Politics & Policy

Can the Democrats Unify?

Sanders supporters at a rally in Santa Monica, Calif. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)
As Hillary looks toward November, Bernie’s socialist troops are digging in.

As Hillary Clinton solidifies her grasp on the Democratic presidential nomination, prominent Democrats have begun overtures to Bernie Sanders and his fervent supporters. Thus far, the establishment attempt to consolidate the Democratic coalition has been cautious, in part because of a fear of alienating the Sanders campaign. But following Hillary’s victory in California and the Associated Press’s labeling her as the presumptive nominee, one can expect the party to make unification a top priority.

How realistic is unification? If one views the 2016 primary as just another episode in electoral politics, where the respective candidates offered facially competing but substantively similar ideologies, then it would follow that the party is well equipped to turn support for Sanders into support for Clinton. Integration would be impending, as it has been after the conclusion of recent primary campaigns. But a closer look at the reddish discourse propelling the socialist’s rise reveals a schism on the left that will prove vexing to Democratic elites for years to come.

Socialist intellectuals have historically been little more than an annoyance to the manufacturers of liberal Democratic ideology. But Sanders’s campaign has emboldened them. Since the primary has begun, young socialists, with more power and a more prominent champion than they’ve ever had before, have been relentlessly critical of established liberals. In turn, these liberals exercise their political clout to preserve their control over the leftist consensus, while the socialists accuse the liberals of hiding behind civility in order to ensure the sanctity of their positions in the Democratic platform.

Modern socialists voice their discontent in newer media such as Jacobin, a self-described “leading voice of the American left.” (The magazine’s take on the ongoing crisis in Venezuela: It’s the capitalists’ fault, somehow.) Or on The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald’s website dedicated to “fearless, adversarial journalism.” Or on Twitter, where anonymous accounts with large followings join together with intellectuals from the aforementioned websites to form a highly idiosyncratic contingent of political gadflies. Socialists are right at home online, where an aversion to civility allows them to level scathing rejoinders at the liberal establishment without much blowback. In this sense, the left-wing radicals occupy a similar space for liberals as alt-righters do for conservatives.

RELATED: Clinton Beats Back Last Major Sanders Challenge, But ‘Struggle’ Will Continue

But where the alt-right delights in moral turpitude, Internet socialists are steeped in their own self-righteousness. Moreover, liberals aren’t used to being attacked by those who claim the moral high ground. The schism between socialists and liberals therefore takes on a nauseatingly moralistic tenor, as it did in the recent Twitter tilt between Neera Tanden, Joan Walsh, and Matt Bruenig. Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, and Walsh, a writer for The Nation, both support Clinton and can be safely counted among the liberal old guard. Bruenig, a Sanders supporter and a blogger for the left-wing think tank Demos, was fired from his position at Demos after its brass determined that Bruenig consistently took his online attacks too far. At issue in the dispute: Is Clinton-style welfare reform immoral? Is Bernie’s campaign silencing the voices of racial minorities? How mean is too mean on Twitter?

#share#One substantive point of disagreement between the two camps is over which groups of people get to rightfully claim victimhood. Socialists tend to claim liberals invoke the triumvirate of race, gender, and sexuality as cover to maintain their neoliberal economic consensus. Connor Kilpatrick, a writer for Jacobin, recently tweeted: “This 2010s thing where the affluent desperately want to be ‘victims’? Don’t understand it. Who the hell wants to go through life that way?” But such victim-baiting has become part and parcel of the Democratic party’s ideology. Liberals have incorporated identity politics into their basic value structure, while for Bruenig and his ilk, class reigns supreme.

Another wedge is the question of foreign policy. Over at n+1 magazine, another bastion of the socialist intelligentsia, Hillary’s “murderous certainty” is said to be unpalatable. Unless you wish to hear a hysterical tirade, don’t ask them about her relationship with Henry Kissinger. Whatever Bernie’s foreign policy is, socialists prefer it.

Liberals aren’t used to being attacked from those who claim the moral high ground.

So there is disunity on the intellectual left, both in philosophy and policy. But it is not simply confined to the media; it has manifested itself in the 2016 primary. The contest has been unusually combative, both among supporters of the two candidates and between the candidates themselves. A Politico report gives an account of the utter contempt the socialist senator seems to have for all things Democratic. It seems mutual: Though reports of chair-throwing by Bernie supporters in Nevada proved to be false, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz nevertheless called their behavior unacceptable. Meanwhile, Tuesday’s California results officially snuffed out any chance for the Sanders campaign, although he vows to keep at it. Democratic senators are currently pleading with him to stop. There sure is a lot to patch up.

The primary’s anomalous ferocity is the result of a deep conflict that threatens the party’s chance at unity. Even Hillary has proven unwilling to wear the socialist mask for political expediency; her pinkness is of a different kind. But her interest is — and always has been — the naked pursuit of power. She will continue to reach out to Bernie’s contingent in whatever way is most effective. One wonders how far she will go to try and integrate her liberal coalition: The Democratic party may well drag its platform even further left.

#related#This makes it even more of a shame that the Republican party has nominated Donald Trump. A capable conservative candidate could make the case against socialism. Socialists would be outraged as Hillary moved toward the center in an effort to win over independents in response. Leftist disunity could be exploited as Hillary suffered low turnout; a conservative consensus could be formed in all three branches of the federal government. But instead, the GOP has as its standard-bearer a populist more interested in airing his own dirty laundry — making it plausible that Hillary will be able to move her campaign leftward in an effort to placate Sanders voters while evading a serious conservative challenge. The most disturbing legacy from the Trump era could wind up being the mainstreaming of socialism into American politics.

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