Clinton Writes Off the Left
When Donald Trump presented his vice presidential running mate to the world, he was forthright with the rationale for selecting the relatively dull Mike Pence—a man who may perfectly embody the notion of a “generic Republican.” At the unveiling press conference, Trump declared in his characteristically unvarnished manner: “I think if you look at one of the big reasons that I chose Mike … one of the reasons is party unity.”
It doesn’t take much analytical heavy lifting to identify what picking Pence added to Trump’s prospectus. The GOP primary season made clear that ideological movement conservatives, who adhere dogmatically to the classic Reagan-derived “fusionist” brand of Republican politics, are a small, outnumbered faction of the party’s membership. But they still exist and vote at high rates, and a failure to court them would have had a real, adverse electoral impact. Crucially, they also wield disproportionate influence at the elite level. Thus, as Trump readily admitted, Pence serves to mollify these disaffected elements of the GOP coalition, which had been the faction of the party most hostile to Trump. Since the Pence announcement and the conclusion of the Cleveland convention last week, Trump’s favorability rating among GOP voters has risen by several percentage points.
Conversely, Hillary Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine, a milquetoast centrist senator from Virginia, shows how differently she views the imperatives of coalition-management within her own party. Whom, exactly, does the choice of Kaine mollify? There are great swaths of Democratic-leaning voters displeased with the nomination of Hillary, as the dramatic walkout by hundreds of Sanders convention delegates Tuesday in Philadelphia demonstrated. If Clinton had felt obliged to throw a proverbial bone to the chagrined ideologues in her party, as Trump did, Kaine would not have been a tenable choice. At the very least, she would have selected Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown—two Democrats with national profiles who on some level speak to the populist-inflected grievances harbored by the average Sanders voter.
Even after a charged, protracted Democratic primary season that revealed deep philosophical fractures in the party, Hillary’s willingness to cater to actors on her left remains minimal. Accordingly, the historic Sanders delegate walkout is emblematic of what should now be obvious: there is a level of hostility toward Hillary among activist-minded progressives that never existed toward Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012. For one thing, the composition of the party has changed dramatically over eight years. Ideological progressives, who in 2008 yearned principally for emancipation from the nightmare reign of George W. Bush, have since undergone gradations of radicalization: by the financial crisis, the Occupy movement, the Snowden revelations, Black Lives Matter, and other developments. Their critique of the established order is far more targeted and coherent than it was when Obama first ran. And they situate Hillary squarely within that order.
Hillary may have never won over the bulk of these people, but selecting a vice-presidential nominee who aligned somewhat with their present orientation would have at least constituted an attempt at placating them. Tim Kaine does not constitute any kind of attempt. If anything, he represents a rebuke to disaffected progressives. Throughout the primaries, Hillary’s campaign worked feverishly to make rhetorical overtures that suggested superficial awareness of underlying shifts in the party—the most glaring example perhaps being when she tweeted out a convoluted flow chart depicting her apparent vision of “intersectional” race theory, a freighted academic concept that has come to imbue much popular left-wing vocabulary. But when push came to shove and she could have taken a tangible action reflecting her awareness of these shifts, Hillary reverted to old habits: extreme risk aversion and a commitment to perpetuating the status quo.
If hundreds of Republican delegates had staged a mass walkout at the GOP convention last week in open defiance of Trump, does anyone seriously doubt that the elite media—especially on cable news—would have gone absolutely berserk with wall-to-wall, breathless coverage about how Trump failed to “unite the party”? Yes, there were minor displays of dissent by the misbegotten #NeverTrump faction in Cleveland, but nothing near comparable to the scale of this week’s Bernie-related theatrics. That’s an unprecedented level of intra-party dissension now facing Hillary, and her VP selection indicates she has no plans to take any substantive steps to remedy the problem.
It’s worth repeating: there is no precedent in modern history for such a mass display of disunity by elected delegates at a national political convention as occurred this week in Philadelphia. Hundreds of people elected at primaries and caucuses not only vacated the Wells Fargo arena, they subsequently staged incendiary acts of civil disobedience and stared down Pennsylvania State Police riot cops—all to express the depth of their opposition to Hillary. Then, on Thursday, swaths of delegates chanted, booed, jeered, and walked out on Hillary during her nomination-acceptance speech. The closest analog may be the infamous Democratic convention of 1968, which erupted into turmoil mainly over the Vietnam War. But that turmoil mostly had to do with external protests met with violence by Chicago police. These acts of rebellion in Philadelphia were carried out by duly credentialed delegates.
The lack of coverage the tumult received, despite its historical significance, is indicative of a wider problem that Sanders supporters have long identified: few members of the elite media are sympathetic to the “Bernie or Bust” movement, which has resulted in disproportionately little media attention. Conversely, the failed #NeverTrump movement had countless devotees active in elite political, media, and ancillary spheres, so it received outsized coverage relative to the actual number of GOP voters who supported that position. Furthermore, well-placed journalists tend to be fascinated by conservative protest movements, but scornful and dismissive of left-wing protest movements.
As a consequence of all this, perhaps there was no one proximate to Hillary who could have conveyed to her the extent to which the activist core of the Democratic party holds her in contempt. The ramifications may become clearer to her in November.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.