Benjamin Studebaker

Bernie Sanders Got Nothing for Endorsing Clinton

Last night, Bernie Sanders gave a speech at the DNC convention in which he offered his unqualified support for Hillary Clinton. Sanders argues that Clinton has earned his support by agreeing to changes in the Democratic Party Platform that bring it more in line with Sanders’ views. But if we take a closer look at what Sanders received in exchange for his endorsement, it’s clear he’s getting a raw deal.

There is a big problem with relying on the party platform–it’s non-binding. There is nothing that compels Democratic candidates to follow it. Indeed, Democratic presidents typically achieve very little of what’s in the platform. The 2008 party platform made a number of bold promises that went unfulfilled:

Now, it’s true that after the 2010 mid-term elections, President Obama did not command a majority in Congress and was constantly frustrated in his efforts to implement his agenda. But in the first two years, the Democrats had a supermajority in Congress but nonetheless found it difficult to pass many of their headline policies. Those that were passed were significantly watered down. The stimulus package was not as big as many hoped for, the Affordable Care Act did not contain a public option or provide universal coverage, and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms did not shrink the size and political and economic influence of the financial sector. This is because the party platform is non-binding and many Democrats were willing to vote against things that were promised in the platform. The same remains true today–even if Democrats wing a congressional majority, the most radical parts of the platform will be watered down or discarded. Those most radical parts of the platform will inevitably be the parts put there as a concession to Sanders–most elected Democrats don’t agree with these policies and will not support them.

On top of that, the Democratic Party refused to put many of Sanders’ best policies in the non-binding platform. The carbon tax is nowhere to be found, Medicare for all is gone, and there’s no explicit mention of opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Democratic Party is not willing to even pretend to try to advance these positions.

To add insult to injury, Hillary Clinton then proceeded to select Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) as her running mate.

Kaine is a consummate establishment Democrat, taking many positions that are anathema to Sanders’ supporters:

Those on the left who have come around to Clinton do so on the basis of promises made and things said–Clinton’s record of doing things belies her claims. The selection of Tim Kaine for Vice President further underlines her willingness to pay lip service to the left while continuing to practice the same old brand of establishment neoliberal politics. It’s clear that she’s more interested in winning over establishment Republicans committed to the same economic ideology than she is in attracting the support of anti-establishment left egalitarians. The Clinton campaign needed Sanders’ endorsement, and now that they’ve got it they assume they will get the support of the left no matter what they do. Having already endorsed, Sanders has no further leverage–he and his agenda can be quietly shunted aside.

What could Sanders have done instead? He could have withheld his endorsement until he received meatier concessions–he could have demanded changes to the DNC’s nominating process to make it easier for an anti-establishment candidate next time around. He also could have demanded a left egalitarian Vice President. More radically, he could have accepted Jill Stein’s invitation to run with the Greens.

Why didn’t Sanders fight harder? He probably feared that if he continued to oppose Clinton, he would be blamed in the event of a Trump victory in much the same way Nader is sometimes blamed for Bush’s victory over Gore. The way you think about this has much to do with the way you think about the consequences of a Trump presidency, which even now remains a distinct possibility.

In the short-term, there will likely be some set of costs to having a President Trump as opposed to a President Clinton, but it is not clear how large these costs will be because Trump is a con man whose real positions are deeply uncertain. What we do know is that before he began his campaign he frequently expressed political views that are well to the left of Republican orthodoxy. On that basis, I am inclined to think that Trump has conned Republicans and that a Trump presidency would not be as bad as many people believe. If however you believe that Trump is an honest person and that the positions he has expressed throughout the campaign are genuine, you would be inclined to think that the costs are much higher than I would. Many people believe that Trump is a liar but also take him at his word when he pledges to do outlandish things he himself opposed before he got into politics. These beliefs are inconsistent. There is a widespread belief that Trump is more of a warmonger than Clinton, but this does not withstand scrutiny–the one area in which Trump has been fairly consistent is his opposition to interventionist military campaigns in countries of limited strategic importance. This makes him less likely to get involved in places like Iraq, Libya, or Syria. The largest immediate costs to a Trump presidency are likely to be on the Supreme Court–we cannot really know what sort of people Trump would nominate, and the people he has listed have all been quite offensive to the left. But is he lying again? We just don’t know. The right-wing National Review does not consider the list trustworthy.

In the long-term a President Clinton would entrench the Democratic Party as the party of the establishment and further enable the Republican Party to take up the mantle of the anti-establishment, claiming to defend workers even while many of the policies for which it advocates directly contribute to the workers’ evisceration. This is dangerous, because if establishment ideology is in the process of failing–if it is producing adverse economic consequences for people that will inevitably drive more and more of them to oppose the establishment–then this feeds the development and organization of the far right as a political force and creates a great risk that in 2020 or 2024 a deeply frightening person is elected president, someone who genuinely believes the things Trump may only pretend to believe. A President Trump would have the opposite impact, concentrating opposition to government policy in the left and facilitating its development as a political force. We can see this historically–during the Clinton and Obama presidencies, the right became markedly more extreme. George W. Bush was significantly more right wing than his father, and contemporary republicans are significantly more right wing than Bush. Meanwhile the Bush presidency was a radicalizing force in the Democratic Party, producing a significant contingent of left wing voters who were unwilling to accept Clinton in 2008. That contingent has continued moving leftward–Sanders is much more radical than Obama–but it has been unable to bring the party along with in no small part because Obama remains president and the party is committed to defending him and those associated with him. By making Clinton Secretary of State, Obama tied her to himself and thereby re-legitimized her. American parties are been radicalized while in opposition but double down on their establishments when they control the presidency.

Sanders grew up before the 90s, however–he is shaped by the experience of the 70s and 80s. In those decades, the Democratic Party moved rightward whenever it lost an election. This is because the Democratic Party used to be dominated by a much more left egalitarian ideology influenced by the New Deal and the Great Society. It was neoliberalism that was new and anti-establishment during this period. There is no guarantee that a party establishment is necessarily to the right of its anti-establishment, and in this period the left/right positioning of the establishment and the anti-establishment in both parties was opposite of where it stands today. But Sanders never considered himself a part of even that Democratic establishment–in the 60s he was well to the left of Lyndon Johnson. There was a brief period where there might have been a Democratic anti-establishment that was to the left of the Great Society in the late 60s and early 70s–in 1972 it was able to force the nomination of McGovern in reaction to four years of Richard Nixon. But after McGovern’s defeat, this movement petered out and initiative was given to anti-establishment Democrats looking to advance a neoliberal agenda. Jimmy Carter was one of these Democrats, and Bill Clinton was even moreso. Lyndon Johnson would have been at least as alienated from Clinton as he was from McGovern, and in two different directions.

It doesn’t appear that Sanders sees this–he presumes that a Trump win would be similar to a Reagan win, moving the Democratic Party to the right. He does not seem to recognize that the dominant Democratic anti-establishment in the 80s was never himself or people like him–it was people like Clinton, who continued what Carter started and fought the decaying remnants of Johnson’s party. Unlike the Reagan period, today Sanders’ ideology is the dominant anti-establishment ideology in the Democratic Party. It stands to gain from a Trump presidency in a way that it could never have gained from Reagan.

But this is all a moot point if you think that Trump is honest and poses a threat so serious that he cannot be stomached in the service of a long-term political project. So much of this comes down to what kind of problem you think Trump is–does he pose an existential threat, or is he a mild annoyance whose victory would only help to embolden the left and discredit the right? Sanders has made his call, and for better or worse we will pay the price.