The Democratic Elite Supercharges the Heckler's Veto Against Bernie Sanders

by Neil H. Buchanan
Well, that was fast.  Five days ago, Joe Biden's candidacy was dead in the water and Bernie Sanders was all but assured of the nomination, with Michael Bloomberg still out there as a possible "savior" from the commie scourge that Sanders (and, to a lesser degree, Elizabeth Warren) represents.  Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar were still possible insider alternatives.

It is rare these days that this kind of rapid, chaotic change in the news is not directly caused by Donald Trump, but this one was truly the doing of the Democratic Establishment.  They succeeded in pushing Buttigieg and Klobuchar out (with inducements that we will probably never hear about), Bloomberg dropped out this morning, and and it looks like Warren will drop out very soon.  Although Sanders will surely soldier on, the party's elite has gotten its way: Joe Biden now looks to be the nominee to beat Trump "like a drum."

I am hardly the only person to notice that Biden is actually one of the weakest presidential candidates of all time.  I actually predicted (with appropriate caveats, but I was still wrong) that Biden's weaknesses were so bad -- and so obvious -- that the party's insiders would ease him out before now and coalesce behind Buttigieg or some other mushy, manipulable protector of the status quo.  It will undeniably be easy to argue that Biden is far superior to Trump, but Barack Obama's wing man is sure to give us many cringe-inducing moments between now and November 3.

OK, so that is my take on the current state of affairs, provided for future amusement (or possibly validation) when I look back over my columns in a few months or years.  My planned substantive contribution in this column, however, is to describe how the party establishment's actions resemble the heckler's veto in pushing back against Bernie Sanders's unremarkable New Deal-style policy views -- and also in pushing back against Liz Warren's attempts to improve capitalism.  It is not a pretty story.

Wikipedia -- which is never wrong -- has a nice page on the Heckler's Veto, crediting Harry Kalven with coining the term and explaining that
"a heckler's veto occurs when the speaker's right is curtailed or restricted by the government in order to prevent a reacting party's behavior. The common example is the termination of a speech or demonstration in the interest of maintaining the public peace based on the anticipated negative reaction of someone opposed to that speech or demonstration."
One aspect of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign that represents a form of the heckler's veto but that was apparently not perpetrated or intensified by the party's elite was the belief that it was too risky to nominate a woman.  Even when Warren was at her strongest in the polls and riding a wave of positive press about her enthusiastic audiences, there was a constant drumbeat of worry -- not just from pundits but even from her most strongly feminist supporters -- about how it might take a male candidate to beat Trump.

This struck me as wrong in a number of ways, the most obvious being that it was a radical overreaction to a sample size of one -- Hillary Clinton in 2016.  The point here, however, was that the thinking went like this: Other people are not ready to elect a female president, so we should anticipate that and allow those unnamed people to change whom we nominate.

And just like the public safety rationale for canceling Klan rallies or similarly incendiary events, this thinking is not at all crazy.  Although I sincerely wanted Warren to be the nominee and then the President, if I thought that nominating her would have increased Trump's chances of winning (because she is a woman or for any other reason), I would have reluctantly supported someone else.

Again, however, my focus here is not merely on the heckler's veto but on the Democratic party's power structure engaging in its own heckling and thus vetoing the two progressive candidates.  Per Wikipedia's description, we are worried about the "reacting party's behavior."  I do understand, of course, that the party's leaders talked about Sanders as a problem because other people -- voters, especially the possibly-nonexistent swing voters -- would supposedly never vote for Sanders, but it was the elites themselves who were the relevant reacting party here.

After all, any evidence that Sanders is actually not politically toxic was summarily rejected.  The message is not that "he's a fine man with good ideas but can't win, so we reluctantly need to look elsewhere."  It is that he is so bad that "we" (the party's establishment) cannot abide him.  "We" might not even support him if the party's voters choose him as the nominee.

The keys in any nominating contest are to determine who is likely to be the best candidate and to do as little damage as possible to the eventual nominee, no matter who she or he is.  I was thus loudly disgusted when party insiders made specious claims about Warren's supposed hypocrisy and when Buttigieg and Klobuchar harassed her for nonexistent "vagueness" and wishful thinking.  The problem is that those attacks would have carried over into the general election.

When it came to Sanders, however, the establishment's response has been on a different level of freakout entirely.  Sanders and Warren advocate policies that are extremely popular, yet the party's leaders acted as if they were trying to bring Lenin back to life.  And because Sanders insists on calling himself a democratic socialist, he did increase the possibility that some voters would reject him.  Indeed, this is why I argued after the 2016 election that the immediately popular Monday morning quarterbacking ("We should have nominated Sanders, not Clinton!") made no sense, because the Republican slime machine would have made Sanders into something that he is not.

Here, we had (and to some degree still have) the possibility of nominating Sanders after a process in which his opponents had every opportunity to make the argument against him from a pure Hecklers' Veto standpoint (but no more): We all know that he's not Che Guevara, but the Republicans will make it seem that he is.  Instead, everyone but Warren ran with the word "socialist" and twisted it in a way that was both dishonest and that would carry over to the general election.

I recently called out Bloomberg for red-baiting Sanders in a televised debate, not just saying that Sanders's views were more liberal than some voters perhaps would tolerate but that Sanders is a COMMUNIST.  Similarly, not-at-all-missed former candidate Tom Steyer said that Sanders was attacking capitalism itself.

Just yesterday, former Clinton Treasury Secretary and ultimate Wall Street Democrat Robert Rubin penned an op-ed in The New York Times that included this nonsense:
"[F]or the first time in the five decades I’ve been involved in Democratic policy and politics, the fundamental structure of our market-based economic system is being seriously debated. A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of young Americans have a positive view of socialism — however amorphously defined — while their opinion of capitalism has declined.
"This concerns me: No country has succeeded economically in the postwar era without a baseline commitment to markets. Even India and China began to see serious growth only when they moved from state control toward markets (though China today is a complicated mix of the two)."
As the kids say: WTF?  (All right, the kids probably stopped saying that a decade ago, but what do I know?)  Seriously, where and how does Sanders reject "a baseline commitment to markets"?  He believes that wealth should be taxed more than it is now (which is to say, "at all").  He believes in raising the minimum wage.  He believes that the current government-regulated health care system should be regulated in a different way, and that doing so under the umbrella of a single-payer system -- not a UK-style government-run health system (which itself is successful and not a threat to capitalism) -- is the best (and cheapest) approach.

But is Sanders not constantly talking about "revolution"?  Yes, but not a violent one.  He is saying that it would be revolutionary to change the way we think about and talk about government so that taxes and spending are not per se evil.  He is saying that our democracy should become more democratic, and that peaceful expressions of the popular will can make the political establishment change.

Because they are the political establishment that does not want to change, those elites do not like what Sanders is saying.  Even so, saying that Sanders is a revolutionary and a socialist deliberately changes the public's view of him in a way that does not merely anticipate possible negative reactions by the public but that foments and incites such reactions with outright smears.

Do Germany, Denmark, and the UK not have "a baseline commitment to markets"?  Sanders has made it clear that he supports policies modeled on those countries (especially Denmark), which is not at all "socialism" in the sense that Rubin wants his readers to understand the term.  Rubin admits that the word socialism is "amorphously defined," but he then proceeds as if all definitions involve a challenge to "the fundamental structure of our market-based economic system."

And Rubin is hardly alone.  Biden's campaign has gleefully amplified the red-baiting, and they act as if Sanders's policy views are somehow anti-capitalist.  It is true that Republicans think that taxation is theft and that minimum wages are an abomination against "free" markets, but Democrats have never bought into that inanity.  But in the name of stopping Sanders, they make even the most mainstream Democratic policy views seem positively Stalinesque.

Imagine that the people warning about an audience's possibly negative reaction to a controversial speaker are the same people saying, "This speaker is dangerous, he's un-American, he's anti-capitalist, he's a radical revolutionary, and he must be stopped at all costs.  Oh look, now people are getting upset about this guy.  What a coincidence!  We have to stop him."

As I wrote last week, "the anti-Sanders people have a choice of defining themselves as being either guardians of the rule of law or protectors of the 'malefactors of great wealth' (in Theodore Roosevelt's immortal words).  Thus far, it is not looking good for the rule of law."  Their method of pursuing the latter course has involved deliberately distorting Sanders's views in order to stoke fear and loathing in the electorate.  And then they say, "Oh, Bernie's toxic.  We need to coalesce around Joe Biden, who is the only candidate who can win."

Biden might win, and Trump might -- but almost certainly will not -- accept that outcome.  But acting as if Sanders's supposed toxicity is not their own doing is the height of establishment dishonesty.  If the primaries take another surprising turn in the next few weeks, that dishonesty could doom their party, the country, and the world.  I hope avoiding having a universal health care system and fending off a slight reduction in inequality makes it all worth it.