For years now, the left has rather enjoyed — and I can’t say that I blame them — watching the chaos in the Republican party, which has been caused by the insurgent, anti-establishment, populist rebellion within the conservative movement.
Tired of professional politicians, broken promises, chameleon-like shifts to core ideology, and horse trading for power rather than working for the people, the activist base on the right, and even many in the rank and file, have gotten sick of the the way things are and have sought to destroy the old system. In its place, they wish to create a new, more principled, authentic one, with different leaders — preferably outsiders and true believers — to replace the old guard.
Thus was born the Tea Party movement and the more populist strain of conservatism.
Democrats and progressive activists watched with glee as chaos ensued. Long serving incumbents began to lose elections. Winnable elections were lost because more electable candidates were beaten in primaries by ideological alternatives. Divisions were created between pragmatists and idealists, collaborators and rabble rousers, as well as leaders and backbenchers.
Worse, the instigation of these divisions began to show major fractures in the conservative coalition, and old allies who had swallowed their differences to work for their common goals began to notice that they didn’t necessarily share as much ideologically as they thought. Libertarians quarreled with religious conservatives. Moderates warred with ideologues of many stripes. Business conservatives went nose to nose with immigration activists. Hawks and security conservatives engaged in bitter conflicts with non-interventionists and civil libertarians opposed to the NSA.
In other words, a big, giant mess.
On the left, you had remarkable cohesion. Unified around a central galvanizing figure, President Obama, and with leaders pressing a very progressive agenda, it seemed as though the entirety of the leftist coalition was together, with one hive mind.
There was no dissension in the ranks. Democrats were not eating their own in primaries. They were not publicly warring with each other on policy. They did not seem to have large groups of people who disagreed with each other under the same roof. To observers, the left was one amorphous blob of liberalism — a bloc of progressive concrete, unbreakable and strong.
The funny thing about that, though, is how very different the world looked just a decade ago. In 2004, in the aftermath of President Bush’s re-election, it was Republicans who were an unbreakable, unified political group, and it was the Democratic Party that looked to be a fractured mess.
Why? Because leadership matters. Good, strong leadership, and a centralizing figure can bring cohesion where it might not typically be. Bad leadership, or the absence of leadership, can expose divisions that were always there.
The Republicans experienced a failure of leadership during President Bush’s second term. The promise of his re-election was washed away with major failures on Social Security and immigration reform, made worse by an increasingly bloody conflict in Iraq. That perception of failed stewardship created discontent.
Then, when Barack Obama became president, failed leadership became no leadership, and the “fractured mess” became all the more pronounced.
But lest anyone on the left believe in the reality of their supposed ideological and party unity, let me reassure you that the left has enormous divisions as well, and they may very well become apparent soon.
You are seeing some of the beginnings of it now, with the 2016 Democratic primary in full swing.
Hillary Clinton is the single best representation of the establishment in the Democratic Party today. She has had malleable political opinions over the years, is a craven political operator who has difficulty sounding genuine (because she isn’t), and seems wholly dedicated to one principle and only one principle: getting elected.
Yet, there is a thirst among those on the left for something real, something more authentic. There is an increasing population of progressives who strongly desire a real fighter for their cause who cares less about getting elected or holding power and more about standing firm on principles.
This explains Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of course. And this impulse among liberal activists is so strong that Warren is the potential opponent Hillary worried about the most.
Warren isn’t running, yet the same thirst exists. The desire refuses to die. Many are looking for someone, anyone, who feels less like a machiavellian political animal, and more like a real person who reflects their values.
Enter Bernie Sanders. Starting with the most meager expectations, he has already confounded many. Arriving in Portland this week, he was greeted by nearly 8,000 screaming fans. In Wisconsin recently, he drew 10,000. All this for a disheveled, elderly socialist from a state absent from anyone’s mind.
And why? Authenticity. Anti-establishment sentiments. A principled campaign desperately desired by many on the left.
He won’t win, but his arrival may in fact be the canary in the coal mine for a soon to be chaotic future for liberals that very much resembles what has happened on the right.