Whether Senator Bernie Sanders wins the presidential nomination or not, the Democratic Party may end up going through a political revolution on its own come this November.
On Feb. 20, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic Party nomination in Nevada with 52.6 percent of the popular vote. Widely seen as a significant halt to Senator Bernie Sanders’s momentum following his victory in New Hampshire, publications were quick to point out that Sanders may be facing an uphill battle from here on out.
The New York Times elaborated, asserting, “Nevada was the third straight state where, because of demographics, one would have expected Mr. Sanders to fare better than the national average” (The New York Times, “Trump Now Faces True Test; Clinton’s Win Suggests National Edge,” 02.20.2016).
However, it’s imperative to note that Sanders closed a significant gap in support, having been lagging far behind (into the double digits) in Nevada just a few weeks ago.
Although I identify as a Sanders supporter, I can’t help but feel a bit pessimistic about the future of his campaign, especially when Clinton has already gained the support of 451 super-delegates (compared to Sanders’s 19).
However, in terms of current trends in America’s sociopolitical landscape, the success Sanders has seen indicates shifting ideologies among the Democratic voter base.
Despite the slowing of his momentum as a candidate, Sanders has proven to the Democratic establishment that these ideological changes are real and will have significant impact on the election in November. As Hillary’s nomination becomes seemingly (though, not quite yet) inevitable, the overarching influence of Sanders’s campaign may be the spur for a grander shift in the political leanings of the American Left.
These shifts have already been felt in the primary elections and caucuses held so far. In Nevada, 70 percent of Democratic voters identified as liberal, as opposed to 50 percent in 2008. In Iowa, around 68 percent of Democratic voters identified as liberal, as opposed to around 54 percent in 2008 (Quinnipiac University, 02.2016). Just 20 years ago, “liberal” was a bad word used by Republicans to undermine Democratic politicians.
To contextualize historically, the word “liberal” began to be used as a pejorative term during the late 1970’s and 1980’s, especially during the Reagan administration. Reagan and his political advisors sought to distance liberalism from love of country.
A famous example of this was Reagan’s then-Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt quipping, “I never use the words Republicans and Democrats. It’s liberals and Americans.” Such rhetoric manifested itself in much of the Democratic establishment abandoning or skating around the label.
However, the stigmatization of the “L” word among Democrats seems to have lost its fervor over the past eight years.
The popularity of Sanders fits into the larger narrative of a leftward shifting Democratic base while also moving away from the highly popular brand of conservatism crafted by Ronald Reagan (“Reagan Democrats”) and the prosperity-associated “Third Way” centricism of Bill Clinton.
The veracity of this simplified narrative is contentious, but a more nuanced view into the ideological movements of the American electorate (in particular, the rise of progressivism among moderates) reveals the intricacy of how American politics are changing.
The success Bernie Sanders has seen is a testament to such notions. And it’s exactly this success which could propagate significant reform within the Democratic establishment, the 2016 Congressional elections and the vision of Hillary Clinton should she be elected President.
While polarization continues to plague the national political scene, a unified, solidly liberal voting block could lead to significant changes in the ideological makeup of Washington come this November (a common criticism of the modern GOP is lack of solidarity among major Party members).
While Sanders’s recent successes indicate a potential fracturing within the Democratic Party, it is exactly this fracturing that could force Democrats to reevaluate and make proper reforms internally to better reflect the changing political identities of their electorate as well as forge alliances with left-leaning moderates by increasing visibility.
Last summer, Politico ran an article detailing the shedding of negative connotations associated with identifying as liberal prior to the Democratic primaries, long before the unexpected (and unprecedented) rise of Bernie Sanders as a formidable opponent to the more moderate Clinton.
The article cited Gallup poll findings that 47 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents called themselves liberal, which is up 17 percent from 2001 and 8 percent from 2008. This is a stark difference from the “Americans vs. liberal” dichotomy propagated throughout political discourse throughout the late 20th century.
However, the article acknowledged the nuances of the divide between liberal vs. conservative vs. moderate labels, saying, “The ultimate question is: are moderates increasingly overlapping with liberals, and moving the country left?” (Politico, “‘Liberal’ Isn’t a Bad Word Anymore,” 06.21.2015). Appealing to moderates remains a crucial component of election seasons for both parties, as a majority of the country has traditionally fallen towards the center of the political spectrum.
A CBS/New York Times poll in 2015 found that the country favored government intervention in the issue of income inequality (57 percent) and a Pew poll found that 54 percent favored raising taxes on the wealthy. Bill Scher, the article’s author, asserts that, “It may seem counterintuitive, but the rise in liberal pride is crucial to liberals building a long-lasting relationship with moderates and cementing a post- Obama leftward trajectory.”
The rise in liberal identification among Democratic voters this election cycle rings true with Scher’s arguments, as evidenced by relatively strong support for a candidate who identifies as a democratic socialist. It is clear that the Democratic Party has been steadily moving leftward for over a decade.
Publications such as The Washington Post have credited Sanders with pushing Clinton leftward and encouraging her to more enthusiastically adopting a “progressive” label since October, a further reflection of the impact of these ideological shifts and Sanders’s campaign itself (The Washington Post, “Bernie Sanders’ success may be pushing Hillary Clinton to the left,” 10.08.2015).
Additionally, moderates who lean Democrat have been exponentially supporting typically progressive viewpoints over the last decade. Acknowledging this movement could very well catalyze massive changes in Washington this November.
Predicting the outcome of future elections is a futile effort, especially when the presidential and Congressional elections are still many months away. However, recent voter turnout and demographic studies have hinted strongly that the Democratic Party’s future lies in the hands of a unified, visible, diverse and proud liberal force that has not existed in decades.
If the Democrats are to retake Congress and maintain the presidency, the party must focus its attention on the ever-evolving identities of its electoral base.
A tentative, wavering flirtation with liberalism (the same type that the party has been invoking since the Reagan administration) will, in the long run, do nothing to unite voters, especially moderates. The Democratic Party must instead fully embrace its leftward shifting voter base to unify and win this November.