Reflections on a Failed Democratic Revolution

By Bill Scher

Berniecrats, I know how you are feeling. I know how much that gut punch hurt. I know what it’s like to be convinced you’re about to upend the political order, only to be brutally informed on an election night that the rest of your own party doesn’t share your plans.

How could I—a hack political pundit from the corporate media, who has been droning on for months about how the Democratic Party is more moderate than you think—be so empathetic to your plight?

Because 16 years ago, at the spry age of 31, I was a wide-eyed liberal blogger who felt that my scribbles on LiberalOasis.com were playing a small part in changing American politics, only to find my mouth agape at the shellacking that my antiwar, anti-Democratic establishment candidate, Howard Dean, took in the Iowa caucuses.

The Deaniac left recovered from that disorienting night. We stayed in the fight and changed the Democratic Party. You can too. But be aware: The Democratic Party might change you, too.

Dean had been riding high in the polls for so long that a victory for the liberal “netroots” over the stodgy Democratic establishment felt inevitable. In December 2003, I declared Dean’s nomination a “near-certainty” on my blog and wondered aloud “Is It Our Party Now?”

It wasn’t. Dean placed a weak third in Iowa, and his attempt to lift his supporters’ spirits backfired spectacularly. “DEAN GOES NUTS” blared the Drudge Report website, a reminder that neither insinuating mental instability nor conservative media are new elements in our politics. Dean fans attacked the news media for unfairly depicting the caucus-night scene in the Iowa ballroom. The clips of the “Dean Scream” didn’t capture the deafening crowd noise the candidate was yelling over. But his campaign was fatally wounded by his loss in Iowa even before he made that weird yelp that’s still used as a sound effect by morning radio hosts.

What happened next to the Deaniacs should give the supporters of Bernie Sanders both hope and pause. On the hope side of the ledger, the spirit of the Dean campaign left its imprint on the Democratic Party: more willing to fight, more eager to stand on principled ground and more adept at “people-powered” small-donor fundraising. Barack Obama built on Dean’s technological innovations and proud articulation of his beliefs, and in 2008, Obama provided the liberal breakthrough of the netroots’ dreams.

On the other hand, as Deaniacs aged and as we divided over the merits of the Obama presidency, we became less of a cohesive ideological force. If the baby boomers form the bulk of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, and the millennials dominate among the democratic socialists, Howard Dean’s Generation Xers are all over the map. Some of us embraced radical change and political revolution. Some just wanted sharper partisanship. And some, like myself, developed a new appreciation for moderation and compromise.

For some of us, the Obama years deepened the view that corporate influence in the political system is corrosive and corrupting. “When I worked on Dodd-Frank, you could see the unbelievable power of the financial industry,” Zephyr Teachout, who served as Dean’s director of online organizing, told me. That experience helped lead her to Sanders, because he was talking “about the need to take on powerful interests at the root of their power.”

But for others, the lesson of the Obama years was that a progressive agenda is attainable only if Congress becomes more responsive to the will of the majority—a view that led them away from Sanders and toward Elizabeth Warren. “Nothing says that Bernie is not serious more than his refusal to support filibuster reform,” Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos.com and a consultant for the Dean campaign, told me. “It was a signal that he literally has zero interest in getting any of his agenda passed.”

For me, the legislative sausage-making that produced the Affordable Care Act sparked my own political epiphany. While many of my progressive brethren were livid at Barack Obama’s compromises with the pharmaceutical lobby, and his acquiescence to insurers by shelving the then-controversial idea of a public option, those maneuvers instead ended my fealty to progressive articles of faith that had been nurtured inside the blogosphere bubble.

Sixteen years earlier, Bill and Hillary Clinton—despite their current reputations as neoliberal corporatists—fought the insurance lobby Warren-style, with blood and teeth on the floor. The only problem was that it was the blood and teeth of the Clintons.

We had told ourselves that we couldn’t have nice things because of the power wielded by corporate interests, which necessitated the stripping of that power through campaign finance reform. Yet with the Affordable Care Act, corporate interests aided and abetted, however begrudgingly, the biggest expansion of health insurance since the creation of Medicare. That was the single biggest reason why Obamacare passed and Hillarycare didn't.

I suddenly found myself diving into the histories of the Great Society and the New Deal, wondering how Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson were more easily able in their respective times to be corporate slayers. I found the opposite: Those crafty machiavellians had compromised with corporate interests too! This rocked my progressive world.

Obamacare prompted other progressives—dissatisfied that single-payer was never part of the debate, and that the final bill lacked a public option—to conclude that bolder issue positions must be part of the presidential campaign and that big donors needed to be treated as toxic if a true progressive agenda was to be realized. I went in the opposite direction: To advance liberal priorities, history teaches us that we need corporate assistance.

How the near future will impact you, young democratic socialist Berniecrats, remains to be seen. Maybe President Joe Biden would find a way to pass progressive legislation with bipartisan Senate supermajorities, which might change the way you think about compromises. Or maybe he runs into a brick wall of Republican obstruction, further deepening your conviction that only congressional rule changes and a mobilized grassroots can change the system. Or maybe Donald Trump beats Biden, bolstering your argument that Washington insiders peddling bipartisan gruel can’t win elections.

The argument offered by many Berniecrats that Sanders has already won the issue arguments is a flimsy one, now hanging on the results of simplistic Democratic primary exit poll questions, such as “How do you feel about replacing all private health insurance with a single government plan for everyone?” While single-payer is winning in these exit polls, there’s other data showing that single-payer support crumbles when concerns about taxes are raised—as Elizabeth Warren learned the hard way. Moreover, the exit poll question didn’t give Democrats the option of adding a public health insurance option to the Affordable Care Act, which other data shows is considerably more popular among Democrats than single-payer. All this helps explain why Bernie Sanders is not going to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2020.

Nevertheless, as a literal matter, millennial and Gen Z Berniecrats, you are the future of the Democratic Party. Political parties are organic, not static, entities. Even if the next Democratic president is not your BFF, if you stay in the Democratic Party, you will shape it.

But that doesn’t automatically mean that a democratic socialist future is foreordained once the Baby Boomers die off. Because by that point, you may not be a socialist anymore.

Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager, is now 64. Our life experiences alter our political outlooks, as he observed to me. “Somebody who just had a kid, or maybe, was literally just out of high school,” when they embraced Dean, is now “at a different point in their life,” Trippi said. “At 18, being a Deaniac,” said Trippi, “you can fall in love with a lot of our positions and be a progressive. But at some point, you start to realize, ‘I want progressive ideas passed.’”

The Deaniacs aren’t the only insurgents whose hopes and dreams gave way to impatience. The boomers did us one better: in 1972, they won the Democratic Party presidential nomination for their great liberal hope, George McGovern. Then they got old and nominated Joe Biden. Ok millennial?