At the start of the last decade of the 20th century, the Democratic Party was in disarray.
Demolished by Reagan in 1980 and ‘84, and then again by H.W. Bush in ‘88, the ideological foundations which set the modern Democratic Party in motion in the 1960s had become corrupted, watered down, out of touch, the party abandoned by traditional and expected voters alike.
The situation was such that as the 1992 election approached, many of the presumed Democratic frontrunners declined, in a fit of hopelessness and resignation, to throw their hat in the race for President.
Into this void stepped a group of party up-and-comers, people like Bill (and Hillary) Clinton, Joe Biden, and Al Gore. Seeking to differentiate themselves from the failures and depravity of the past, they branded themselves not as Democrats, but as ‘New Democrats.’
The ascension of these ‘New Democrats’ to dominance within the party was punctuated by Bill Clinton’s victory over H.W. Bush in the 1992 election, the first Baby Boomer elected President and first since the WWII not to have served in that war, a man who played saxophone in his sunglasses on Arsenio Hall.
‘New Democrats,’ indeed.
Except, ideologically, these New Democrats planted their flag to the right of Ronald Reagan, expanding the War on Drugs and the incarceration state while dismantling welfare and removing Glass-Steagall under Clinton, then supporting war and government spying under W. Bush.
Carrying this record, their key moment came in 2007/08.
In a country fed up with the neoconservative rule of the W. Bush administration, New Democrats expected to sail unimpeded back into the White House behind another Clinton. They did not, however, count on a “skinny kid with big ears and a funny name.”
Go back and rewatch what then-Senator Obama was saying on the 07/08 campaign trail. In many cases, he veered dangerously close to sounding like a democratic socialist from Vermont.
What Barack Obama did was allow people on the left, members of the Democratic Party, a moment for an examination of their own self-definition.
For two straight 2-term presidencies, the spectrum of ‘the left’ had been defined by New Democrats, who had come to be called ‘Clinton Democrats.’ But those who wanted to push the parameters of the social welfare, of equality and social justice, could not help but notice that under a magnifying glass, Hillary Clinton appeared a lot closer to Republican nominee John McCain, to President Bush even, than she did to Barack Obama.
For many of these people, who propelled Obama to office twice, his was a presidency of something like failure, an abandonment of those early words. Still, the seeds had been sown.
With the disparity made clear, many on the left had decided that if they were to remain functioning members of the Democratic Party, they would need to differentiate themselves from Clinton Democrats; they would need to become new New Democrats.
When, in 2015, Bernie Sanders appeared out of the wilderness of Vermont calling himself the same thing he’d been calling himself since he founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus in 1991, he provided just such an opportunity. Those who wanted to position themselves on the left, but did not want to associate with the actions and beliefs of Clinton Democrats could call themselves something else — progressives.
But it would not be so simple.
Clinton Democrats, who themselves stage their own coup of old-power lethargy and outdated ideas in the early 90s, and had seen the storm clouds gathering in 2008, were prepared.
When Bernie called himself a progressive, Hillary simply called herself a “progressive who likes to get things done.” In short order, the staunchest members of the Clinton old-guard — from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on down — were calling themselves progressives.
Right-wing media quickly picked this shift up, presenting Clinton Democrats as progressives, since it benefited them to have the ideological left stationed right of Reagan, allowing the conservative end of the spectrum to go full off the map. Liberal media did the same, so as to protect their co-conspirators in mutual agenda.
It was, through appropriation, a rejection by Clinton Democrats of people’s right to ideological self-definition, a rejection of the idea that what constitutes ‘the left’ can be defined by anyone but them.
In 2020, should he make it that far, all eyes will be on President Trump, his defeat or victory. But one of the more interesting subplots of the election will be the battle among Democrats for the right to ideological self-definition and, more broadly, the battle for the ideological position of the Democratic Party as a whole. Already, the 2018 midterms saw the most progressive class of Democrats elected in memory, people as far from Pelosi and Schumer as Bernie Sanders is from Hillary Clinton.
And speaking of Senator Sanders and 2020, Bernie made an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week, where he was his usual curmudgeonly yet lovable self. Near the end of the interview, Colbert asked him if he was going to run for President in 2020.
Certainly, the answer is likely yes, and it is unlikely that the announcement will be made on late-night television. In this position, most politicians resort to the stock answer — something about keeping all options open and the hope that, no matter the nominee, all Democrats can come together to defeat the opponent.
Bernie, as he often does, went with a more nuanced response, which he closed with this small but significant statement:
“I’m trying to ascertain, quite honestly, going beyond ego … which candidate’s ideas can most turn this country around so that we have a government that works for all of us and not just the people on top.”
With these words, Bernie illustrates perhaps what best differentiates him from Clinton Democrats clinging to their fading power with tooth and nail.
For nearly 30 years, Bernie has fought in the halls of government for the same things, defended the same principles even in the face of mockery and scorn. But, after all those years of existing mostly on the radical fringes of the conversation, Bernie now finds that his ideas have gained mainstream popularity.
Yet despite these facts, what Bernie expresses in his statement to Colbert, is that he does not feel an entitlement, as runner-up last time and currently most popular politician in the country, to the nomination this time around — more than could be said in the past for certain Democrats of less stellar credentials.
Further, he expresses that he doesn’t believe in his ideas simply because they are his ideas, but because after decades of dogged pursuit he believes them to be best for the country. Unlike Clinton Democrats, who refuse to recognize that their ideological role in the great theater of national politics is over, Bernie expresses exactly the opposite — that if someone came along with better ideas and more momentum, he would be first in line to support that person, just as he has done in standing with 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her quest to create a Green New Deal. This, because he is not planning his next power move, rather, he is searching for the ideas that can best help the country.
With that in mind, the question to ask Senator Sanders about 2020 is the same question to ask Democrats:
Who else, but Bernie?