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Why diehard Bernie supporters are their own worst enemy

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“In retrospect it is clear,” says George H. Mayer, in his history of the Republican Party, “that Progressivism first revitalized the Republican party and then disrupted it.” The popular Progressive movement, for greater civil liberties and firmer government control of “trusts,” had gathered momentum in the first decade of the new, 21st century and resulted in the election of the “trust-busting” Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, as President.

But by the summer of 1912, when the old Rough Rider declared himself a third-party candidate against the sitting Republican President, William Howard Taft, and the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, it was clear that Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Progressive candidacy could do nothing but divide Republicans and elect Wilson as President—clear to almost everyone, that is, except to Roosevelt himself, a hard-headed, endlessly optimistic man who could not envision defeat.

Defeat is what he, and the Republicans, experienced that Fall. In a landslide, Wilson won 435 electoral votes to 88 for Roosevelt and a sad 8 for President Taft. (But don’t feel sorry for Taft. He went on to become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.) The House of Representatives turned heavily Democratic in the election, the Senate less so, but still was under Democratic control.

Roosevelt’s mistake was this: although “he deserves the principal credit for channeling the moral energy of Progressivism into the Republican Party” during his own presidency (1901-1909) [writes Mayer], he also allowed that same moral energy to divide a Republican Party already riven with fractures and petty resentments over such issues as tariffs, prohibition and state’s rights.

If you think you know where this is going, you do. I’m leading up to an indictment of the Sanders vote, or at least that holdover percentage of it (perhaps 10 percent) still smarting from Bernie’s loss and refusing to support Hillary Clinton. That Sanders captured “moral energy” cannot be disputed. That his followers were inspired by his progressive social and economic ideas explains the huge crowds he attracted on the campaign trail during the primaries. But it also cannot be doubted that, if enough of his supporters turn to third party candidates, or simply sit out the election, Donald Trump could very well end up being the next President of the United States.

I realize it’s easy to accuse both political parties of malfeasance. They both “malfease” (to coin a verb), at some level and with some frequency, depending on your definition of the word. What I object to is the political naivete some people bring to their analysis of issues. “Politics is the art of the possible,” said Bismarck, who, no matter what you may think about the “Iron Chancellor,” knew a thing or two about politics. It’s all well and good to fulminate about anything you want, on the left or the right; but no politician in history, not even the most autocratic Caesar, Fuhrer or Shah, could work his will unopposed. Particularly in a democracy, compromise is necessary: with one’s enemies, certainly, and even with those within one’s party who may have different views.

Purists, such as diehard Sanders fans, seem to view “compromise” as a disreputable tendency to be immoral and engage in dirty practices. They insist that all that is needed is a pure heart, a wise mind and idealistic notions. Were it only so! Even had Bernie Sanders gotten the nomination and been elected he would have faced a Congress more hostile to him than it has been even towards President Obama, as well as a Supreme Court likely to overthrow any radical Sanders legislation that did manage to pass both Houses. The Sanders supporters often remind me of the hippies in the 1970s who did things like surround the Pentagon and try to levitate it with their minds.

This is magical thinking. It might have made sense, during the primaries, for the Sanders people to dig in and continue to support their candidate. But by the time of the Democratic National Convention, when it was clear that nothing short of an asteroid collision would give Bernie the nomination, they should have transferred their allegiance and energies to Hillary and her campaign. That many still have not is a ringing indictment of their political naivete and failure to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Of course, the real irony in this brief recitation of history is how far Republicans have wandered from their humanistic Progressive roots of 100 years ago. From a party that actually cared about working people and economic fairness, it has become—well, the best description is to call it what it is: the party of Donald J. Trump. How embarrassing.

  1. Steve,

    They’re only “their own worst enemy” if you believe that their goal is to actually achieve their stated policy aims.

    If their goal is to engage in preening displays of self-proclaimed moral superiority, then they’re doing great.

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