The Democratic Establishment Prevails

Both political parties experienced populist uprisings this year. But while Republicans were consumed by theirs, Democrats have defeated their insurgent wing, even if they haven’t tamed it.

John Locher / AP

It is always tempting to see symmetries in politics, particularly in a two-party system. And so, this election cycle, many have witnessed the parallel rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—two men with very different political orientations, but similar antiestablishment sensibilities—and concluded that both major parties are being disrupted by populist revolution from within. The Republican Party has been taken over and remade in the image of Donald Trump, and the Democratic Party is likewise being reshaped by Bernie Sanders.

There’s just one problem with this analysis: In one party, the populist insurgency won. In the other, it is about to lose.

While the Republican Party continues to grapple with its Trump-fueled identity crisis, Democrats are poised to nominate Hillary Clinton, thus putting down the party’s left-wing insurgency of 2016, albeit with unanticipated difficulty. In doing so, Democrats will be choosing as their avatar a candidate who, though she’s made rhetorical gestures to the left, remains essentially centrist in orientation—a candidate friendly to the party’s donor class and elites, well-connected with its institutions, and incrementalist in her approach to policy. Despite some assertions to the contrary, liberal populism has not taken over the Democratic Party the way right-wing populism has taken over the GOP.

It’s not just Hillary Clinton. In down-ballot primaries, the candidates favored by left-wing pressure groups have not prevailed, starting with the Maryland Senate race: Progressives backed the firebrand Donna Edwards, and outside groups spent millions on her behalf, but she lost by a 15-point margin to Chris Van Hollen, a member of House Democratic leadership. An establishment nominee, Kate McGinty, also fended off anti-establishment challengers in Pennsylvania. The populist left failed to field serious primary challengers to other establishment-backed Senate candidates, with the result that the Democrats’ general-election slate across the country consists entirely of party-backed career politicians. Progressive hopes for a big primary bang now rest on Florida, where left-wing provocateur Alan Grayson is up against establishment-backed fellow Representative Patrick Murphy, a former Republican. The primary is in August.

(Interestingly, insurgent down-ballot candidates have also failed to topple incumbent or establishment candidates in Republican primaries, raising the possibility that Trump is an aberration—albeit a really big one—and 2016 is actually a pro-establishment year for both parties.)

“There is no question that the left is making a lot of noise this cycle,” Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs at the center-left think tank Third Way, told me. (Third Way has advised the Clinton campaign on policy.) “But the populist wing is not actually dominant or taking over the Democratic Party if you look at the hard evidence.”

Despite the protestations of Sanders and his supporters, Clinton is all but guaranteed to reach a majority of delegates in next week’s penultimate round of primaries. Sanders’s unexpected surge has demonstrated a rising progressive energy within the party, but progressives haven’t done what they set out to do this year: prove that a Tea Party-like revolt was simmering in the Democratic base.

Sanders may have pushed Clinton to sound more populist and to spend more time talking about income inequality. But on the economic issues that divide Clinton and Sanders, Bennett notes, Clinton has not really moved. She has declined to embrace single-payer health care, tuition-free public college for all, a $15 minimum wage (though she said she would sign it if Congress passed it, her own proposal is for $12), reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall banking restrictions, breaking up the big banks, or the expansion of Social Security. She has also declined to call for a ban on fracking. From the beginning, Clinton has insisted that inequality can be solved with reform rather than a war on Wall Street.

Clinton did come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a notable concession to progressives. But even her allies, like Bennett, do not believe she has turned against free trade: “All Democrats run for president as mild protectionists and govern as free traders,” Bennett told me, pointing to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who both campaigned against trade deals and went on to enact them.

Further complicating the idea that the Democratic base is moving in a populist direction is the fact that Clinton’s strongest support has come from Democrats. She’s done best in closed primaries, where only registered party members can vote, while Sanders has tended to prevail in open contests thanks to his strength with independent voters. According to Third Way’s analysis, Clinton has won Democratic voters, 65 percent to 35 percent, while Sanders has won independents by the same margin. Clinton has done particularly well with the party’s most stalwart voters, African Americans, who in many ways represent the heart of the party. Sanders isn’t powered mostly by Democratic voters’ desire for progressivism—he’s powered by party outsiders. Clinton’s victory suggests that Democratic primary voters remain more moderate than liberal, the same dynamic that allowed her husband to win the presidential primary in 1992.

The Democratic National Committee has been pilloried for its hamhanded attempts to “rig” the process in Clinton’s favor, from the scheduling of debates to fundraising agreements. (More than one anti-Trump Republican of my acquaintance has wistfully wondered if things might have turned out differently had their party been run by the strong-elbowed Democratic chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, rather than the resolutely neutral Republican chairman, Reince Priebus.) Whether or not these tactics were intentional, helpful to Clinton, or necessary to her prevailing, the Democratic establishment appears to be firmly in control of the Democratic Party.

That’s not to say that the Democratic establishment’s strength is a good (or a bad) thing. To the activist left, it’s frustrating, particularly if Clinton ends up tacking to the center in the general election. But progressives maintain that 2016 has nonetheless been a banner year for them, one that moved the Democratic Party significantly in their direction. “Things don’t happen overnight,” Dan Cantor, national director of the left-wing Working Families Party, a Sanders-backing organization active in a dozen states, told me. “Of course there are going to be forces in the Democratic Party that are going to resist shifting to a more social-democratic orientation. But the center of gravity has shifted.”

By igniting a national movement; far exceeding expectations in terms of votes and donations and enthusiasm; and vowing to influence the party platform at the Democratic convention, Sanders has made a huge contribution to the left’s cause, Cantor said. “If the question is, ‘Have liberals taken over the Democratic Party?’, no, not yet,” he said. “But it’s definitely more interesting than it was a few years ago. And this fight—started by Occupy Wall Street and championed by Elizabeth Warren—is going to continue.”

The Democratic primary has descended into bitter acrimony that poses real questions about whether the Sanders and Clinton factions will come together in November. But Howard Dean, the insurgent presidential candidate of 2004, told me he believes it has been a productive process of “renewal” for the party. Dean, who vowed in his campaign to represent “the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party,” has endorsed Clinton this year, but salutes Sanders for his effort. “Bernie is pulling the Democratic Party—some would say to the left, I would say back to its roots,” Dean told me. “Even though I’m very much for Hillary, I’m very sympathetic with Bernie’s values of standing up for working people.”

Dean drew a parallel between Sanders’s run and his own, which forced the other 2004 contenders to turn against the Iraq war and the Bush tax cuts. Sanders, Dean said, has earned the right to have a say in the party’s future direction. “The value of an insurgent is that even if they don’t win, they force the party to confront things they hadn’t confronted before,” he said. Plus, Dean pointed out, he got to run the Democratic National Committee for four years after his failed run—a literal chance to remake the party from the inside, even in defeat.