Pundits and politicians misread the Sanders campaign. They keep analyzing his actions according to the rulebooks of the going two-party political system, although he has been outside of it his entire political career—the longest standing Independent Congressman in history. He’s been an independent democratic socialist from the beginning. Bernie’s goals have been to change the status quo decisively in favor of 99% folk by shaving away the power and wealth of the elites at the top. To accomplish that, he has consistently run as an Independent but has put one foot in to the centrist-leaning Democratic Party caucus as a way of gaining some leverage in the political process as it exists.
When he began to consider running for president, Sanders was unclear about whether to run as an Independent or Democrat. He spent months crisscrossing the country and consulting with a multitude of people before making his choice. He eventually came down on the side of the Democratic Party. One factor in this was a judgment on which avenue would provide him the widest exposure for his ideas. The Party, with its access to national TV debates and other significant media venues must have figured prominently in this.
It’s pretty clear that Sanders took Party sponsorship not because he is strongly committed to or identified with the Democrats, but because he saw a powerful vehicle for pursing his progressive goals and philosophy.
At an MSNBC Town Meeting (3/14/16), moderator Chuck Todd specifically asked Sanders why he didn’t mount an Independent campaign—to which the Sanders responded: “ . . . in terms of media coverage—you have to run within the Democratic Party.” Sanders then threw in an aside to the audience about why he passed on the Independent path: “See, the problem is Chuck would not have me on his program if I did that.” The result of the decision is that Sanders has reached millions of viewers through TV that helped him energize his revolution and create a mass movement of followers.
It’s pretty clear that Sanders took Party sponsorship not because he is strongly committed to or identified with the Democrats, but because he saw a powerful vehicle for pursing his progressive goals and philosophy. In contrast to the view of far left observers that Bernie is a shill leading his followers into the Democratic Party fold, Sanders is using the Party to advance his fundamental aims. For Sanders, those life-long goals are first, the Party second. The same holds for a substantial portion of his followers.
This background provides the basis for asking whether Bernie and his followers will back Hillary if she wins the primary. The question is asked in the framework of conventional Party politics. Will one Party loyalist who loses a primary to another Party loyalist back the winner? The answer in American political life is almost uniformly yes. But here the query is different. Will a losing candidate seeking fundamental change in the status quo (a “political revolution”) support a winning candidate and Party mired in the status quo? Will a big-change advocate support a staunch incremental change pragmatist? Will the losing candidate, who wants to depose the top economic elites and wielders of power, work for a candidate who is supported by and supports those elites? The answer at this time is unclear and will need to emerge in the melee still ahead.
Sanders said he would endorse the winner of the primary race. This was, in all probability, a condition for the Party to accept him as a candidate (despite his basically being an outside Independent). There are left activists who say he should ignore this commitment now that he has virtually lost his presidential bid and work to build a radical Independent party in alliance with his campaign supporters. I don’t think Sanders is someone to go back on his word, destroying one of his strongest political assets—a reputation for utter integrity and honesty.
Note that Sanders said he would endorse Hillary if she won; he did not specify how much he would engage in campaigning for her. If he endorsed and then totally withdrew from active support, that would essentially fulfill his pledge. Sanders has said clearly that his level of help will depend on the degree to which Hillary backs, and the Party platform incorporates, the key features of his program, such as breaking up the Wall Street behemoths and promoting Medicare-for-all. To know what Sanders might do, we have to look toward how these stipulations of his are fulfilled (and how much will be enough).
Those Democrats and pundits who say that Bernie should drop out of the race and announce full support for Hillary now to ensure Party unity for the election ahead, don’t have the measure of the man. They don’t realize the degree to which his campaign departs from the standard. In the preponderance of national elections, the candidate is aiming for the prize of office. Here Bernie is aiming to advance a democratic socialist cause that has been a deep lifetime commitment, not to cop a personal political trophy. If he is blocked in promoting his beliefs through the Party, he will look for a different way. After the election, initiating a new party would be both ethical and potentially have a large impact on this country
An article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times reveals the media’s pathetic blindness to who this dissenting political creature is. Bruni underplays the ongoing manipulation by the Democratic Party to bolster Hillary’s establishment run. Therefore, he paints Sanders as a sore loser who wants to “neuter the victor.” Bernie Sanders, the epitome of idealism in politics, is cast as someone who exemplifies, “the elevation of individualism far above common purpose.” Why, oh, why doesn’t Bernie admit Hillary won and fall in line behind her for the benefit of the Party?
Even now, the pundits don’t get it that Bernie represents loyalty to values rather to party. Eventually, he may have to concede the primary, but this is someone who will never concede his ideas and stop working to realize them. Until our mainstream cognoscenti do get it, they won’t be able to make sense of the 2016 Democratic primary and report it accurately to their audiences.