Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Attacks on Sanders Are Almost All Scurrilous

by Neil H. Buchanan

This week has seen increased discussion of intensifying conflict between Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party's establishment, including a prominently placed New York Times article describing a group of "Stop Sanders" Democrats who are "agonizing" over what to do about him.

This is, of course, the opposite of news.  The only question is whether the anti-Sanders forces (which means basically everyone with any power in the party, including all of the big and medium-sized donors) will decide that they hate Sanders so much that they will tear him down at all costs, up to and including tacitly endorsing Donald Trump's reelection.

To be clear, I am not offering here a now-standard "You guys are helping to reelect Trump!" attack on the people I disagree with -- at least not yet.  Among other things, as I have made clear again and again, I am emphatically not a Sanders fan.  I do like most of his policy positions, but so much of the party has coalesced around those positions -- definitely thanks to Sanders's influence -- that one can easily find a candidate who is as good as or better than Sanders on policy.

I am thus very much in favor of standard in-fighting in a nominating campaign.  That is what primary campaigns are all about, and everyone who writes columns at this point talking about the "divided Dems" is simply on journalistic/pundit autopilot.

Therefore, if the Stop Sanders people want to make a reasoned case against Sanders, they should do so.  I obviously have my own thought process that has caused me to continue to reject him as the best choice for a nominee, but at this point my time seems better spent making the case against the anti-Sanders people (making me a Stop-Stop Sanders Democrat?), including my recent column puzzling over the establishment's love affair with Joe Biden.

Here, I want to pursue two related thoughts.  First, it is necessary to continue to push back against the demonization of Sanders.  Second, I will agree that there is one uniquely worrying problem lurking in the democratic socialist non-Democrat's campaign, and that is the possibility that he will respond to losing -- no matter the circumstances -- by claiming that the election was rigged.

As I argued in a column last week, the anti-Sanders people have recently become simply unhinged.  They have taken their attacks to an absurd extreme, with several prominent pundits now pushing the line that Sanders is "the Trump of the left."  The most shameless and baseless of those attacks was by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, whose column ran under a headline using that exact phrase to describe Sanders.

How is Bernie like The Donald?  Well, they are apparently both humorless (even though Sanders has made many appearances on late-night comedy shows, revealing his funny and even self-effacing side).  OK, then it must be because they are both out to blame villains.

Of course, Trump's villains are people with little or no power, such as immigrants, people of color, women (who, despite progress, still lack the power to control their lives in ways that men can), and all of the human beings whose very presence threatens Trump's throwback version of white male supremacy. Sanders's villains, meanwhile, have actually been villainous, with banks and large corporations using their power to weaken workers's rights (stealing wages, bashing unions), to use the financial system to exploit people, to destroy the environment, and on and on.

But hey, both Trump and Sanders are "divisive," I guess, because Sanders is not willing to say that Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz are great guys whose billions should never be touched.  Bad boy, Bernie!

Milbank (who helpfully disclosed at the end of his column that his wife is working for one among the legion of unknown Democratic presidential candidates who wants to be the centrists' choice) even added that Sanders is the Trump of the left because both are "nostalgic for the past."

Again, what kind of weird false equivalence is this?  Trump's nostalgia is for the fake 1950's version of American greatness, where women were forced to shut up and accept second-class status, nonwhite people knew their place, and people from "three Mexican countries" were not streaming across our border.

Sanders, meanwhile, talks about a time when it was possible for people to work hard, play by the rules, and actually live a middle class life.  Even those who are currently able to achieve middle class status know that bad news about a family member's health can change everything.  College?  Increasingly out of reach.  Sanders says that we should try to make the old reality possible again.  So nostalgic!

This is all, in other words, more than a bit much.  Given that Sanders's views on policy have become so utterly mainstream -- and especially, as Paul Krugman recently pointed out, given that the "more liberal" Democratic Party of the Sanders era "is, if anything, to the right of the general public on major policy issues" -- it is a bit of a puzzle as to why the triangulating holdovers from the Bill Clinton era are in such a snit over Sanders.

The answer, I suspect, is that they believe deep down that they can control anyone else who might win the nomination and become president.  When Bill Clinton himself became president, after all, he was talking excitedly about a big infrastructure spending bill, only to then hire Robert Rubin from Goldman Sachs and immediately become a born-again fiscal hawk.  Ditto Barack Obama and the tragic "pivot" to austerity in 2010.

Most Democrats are now talking about Medicare-for-All, but the establishment types remember that they succeeded in bullying Obama and enough members of Congress to drop the Public Option before passing the Affordable Care Act.  The feeling among party leaders, I think, is that Joe Biden is absolutely one of them, but the others can all be brought to heel.  Bernie, however, will give them hell.

I am not saying that they are right.  It could be that the other Democrats have the good sense to tell the guardians of the conventional wisdom that their time is over, and if they want to talk about the virtues of compromise, then a public option is the compromise that will be on offer.

But it is difficult to come up with any other explanation as to why even the establishment types and their mouthpieces who are on most issues truly liberal (including not just Milbank but the other smart people whom I mentioned in my column last week, including E.J. Dionne and David Leonhardt) are so willing to malign Sanders.

Yes, there is the supposition that Sanders will scare people with the socialist label, but if the party were worried about electability, it would be trying to mainstream the word socialism rather than feed the red-baiting monster.  After all, even if Sanders is not the nominee, Republicans will claim that the nominee is actually also a socialist.  Democrats do themselves no favor in the electability department by reinforcing people's ignorance (on that or any other matter).

And as I noted at the beginning of this column, the Stop Sanders types run the danger of actually doing what they claim others are doing: handing the presidency to Donald Trump.  Over-the-top attacks on Sanders threaten not only to stick to him if he nonetheless wins the nomination, but they will also rightly infuriate his supporters (and non-supporters like me) if he loses.

Perhaps the rule should be: Attack your opponent all you want, but don't say something that will make it impossible to credibly take his side in the general election.  People who are saying that Sanders is "the Trump of the left" are not going to be well positioned to say, "Well, I didn't really mean that they're the same."

Here, however, is where I have to give the so-called moderates a tiny bit of slack, because there is one way in which we can see a Trump-ish tendency among Sanders and his intense supporters.  As Post columnist Paul Waldman points out, losing fair and square is unthinkable in Sanders Land:
"Sanders voters will once again be harder to bring into the fold than those of other losing candidates, because a big part of the reason they (at least many of them) joined his campaign is because they believe that the party is corrupt and that any outcome other than their candidate winning the nomination is proof of that corruption and necessarily illegitimate."
To be clear, the Sanders people have plenty of reason to believe that the party's internal apparatus truly is corrupt in many ways.  I personally do not believe that there is anything wrong or unusual about national and state party types taking sides in primaries and caucuses -- and I think it is comically wrong to suggest that Donna Brazile did something horribly wrong in sharing what amounted to anodyne and predictable debate questions with her friends in Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign -- but there is now incontrovertible evidence that the party's establishment is out to stop Bernie, including everything that I described above and in last week's column.

The most that this establishment opposition to Sanders could reasonably mean, however, is that Sanders’s people should be vigilant and make sure to oversee the process every step of the way.  But I fear that Waldman is right, that Sanders and his supporters will believe that losing is per se proof of corruption, since they seem incapable of believing that Sanders could lose for any other reason.

That is why, to use one very small but personal example, I have received angry emails from Sanders supporters accusing me of being paid off by the Clinton Foundation.  In their view, there could be no other explanation for my failing to support their guy.  There are no more "reasonable people can disagree" moments, even among fellow people on the left.  Disagreeing is, in their eyes, proof positive of bad faith or worse.

And that is truly scary, because it is the same type of self-righteous paranoia that worries me so much about Trump's likely response to losing next year.  Trump -- and, it is becoming ever more clear, his party -- will say in 2020 that the elections were unfair simply by virtue of the fact that he (and they) lost.  Democrats, they believe, are conniving and soulless cheats, so their success at the polls will only serve to prove how great they are at cheating.

We should not leave aside the utter hypocrisy from a party that plumbs the depths of cheating in elections on a daily basis, of course, because Republicans are at their most shameless when they talk about how much they value people's right to vote.  Whatever else one can say about Sanders and his supporters, we at least know that they are not suppressing votes, gerrymandering, and engaged in political dirty tricks.  Saying that Sanders is like Trump in one way should not be read to say that he is also a hypocrite.

Even so, it is not yet (I hope) too late to maintain the naive hope that Democrats -- all Democrats --  will be willing to accept the results of a flawed process, even a flawed process that (I sincerely believe) is too open to manipulation by the party's establishment.  If there is anything left to the notion that elections matter, it has to include the idea that people can accept losing, at least so long as there are ways to fight it out again in reasonably fair elections in the future.

Republicans have already given up on that notion.  Democrats -- and independent democratic socialists who want to represent Democrats -- must never do so.