Like any good revolutionary, Bernie Sanders riles people up by simply stating the truth.
Joe Biden recently endorsed President Obama’s former Labor Secretary, Tom Perez, for the position of Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman. Sanders endorsed Perez’s rival, Keith Ellison. In response to Biden’s endorsement, Sanders said that it’s time to move beyond the “failed status-quo approach” of Biden and Perez.
This led to an angry response from Perez’s supporters, who accused Sanders of rehashing his primary fight with Hillary Clinton. It also led the Hill to post a story entitled “Sanders Reopens Dem Primary Wounds.” Yet the wounds were already opened after Perez entered the race, reportedly after Obama’s encouragement.
— january_samurai (@january_samurai) February 3, 2017
This is not to say Perez shouldn’t have run, only that his entry into the race automatically sets up a proxy war between Sanders and Clinton supporters. And many Clinton loyalists already had some animus towards Ellison, as he endorsed Sanders over Clinton during the primary (he endorsed Clinton during the general).
So when Sanders says it’s time to move beyond status-quo politics, he’s stating the obvious. Despite being more progressive, the Obama administration was in many ways a continuation of Clinton-era neoliberal economic policies. And Hillary Clinton’s struggle to win over voters also revealed a rejection of the status-quo.
B-b-but Bernie Isn’t a Democrat!
In the Hill article, the Texas Democratic chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said:
This is coming from a man who is not even a member of our party, We lost an election and all of a sudden we’re all a part of a failed status quo? When he puts Joe Biden and Tom Perez in this category and paints with a broad brush he insults all of us. This is an election between loyal, qualified Democrats who love our party and the country. There’s no need for him to lower himself to that level.
This echoes many Democrats I’ve come across—Bernie’s not even a Democrat, he needs to but out of our business—and take his DNC endorsement with him.
This attitude totally ignores the mood of the electorate. Party loyalty is extremely low, with most Americans dismissive of establishmentarians of both parties. An outsider blitzkrieged the Republican Party, and went on to win the presidency. Sanders himself garnered 13 million votes, and won over more young people than Trump and Clinton combined.
So it might be a good time to listen to outsiders. It wouldn’t be the first time a nonpartisan had a positive effect on the Democratic Party. Martin Luther King—also a self-described Democratic Socialist—encouraged a Democratic president to sign landmark civil rights legislation. Though he was a Democrat, Huey P. Long was a populist agitator on the periphery of the party. He’s credited for pressuring Franklin D. Roosevelt to adopt many of his New Deal reforms.
In fact, pressure from the outside is vital for a party’s survival. If a party only listens to those on the inside, stagnation is inevitable.
Politics is Moving Beyond Party Loyalty
Partisan loyalty is strong among many Democrats—and the wounds of both the primary and the stunning loss to Trump are still fresh to many Clinton supporters. But the sooner most of them realize the paradigm has changed, the better. It’s essential that Keith Ellison is made head of the DNC, and that Bernie Sanders and his supporters are taken seriously.
The Democratic Party is having a problem with engaging young people, and in broadening its appeal. Already the #DemExit movement showed that many progressives have chosen to leave the party, and unless the party evolves others will follow their lead.
The movement spearheaded by Bernie and the left prioritizes the economic issues millennials care about, and that also concern many working class voters of all races and backgrounds. Tom Perez is—as Sanders pointed out—a status quo candidate. He’s enmeshed in the political professional class, and touts progressive rhetoric while pushing neoliberal policies like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Ellison took on the Obama administration on TPP, and won).
In the end Bernie not being a Democrat is a good thing, it gives him the independence to challenge systemic issues from the outside. The big question is if those in the party will choose the right path forward and excite a new generation of voters, or choose the status quo and experience more defections to a third party. On Friday, Keith Ellison received endorsements by two respected elders of the party—John Lewis and Walter Mondale. Maybe the Democrats finally get it. If so, the work has just begun.