Bernie v. The Establishment

By Dr Russell Bentley, Associate Professor in Political Theory and Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education) at the University of Southampton.


Bernie Sanders should have done much worse in the Iowa caucuses. He should have been respectably ahead of O’Malley, which he was, but not within a hair of Clinton. The pollsters had noticed that he was improving his chances as the race developed, but this is not the outcome the pollsters were expecting. It certainly was not the outcome Hillary Clinton was expecting.

The Democratic nomination is quickly shaping up to be a very curious contest – not between Clinton and Sanders, but between Sanders and Clinton as a personification of The Establishment. Clinton is acquiring the unenviable position of being the Democratic version of the thing Republicans have been railing against at least since the emergence of the Tea Party movement: status quo politics in Washington. Sanders gave an extraordinary almost-victory speech after the Iowa results were announced and, early into that speech, he managed numerous references to “the establishment” – political, economic, media, perhaps anyone or anything that is not formally allied with the Sanders campaign.

Sanders is the insurgency candidate from the American left (not to be confused with the European left). He is the Democratic candidate who was an independent until recently, who had to join the Democratic Party well after declaring his candidacy for the party’s nomination. There was a bit of stupid talk some months ago about Hillary Clinton having supported the 1964 Goldwater campaign while Bernie was busy fighting for civil rights. The chatter – a moment of social media over-excitement – was meant to suggest that she is really a DINO, a Democrat in name only. The truth is, however, that she has been working within the Democratic Party for so long that she is one of its elite members and chief influencers. For an insurgency campaign like Sanders’, she is the perfect foil for his message. Whatever she has done, whatever she has had to do to get ahead in the party over nearly fifty years has made her the poster child for that amorphous thing that is just called The Establishment. Good ideas, practical policies, realisable goals, a capacity to get things done – Clinton can demonstrate them all. But a success under each heading ends up making her even more visibly the personification of The Establishment.

At the beginning of the campaign, when Clinton first announced, it all looked to be going her way. She was unbeatable. When the expectation is decisive victory, anything less is defeat. Sanders only had to meet expectations, but he romped ahead of them and did so by redirecting the campaign towards a debate about what The Establishment stands for and what the American people stand for. Clinton becomes a placeholder in that Sanders-driven narrative. Can she shake it off? The odds are against her in New Hampshire, the next chance that voters have to express a preference. After her upset in 2008, however, we should expect The Establishment to strike back with vigour and to keep this contest alive well through Super Tuesday and beyond.

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