Photo of Bernie Sanders by Gage Skidmore.
The great test for Hillary Clinton in the coming weeks and months will be one of incorporation. Can the former Secretary of State and her supporters find a way to integrate the best of what Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has brought to the 2016 Democratic primary competition into the general election campaign?
Barring a striking shift in the direction of the Democratic contest, it is increasingly likely that Clinton will emerge as the nominee. But of what? Of a Democratic Party that merely reflects the sensibilities of the winner of an unexpectedly long and competitive contest? Or a Democratic Party that consciously seeks to capture the boldest ideas and the best energy of its active and potential supporters?
For Clinton and her aides, the processes of integration and incorporation are necessary. They have every right to celebrate their successes, but they also must recognize that another Democratic candidate attracted substantial support in the primaries. It’s not just a matter of capturing the votes of millions of Sanders backers, some of whom might consider a progressive third-party contender such as Jill Stein of the Greens, and many of whom might simply be disinclined to vote in November. This goes much deeper.
Candidates and parties get stronger when they are forced to figure out how and why a challenger has mounted a stronger-than-expected bid against an established contender. Indeed, all dynamic movements and enterprises must learn from candidacies and movements that break new ground.
Already, Chloe Maxmin, the co-founder of the Divest Harvard and First Here, Then Everywhere climate activist groups, has written in The Nation about “What the Climate Movement Can Learn From Bernie Sanders’s Political Revolution.” And Fortune magazine is speculating about “What Bernie Sanders’s Presidential Campaign Can Actually Teach Business Leaders.”
But, just because it makes sense to draw lessons from an intense primary season, and from an able challenger, it does not mean those lessons will be drawn. In politics, as in life, that which is necessary is not always easy.
Just as today’s political and media elites are generous to establishment candidates and dismissive of outsiders—relentlessly reinforcing a broken status quo—so it has ever been. Only the wisest winners choose to learn from vanquished foes, as Abraham Lincoln did when he established his “team of rivals” and as Franklin Roosevelt did when he invited Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas to offer counsel on forging a New Deal.
For the most part, the story is one of resistance to next steps and fresh approaches—even by nominees who believe they are blazing new trails. That resistance can harm not just individual contenders and parties but also the governance that extends from narrow electoral victories.
One of the great mavericks in the history of American politics, Oregon U.S. Senator Wayne Morse, challenged John Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960. Inspired at least in part by an article in the pages of this magazine, Morse argued the party he had just joined—as a former Republican and independent—needed to become dramatically more attuned to the cause of civil rights, anticipate a new age of worker and consumer pushback against corporate power, and recognize that domestic progress could be undone by too much military meddling in the affairs of other countries.
Morse lost and Kennedy secured the presidency that fall. But, far from capturing the moment and setting the tone for a new decade, Kennedy barely scraped by—winning less than 50 percent of the popular vote and beating Republican Richard Nixon by barely 100,000 votes out of almost 69 million cast. Why?
Kennedy ran a cautious campaign. The candidate and the Democratic elites that backed him paid scant attention to his party’s growing cadre of progressive mavericks—or to the emerging demands from movements of young activists that were developing beyond the boundaries of conventional politics.
Kennedy and the Democrats erred toward the past and toward an insider politics that would come to haunt the Democrats before the decade was done: He made Texan Lyndon Johnson his vice president and defeated Democratic presidential contender Adlai Stevenson his United Nations ambassador. Four years later, after Kennedy’s assassination, Morse would cast a lonely vote (along with Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening) against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and Johnson’s wider war in Vietnam.
While Johnson would win the tumultuous election of 1964 with ease, he and his party were out of the running by 1968. Unable to maintain their New Deal coalition, and out of touch with the emerging politics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Democrats went on to lose seven of the next ten presidential elections. Only once in the period from 1968 to 2008 would the party win a majority of the popular vote in a presidential election. Listening to Morse and the insurgents of the early 1960s might not have put the Democratic Party on a perfect trajectory. But learning from rivals who dared to outline radical visions for the future, would have helped Kennedy, Johnson, and their party avoid a multitude of costly errors.
In this faster-paced age of twenty-four-hour news and social-media explosions, there is a greater regard for disruptive ideas and maverick movements. But there is also a greater danger in dismissing them. Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, wrote early in the 2015 campaign that “Hillary Clinton can’t afford to ignore Bernie Sanders.”
Clinton, he argued, should look “to draw lessons from the fervor that is propelling the Sanders campaign and incorporate some of his strategies into her own playbook. Rather than only seeing Sanders as an adversary, she should view the Sanders campaign as one that can offer her the competitive push that she needs to electrify her campaign with new ideas.”
The advice remains sound. So here are some new ideas:
Borrow the Bern
Sanders backers are often frustrated by the extent to which the Clinton campaign has borrowed the Senator’s proposals. “Feel the Bern” campaigners grumble that Clinton has tried to “Steal the Bern.” But as primary competition gives way to fall campaigning, dissents against an old party orthodoxy should be accepted as part of a new party orthodoxy. And the champions of that new orthodoxy should recognize the popular appeal of positions that were once deemed radical.
In 1968, Hillary Clinton campaigned for Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war challenge to Johnson and witnessed the violent assaults on anti-war demonstrators by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s police force outside that year’s Democratic National Convention. Inside the convention, party leaders nominated Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president, rejected an anti-war platform plank, dismissed vice presidential prospects who were in touch with the new politics, and set the stage for their defeat in November.
To be sure, 2016 is a different year than 1968. But this, too, is a turbulent political moment, which has seen the nomination contests of both parties disrupted by outsiders—and in which demands for fundamental reform of a rigged politics and a rigged economy are not just slogans. They are sentiments that are alive in the body politic. Sanders says, “The Clinton campaign is going to have to make the case to those young people that in fact they are prepared for some real fundamental changes in this country.” In fact, this goes beyond the young people who have backed Sanders by overwhelming margins.
Clinton needs to recognize that the right response to this level of volatility is not tepid triangulation. It’s an all-in acknowledgment that, as Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout says, “America is in pain, and democracy is in crisis. Twenty Americans have more money than the bottom half of Americans. According to The New York Times, 158 families made half of all the donations so far in the presidential race. We have a private campaign finance system that gives private companies and billionaires control over government. That’s not American democracy.”
Treat Young Voters with Respect
In an early-April appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Clinton responded to a criticism of her campaign by saying: “I feel sorry sometimes, for the young people who, you know, believe this—they don’t do their own research.” Ouch. As the San Francisco Chronicle political writer Joe Garofoli noted: “That’s insulting. She’s insinuating that those young voters are too immature to know any better, that they’re gobbling up whatever Sanders says because they haven’t figured out the Google yet.”
Sanders did not win as much as 82 percent of the under-thirty electorate in key primaries because he was promising “free stuff” or deceiving young voters. He won by talking about “a future you can believe in.” That’s a big deal at a point when the U.S. economy is experiencing rapid globalization, digitalization, and automation. Young people have every right to demand a future that offers them educational opportunity, employment options, and a more just and equal society.
To her credit, Clinton is speaking about the damage done by racial and gender inequity; this helped her to build the coalitions that won key primaries. She has also spoken on the need to understand and respond to the development of a “gig economy,” where workers no longer have steady jobs but instead piece together freelance careers. Clinton should amplify and extend that message as part of a serious conversation with young voters—and with not-so-young voters who are justifiably concerned about a future that is too frequently defined by the bottom lines of tech monopolies.
Go Bold on “$15 and a Union”
There is no simple calculus by which a candidate gets to the heart of the angst over what Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren refers to as “a rigged economy.” But the most appealing message of the Sanders campaign was an absolute demand for a national $15-an-hour minimum wage and the right of low-wage workers to organize for fair wages and fair treatment. This is baseline economics and, while Sanders and Clinton wrangle about how best to break the hold of Wall Street speculators, it should be agreed that people who work forty hours a week ought not to live in poverty.
Clinton started with a cautious embrace of a $12-an-hour wage hike. In a pre-New York primary debate, she seemed to extend her message, saying “I have supported the Fight for $15.” Sanders countered: “I am sure a lot of people are very surprised to learn that you supported raising the minimum wage to fifteen bucks an hour. When this campaign began, I said that we have got to end the starvation minimum wage of $7.25, raise it to $15. Secretary Clinton said let’s raise it to $12.” Clinton now says she’d sign federal legislation to enact a $15 wage. That’s progress, but she should take the next step and make a “Fight for $15” message central to her campaigning and to her “highest priorities” list if elected.
Sanders has made the number “27” a big deal in American politics. That figure represents the average donation to a campaign that has broken virtually every record when it comes to grassroots fundraising. Sanders has refused all sorts of big-money donations and bet on small donors who want to break the grip of corporations and billionaires on our politics. For the primaries, Clinton chose a different route that locked her into a steady schedule of major-donor fundraising events and allowed her critics to define her as a politics-as-usual contender.
If she is the party’s nominee, Clinton will in all likelihood continue with the basic approach she has adopted. But there are some indications that she has begun to recognize the value of democratizing fundraising, both in terms of practical politics and in terms of the image that her campaign projects.
Putting more energy into building a campaign that relies on small donors frees a candidate from the burdens of the cocktail-party circuit and provides a response to the charge that the Democrats are no different than the Republicans when it comes to reliance on big money. But any pivot must be accompanied by a clear and forceful endorsement of a constitutional amendment that says money is not speech, corporations are not people, and votes ought to matter more than dollars.
Politics does not provide guarantees. It provides openings. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she has an opening that extends from her own primary successes. But the opening will become much greater if she recognizes why Bernie Sanders has run so very well as an insurgent challenger and makes her fall campaign not merely an extension of her own ideas and strategies but of those that made Sanders’s candidacy much more effective and appealing than anyone expected.
John Nichols is a contributing writer for The Progressive, an editor of The Nation and The Capital Times, and the co-author of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy (Nation Books).
From the June issue of The Progressive magazine.