The truth about the Sanders movement


The political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels recently published an illuminating discussion on this topic in The New York Times. Here’s the key paragraph that will probably have the Vermont senator’s supporters boiling: “Commentators who have been ready and willing to attribute Donald Trump’s success to anger, authoritarianism or racism rather than policy issues have taken little note of the extent to which Mr. Sanders’s support is concentrated not among liberal ideologues but among disaffected white men.”

The point is not to demonize, but, if you like, to de-angelize. Like any political movement (including the Democratic Party, which is, yes, a coalition of interest groups) “Sandersism” is an assemblage of people with a variety of motives, not all of them pretty.

Here’s a short list based on my own encounters:

1. Genuine idealists: For sure, quite a few of Mr. Sanders’s supporters dream of a better society, and for whatever reason – maybe because they’re very young – they are ready to dismiss practical arguments about why all their dreams can’t be accomplished in a day.

2. Romantics: This kind of idealism shades over into something that’s less about changing society than about the fun and ego gratification that comes with being part of The Movement. (Those of us who were students in the ’60s and early ’70s very much recognize the type.) For a while there – especially for those who didn’t understand delegate math – it felt like a wonderful joy ride: the scrappy young on the march about to overthrow the villainous old. But there’s a thin line between love and hate: When reality began to set in, all too many romantics reacted by descending into bitterness, with angry claims that they were being cheated.

3. Purists: A somewhat different strand in the movement, also familiar to those of us of a certain age, consists of people for whom political activism is less about achieving things and more about striking a personal pose. They are the pure, the unsullied, who reject the corruptions of the world and all those even slightly tainted – which means anyone who has actually gotten something done. Quite a few of Mr. Sanders’s surrogates were supporters of the Green Party’s Ralph Nader during the 2000 election; the results of that venture don’t bother them, because it was never really about results, only about affirming personal identity.

4. C.D.S. victims: Some of Mr. Sanders’s supporters are primarily Clinton-haters. They’re deep in the grip of Clinton Derangement Syndrome – they know that Hillary Clinton is corrupt and evil, because that’s what they hear all the time. They don’t realize that the reason it’s what they hear all the time is that right-wing billionaires have spent more than two decades promoting that message. Mr. Sanders has gotten a number of votes from conservative Democrats who are voting not for him, but against Mrs. Clinton, and surely there are liberal supporters who have absorbed the same message, even if they don’t watch Fox News.

5. Salon des refuses: This is a small group, but its members account for a lot of the pro-Sanders commentary. What I’m talking about here are policy intellectuals who have for whatever reason been excluded from the inner circles of the Democratic establishment, and who saw Mr. Sanders as their ticket to the big time. They typically hold heterodox views, but those views don’t have much to do with the campaign. What matters is their outsider status, which gives them an interest in backing an outsider candidate – and makes them reluctant to accept it when that candidate is no longer helping the progressive cause.

So how will this coalition of the not-always disinterested break once it’s all over? The genuine idealists will probably realize that whatever their dreams, Mr. Trump would be a nightmare. Purists and the C.D.S. victims won’t back Mrs. Clinton, but they were never going to anyway. My guess is that disgruntled policy intellectuals will, in the end, generally back her.

The real question involves the romantics. How many will give in to their bitterness? A lot may depend on Mr. Sanders – and whether he himself is one of those embittered romantics, unable to move on.


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