Bernie Sanders may have been beaten, but if the Democratic Convention is any indication, his legacy in the Democrat Party could last a long time.
He’s managed to factionalize Democrats into those who believe the country is broken and needs a revolution in order to be set right, and those who believe that the steady march of progress continues to take us to ever greater heights.
The latter viewpoint was embodied by speakers like Eric Holder and Michelle Obama, who delivered pointed comments about the existing greatness of our country.
“I’ve seen that [Hillary] has the skills to serve as commander in chief,” Holder told the crowd. “And the strength to lead our already-great nation in this hour of challenge and consequence.”
“Already great nation, Donald did you hear me?”
Michelle Obama, in a powerful speech, followed up saying, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great. That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.” (It’s worthwhile to remember that this represents a serious change of heart. It wasn’t too long ago that she said, “For the first time in my lifetime, I am really proud of my country.”)
In many ways these comments aren’t surprising. They accomplish two aims – they repudiate Trump’s campaign slogan, and they double as a defense to President Obama’s legacy, one which both Holder and Michelle served. But those comments could have also been aimed directly at Bernie Sanders, the standard-bearer of the left who has made it a point throughout his campaign to say that the status quo “disgusts” him and saying that he’ll be “damned” if he’s going to sit idly by.
Donald Trump may believe that some elements of America need to be retooled in order to be made great again, but Sanders believes that the entire structure of the American economy must be broken down and rebuilt in a different image. And in many ways that image of America has quietly dominated the Democratic Convention thus far.
It was teed up in Bernie Sanders’ remarks, in which he painted a picture of America enduring a “40-year decline of our middle class,” where “47 million men, women and children today live in poverty,” and in which our future is doomed to “drought, more floods, more acidification of the oceans, more rising sea levels.” And it was brought home by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was tellingly given the keynote slot above Michelle Obama, and described an America whose status as “a country of opportunity” is being “locked in the past,” because “opportunity is slipping away for people who work hard and play by the rules.”
Hillary Clinton has done her best to give a head nod to these elements of her party. She’s drifted further leftward than she’s comfortable on issues like healthcare, trade and financial regulation. But for all her shiftiness, she’s largely stuck being the candidate of continuity. She worked in the Obama administration and has since embraced his policy legacy loudly and regularly. As Damon Linker writes for The Week:
Clinton’s message to voters is essentially “Elect me, and I’ll keep the country largely on its current path, making modest adjustments to the sensible, sober, centrist-liberal approach favored by the Obama administration for the past seven years — perhaps expanding on or tinkering with some government programs here or there, maybe taking a more aggressively interventionist approach to foreign policy than the cautious one favored by the current president.”
That makes a great deal of sense. Except for one thing: The Republican nominee for president isn’t playing by the rules that govern a normal election. Treating Donald Trump like a conventional Republican is as foolish as insisting that what makes him unusual is that he’s really a Democrat in disguise.
And that ignores the fact that the Sanders’ faction of the Democrat Party are also refusing to play by the rules, demanding a progressive overhaul of the country. To them, Clinton’s brand of bland policymaking is simply more of the broken status quo. Can Clinton appease them? And more importantly, at what cost? That’s the Sanders legacy that’s yet to be written.