Is Bernie the future of the Democratic Party?

In a nice interview in Vox, Political Scientist, Dan Hopkins, says… probably not.  Lots of good stuff:

JS: So when you try to make sense of what happens to the unbelievable energy Sanders has built up, and his massive support among young voters, where does that go? What happens to that movement if not to change the party?

DH: The question of what becomes of the Sanders campaign and the Sanders cause is a bit of an open one.

It may be that years down the road, we look back and see his campaign as the start of an increasingly vocal and influential left wing of the Democratic Party particularly dedicated to advancing large-scale, public sector solutions to problems.

But that requires some sort of momentum within the party that remains after the end of this campaign, and for this cause to be taken up by Democrats other than Sanders. It has to be adopted by some congressional Democrats and candidates in future elections to stay alive within the party — to pressure Democratic leaders to continue to advance those policies. I’m not terribly convinced that’s going to happen, but that’s what would need to happen.

There’s a temptation to assume that everything new in politics is a harbinger of the future. But lots of things are dead ends: They rise, and they go away. There’s no reason to believe just definitionally that Sanders represents the future of the Democratic Party more than anybody else.

JS: So why are so many commentators convinced that Sanders represents the party’s future?

DH: Sanders is a new phenomenon compared to Clinton, and he has younger supporters, so people make that assumption. But you could have said that about George McGovern [who was also extremely popular with young voters] — and then he lost, and McGovernism was not where the party moved at all after that.

I would be very careful in assuming Sanders represents the future. If he represents the future, there’s no inevitability about it. If people want a change from the Obama Democratic Party to the Sanders Democratic Party, that will require a lot of political entrepreneurship — and I’m not sure, at this stage, how that would happen.

I think it’s far more likely that at this point Democrats decide they need to pay a little more attention to the base than they have been, and be a little bolder than they have been on economic inequality. But most Democratic politicians are not going to become democratic socialists, and they’re not really going to sign on to the scale of the policy agenda and the scale of government activity that Sanders is proposing. I think there will still be a lot of resistance to that.

Pretty compelling arguments, I think.  When it comes to financing, though, and it’s implications for who the Democratic party represents, Hopkins is open to the idea that Sanders may have really changed things:

JS: What if we look at something like campaign finance? Sanders was able to raise enough from his small-donor army to not suffer financially against Clinton and do so in a way that also redounded to his political benefit. Could there be a lasting lesson there?

DH: I think there’s probably something to that. He showed that you can raise a lot of money from small individual donations without making nice with business interests within the party, and the Clinton fundraising strategy going back to the ’90s was to sell themselves to wealthier interests as being somewhat business-friendly.

So Sanders does represent another path, and he was certainly much better-funded than most of his liberal insurgent predecessors. He showed that you can use the internet and publicity to raise an awful lot of money. That’s certainly one place where future presidential candidates could change.

So, is Sanders the future of the Democratic Party?  Ask me in four years :-).


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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