Bernie’s Long-Term Gift to the Republican Party

As expected, Bernie Sanders won overwhelming victories in yesterday’s caucuses in Washington state, Alaska and Hawaii, and, as expected, coverage of those victories was muted in comparison to the breathless way pre-March 15 contests were reported. As Sanders continues to lead the Democratic Party from behind, a meme is developing in some circles on the right that Bernie’s continued presence in the race is forcing Hillary so far to the left as to make her unelectable in November. A recent column in the Fiscal Times makes the case that Bernie has forced Hillary to such extremes that voters will reject her for her Bernie-induced hostility to – of all things – fossil fuel production. That’s right: in a contest where the apparent Republican nominee is Donald Trump, we are supposed to believe the election will turn on Hillary’s willingness to entertain alternative energy sources in the face of climate change.

Republicans can be forgiven for taking comfort in this sort of self-deception if it makes it easier to watch their party crumble around them, but there are several obvious reasons why the Sanders effect is being misunderstood on the right, not the least being that Republicans actually are watching their party crumble around them. Everything happening on the left is benign in comparison. Furthermore, believing Sanders’ position on global warming is so far out of the mainstream as to disqualify any Democrat who holds it is to ignore Republican dogma on the issue, which is enough to turn off an entire generation of Millennial voters who stop listening once politicians reject climate science. While Bernie is moving Hillary in his direction as they argue over which one is the truer and more reliable progressive, it’s hard to see how that hurts her in an anti-elite election cycle. Despite the “socialism” label, Bernie is positioning himself close to a large chunk of voters who agree with him that energy policy, like every other policy, is the product of a rigged system. It’s not progressives who are the radicals this year.

I agree that Bernie is doing a great service for the Republican Party, just not in the short term and not in the way Republicans may think or hope he is. Let’s start looking past the crack-up that awaits Republicans once they decide whether it is better to undermine or embrace a candidate who appeals to reactionaries and alienates just about everyone else. I will have much more to say in the coming weeks about the possibilities for the party in 2016, but the common denominator across all scenarios is the need to rebuild after it’s over. It will be impossible for Republicans to reconstruct the party as it has looked for the past four decades, and certainly as it has looked for the past seven years, if the country rejects radicalism and continues inching away from far-right orthodoxy.

This is where Bernie comes in. During the period of Republican ascendancy, Democrats moved consistently closer to the right pole of political debate. In fact, this is the essence of Bernie’s disagreement with Hillary, as he rejects her neoliberal approach of using conservative means to nudge policy to the left in favor of a progressive assault on the wealthy individuals and institutions that funded neoliberal efforts. Regardless of how far he is able to move her in his direction during this election cycle, it is already clear that the Democratic Party of the future will look nothing like the party of the 1990s. This means that either quickly or gradually, Democrats will begin to vacate the center-right space it needed to occupy in order to compete in the Reagan era. In fact, one of the early headlines from this election cycle is about how that retreat has already begun.

As Democrats move left, they will leave unoccupied a political space with natural appeal to conservatives who right now are trying to rescue the Republican Party from its reactionary impulses. Those efforts seem destined to fail during this election cycle, which means theirs may be a longterm project, but eventually conservatives will need a landing place as the party re-imagines itself after it bottoms out, and the space left behind by Democrats is a natural fit. In fact, without Democrats shifting the center of political gravity to the left it is difficult to see how Republicans can reconstitute their party as an entity distinct from Democrats in a meaningful way. All of this has important ramifications for the shape of the next political alignment, which is likely to develop gradually and unevenly over a long period of time. But as events have overtaken party elites and the parameters of this election cycle have come into focus, Republicans can thank Bernie Sanders for spearheading changes in the Democratic Party from which they may benefit way down the line.