You have to admire Bernie Sanders’s chutzpah. For almost the entirety of his over 40-year career in politics, Sanders pointedly abstained from joining the Democratic Party. He is a ‘democratic socialist’, officially registered as an independent, and has never been elected to office as a Democrat, seeing that party as insufficiently collectivist. Sanders only affiliated himself with the Democrats last year, solely for the purpose of trying to capture the party’s presidential nomination. Now that he’s lost that battle, he will return to the Senate as an independent.
Given how Sanders has shown absolutely no loyalty to the Democratic Party – indeed, he has run against, and defeated, Democrats at the ballot box – it is the height of hypocrisy for him and his supporters to wail about the Democratic National Committee’s alleged ‘favoritism’ towards his erstwhile primary challenger, Hillary Clinton. His treatment of the Democratic Party is comparable to someone who steals a car, wrecks it, and then demands that the owner pay for the damages.
According to the Sandernistas, last week’s DNC email dump by Wikileaks reveals once again how the party machinery ‘rigged’ the nomination process on Clinton’s behalf. Reading the DNC’s internal communications, however, what’s remarkable is the party’s relative impartiality. Aside from since-ousted chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s factual claim that Sanders ‘isn’t going to be president’ and musing by party officials over whether to exploit Sanders’ atheism in the run-up to southern primaries (musings that never went anywhere), there is scant evidence to buttress the paranoid accusations of the Sanders camp.
But even if the DNC did operate like some sort of Tammany Hall operation, it would be well within its right to favour Clinton over Sanders. Political parties exist, after all, to gain political power. They do so by rewarding loyalty and punishing disloyalty. Of course, there should and can be room for divergence from the ‘party line’, otherwise nothing would ever be accomplished in a two-party system. But when someone has spent his entire career outside the Democratic Party’s tent, it is frankly bizarre for him and his supporters to expect that they be treated with unconditional deference when challenging a candidate who spent her entire career within it.
When Hillary Clinton was working for the Democratic congressional staff on the Watergate investigation, Sanders was biding his time with the far-left Liberty Union Party, a protest outfit in his new home of Vermont. When Sanders became the independent Mayor of Burlington in 1981, he defeated a Democrat to do so. Five years later, he unsuccessfully challenged the state’s first woman Democratic Governor, a foreshadowing of his race against Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee of a major party. ‘His goal was to destroy Democrats,’ the head of Burlington’s Democratic Party in the 1980’s told Politico last year. Sanders has called the Democratic Party ‘ideologically bankrupt’ and as recently as last year told the Progressive magazine, ‘I am not a Democrat because the Democratic Party does not represent, and has not for many years, the interests of my constituency, which is primarily working families, middle-class people and low-income people.’ On the day he announced his candidacy, asked if he would officially join the Democratic Party, Sanders abruptly replied, ‘No, I am an independent.’
In light of this contentious history, why should the Democrats be faulted for desiring something so quotidian as actual membership? Sanders is an entryist, an infiltrator, of which there exists a long tradition in far left politics. There are similarities in Jeremy Corbyn’s seizure of the Labour Party and Sanders’ failed attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination, though Corbyn, unlike Sanders, was at least a member of the party he hijacked.
As the clamorousness of so many of his delegates at this week’s Democratic National Convention shows, Sanders has opened up a Pandora’s box which might destroy the party’s chances of defeating Donald Trump in November. For the past year, Sanders has been riling up his supporters with accusations of Democratic Party corruption and malfeasance. He has regaled them with tales of how the system is ‘rigged’. Sanders and his acolytes, of course, could never point to any actual instances of law breaking or dirty tricks, and the fact that Clinton won nearly 4 million more votes always goes unmentioned in this narrative of ‘establishment’ exploitation.
‘This is the real world that we live in,’ Sanders said on Monday, urging his distressed supporters to back Clinton. These were unusually wise words from a political fantasist. Sanders is a democratic socialist, but the behaviour of his more fervent supporters demonstrates that they know depressingly little about the history of democratic socialism. If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s that intramural left-wing bickering on the altar of ideological purity often emboldens the true enemy, in this case, Donald Trump. Not for nothing has the Republican nominee been egging on the ‘Bernie or Bust’ movement, lamenting on Twitter how unfair the Clinton team has treated Sanders, as if he cared one whit about the Democratic Party’s nominating procedures. Witnessing their boorish behaviour in Philadelphia, I’m tempted to buy copies of Homage to Catalonia for the Bernie or Busters so that they might understand what happens when the left fights phantom villains while ignoring the real one. These people are literally behaving like the ‘useful idiots’ Lenin diagnosed the last time Russia tried to subvert Western democracy.
For decades, Sanders has claimed that there are no real differences between the two major parties, both of them being beholden to corporate interests. Whatever the merit to that contention in elections past, it is certainly not the case this year, when the GOP has selected a bona fide ethno-nationalist authoritarian and Vladimir Putin sympathiser as its nominee. Revolutions have a tendency to eat their young, and if Bernie Sanders does not get his followers into line behind Clinton, he will have no one to blame but himself.
James Kirchick is a journalist and foreign correspondent currently based in Washington