Simon Williamson

Capped Democrats do better

2016-03-16 07:30

Simon Williamson

Bernie Sanders' win in Michigan was supposed to propel him to victory in all the states left to go, but it might be time to look at what candidate is the actual best representative of the Democratic Party, if tonight's results in Illinois and Ohio are anything to go by.

While it is an obvious truth that forward-thinking progressives do better in elections than middle-of-the-road Democrats of yore - think Obama - there does seems to be a cap for just how progressive Democrats are. Both Obama and Clinton capped where their progressiveness would end, and, importantly, neither fought back on the issue that Bernie Sanders is basically running on: the amount of money in politics.

Whenever Hillary Clinton's supporters call Bernie a one-issue candidate because he yaks on about Wall Street all the time, they are closing out what is actually a massive issue.

"Wall Street" isn't actually exclusive to Wall Street when it comes to the electoral symptoms. The presence of money in American politics is... well it is present like Donald Trump in a room full of Jeb Bushes. It can't be ignored. It governs what candidates can do. It means that very few can afford to run without appeasing the wealthy (yes, Democrats too!), or sating big business, or lobby groups (armed with the dollars of big business), or pet causes of rich people. While Obama and Clinton have both pitter-pattered about money in politics, they have both benefited hugely from it. While Obama, like Sanders, raised a lot of small donations, he was also a beneficiary of corporate America in the way Sanders is not.

But not enough people give a shit. That may be for many reasons. A lot of people may not know about the presence of dollars in politics. Many more might have other issues they regard as more important, that they believe Clinton can deliver on more effectively. Many might see her as a continuation of a presidency that they have supported. Maybe they believe in her foreign policy. All of these are perfectly reasonable reasons to support a candidate. And, from the look of things, there is a critical mass of people eligible to vote in the Democratic primary who agree with her.

This is the way politics works. Candidates and supporters love to whine about how people misunderstand or are stupid or voted incorrectly or the other candidate lied or whatever. But the simple matter is that as a candidate, it is your job to go and win the argument with people who may not be predisposed to voting along with you. Sanders didn't manage that in any southern state except Oklahoma. Clinton absolutely killed him in the rest of them - all except one after tonight - and those voters are as much Democrats as voters in the north - this "she only wins states that aren't competitive in the general" is such massive nonsense, particularly when your party names itself "Democratic".

Florida swings like a horny resident of Johannesburg's northern suburbs. Logically, Georgia is not that far off being a swing state, and Virginia fell into the presidential blue column over the course of two election cycles. Obama carried North Carolina in 2008, and lost it by less than two points in 2012. Democrats currently hold a congressional seat in very unfriendly territory in north Florida. Good performances in the South are important, and Sanders did not manage to tap into the political conversation relevant to these voters, many of whom are very conservative.

The Democratic Party is not the liberal bastion of the left, like left-of-center European parties, for example. It is philosophically bent toward the power of government, indeed, but things like gay marriage and abortion and high(er) taxes to pay for social spending and welfare actually don't sit super well with all of its supporters. Social Security, national security, labour law, jobs, management of the economy: this is where the party is united. Philosophically, Sanders did not penetrate these Democrats to the degree he needed, and they are as important as liberal ones, and stronger in number than media coverage would suggest.  

Primary results would suggest Democrats believe Hillary Clinton is this candidate. Although many would like to see the "political revolution" Sanders is talking about, they are smaller in number than those who are sympathetic to Clinton's more traditional ideas, and undertaking within a system that Sanders et al believe is flawed.

It might be time for optimistic Sanders Democrats to let it go, and try again next time. The ingredients are there, but there isn't enough to bake the cake. There is a Sanders-like coalition within the Democratic Party to be built, but this presidential cycle is not where it is going to achieve its final result. There is a lot of potential before 2020, and the Sanders-inspired movement would be foolish not to continue the high-profile work that this election campaign has brought, in particular by pressuring the Democratic Party. 

- Simon Williamson is a former journalist for News24 and Daily Maverick. He is now studying his Masters in Political Science at the University of Georgia, and worked a Democratic Senate race in 2014. He tweets whenever he is in a bad mood at @simonwillo.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    bernie sanders  |  hillary clinton  |  us elections 2016
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