The Unmistakable Lesson of the Sanders Campaign: The Left-Wing Is Ascendent in the Democratic Party

By Matt Kerbel and Chris Bowers
This is the first of five diaries looking at the 2016 election from the perspective of our new book Next Generation Netroots: Realignment and the Rise of the Internet Left.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Is America on the verge of a long-term progressive realignment? Or are we about to enter a period of sustained reactionary politics? This is the key question we ask in our new book Next Generation Netroots. And we believe we can find clues to the answer in the way the 2016 campaign is unfolding.

In a series of five diaries over the next five days, we will consider the state of the progressive movement in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Hillary Clinton and what it portends for the future of the Democratic Party. In Next Generation Netroots we view what is happening in the Republican and Democratic parties as interrelated, with the political party system being shaken by what we see as a power struggle on the left between progressive and traditional forces in the Democratic Party and by an ideological struggle on the right between the conservative and reactionary factions currently tearing apart the Republican Party. We thought we would focus here on the Democratic side of the equation in light of the vigorous and often heated sentiments expressed on Daily Kos during the primary campaign.

We start with a fundamental premise that probably everyone can accept: the broader political world didn’t see Bernie coming.

But they should have.

The progressive left—fueled by an increasingly liberal Democratic rank and file and a well-coordinated network of maturing netroots groups and established progressive issue advocacy organizations—is ascendant in the Democratic Party. The competitiveness of the Sanders campaign was shocking to the political world because, generally speaking, it did not recognize this ascendancy was underway. However, if they had been paying attention, the signs were all there, years beforehand.

Increasingly liberal Democratic rank and file

Over the past decade and a half, the Democratic rank and file has become much more liberal. The trend has been so pronounced that Democrats have transitioned from being a party dominated by self-identified moderates to one dominated by self-identified liberals. As we write in Next Generation Netroots:

Not long ago, self-identified liberals were a small minority of all Democratic self-identifiers. At the start of the previous decade, not only were moderate Democrats a clear plurality within the Democratic coalition, there were almost as many self-identified conservative Democrats as there were self-identified liberal Democrats. According to Gallup, liberals in 2000 constituted a mere 29% of rank-and-file Democrats, barely edging out conservatives (25%) while being swamped by moderates, who made up 44% of the party base. The share of liberals began to rise in 2003 and has been increasing ever since. By 2007, liberals had caught up to moderates, and in 2011 surpassed them. In 2014, fully 44% of Democrats were self-described liberals, while only 36% claimed to be moderates. At 19%, conservative Democrats have become an endangered species.

Liberals are not only increasing as a percentage of Democrats, they also far more likely to turn out to vote in Democratic primaries than moderates and conservatives, thus increasing their influence beyond their numbers. As Harry Enten wrote for back in April, liberals made up 46% of Demcoratic primary voters in 2008, and an astonishing 61% in 2016:

Moderate and conservative voters, meanwhile, are a much smaller part of the Democratic primary vote than they were eight years ago. In 2008, they made up 54 percent of primary voters in the states that have voted so far this year. That’s down 15 percentage points and generally matches the decline of self-identified moderate and conservative Democrats we’ve seen in national surveys.

What’s more, as Enten notes, this trend toward an increasingly liberal Democratic Party is likely to continue, as “it’s the youngest Democrats who are more likely to identify as ‘very liberal.'”

Instead of being shocked by Sanders competitiveness, political observers should have been aware of the rise of liberals among the Democratic rank and file. A change of this magnitude is bound to have major political implications, as a liberal-dominated Democratic rank and file will act differently in Democratic primaries than a moderate-dominated one. Sixteen years ago, Sanders would have been dispatched without much of a fight, but not anymore. If you were surprised by this change, then it is because you weren’t paying attention.

Mature progressive infrastructure

Another key trend in the Democratic Party that keen political observers should have noted to prevent being caught off guard by Bernie Sanders’ strength is the repeated victory of the party’s left-wing in virtually every major intra-party struggle during President Obama’s second term.

Progressives are so used to losing—and political observers are so used to watching them lose—that neither of them seemed to notice when the losing stopped. But in 2013, it really did begin to stop. As we write in Next Generation Netroots:

During President Obama’s second term, the netroots and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party began to emerge victorious in several major intra-party fights: Senate filibuster reform, Net Neutrality, diplomacy with Iran and leadership of the Federal Reserve Board, as well as Social Security benefit levels. A pattern has emerged from these victories, with netroots organizations, established progressive advocacy operations and a handful of elected progressive Democratic leaders working together in “inside–outside” coalitions that combine large-scale grassroots activism with inside-the-beltway lobbying expertise.

Stopping Larry Summers, winning Senate filibuster reform, passing Net Neutrality, securing the Iran nuclear agreement, preventing Social Security cuts and getting virtually the entire Democratic Party on record in favor of Social Security expansion–again and again, progressives are winning the big intra-party fights among Democrats. This trend continued after Next Generation Netroots went to press, with $15 minimum wage bills—considered a distant pipedream only a few years ago—passing in California, New York and D.C.

The only exception to this trend of progressive victories in major intra-Democratic fights was the battle over fast track trade authority in 2015. However, even that fight was a nail-biter, and came only after an initial shock defeat in a June 2015 vote in the House of Representatives due to surprisingly fierce resistance from labor, the netroots, and the broader progressive advocacy ecosystem. Further, Congress hasn’t actually passed the actual trade agreements, most notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), that fast track trade authority was designed to secure. The fight over TPP rages on, and progressive defeat is far from certain.

Progressives simply stopped losing major Democratic Party fights in 2013. Combine this with a dramatically more liberal Democratic voting base, and Bernie Sanders should genuinely not have been a surprise. Even if someone had missed those trends, more than four months before Iowa, in September 2015, Sanders was already ahead in the New Hampshire polling averages (a lead which he never relinquished), was drawing bigger crowds than Barack Obama had done in 2007 (a sure sign of volunteer and caucus state strength), and had demonstrated he could equal Clinton in fundraising. That was a clear recipe for a competitive Democratic nomination campaign, a full four months before Iowa. All the signs were there.

It’s certainly true that reporters and political leaders commonly downplay phenomena which cut against established scripts for how things are supposed to work (see: Trump, Donald). But we would contend that progressive politics in particular are discounted by political elites who continue to view the United States as a center-right nation. Media narratives are sticky, and it became almost second nature for elites to accept the framing of America as a red state country (a frame the right actively promoted) during the long arc of center-right governance stretching back to the Reagan administration and arguably to Richard Nixon.

It is time for people to accept that we live in a new world. In the digital age there have been several Internet-fueled, progressive insurgencies. Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, the rise of the netroots and the progressive blogosphere, Occupy Wall Street, and the 2011 #WIunion protests and recall elections are all examples. Viewed individually, they all failed—or failed to bring about the changes they promised. But viewed collectively they contributed to the growth of a movement now strong enough to have a prominent seat at the Democratic Party table. The Sanders campaign is the latest step in this lineage, and there will be more to come after him.

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Purchase Matt Kerbel and Chris Bowers’ book Next Generation Netroots and take advantage of an exclusive 33% discount available only to readers of Daily Kos and Wolves and Sheep Purchase directly from Routledge Publishers and type the promo code NGN16 at checkout.