The Sanders-Clinton distinction: Running to do, not to be something

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It’s not hard to see that the Hillary Clinton forces are becoming impatient. Bernie Sanders acts like he didn’t get the memo. He continues to add surprising wins to his totals, looking to fight on, as the national convention approaches. Gigantic, fervent crowds greet him at every venue, as if they fail to realize he’s thought to be dead. Politics, in 2016, marches to mysterious drums.

I, for one, will be surprised if this changes. Traditional electoral etiquette may suggest it’s time for Sanders to fold his tent, declare fealty to the Clinton cause and deliver his passion-driven disciples to the former secretary of state for deployment. I’m not sure he can bring himself to do it. If he does, I’m even less certain they’ll listen. He may walk to the endorsing platform alone.

The first reason is obvious. Sanders and Clinton have dramatically different visions of politics.

Sanders is potently ideological. He has pressed the same economically egalitarian agenda for decades. He runs to do something, not to be it. If someone else could trigger a populist revolt as effectively, he’d likely have given way. I doubt he’s “berned” to be president. He has, though, I’m sure, longed to help create a different kind of society. Forever.

Clinton, like her husband and probably most politicians, has had her eye on the levers of power. She’d say she’s pragmatic, she’s effective, she knows how to get things done. This has meant, for decades, that she has been as flexible and shape-shifting as the desert sand.

She’s one of America’s leading globalists, until, reportedly, she’s not. She hawks international pipelines until she’s horrified by them. She votes for war, then declaims for peace. She demands mass incarceration until she’s appalled by it. She’s Wall Street’s best friend until she detests it. She sells the Lincoln bedroom and embraces super PACs, as she commits to strain money out of politics. It’s a different approach.

So different, in fact, that its rejection comprises a core component of the Sanders revolution. The intense loathing of chameleon politics is, perhaps, the main procedural plank of the platform. Clinton and her cadre seemingly believe this to be naïve, unschooled – saying one thing while doing another is, after all, politics. Maybe so, the Sandersistas reply. If it is, it’s like a bath in warm creosote. They want nothing to do with it.

The second reason is larger. Sanders is, to be sure, a newly minted Democrat. But his political agenda is Democratic old school. Fighting poverty, slamming economic inequality, assuring access to opportunity for low-income folks and battling tycoons and bankers sounds like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Sanders is no FDR. But I’m guessing, if he has an iPod, which I admit is unlikely, it loops Roosevelt’s 1936 Madison Square Garden address: “the (economic royalists) are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”

In fact, concern for those at the bottom was standard Democratic fare until … the Clintons. They were triangulating, third way, deregulating, corporatist, New Democrats – famously “ending” big government, crushing welfare, demanding NAFTA, linking the party to a marriage with Wall Street and Hollywood that mirrored Republican economic policy and removed the interests of the bottom third from the American political agenda.

In this sense, Clinton is a more pointed and specific adversary of the Sanders’ movement than even Republicans like Mitt Romney and, now, Donald Trump.

Romney ran, of course, as a scarcely concealed agent of wealth. Trump is a billionaire TV star who decided he wants to be president. Almost completely unfamiliar with American history, political theory, governmental structure and operation, religion, social and cultural engagement, and the enormous complexities of international interaction, Trump discovered quickly that bigotry and nativism work well on the political stage. He understands less of what’s led to the Clinton-Sanders struggle than he knows about cuisine in Mexico.

The Clintons, on the other hand, are likely more responsible for the Democratic Party’s modern drift than any other humans. They looked hard at a traditional party commitment to low-income people, concluded it jeopardized their electoral fortunes and determined to abandon it.

It’s understandably nauseating, therefore, for the Sanders folks to be told it is their obligation to make the nomination process easier for Clinton. When that includes lectures about the high ground, it is more than activists ought be asked to bear.

I hope they come around. Trump both humiliates and endangers America. But if they don’t, it’ll be important to remember where much of the fault lies. Draining politics of its meaning, too, has its costs.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.