Berning Down the House

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Vista, California, United States, May 22, 2016.REU
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Vista, California, United States, May 22, 2016.REUTERS/Mike Blake

When the election of 2016 is finally, mercifully over, perhaps we'll look back on the middle of May as the moment when politics began to revert to form. For months, candidates behaved in ways we've never seen before, voters became increasingly unpredictable (and un-pollable) and party establishments trembled that they no longer had the controls of their runaway trains.

But by the second week of May, things started to settle back into the old familiar patterns, and that should send a chill down our spines. Tired though the cliché may be, it still applies: Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.

To be sure, the Republican establishment failed entirely to run their own nominating process and it is unprecedented that a major party has been hijacked entirely by a demagogue who essentially parachuted in from left field. But after wiping the egg off their faces, more and more of those GOP insiders are warming to Trump. Some of us giggled at the way Chris Christie publicly humiliated himself sucking up to Trump way back in February. Turns out he simply wanted to get to the front of the line of kneeling GOP supplicants.

More importantly, mid-May brings news that according to a recent survey Republican voters are warming to Trump too. And more to the point, last week Sheldon Adelson made it clear that he will be throwing big money at the Trump campaign.

Even as the GOP was getting its house in order and falling in line, the love affair between Sanders and his supporters appears headed to a nasty custody fight with the rest of the Democratic Party. Reports from the Sanders campaign hint that he will campaign to the bitter end, and that his campaign will be more and more bitter. He is preparing to damage Hilary Clinton personally, using tactics he previewed in the run-up to the New York primary. "Bernie Sanders, Eyeing Convention, Willing to Harm Hilary Clinton in Homestretch," read the headline in the Times.

To understand Bernie's "strategy" here you need to review his political resume. There is an unwavering (some might say frozen) set of ideological commitments behind everything he has done -- or mostly said -- since he retreated from New York City to bucolic Vermont. To be clear: I'm largely sympathetic to the rhetoric but ideology isn't the point.

What has also remained steadfast has been Sanders's commitment not to engage in the messy, disappointing, and ultimately compromising world of party politics. As a member of Vermont's Liberty Union Party and then as a self-identified Socialist, Sanders has repeatedly preferred ideological purity to political pragmatism. He has never wanted to get his hands dirty with the business of how party politics actually works. After all, the first time even identified himself as a Democrat was in 2015 when he decided to run for president.

So it's a bit cheeky, isn't it, for Sanders to claim now that his campaign is about re-making the Democratic Party. He's had almost 40 years in elective office to do just that, but he has either found the Democratic Party beneath his contempt or he's been astonishingly ineffective at having any impact inside it.

In this sense, Sanders is a child of 1968. That generation has always preferred the theater of politics rather than the exercise of power, and it has grown more comfortable with symbolic gestures rather than those which might have real consequences. Remember all the people you know who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 as a "symbolic" act? Those of us still suffering from Nader 2000 PTSD remember how none of his voters wanted to own up to the consequences of that bit of symbolism.

Like so many on the left, the children of 1968 are addicted to lost causes. Unwilling -- or scared -- to do the things necessary to achieve partial victories, they pick up their marbles and retreat to their moral high ground. For the children of 1968 the good is always the enemy of the best. Nothing makes the self-righteous feel better about themselves than the martyrdom of lost causes. Now that Bernie's run for the nomination is a lost cause, he's in his comfort zone.

The kids came to Chicago in 1968 to destroy the Democratic Party, and they did a fair bit of damage. And in so doing, they helped put Richard Nixon in the White House. I don't expect a full-blown police riot in the streets of Philadelphia this summer, but as an Associated Press story reports, Sanders supporters are already gearing up for convention fights and acts of civil disobedience. Purity, not unity, is the primary goal for the Sanders backers interviewed by the AP.

Sanders -- and perhaps some of his supporters -- may well believe that it is necessary to destroy the village in order to save it. That, after all, is how revolutions start, and Bernie has been promising revolution -- not reform, not incrementalism, not two steps forward and one step back, but Revolution! - since the 1970s. Taking down Hilary Clinton might well make the Sandernistas feel good about themselves. The rest of us may well be living with President Trump.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.