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[Publisher's Note]

The Sanders Virus


“What’s almost never discussed by the ‘experts’ on television is the political parties’ real raison d’être and their obsession with maintaining their grip on power and with unabashed cronyism.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on March 2, 2020. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

On the eve of Super Tuesday—the day of fourteen primary elections that are crucial to the Democratic presidential campaign—the so-called party of the people finds itself torn between antithetical interests. Under normal circumstances, such internal disputes could be explained by fairly simple analyses: conflicts between political tendencies; rivalries between dynasties; personality differences among the principal candidates; etc. In a time of national crisis—the unthinkable continuation of the Trump Administration—you might think that the party’s sages and seasoned veterans would arrange to form a united front with a single goal: defeating the common enemy.

However, the surviving candidates are currently battling one another tooth and nail, so furiously that one could wonder if they really have the thuggish president in their sights, or if the true stakes of the struggle are hidden behind a mirage that serves to further confuse an electorate already disoriented by the daily reality show that is the Trump White House.

The harsh insults hurled on February 19 during the debate in Las Vegas—mostly targeting Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg, but also in some remarkable exchanges between Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar—contradicted the slogans about unity repeated for form’s sake by all the candidates. “What unites us is so much bigger than what divides us,” pleaded Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota. On the other hand, “We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and one candidate who wants to buy this party out,” Buttigieg declared. For his part, Bloomberg called Sanders’s economic program “communism.” Elizabeth Warren didn’t spare Bloomberg: “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: A billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

In spite of the noble sentiments expressed by Klobuchar, the reality of the Democratic Party is closer to the viewpoints expressed by Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and Warren, all of them engaged in a frantic effort to prevent Sanders from emerging victorious, and all in pursuit of a few thousand votes that would allow them to hang on. Of course, raw ambition carries enormous weight in their calculations: once someone is bitten and the dream of becoming president takes hold, getting free of it is difficult. Power, to say nothing of the adulation of crowds, is a narcotic in its effects upon political natures.

Nevertheless, I think it’s misguided to give too much credence to the existence of an ideological fissure between the Democratic candidates—left and right, socialist and capitalist, free-market or interventionist. What’s almost never discussed by the “experts” on television is the political parties’ real raison d’être and their obsession with maintaining their grip on power and with unabashed cronyism.

To help us understand the contradictory rhetoric and behavior of the Democratic and Republican parties, let’s consult a great historian of American politics, the too-little-known Walter Karp. For Karp, the most serious mistake is to suppose “that the overriding motive of a political party . . . is to win election victories” or “to construct a victorious majority.” In his masterpiece, Indispensable Enemies, Karp provides innumerable examples in which one of the two major parties, having always been in the minority in one state or another, makes no effort to improve its standing in the face of the majority opposition. In extreme cases, “some local party organization or other will try to defeat its own candidate,” sometimes in complicity with the opposition party. Why do that? Because the internal control of the party remains fundamental, more so than “victory” at the polls. Karp cites the example of Senator Boies Penrose, the boss of the Pennsylvania Republican political machine during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Penrose, like many other leaders of the time, found himself confronted with the powerful movement for progressive reform that was dominant in those days. Preferring candidates faithful to his interests and to those of his allies—particularly the interests that involved clientelism and the disbursement of public funds—Penrose refused to put up a candidate closer to the popular will because that type of politician would try to snatch away Penrose’s power. Accused by a militant Republican reformer of ruining the party, Penrose replied, “Yes, but I’ll preside over the ruins.”

Let us be clear: in 2016, a large number of Democratic Party bigwigs preferred losing with Hillary Clinton to winning with Sanders. Take a look at the polls taken in the beginning of June 2016, at the moment when Sanders was on the point of yielding to Clinton: on average, they showed Clinton almost two points ahead of Trump in the general election and Sanders ahead by around ten points. Different factors were at play, but one thing is irrefutable: Sanders defeated Clinton in the primaries that were held in Wisconsin and Michigan, which later proved essential to Trump’s victory. He took those states with the support of numerous voters who usually supported Democrats, but had been hit hard by the free-trade agreements President Bill Clinton enacted.

You have to read Indispensable Enemies to appreciate how cynical professional politicians are. In 1972, in the midst of a national revolt against the Vietnam War, former Texas governor John Connally organized the movement “Democrats for Nixon,” whose goal was to defeat the antiwar and reformist Democratic candidate George McGovern, while at the same time the AFL-CIO, the large federation of unions with strong ties to the Democratic Party, declared its neutrality. If, against all probability, Bernie Sanders manages to get himself nominated by a party that considers him a virus—well, I won’t say that an organization called “Democrats for Trump” will spring up. But you’ll surely find, under other well-financed banners, “Democrats Against Sanders.”

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