To those of us who made our bones in the Democratic politics of the 1980s and the 1990s, the arguments between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton about the future of the Democratic Party and the mechanics of winning general elections sound familiar, with one camp obsessed with white swing voters, independents, and general-election polls and the other focused on maintaining and nourishing a party base resting on the votes and interests of minorities. The arguments extend into meta-symbolism, with one side associated with youth and change, while the other is identified with paleoliberalism. But it’s also the world turned upside down, with the self-consciously progressive Bernie Sanders making the political arguments once associated with the Clintonian New Democrats, while the “centrist” Hillary Clinton stands for party traditionalists.
When I was working for the quintessentially centrist Democratic Leadership Council, we had an almost-Pavlovian commitment to what political scientists call the median-voter theorem — the belief that political parties succeed when they focus their message not on their core voters but on those at the periphery or just beyond: the “swing voters” who often identify as independents and sometimes even as Republicans. This belief reached its apogee in Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection effort when Dick Morris and Mark Penn identified two separate categories of swing voters who were the primary focus of the Clinton-Gore campaign’s appeals. A corollary of all this “swinging” was an equally iron commitment to open primaries as a way of ensuring that the party never lost touch with the views of the all-important indies — a positioning that the DLC’s intra-party opponents countered by fighting for closed primaries.
Unfortunately the “centrist” focus on white swing voters and independents led to the morally dubious attitude of taking “base” voters — especially minorities — for granted as somehow less than equal in the struggle for electoral victory. And in fact, this attitude reflected the arithmetical calculation — which Mark Penn talked about a lot — that swing voters possessed double the electoral value of base voters because they represented a vote denied to the opposition as well as one harvested by one’s own party.
Two decades later, the some-voters-are-less-equal-than-others heresy has now infected the Bernie Sanders camp with its argument that Hillary Clinton’s primary victories should be discounted because they disproportionately depended on African-American voters in states Democrats are not likely to win in November. And now it’s the self-styled champion of the left who is fighting for open primaries, disparaging traditional Democratic constituencies, and making a fetish of a “new” Democratic coalition based heavily on former independents. Moreover, in an ironic echo of the famously “poll-driven” politics of Bill Clinton’s centrists, today’s Sanders supporters cannot seem to go more than five minutes without citing a general-election poll showing their candidate doing better than Hillary Clinton against this or that Republican opponent.
The cynic may conclude that party factions will pick up whatever argument best serves their short-term interests, consistency be damned. But the problem for Democrats right now is that these arguments are beginning to carry the emotional weight of passionate self-righteousness and permanent grievance. As Paul Krugman notes today, Team Sanders is beginning to rehearse the perilous claim that unelected superdelegates have a responsibility to overturn the decisions of primary voters on the grounds that they are the wrong voters in the wrong places, even as the voters who matter most (white independents) are shut out by closed-primary rules in states like New York. It’s a strange and dangerous trajectory for progressives to follow.