything at all about politics. I mean . . . of COURSE it is! What else might it be? Yet to Bernie supporters, and occasionally to Bernie himself, this seems a smear worthy of derision. As if a large institution like the Democratic Party could survive outside corporate support! This is just one of the many stupid things I hear more often than is good for my intelligence.

Perhaps the most egregious nonsense has been the concerted effort to paint Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as some kind of centrist, neo-liberal shill with no accomplishments or vision. The facts are precisely the opposite of this, of course, as any cursory search of Warren’s professional history would show. The result, however, has been creating an Elizabeth Warren who doesn’t actually exist. Combined with an ineffective campaign on Warren’s part, this has reduced what should have been the alternative to Bernie on the left of the party into a shadow candidacy, in which Warren finds herself defending things that need no defense, or attacks that are just nonsensical on their face.

With the votes still being counted from yesterday’s Super Tuesday primary, it seems to be a race between Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. Over the past few weeks, I have seen any number of attacks on Joe Biden’s record, whether on race, abortion rights, or what have you, that once again create a strawman that has nothing to do with who Joe Biden has become over he decades of public service. Yes, in the 1970’s, Biden was not a huge proponent of Civil Rights; he was a Senator from border state Delaware, after all. His performance during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, attacking witness Anita Hill, was awful. These, however, are actions in the far past and Biden has demonstrated a willingness not only to change, but to listen to critics, admit his errors, and work to change for the better.

Were Biden an unreconstructed Jim Crow Democrat, would he have the support of African-American communities, particularly among black women voters – the real heroes of the Democratic victories over the past several election cycles – that he has demonstrated? It is precisely because he did listen and did show progress and change that dredging up actions from 30 and even nearly 50 years ago are not only wrong but ignorant. In dismissing the very real support Biden has among the most important, most active part of the Democratic coalition, Sanders and his supporters show an ignorance not only of Biden’s record, but feels like a racist dismissal of the very real preferences of communities of color around the country.

If the Democratic Party is to take back the Presidency this year – not at all a given, despite Trump’s obvious weaknesses – it has to be as the Democratic Party is constituted right now, not as some might wish it to be, or want it to become after the election. That means working across constituencies and ideological boundaries to achieve a common end. Spending as much energy running against the Party you’re seeking to lead as against the Republican opponent is not only not a good look; it’s a strategy that will not create a willingness among members of the Democratic Party to work for a Bernie Sanders agenda. As I said above, it’s counterproductive.

As an old school friend said on FB, I will support whichever old white straight guy the party nominates. I will do so knowing whoever that might be is far better than our current President. I will do so, however, coming quite close to holding my nose as I do so.

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