The mythology remains. Bernie Sanders is unelectable. Bernie Sanders is far left. In the end, center-right Democrats are even vowing to do all they can to sink him, to destroy him. What is going on? Why is this happening? Well. It helps to know the recent history of the Democratic Party. We need to understand where this venom is coming from. The dynamic is not that strange to students of recent history. In truth, the young Turks have become the old guard. And we have a new set of young Turks challenging the establishment.
The center-right conservative wing of the Democratic Party became ascendant in the 1980s after several generations of progressive politics and social services promised. That wing succeeded under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These started with a man of wealth running for the presidency well before the age of modern-day primaries. His conservative counterparts fought against him as hard and fast as their modern counterparts fight the rise of a progressive center-left coalition.
FDR was called all kinds of names by the elites of his age. Social Security was something out of the Communist Manifesto! And yes, he was also unelectable, far left and a red. He scared the conservative right of his era. Once elected, there was an actual plot, led by the industrialist of his age, to enact a coup. The coup never happened, and the people behind it were never prosecuted. Like Richard Nixon’s pardon decades later, this was about preserving the social order. Like always, people of means and connections walked away from what could have been construed as treason.
For fifty years the country ran with a framework of progressive policies. If FDR has not died in 1944, it’s a good question if his Second Bill of Rights would have become law. It was the framework for a fully working modern-day social democracy. It was not to pass…but for fifty years that social contract mostly remained, with snipping from the right. And yes, there was always a minority of conservative Democrats that groused on the edges, together with conservative Republicans. Both were busy vying their time. They knew that it was their ally.
After Watergate Democrats swept, but like 2008 they did not use this to pass legislation. Nor did they try to go after the underlying corruption that was part of Watergate. They also fought some of the more progressive policies that Jimmy Carter advocated for. However, some of his were more conservative ideas. After he lost in 1980 to Ronald Reagan the ground was ready, and a new generation of conservative Democrats, mostly from the south, signed onto a very conservative manifesto at New Orleans. It was the beginning of the conservative takeover of the Democratic Party.
Some of the people who signed onto that manifesto went on to become major players in the party. This take over took form in the party platform in 1984. This is the description in the New York Times:
But a comparison of the 1976 and 1984 platforms demonstrates that many of the themes that have reverberated through debates for decades have been muffled or have disappeared. Welfare References Dropped
Most strikingly, for example, virtually all references to ‘’welfare’’ were eliminated from this week’s formal statement of Democratic goals.
The Mondale-Ferraro platform talks about ‘’the poor’’ and ‘’the hungry and homeless’’ and speaks hopefully of providing them all with ‘’the greatest opportunity for self-sufficiency.’’ But conspicuously missing are the ‘’welfare reform’’ sections that cleared the convention in 1976 and again in 1980.
In 1976, the party promised to move toward ‘’a simplified system of income maintenance, substantially financed by the Federal Government.’’
This marks the moment that the center-right young Turks took over the party. When Bill Clinton won, he promised to move away from big government. Some of his reforms were a pure political genius since they appropriated the issues of the right. Sentencing reform comes to mind. But the Democrats were remaking themselves into a corporate-friendly, regulation hating, taught on crime party.
When Clinton left office he was one of the founders of the Democratic Leadership Council. Some names were part of it as well. John Podesta is the best known , and these days he remains very active in Democratic Politics. They are also behind an effort, now decades-long, to prevent people from calling them what they are: Neoliberals.
They are also behind an effort to avoid the term as much as possible, never mind that this is an economic philosophy they agree. In short, it means fewer regulations, fewer government benefits, and the final privatization of social security and Medicare. They are more stealthy on this than Republicans, who openly disdain all governing services.
Bernie is a symbol of the resurgence of the left of center in the party. This is led by the younger set of Democrats and hangers-on. And the center-right of the party is doing its level best to prevent their ascent in American politics.
This is why they are repeating the same attacks once leveled at FDR. And why many party members attack Bernie as an outsider. He is not alone, and a younger generation of Democrats are embracing FDR-like policies. Now, again, this is not an endorsement of Bernie. It is a very short history of this. It puts into perspective the attacks. Those who once rebelled against their party elders are now facing an uprising. They are doing the best they can to defeat these young Democrats.
The forces at play mean that Democrats are in for a swing from conservative policies to more liberal, in the mid-20th century mold, policies. This is a party realignment at play. The leadership is trying to stop it, but once they were the outsiders looking in.
Now, this is hardly an endorsement of a candidate. It is an explanation of the forces at play. There were parallels in the late 19th century, as well as the rise of FDR. Some of the reasons are similar, including the extreme concentration of wealth. Of course, some are unique to our age. These include the climate, healthcare and college education.
As the early primaries occur, the fight will deepen. Especially if those unwanted rebels make their way inside the tent. The red-baiting will continue because conservatives in the Democratic Party are losing control. If there is one thing they hate is the mere idea that their time in the sun is over. Parties realign. and these fights are the most consequential and bitter in American political history. But as a new generation asserts itself, their ideas will become dominant. Politics will no longer be the same.
As to Bernie. The reason Democrats did all they could to try to sideline him in 2016 is that he mainstreamed a lot of the ideas that are percolating among the young Turks who are ready to take over. If they do not do it this term, they will keep on plugging. However, the consequences of trying to fix the process, or merely to have the impression that they are fixing the process, could give us four more years of Donald Trump. For some in the old leadership that is preferable than the rise of a vibrant center-left. It is exactly as it was in 1931 when Democrats of old argued that FDR was not electable.
While I do not endorse candidates, I understand the process at play. Who I vote for during the primaries will actually be dictated by age. In my mind, we need a maximum age to run for president, just as we have a minimum. This was a problem the founders did not have. Nor was it one they could imagine. But as of now, given current polls, the left has a good chance to get the full enchilada. This is what is scaring the Democratic National Committee, which is full of old DLC types.