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There is unquestionably major worry on the party’s traditional center-left about a Sanders general election candidacy: both about how he’d wear in a general election himself and how he’d effect congressional races outside blue states and major urban areas. Set aside whether you agree with that analysis or fear. It’s a reality regardless.
Then within the Sanders camp and his most vocal supporters the Bernie or Nothing mood is intensifying. To be clear, Sanders hasn’t said this. Few campaign officials or surrogates have said this explicitly. But it’s growing among his most prominent activist supporters – not just the Bernie or Bust mantra but the kind of totalizing and extreme attacks against his rivals, even ones like Warren who are pretty close to him on core policy issues. This has intensified – perhaps logically perhaps paradoxically – as the likelihood of Sanders’ nomination has increased.
This is an ominous reality for anyone who is focused on defeating Donald Trump since any nominee will require a unified and energized Democratic party.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this myself in recent weeks. Most of the people who I know who support Sanders seem motivated above all else by a vision of solidarity and building a society that isn’t defined by the fetters of reflexive market orthodoxy at every turn. But there is a minority, perhaps a small minority but among the most vocal of his supporters, who are not only in this Bernie or Nothing mode but are focused on destroying whoever they perceive as standing in his way at a given moment.
This is only amplified by the hyperactive and largely anonymous world of Twitter and other online platforms.
So why is this so?
I don’t think it comes directly from Sanders but neither do I think it’s an accident that it swarms around him. There is a long and recurrent tradition on the sectarian left that holds that the real enemies are not conservative parties of government, or the right or reaction but rather liberals. For the left to succeed liberalism must be destroyed and gotten out of the way. Perhaps the center-left is simply a stalking horse for the right, the second side of the same coin that keeps the system in power. Or perhaps they are too feeble and accommodating. But that is the basic vision. And again, it goes back more than a century in American politics and has analogues across Europe and other parts of the world.
Needless to say, the results of this theory in live experiments have quite dismal. But that doesn’t seem to matter.
Many have noted that ‘socialism’ is less an ideology for Sanders than a brand. Look at his voting record in the Congress and it’s little different from dozens of other left-liberal or even just liberal members. His real practice isn’t nearly as left as some of his supporters claim or his adversaries fear. As he himself often says, he calls it “democratic socialism” but really it’s mostly traditional labor-liberal New Dealism.
So that part of Sanders is pretty substantially different from the guy who was running with or for various fringe third parties in Vermont several decades ago. But the political gestalt, the political posture of the sectarian left hasn’t changed nearly as much. You see it in seemingly symbolic things like his continued refusal to join the party he professes to want to lead. That is what attracts these wrecking voices to his banner and makes him unwilling or uninterested in denouncing or trying to rein in their excesses.
You can actually see this contrast most with Warren. Their policy list is pretty similar. But backing Warren makes no requirement that you recant or apologize for supporting Obama or Clinton or any of the rest of the continuity of recent decades of the Democratic party. Her policies are a significant departure. But it’s just presented as a next step. The premise in the milieu around Sanders is that the stuff that happened before – Clinton, Obama, whoever else – was wrong. And you kind of need to admit that it was wrong. That may be true or not. But it’s a difficult sell to the mass of the Democratic party when Obama remains overwhelmingly popular.
If Sanders is not the nominee, the problems for unifying the party around its nominee speak for themselves. But I’m not sure it’s much less if he is the nominee. I’ve long thought that if Sanders is the nominee he will mount a campaign that is both against Trump but also, if perhaps to a lesser degree, against the institutional and regular Democratic party itself. And that’s basically poison if Sanders wants to unify around him all the people who identify with the party of Obama or Pelosi or Clinton.