The Biggest Difference Between Clinton and Sanders Wasn’t Policy. It Was Something More Important

By Matt Kerbel and Chris Bowers
This is the second 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 LeftClick here for part one: The unmistakable lesson of the Sanders campaign: The left-wing is ascendent in the Democratic Party.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

At its core, the Bernie-vs-Hillary dispute was as much, if not more, about how political power is best organized in order to achieve progressive outcomes as it was about ideological or policy differences. Their clash over who is the better progressive, on display during the primary debates, often boiled down to this distinction: Clinton believes you have to know and work within the system in order to achieve progressive outcomes, while Sanders believes you have to organize new power from outside the system in order to achieve progressive outcomes. This is why both candidates can claim agreement on 90% of their policy objectives and still engage in such a bitter contest, and why we find self-described progressives on both sides of the debate.

Hillary is the epitome of the philosophy that change is best accomplished by working from within established power structures. She describes herself as an ultra-qualified, experienced and knowledgeable incrementalist, someone who can effectively implement practical solutions within the system to produce real accomplishments for average Americans. Further, she has used that characterization to suggest that Bernie is an idealistic dreamer whose self-described revolutionary ideas are bound to dissipate upon contact with reality.

This philosophy is reflected in how her campaign is organized. Her endorsements from virtually every Democratic elected official in the country, as well as an extremely wide range of progressive advocacy organizations, spoke to her ability to work in coalitions with colleagues, allies and established power structures. Progressive think tanks, policy makers and allied academics almost unanimously preferred her policies over Sanders’, often finding them more knowledgeable and practical.  Further, while she had a robust small-donor operation, bringing in nearly $45 million in small donations through June, she also was able to appeal to the existing large donor class of the Democratic Party, from which she raised most of the money for her campaign. What’s more, in every department, her campaign staff glistened with the leading names in their field, giving the entire operation a sense of extreme professionalism. To top it off—and to the chagrin of many Sanders supporters—her campaign often directly coordinated with local Democratic parties in swing states to prepare for the general election and assist down ballot candidates. If there was a way to work with the Democratic establishment, Hillary Clinton made it happen.

For his part, Sanders characterized the political system as rigged against middle and working class Americans, and Clinton as an ill-suited agent of progressive change because of her cozy ties with Wall Street and the political establishment. As with Clinton, the organizational structure of Sanders’ campaign fit with his message. Rather than contesting the inside game, he asymmetrically countered Clinton’s formidable organizing within established bases of Democratic and progressive power by building a grassroots-fueled campaign of explosive size and scope. Instead of working within established power structures, Sanders argued that what was needed was a revolution outside of those structures—a people-powered organization strong enough to overcome them.

He came remarkably close to pulling it off. Bernie Sanders built the largest grassroots operation in the history of Democratic presidential primaries, surpassing even the famously netroots-driven campaigns of Barack Obama in 2007-8 and Howard Dean in 2003-4. He raised more money, with his $132 million haul from people who gave less than $200 surpassing what Obama and Dean were able to achieve among small donors during their primary runs. He had more donors (over 2,200,000 in the end), more people attend his rallies, and possibly even more campaign volunteers.

This was the model of a political campaign fueled by digital grassroots energy that was first established by Howard Dean. It operates on the guiding principle of Internet politics: that a successful campaign can emerge from the ground up, outside established centers of political power, around a leader with a message that resonates broadly who understands how to grow support by empowering his followers. This principle is the opposite of the top-down, consultant-heavy model that dominated politics in the television age and, with adjustments for social media, still typifies non-movement candidacies.

Sanders critique of the Democratic Party as suffering from outsized corporate and financial interests that render the party impotent to advance the concerns of the poor and middle class fits squarely with over a decade of mainstream netroots and progressive social media thought. In fact, as we note in Next Generation Netroots, the contemporary progressive clash with entrenched Democratic Party interests is “a battle about participatory democracy aimed at reducing the power wielded by corporate patrons by reinvigorating democratic processes,” that itself echoes an even earlier era:

In the mold of progressives from the first gilded age, [contemporary progressives’] ultimate goal is reforming what they see as a damaged political process to make the political class responsive to the interests of those who can’t afford to write large checks for political campaigns. It is fundamentally a process-oriented struggle because progressives view organizational power as a prerequisite to making policy shifts that would help the middle class and the poor.

By tapping into this sentiment, which has become reinvigorated in our new gilded age, and by utilizing his status as a folk hero within netroots circles, Sanders was able to draw on the surprisingly well-organized networks that have been incubated in the progressive online space over the past decade.

To that end, Sanders was overwhelmingly endorsed by the memberships of the foundational netroots organizations MoveOn and Democracy for America. Further, over 275,000 people signed up for his campaign through Daily Kos emails or directly on the website. This included many early signups that were crucial to jumpstarting his campaign: 100,000 people who joined his email list from mid-2011 to early 2015 through joint petition actions with Daily Kos, and over 66,000 who signed up for his campaign through just two sponsored emails in early July 2015. According to Revolution Messaging, the consulting firm that handled Bernie’s online fundraising operation, the 175,000 people who ultimately signed up to Bernie’s campaign through sponsored Daily Kos emails were by far the best performing, highest yield supporters who came from any paid source. Overall, the netroots were essential to Bernie Sanders’ success.

The rapid development of Bernie’s campaign as a grassroots phenomenon fueled by motivated volunteers fits a model of online political activism which dates back to Howard Dean’s upstart presidential campaign. Viewed through this lens, the Sanders campaign is not a discrete phenomenon, but instead the latest iteration of a decade-long movement to wrest control of the Democratic Party from powerful interests. It was built not just through his campaign, but by tapping vast networks that developed over many years from self-generated social action originating online. The structure of Bernie’s campaign is of a piece with this type of activism, where supporters find the messenger in a bottom-up fashion consistent with the decentralized nature of the Internet. Its ultimate goal is to organize powerful enough networks to control the direction of the Democratic Party and with it the power to move the Overton Window to the left, widening the range of acceptable solutions to economic and social problems and then enacting them as public policy.

Still, Bernie lost the nomination, falling short in the pledged delegate race by a count of 2,204 to 1,847, the equivalent of a 9 point defeat (54.4% to 45.6%). When we look closely at the reasons for Sanders’ defeat, we can also see clear parallels to obstacles facing the progressive movement—in this case, what it has yet to do in its ongoing quest to come to power in the Democratic Party. We’ll take a look at that in our next diary.

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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.