1. If your time frame is short, Bernie’s showing in Iowa – a “virtual tie” to use his words – wasn’t a political earthquake. He was, after all, only 3 to 5 percent behind Hillary in the week before the caucus, depending on the poll, and momentum was running in his favor. So when MSNBC reported that he was neck in neck with Hillary in the vote count, I wasn’t blown out of my chair.
But if you stretch out the time frame from a week to a year ago when Bernie announced his candidacy, the results are undeniably a big quake on the Richter scale of American politics. Next to no one thought that he would fight Hillary to a draw in Iowa and go into New Hampshire with a sizable lead in the polls.
The conventional wisdom was that an outsider, independent, democratic socialist, and messenger who takes aim at the billionaire class, Wall Street, and “establishment politics and economics,” has about as much chance of winning the presidential nomination as the proverbial snowball has in hell.
Especially when his opponent is Hillary Clinton. She is anything but an outsider. And whether you like her or not, she is a very formidable candidate. In fact, nearly everyone expected that her journey to the nomination would be as close to a coronation as our country’s anti-monarchist traditions allow.
Few imagined that she would be in a dogfight, and especially against Bernie Sanders. But here we are six months later and Clinton advisers are sleep-deprived after winning a nail-biter in Iowa and scrambling the last week to prevent a double-digit loss in New Hampshire tomorrow.
What was the miscalculation that so many political pundits, not to mention the Clinton campaign, made with respect to the potency of the Sanders presidential run? It was a failure to understand that the combination of a billionaire class offensive, an ascendant right wing, and a global capitalist economy undergoing profound changes in its structure and dynamics over the past three decades, constituted a powerful disorganizing, disruptive, and destabilizing force on people’s lives.
Old and familiar signposts that gave people a sense of security, place, status, continuity and meaning unraveled. Constancy gave way to uncertainty. The future became a roll of the dice. And popular thinking changed in uneven, disparate, and contradictory ways.
On the one hand, millions moved to the right, facilitated by the wide and well-funded infrastructure of the political right. Needless to say, they didn’t challenge the dominant capitalist ideology.
But, on the other hand, millions also gravitated to the left and challenged the prevailing ideological orthodoxy, although a progressive and left infrastructure anywhere on the scale of that of the right didn’t exist to assist them.
2. The politics of centrism, of occupying the majoritarian middle, didn’t disappear by any means, but it no longer had its old adhesive grip on the vast majority of the American people.
Bernie Sanders, to his credit, not only sensed this shift in mood; he went one step further. He staked his presidential bid on articulating it, on giving it progressive expression.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, took the road most traveled – the road of political moderation and incrementalism – in the early going of her campaign, but now sensing the changing dynamics of the primaries she is adjusting her message. “Progressive,” she has said repeatedly since arriving in New Hampshire, is part of her resume as well. Some will surely and vigorously contest that claim, but it’s not the worst thing that could happen. In fact, it should be welcomed. Isn’t it a good thing that the Democratic presidential primaries are turning on which candidate has the most progressive credentials and program?
Whether this signifies the beginning of a period of political realignment in the Democratic Party is another matter. Only time will tell. But at least for now, it can be said that the re-positioning of the Democratic Party to the center-right that was the handiwork of a section of the Democratic leadership in the late 1980s and 1990s has been pushed into the shadows. The policies of financialization, welfare reform, mass incarceration, and fiscal austerity, ushered in during the Bill Clinton presidency, are in retreat and have yielded center stage to progressive politics.
3. Although Hillary’s run so far has been bumpier than she expected, it is likely to become a bit smoother when the primary season turns to the South. There her advantages, including voter demographics, will help her. In these states, the traditional constituencies – labor, people of color and women – will figure more prominently in the outcome. And my guess is they and their leaders – for example, Reps. James E. Clyburn, D-SC, John Conyers, D-Mich., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, AFSCME President Lee Saunders – to name a few – will throw their support to Hillary with whom they have a comfort level, shared experience, and a history, even if they like many features of Bernie’s political program.
Overcoming this advantage of Hillary’s will be a considerable challenge for Bernie. And simply talking about the billionaire class and a political revolution won’t do it. He will have to tell his own story and communicate an evocative vision as well as show a fluency in the politics and language of inequality and democratic rights.
4. One has to wonder if the 20-year right-wing attack on Hillary might have found its way into the attitudes of progressive and left people toward her. No one, except for President Obama, has been the target of the right-wing attack machine more than she. I mention this because some of the criticism – especially on Facebook and other social media – is so over the top, so lacking in balance, so sexist and stereotyped, and so disconnected to the overriding strategic challenge of defeating right-wing extremism.
It is not unusual to hear that Hillary is barely better than Trump, Cruz and the other lunatics on the Republican side. Really? She isn’t an angel, for sure, but to make such a sweeping claim fails to appreciate that the differences between her and her counterparts on the right are differences of kind – not degrees or shades – especially at the level of democracy and democratic rights.
Were she to become the next president, she would for sure govern from the center, but the exact nature of her governance would depend not only on her and her advisers’ political disposition at any given moment, but also on the size of her victory, the composition of the Congress, and the ability of the people’s movement that supports her to sustain its level of organization and activity in the post election period.
5. To be fair, the (official and unofficial) attack dogs of the Clinton campaign should be reined in as well. Bill Clinton, according to the New York Times, is doing a reprise of his negative role in the 2008 primary campaign. It served no useful purpose then and it won’t now. Somebody needs to put a muzzle on him. Short of that, send him on a nine month journey to a distant island in the Pacific and take away his phone and Internet privileges.
This article originally appeared at Sam Webb’s blog, SamWebb.org.