Pre-Mortem: The Sanders Legacy

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - APRIL 07: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks during the AFL-CIO
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - APRIL 07: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks during the AFL-CIO Convention at the Downtown Sheraton Philadelphia on April 7, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania primaries will be held on April 26. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Even before his New York primary blowout, Bernie Sanders faced such long odds for the Democratic nomination that pre-mortem speculation about the significance of the Sanders insurgency had begun. An early effort, by Jamelle Bouie is worth considering.

Bouie views the Sanders campaign as both similar and distinct from earlier ones by Jerry Brown in 1992, Bill Bradley in 2000 and Howard Dean in 2004, to wrest the nomination away from the "establishment" candidacies of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry, respectively. He also mentions Jesse Jackson's 1988 effort to defeat Michael Dukakis, though Jackson's campaign had a different character. George McGovern and Barack Obama also are noted, but they both captured the nomination from the presumptive favorite.

What linked these campaigns was disparagement of the Party and/or economic "establishment," and mobilizing an army of dedicated campaign workers, Obama, a hybrid in this regard, raised enormous amounts on Wall St., in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, while still having a legion of passionate volunteers.

Bouie credits Sanders for using social media to raise more than $140 million from small donors, offsetting the PAC-based funds available to mainstream candidates. But, he questions the uniqueness of other aspects of the Sanders phenomenon. For example, he dismisses the notion because Sanders considers himself a "democratic socialist" he put socialism in the political conversation for the first time since the Great Depression.

Whatever Sanders' view of an ideal society might be, and the Scandinavian ones he cites are really social democracies not democratic socialist in character -- private enterprise rules alongside a generous welfare state -- his proposals are updated New Deal/ Great Society policies plus repeal of Citizens United.

On foreign policy, he endorses Obama's "Don't do stupid shit" in more refined words. He wants to listen to the Palestinians also instead of kowtowing to Israel and AIPAC as American politicians overwhelmingly do now. Important, but hardly from Trotsky's playbook.

Bouie is technically correct about the way Sanders has operationalized the term in his campaign, but "feminism" also long disappeared from discourse in the US, from the attainment of women's suffrage in 1919 until the 1960s. It then dramatically reappeared and remains a vibrant and evolving force.

In comparing Sanders to Bradley, Brown and Dean, Bouie observes young college-educated whites were invariably the primary enthusiasts. Sanders has drawn some support from younger blacks and Latinos, and less educated white workers, but this has not offset Clinton's large advantage with older women, blacks and Latinos. Bouie believes Sanders would have had to devote a lot more time in the black communities, speaking at black churches and radio stations to offset Clinton's substantial bond with black voters.

Bouie does think, however, that there is more to the Sanders campaign, besides its incredible fundraising lessons, distinguishing it from previous insurgencies, and creating an embryo of a more left-oriented Democratic Party. He places his hope on the unprecedented youth of the Sanders base and the possibility they will model themselves after the young Goldwater activists of 1964 who stayed in the GOP for the long game, transforming it into a more right-wing party and electing Ronald Reagan sixteen years later.

Bouie makes good points in recognizing common elements in the Sanders campaign and earlier ones and suggesting young activists should get involved in their local Democratic parties and become the new establishment. But, there are problems with his analysis too. First, the young don't necessarily maintain their ideological leanings. There is some regression to the mean. The Great Recession, continuing gloomy economic opportunities for young grads, and crushing student debt have played a major role in fueling youth anger and accepting "socialism." The economic prospects for this cohort might improve, leading to support of more mainstream candidates. Many, maybe most, youthful enthusiasts of McGovern, Brown, Bradley and Dean, voted for Clinton this time. I suspect all of the insurgent candidates themselves did.

An exception might be Jesse Jackson. His 1988 platform went beyond Sanders', e.g., recognition of a Palestinian state, a WPA to rebuild infrastructure, while embracing the rest. Had the Jesse Jackson of 1984-1988 run now he might have been able to combine the class, race and youth-based hat trick. Watching him electrify the all-white Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota in Barbara Kopple's great documentary, American Dream, makes one wonder.

This raises the vexing but critical problem of replacing the anomalous Sanders? Who might be on deck in 2020 or 2024? Elizabeth Warren? She'd get Sanders' youth and Clinton's women. But, she might have problems with blacks and Latinos if, for example, she has to face Obama 2.0: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. He's a Rhodes Scholar, handsome, affable, courageous, though his Achilles heel, unless he can fudge it, is being a fiscal conservative who defended private equity funds and embraces Wall St. The longshot might be NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. Sanders-lite, with a black wife and multi-racial kids, he could displace the unpopular Andrew Cuomo as Governor in 2018 or 2022 and then take a shot.

Surprisingly absent in Bouie's analysis are the Tea Party movement's election victories which suggest party coups do not always require excessive patience. However, one can argue its road to electoral successes actually began well before the 2009 date normally cited and it was fueled by Koch et al.'s "AstroTurf" operations, not just grass-roots organizing.

Perhaps there are or will be some "socialist" equivalents of the Koch brothers who can create and fund AstroTurf organizations help to capture many state legislatures and congress so the next insurgency can win and then overcome the GOP's legislative firewall. Sanders may eventually have tens of millions left over from his campaign to seed them and perhaps his 6 million donors can be mobilized to contribute that fabled $27 annually, if their Bern afterglow remains.