Thursday, February 27, 2020

When (If Ever) Will the Left Turn on Sanders?

Many folks, myself included, have observed that Bernie Sanders the actual politician often differs quite substantially from Bernie the mythological figure as imagined by some of his more passionate supporters (and detractors). "Socialism" label notwithstanding, Bernie's politics are relatively standard social democratic prescriptions, not far off from New Deal style liberalism. And his route to accomplishing his policy agenda likewise will generally flow through relatively normal democratic (and Democratic) processes.

Nonetheless, one advantage Bernie has had over his career is that he's seen as ideologically incorruptible. Bernie Sanders is someone who votes his conscience; he doesn't play the games of triangulation and log-rolling that regular politicians do. Some of this is an exaggeration, but some of it is real enough, and it's responsible for at least some of his more passionate base of support which see him as a pure actor among a field of sell-outs.

Of course, there's a reason why he's been able to maintain this pure stance. Since he's rarely been "the decider" or the pivotal vote, there have been very few decisions that fall directly on his head, and so he's rarely been forced to engage in the grubby work of compromise and negotiation that eventually captures any political actor who actually wants to get things done. He can afford to be a purist because others are putting in the hard-rock mining to actually make things happen. Even as he's risen to the position of U.S. Senator, Sanders has largely been able to follow Weber's "politics of conviction".

But as he moves from presidential contender to probable presidential nominee to, perhaps, President of the United States, this is going to become less and less tenable. Eventually, Weber teaches us, any truly empowered political actor will have to abandon the politics of pure conviction. And to the extent some of his wildest supporters have his back primarily because of the perception that he can transcend "regular" politics and maintain the politics of conviction forever, it raises the question: what happens when Sanders, inevitably, has to start playing the game? What happens when he has to actually do things that inevitably will involve compromise, and cooperation, and bargaining with various grubby constituencies beyond the base? What happens when Sanders is actually forced to be the man making the decision, and can't indulge in purity any longer?

The earliest time I can imagine this playing it out is when Sanders is choosing a Vice President. In general -- not always, but in general -- a VP nominee is chosen to shore up support among the wing of the party that did not win the nomination. So Sanders likely will face a lot of pressure to choose someone "establishment" flavored, as a gesture of unity, and will face even more pressure not to choose a loyal Berniecrat, as redundant. But how will Sanders supporters react if he picks, oh, let's say Kamala Harris, as a running mate? Will they be shocked at the betrayal -- the caving in to establishment forces? Or will they be trusting, willing to give him leeway and (finally, albeit one-sidedly) accepting the realities of political maneuvering? Or will he be held innocent, the victim of hostage-taking by a DNC that will do anything and everything to preserve the power of the old guard?

Maybe he can avoid this (maybe he can be pure once again, and select a down-the-line loyalist). But if he becomes President, these issues will only continue and will become harder to avoid. Change will never occur with the immediacy that one would hope, the bills that are passed will never be as clean as they were drawn up in the progressive caucus, administrative appointees won't always give advice or produce studies that say what one wants to hear. And when that happens, what will happen? Will it be assimilated as part of the costs of doing business in the highly complex, modern bureaucratic state? Or will be evidence that Bernie, too, ultimately sold out? Or will it show just how entrenched the deep state is against him -- Sanders did not fail us, he was betrayed from within.

I honestly don't know, and I can see things going any which way. There is, among at least some Sanders supporters, a toxic kool-aid making the rounds where Sanders cannot fail, he can only be failed. This story about Sanders supporters standing outside a Nevada Democratic Party official's house at 11 PM with a bullhorn railing about the inevitable impending corruption in the caucus is disturbing on a host of levels, but let's focus on how the ringleader responded to pleading by the Sanders campaign to knock it off:
“The Sanders campaign is run by the establishment,” she wrote on her Facebook page in response to some critiques of her nighttime demonstrations. “I can care less what Bernie’s staff thinks of me. They aren’t relevant to me or my race. I have seen screenshots of the way they treat Berners and it is absolutely not reflective of Bernie Sanders.”
Now the woman in question, Maria Estrada, is at the fringe of the fringe -- she's a raging antisemite who nonetheless received an Our Revolution endorsement to challenge the (Democratic) California Assembly speaker in 2018 (she's seeking a rematch, but it's unclear whether Our Revolution endorsed her again). But boy howdy is this some cult of personality business. With all due respect to Sanders' campaign staff, there's no reasonable argument that Sanders is more encouraging of ... let's call them "hardball" tactics from the activist base ... than are members of his staff. But no matter:  From Estrada's vantage point, Sanders cannot possibly deviate from the path of the true revolution -- and if he does, then he didn't, he was simply led astray by false prophets and establishment whisperers.

This isn't healthy. It would not be healthy if the movement Bernie leads decides he's betrayed it, and it's not healthy if the movement Bernie leads decides every setback is the result of insidious forces corrupting from within.

Bernie Sanders may well make a fine president. It's possible he will be a great president. But he is still going to be a president, within the same system and subject to the same political constraints as have all the occupants of the office before him. Donald Trump may be the president who has most aggressively resisted these strictures, and to the extent he can get away with it it's only because he doesn't care how many people he immiserates and lives he destroys along the way. If your goal is to build rather than destroy, to improve rather than decay, you don't have Trump's luxuries.

Most people who ask a question like "when will the left turn on Sanders" do so, I imagine, with a note of hope in voice -- when will they see the light? (a libertarian friend of my in-laws used to always ask my wife "are the youth turning on Obama yet?", convinced that any day now they'd realize that big government represented a bigger threat to their liberty than losing health insurance coverage). I do not ask this question with hope. I suspect that if the left turns on Sanders, it will be for the worst reasons. Convinced that it is only a failure of will that their dreams haven't yet been realized, they will infer from Sanders inability to the impossible that either he or his team were traitors all along, and that if we only purge enough blasphemers, the inevitable revolution will -- will -- happen. And as ugly as some of their attacks on "the DNC" and "the establishment" and Hillary and Obama and Perez and Wasserman-Schulz and ... (ever onward) have been, the fallout of that reckoning would be terrifying to witness.

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