2016-02-09 © 2016 Barnet Wagman

Misconstruing Bernie

The news media still doesn't quite understand Bernie Sanders' campaign for president.  For quite awhile, Sanders was politely dismissed as a protest candidate and treated with benign neglect.  After Iowa and New Hampshire, that no longer works, so Sander's success has been integrated into the central 'narrative' of the primary campaign: that voters are angry at Washington and have turned to 'outsiders' who are more 'genuine' than 'establishment' candidates.  This has been media's take on the Republicans for quite a while, and they've  now extended it to the Democrats.  It's neat, simple, and exactly the kind of story reporters and editors love - politics as an expression of the voters' emotions (with issues and policies as a sideline).   And it satisfies the media's compulsion for political symmetry (a subject we'll return to).

Of course this is mostly nonsense.  Both parties are having rather tumultuous primary campaigns, but they are facing very different kinds of tumult. The current states of the two parties are completely different.  To understand what's going on in a less superficial way, we need to take a little history into account, a bit more than is usually applied to politics. 

After thirty years, the conservative era may be drawing to a close.  This has left the Republican Party in an anomalous and uncomfortable position.  In many respects, the GOP has rarely had more power: they control the both branches of government in twenty-four states, both houses of Congress, and a good chunk of the judiciary.   And, although it's rarely acknowledged, over the last few decades the U.S. has tried nearly all the policies that conservatives love, from the War on Drugs, to a militarized foreign policy and deregulated finance. Unfortunately, most of these policies have failed and public support for them is eroding.  Conservatives really have nothing else to offer, but aren't willing to give up.  So, they've doubled down, advancing increasingly extreme versions of their basic right wing agenda. 

In fact, among the (many) Republican candidates, there is very little difference in policy.  The 'outsider' and 'establishment' candidates may differ in their rhetoric, but their positions on issues are just minor variations on the general conservative theme. (Trump is a bit of exception, but of course his candidacy is based entirely on attitude - issues are an afterthought.)  The Republican campaign may be personally contentious, but in terms of policy, the GOP is strikingly united.

The Democrats' situation is just the opposite.  Throughout the conservative era, they have been dominated by the 'centrists' (aka moderate conservatives) of the Democratic Leadership Council and similarly inclined Democrats (like President Obama).  Hillary Clinton is a long time member of this wing of the party, and her candidacy represents a continuation of its policies. 

However, over the last decade, the Democrats liberal wing of has gained some strength, especially among Democratic voters (less so among elected officials).   And Bernie Sanders is running on a platform of 'progressive' (aka liberal) policies (propelled by some slightly left wing rhetoric).

In other words, thanks to Sanders, Democrats have a real choice: continue as a center-right party or shift (moderately) to the left.   And that's the key to understanding what's important in this election.  U.S. presidential campaigns are usually dominated by fights between personalities, and that's the kind of campaign the Republican are having (albeit a bit more theatrically than usual).  But Bernie Sanders' campaign really isn't about Bernie at all, it about his platform.  For the first time in a generation or more, U.S. voters are getting a chance to vote for policies that are thoroughly non-conservative.

No wonder Hillary is getting flustered, and that the news media has misconstrued Bernie.  They (reasonably) expected a normal contest, a competition based on competing personalities.  Instead,  against all expectations and the conventional wisdom, issues are driving the Democratic campaign.  Although no one seems to have noticed, Democratic voters are deciding whether to change the future course of their party and, conceivably, the nation as a whole.

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