The Morning After Iowa: Sanders, Clinton, and the Future of Democratic Politics

Well, that made for interesting TV, didn’t it?

This morning, Politico reports that Secretary Hillary Clinton beat Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Iowa caucus — by .3%. While Mrs. Clinton gets 28 national convention delegates to Sanders’s 21, the symbolic ramifications are arguably more important. Last night, Sanders proved that the Clinton dynasty is vulnerable. Moreover, Sanders’s near-tie revealed that the Democratic Party is evolving, even if it lacks the spectacular factionalism of the GOP, which might not survive the year intact.

Historically, the Clintons have all but apologized for being liberals. In 1996, President Bill Clinton declared, “The era of big government is over,” a concession to the Reagan/neoliberal ethos that had dominated American politics for sixteen years. Mr. and Mrs. Clinton’s policy positions reflected this muted liberalism. They supported free trade, they were responsible for the Defense of Marriage Act (which they now disingenuously claim was actually a protective measure for gay rights), and they gave up on national health care reform after Mrs. Clinton’s unsuccessful reform bid. Mrs. Clinton hung on in Democratic politics, first as Senator, then as Secretary of State, and continued to push for center-right Democratic ideas, including invading Iraq in 2003 and intervening in a Libyan Civil War in 2011. To be fair, the belief that Americans can use brief wars to create little democracies abroad is the Kool-Aid from which liberals and conservatives drink. Yet Mrs. Clinton drank that poison. She also became cozy with Wall Street, probably due to the social perks that come with membership in New York’s cosmopolitan class.

However, while Mrs. Clinton enjoyed the centrist firmament and courted elite allies, the Democratic Party started to change. True, Barack Obama did not turn out to be the FDR reborn that his voters expected. Yet President Obama’s progressive rhetoric lacked the “We’re sorry we’re liberals” approach of the Clintons. Vice President Joe Biden showed his willingness to take bold stances on social issues, particularly his support for expanded health care coverage and gay marriage. In the wake of the recession, Sen. Elizabeth Warren emerged with robust critiques of financial crimes. The Democratic base started to wake up to its liberalism.

Perhaps young Democrats in 2016, still enchanted by President Obama’s rhetoric but disappointed by the President’s reluctance to fight for his policies, want an emphatic, prizefighter-like Democrat for the next President. The prizefighter in this race is Bernie Sanders, whose socialism is a farther leap to the left than Warren’s prophetic voice or Biden’s sunny futurism. Mrs. Clinton is therefore struggling to match her twenty-year-old conservative Democratic policies to the ascendant leftist bloc of her party. More specifically, Mrs. Clinton is struggling to communicate with the party’s youth.

The latest polling data shows Sanders beating Mrs. Clinton handily among youth voters. Younger Democrats flock to Sanders rallies to hear the Senator’s unapologetic liberalism and support of drastic social reforms (e.g., universal health coverage, free tuition, financial reform, etc.). Sanders’s support among young Democrats suggests why Mrs. Clinton thanked young supporters so effusively in her speech last night, and why she declared:

I am a progressive who gets things done for people. I am honored to stand in the long line of American reformers who make up our minds that the status quo is not good enough, that standing still is not an option, and that brings people together to find ways to improve the lives of Americans.

Mrs. Clinton is trying to transform herself into a more progressive candidate, far more liberal than she was as First Lady, Senator, or Secretary of State. Indeed, Clinton’s remarks portray her as the culmination of a unilinear line of unbroken progressives, probably going back to FDR. Additionally, this remark all but confirms the rumor in academic circles that Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has the ear of the Clintons, telling them all about their place in history and boosting their egos. Beware individuals who are already convinced that they are historic figures.

It is quite possible that Mrs. Clinton will win this primary race. She has the endorsements, the money, and the tacit approval of Wall Street financiers. Yet the days are numbered for her style of politics. The youth of the Democratic Party want passionate Warrens more than calculating Clintons. If Mrs. Clinton can’t make her case this time, then there will be no do-over for her in 2020. This year’s election cycle is Hillary Clinton’s last stand. Last night in Iowa, Mrs. Clinton discovered that she will not have a simple coronation. Bernie Sanders’s followers may have limited political experience, but their children’s crusade is starting to resonate not just with leftist Democrats, but also unsatisfied centrists and independents that want a visionary candidate. Sen. Sanders will not simply go away. There will be more of his ilk in the future.

The odds are against Sanders winning the nomination, although all bets are off if the FBI recommends indictment or the Justice Department actually indicts Mrs. Clinton for her mismanagement of top-secret information. (On a side note, Hillary’s insistence on a private email server and disregard for security protocols reflects the Clintons’ habit, reported in Kate Andersen Brower’s The Residence, of ignoring rules that don’t suit them, and insisting on privacy and secrecy above all else.) Nonetheless, even if Bernie Sanders doesn’t beat entrenched Clinton supporters to win the nomination, he has shown the center-right elites who support the Clintons that their days in the party leadership are numbered. The Democratic Party is changing into something still amorphous, but more avowedly leftist than in the past generation. Indeed, that leftism is going beyond what even Barack Obama wanted. If that leftism carries Sen. Sanders through enough primary victories, then Mrs. Clinton may find herself saddled with a socialist Vice President. She will then have to decide just how much she will abandon her tacit conservatism for next-generation leftism.

Cover Photo:
Alex Cherry, “Eagle Become Vultures,” Converge, December 16, 2007, all rights reserved, Flickr, accessed February 2, 2016,


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