As you can probably guess, most Democratic Party insiders were really hoping Bernie Sanders would formally drop out of the race this week and offer Hillary Clinton a fulsome endorsement. But they also recognize that he’s stopped attacking her, is promising to work against Donald Trump, and has basically accepted that the race is over — so if he wants to fade away slowly, they are happy to live with that.
The aspect of Sanders’s speech that really set them off last night was something entirely different. Not the fact that Sanders said he wanted his supporters to continue to influence the direction of the party but the specific way he characterized this direction:
I also look forward to working with Secretary Clinton to transform the Democratic Party so that it becomes a party of working people and young people, and not just wealthy campaign contributors: a party that has the courage to take on Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, the fossil fuel industry and the other powerful special interests that dominate our political and economic life.
It’s incredibly frustrating for people who’ve been working in mainstream Democratic Party politics to hear their party described as something other than a party for "working people." Clinton won the votes of millions of working-class Americans, primarily people of color, throughout the 2016 primaries; and in the 2012, 2008, 2004, and 2000 election cycles there’s been a pronounced tendency for lower-income voters to back the Democratic candidate and higher-income ones to back the Republican.
Similarly, it comes as a shock to people who participated in the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill (or the White House’s series of later anti-bank regulatory actions) or who’ve worked to uphold the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plant rule that they apparently lack the courage to stand up to Wall Street and fossil fuel interests.
Why Sanders got so little institutional support
It’s one thing to disagree with people about policy substance or political tactics. But something Sanders has done throughout his campaign and very pointedly did here is straightforwardly challenge the good faith of the vast majority of his colleagues in Democratic Party politics. It’s worked pretty well for him on the stump, but it doesn’t win you a lot of friends. And to be honest, it’s simply wrong — you can raise a lot of objections to Obama’s approach to Wall Street or climate change, but the fact is that the financial services industry and the fossil fuel industries have been fighting him every step of the way.
This is important to understanding why, at the end of the day, Sanders got so very little institutional support for his campaign despite a very long career in Congress that’s involved a lot of working constructively with other members and left-wing interest groups.
Even labor unions and progressive members of Congress who share important aspects of Sanders’s worldview have also been there in the trenches and seen these things happen. They’ve fought to get the Labor Department fiduciary rule enacted, fought for net neutrality, fought to raise taxes on the rich in 2009 and again in 2013, and fought to expand Medicaid.
A lot of the people who’ve fought for those things agree with Sanders that they didn’t go far enough in important ways, or even that key people in the party didn’t push hard enough or strong enough for them. But a lot of Sanders’s rhetoric seems to simply erase these battles, as if the whole party were just sitting on its hands until Bernie and his political revolution came to town.