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Bernie’s Kids - In but not of the Party

EDITOR’S PICK--The New Hampshire Democratic Party’s annual fundraising dinner and rally goes on steroids in presidential years. Invariably scheduled for the weekend before the presidential primary, the dinner is held in a far larger venue than is customary: The national (and global) press corps swarms in, and, above all, the Democratic presidential candidates and their supporters turn out in force. 

On Friday night, February 5, the party repaired to the Verizon Wireless Center in the heart of Manchester. The ice hockey arena featured the standard shell-out-the-bucks tables of ten festooning the floor where the ice normally sits. The presidential partisans and party faithful filled the thousands of low-dollar spectator seats: Hillary supporters on one side of the arena and the Bernie backers on the other. 

The evening held potential, then, for an ugly clash. In essence, two separate candidate rallies would be held in a venue filled with supporters of both candidates. Clinton partisans plainly feared that the Sanders kids might boo, heckle, and Lord knows what else, when Clinton spoke. Introducing her, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen adjured the crowd, saying, “I hope everyone here will be respectful of whatever choice we make” in this election. 

Then Clinton came out to give her speech and -- everything was fine. No heckling. No booing. The kids were alright. 

More than that, the event demonstrated that the divisions that have appeared in the party this year aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. More precisely, in a year when the Democrats are said to be divided by an ideological chasm, the evening showed that that chasm isn’t nearly as wide as it may appear from afar. 

Indeed, the evening’s program presented a kind of real-time, visual poll that revealed more consensus than discord. It was easy enough to see what the Bernie brigade supported: They came armed with “thundersticks,” orange plastic cylinders that they hoisted and banged together to great noise-making effect. Likewise, on the opposite side of the arena, the Hillary hordes brandished thundersticks of their own, with glowing lights at the tip, like some kind of Jedi lightsaber which they, too, raised and waved around when sufficiently thrilled by a speaker’s comment. 

The response to Sanders’s speech was a revelation. Even as the Bernie kids erupted in a thunderstick-banging cacophony while Sanders emphatically delivered one progressive pledge after another, so, too, did the Hillary backers raise theirs and wave them about as Bernie unveiled his platform. Raise the minimum wage to $15, Sanders said. Up went the lightsabers (though Clinton’s preferred level is $12.) Lift the cap on the payroll tax to increase Social Security benefits, he bellowed. Lightsabers up! Health coverage is a right not a privilege -- lightsabers galore! Voted against the Iraq War resolution: lightsaber madness! 

To be sure, Sanders has modified his stump speech to make clear he’s not the all-or-nothing guy depicted by the Clinton campaign. “The Affordable Care Act has done extraordinarily good things,” he said, before vowing to go beyond the ACA with Medicare for all. Speaking before a crowd that included the entire state Democratic establishment, he was clearly not at his most confrontational. Nonetheless, when he spelled out positions that were at odds with Clinton’s -- not pointing out they were at odds, but before a crowd that knew they were -- the Clinton backers responded rapturously to most of them. 

One prominent former party leader (who asked his name not be used because he’s a sitting judge) explained the enthusiasm to me this way on his way into the arena: “Bernie says all the right things. His program appeals to me very much, appeals to most of us. But I’m voting for Hillary. If Bernie wins [the nomination], he’ll get clobbered in November.” 

The judge’s response is not a surprising, but helps illuminate what the entire evening made clear: While there are real divisions among Democrats this year, they are not chiefly ideological or programmatic. Taken by themselves, Sanders’s positions, even those that are not Hillary’s -- the $15 wage, free tuition, lifting the cap to increase Social Security payments -- are widely popular across Democratic ranks. 

To the extent that there is a division on ideology, it probably comes when Sanders’s proposals are considered in aggregate, which means that the total amount of taxing and spending that his program would entail is indeed a likely point of division. To that extent, some of his Democratic opponents fit the description that political scientists have given the American people more generally: Philosophically conservative (or in this case, centrist), programmatically liberal. 

There was one other kind of division on display in the arena on Friday night: The Sanderistas are not, or not yet, party people. This distinction began at the top: While both candidates opened their remarks by acknowledging their institutional supporters (unions, progressive groups, and so on), Hillary also went on to give shout-outs to various New Hampshire Democratic leaders and party activists. Sanders did none of that. 

That’s partly because the overwhelming majority of New Hampshire party leaders and activists are backing Clinton, and because the Clintons have deep relationships in New Hampshire dating back to 1992. But it’s also because Sanders has not been a party guy at the state level, though he is functionally that in Congress.   

As with the candidates, so with their supporters: Some of the older Bernie backers have certainly been party people, and cheered when notable state party workers and local elected officials were acknowledged (which is a required rite at any state party’s annual do). Most of Bernie’s backers, however, had no idea who those people were, and the kids who’d come from out of state to precinct walk for the final weekend were thoroughly and understandably uninterested. 

(They reminded me of an 18-year-old staffer on Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 insurgent presidential campaign – me -- who sat through such events in several states with an equivalent lack of interest in the roll call of local notables.) 

But in talking with a group of students from Hartwick College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, who’d crossed the Adirondacks to walk for Bernie and who’d been among the loudest noise-makers during Sanders’s talk that night (and who sat respectfully, if not enthusiastically through Clinton’s), I got the clear impression that, like the kids who’d once volunteered for McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, and George McGovern, they’d stick around, reshape, and take over the Democratic Party in years to come. 

The three students -- all political science majors -- understood that the Sanders “revolution” was many years in the making, not the product of just of one campaign, and that with or without Bernie in years to come, as one said, “we’ll be inspired to carry on his ideals.” “This is a learning experience,” said another. “We’re learning how the system works.” 

American socialists, as the great sociologist Daniel Bell once observed, failed to understand that with power came the necessity of compromise; they were, in his famous phrase, “in but not of the world.” Bernie’s kids are in but not of the party, in but not of the system -- which, in American politics, means they’re on track to somewhat alter and eventually take over both the party and the system, too. 

(Harold Meyerson is the executive editor of The American Prospect ... where this piece originated.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.