After this week’s Democratic Party debate came the deluge of interpretation. Almost without exception, the media scored it for Hillary Clinton. As far as everyone else was concerned – on the basis of evidence including measurements of internet chat, post-debate donations, and the results of focus groups – Bernie Sanders won.
This is not an aberration. The yawning gap between professional pundits and the electorate at large is a structural feature of US politics, and is just as visible when it comes to the Republican race.
For months, the Sanders campaign has harnessed a large and growing number of campaign volunteers, attracted millions more in small donations than any other candidate, and a higher proportion of individual donations. He has also held large rallies and well-attended, nationwide events.
But most of this is ignored in mainstream reporting, with authors preferring to talk about ‘electability’ as something that Clinton possesses and Sanders does not, even though there are few signs of widespread enthusiasm for her candidacy outside the ranks of professional political commentators.
Of course, the only way you can really make this argument is to gesture towards the ‘centre ground’ of politics. If you share the article of faith that says not only that some political centre exists, but that it is the key strategic battleground of electoral politics, then your commentary writes itself ahead of the event: Sanders can’t win because he is too far from the centre, but the centre is where Clinton lives – so as long as she doesn’t heinously screw up, she must win.
Clinton didn’t screw up, or at least not as badly as the deeply weird right-fringe candidates, Chaffee and Webb. Therefore, she romped it in.
There are too many examples of commentators doing this to list them individually. A couple will illustrate the point. Matt Yglesias at Vox – a publication best understood as BuzzFeed for neoliberals – claimed that Clinton ‘crushed’ a weak field with no strong opponents. Sanders was dismissed for shouting and being too consistently left wing, while Clinton was praised basically for not making any mistakes.
Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine wrote an even more triumphalist piece claiming that the Clinton ‘panic’ was over, because she presented well, and … didn’t make any mistakes. Both assume that in the absence of catastrophe, the centrist candidate will prevail.
The trouble is that this doesn’t appear to be happening on schedule on either side of politics. The establishment candidates – Bush and Clinton – may yet prevail, and they really ought to, given their resources.
The comparisons between Trump and Sanders are facile. But what they do share is an absence of any reliance on the establishments of their respective parties, and the support of people who are deeply dissatisfied with their lot in post-crisis America, at the end of Obama’s term.
They are both persisting, and they and their supporters are – for better and worse – resisting all attempts to narrow the horizons of political possibility to an internal, neoliberal quarrel.
To ignore all this – the many failures of Obama, the continuing drift of inequality, the continuing decline of real incomes, widespread debt servitude, crumbling infrastructure and services – you need to live in a different America, or a different everyday reality, than the one the rest of us inhabit.
To think that the political centre is inviolable and outside history, you would not only need to live separately, in the way that the upper middle class can, but you would also need to will yourself not to see certain things, to seal off certain kinds of evidence from your own cognitive apparatus.
We saw this in action as so many commentators missed the point of Bernie Sanders’s intervention during the debate on the issue of the scandal whirling around Clinton’s so-smart-it’s-dumb use of private email accounts and servers to circumvent the accounting of her own State Department.
Sanders’s exclamation, when the issue was raised, that ‘the country is sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails’ was read and understood too hastily, as if Sanders himself was conceding the inevitability of Clinton’s nomination.
Many, schooled to see politics as nothing more than a war of position, concluded that he does not have the appetite for the kind of full frontal assault on Clinton’s credibility that winning the nomination would require.
But this view misunderstands the nature and sources of Sanders’s support. In the most widely circulated soundbite of the evening, he managed to not-so-subtly remind the audience of how sick and tired they are of the Clintons, in all their selfishness, shiftiness, and entitlement.
And at the same time he redirected the conversation to matters of policy and principle. On these matters, he set the agenda, as he has done for the whole of the early campaign. It’s not just because Clinton is mired in an email scandal that he’s been able to do this. He’s managed it because Clinton is incapable of connecting with the wearing, endless, worsening daily struggles, the disillusionments and disappointments, the unanswered and unacknowledged demands that have turned people away from a rigged and broken political process The very process of which she herself is the perfect avatar.