The most interesting idea I encountered during the recent American primary season actually appeared in the British magazine, The Economist, where a writer mused over what US politics might look like if we had a parliamentary system. Using polling data of various presidential candidates at that moment, instead of considering them Republicans or Democrats he assigned them separate parties based upon their various points of view – as might be the case if we had a structure allowing for coalition governments, rather than our winner-take- all presidential system. An accompanying graphic depicted the parties arrayed in a legislative chamber. On the left sat a Social Democratic Party, the second largest overall, with numbers based upon Bernie Sanders’s polling numbers. Next over was the largest grouping, a Liberal Party representing Hillary Clinton partisans. On the right hand side was the third largest, Donald Trump’s People’s Party. And filling out the chamber in between were the substantially smaller Christian Coalition, the Ted Cruz vote; and the Conservative Party of John Kasich voters. No party had a majority, but together the Liberals and Social Democrats would constitute one and seemed the likely partners in imagined coalition government, with the Liberals as the senior factor.
This fantasy parliament came to mind several months later during a conference call as Bernie Sanders explained to his convention delegates that while he obviously still had his differences with Hillary Clinton, his support for her in the general election represented a coalition, adding that this sort of thing was quite common in European politics. Seemingly simple enough, yet I wondered how it was being interpreted. American coalition politics, after all, tend toward combining people with generally similar overall views but differing primary interests – such as environmentalists and labor unions, or civil rights activists and feminists. The sort of European inter-party alliances Sanders referred to are not really that, though. They represent agreements between parties with differences that are obvious and well delineated in national campaign debate. A coalition government depends not upon any illusion that the two or more parties don’t have significant differences but on the understanding that they are lesser than those with the other parties in the field.
The final outcome of our primaries and caucuses turned out to be reasonably like what The Economist article described, the key difference, of course, being that the actual vote was confined to the really existing Democratic and Republican Parties rather than the imagined five. I leave it to others better versed to comment on events in the Republican Party, but the funneling of two ideologically distinct groups into the Democratic Party is precisely what Sanders was addressing on the call. We now have a coalition of two tendencies – whose differences might warrant their being separate parties under other political structures – that due to the particulars of the American system, find themselves within a single party, whose control each will vie for over the long run.
As the longest serving independent in U.S. congress history, Sanders obviously did not choose the option of entering the Democratic presidential primaries lightly. But once actively considering the race, he understood that taking his case to a national audience required entering the Democratic Party, knowing full well that it was dominated by people who didn’t welcome him or his point of view. Certainly little changed on that front: One tally on the eve of the convention showed him trailing Hillary Clinton by 570 to 44 among the party’s unelected superdelegates. And the WikiLeaks email scandal merely resulted in Debbie Wasserman Schultz shifting from a supposed position of neutrality as the head of Democratic National Committee to openly running the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
And yet, as we know, this move into hostile territory payed off handsomely, to a degree exceeding all expectations, with Sanders taking roughly forty-five percent of all elected delegates. The Economist’s musing was well taken. The Sanders campaign has brought forth on this nation a new-to- us democratic socialist point of view to challenge the corporate liberals who have historically dominated the Democratic Party. This is uncharted territory. Instead of taking the race all the way to election day and perhaps forming part of a coalition government at the end, as is the way in other countries, Sanders described an intra-party coalition based, in part, upon the party platform adopting causes such as the $15 dollar-an- hour minimum wage and tuition-free higher education, but mostly upon the belief that our still substantial differences with Clinton do not warrant running the risk of electing a candidate we love even less – the maniacal Donald Trump.
Some Sanders supporters understandably bridle at this approach. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a Clinton presidency improving our current destructive and ultimately self-destructive foreign policy. Yet ultimately a majority will likely agree with Sanders’s judgement that Trump – who we can’t assume wouldn’t ultimately conduct a foreign policy even worse than Clinton’s – is obviously the worse option domestically. But why would we stay in a party whose leaders don’t want us? Precisely because they want us to leave. They now have what we want – or should want – control of a political party with the potential for real power to change the way things really work in this country. Certainly we could all join another party – the Greens or some other – whose principles were much closer to ours than those of the dominant Democratic faction and we’d probably feel “happier” about it. But most likely the best we could aspire to would be an interesting historical footnote, since the last third party presidential candidate of the left to draw so much as three percent of the vote was Robert La Follette – in 1924! We don’t want to control our perfect little party. We want to control the messy Democratic Party.
There has been no significant candidacy in recent memory to state so clearly that it wasn’t just about the person at the top of the ticket – it was about empowering the working men and women increasingly marginalized by the people at the top of the economy. A post-campaign organization, Our Revolution, has already been announced, with a first national electronic hook-up later this month. We’ve never done this before and our path may well be full of wrong turns. But after out-fundraising the establishment with a base of $27 dollar contributions we know we can do it – and we’re not going to give it up because we didn’t win it all the first time out.