“POLITICS IS THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE, the attainable, the next best.” It’s hard to imagine a more dispiriting definition of a more vital activity. The author of the phrase, Germany’s “Iron Chancellor”, Otto von Bismarck, might just as well have said “Sex is the art of reproduction.” It is, of course, but that’s by no means all it is!
Certainly, the 1,800-plus delegates pledged to Bernie Sanders who travelled to Philadelphia last week arrived with a much broader definition of politics than Bismarck’s. In the hearts and minds of the hundreds of young Americans who turned up for the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Centre, the mission they had come to fulfil in July 2016 was the same mission America’s Founding Fathers came to fulfil in Philadelphia in July 1776: to make a revolution.
What greeted them was something a great deal less than revolutionary – the Democratic Party.
One of the two great electoral engines History has vouchsafed to the American Republic, the Democratic Party has no real parallel among New Zealand’s political parties. In its essence the Democratic Party has made itself the voice of American diversity.
Originally the party of the slave-owning American South, the Democratic Party extended its reach to embrace the burgeoning urban immigrant communities of nineteenth and twentieth century America. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt forged an electoral coalition incorporating the racially segregated South and the unionised communities of the industrial North-East.
Roosevelt’s mildly social-democratic “New Deal” lent the Democratic Party a progressive cast which, by the 1960s, had become utterly incompatible with the segregationist policies of the racist South. The joining together of progressive Southern Blacks and liberal Northern Whites in the Civil Rights Movement forced the issue within the Democratic Party.
By shepherding the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress in the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson knowingly (and heroically) precipitated an historic electoral schism. In the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, millions of Southern Whites deserted the Democratic Party’s candidates for Richard Nixon. The Republican Party: the party which had arisen out of the great fight against slavery; the party of Abraham Lincoln; had effectively swapped places with the party of the slave-owners.
It was into this highly-charged political environment that Sanders’ revolutionaries came a-marching with what the old Marxist-Leninists would have called their “maximum” programme.
An older generation of Democratic Party activists had seen such a programme before. In 1972, Senator George McGovern (in whose cause a young woman named Hillary Clinton had campaigned tirelessly) secured the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. His unabashedly progressive policy platform proved to be radically out-of-sync with the American electorate and he was decisively defeated by Richard Nixon.
McGovern’s fate made the Democratic Party leadership extremely wary of impossibilities. That it was gathering in Philadelphia to endorse what was, by US standards, a radically progressive platform represented a hugely important victory for Bernie Sanders and his followers. Their success in the primaries had convinced the Democratic National Committee that the time was ripe for policies which, in less turbulent times, they would have rejected out-of-hand. They were persuaded that a genuinely progressive Hillary Clinton presidency was possible.
Hundreds of delegates wanted more. The “Bernie-or-Bust” faction was not content with the “next best” choice imposed upon them by the primary voting system. That the organisers of the Convention might take this refusal to accept the democratic verdict of their party amiss does not seem to have occurred to the die-hard Sanders delegates. They were also unaware of just how hard a game of hardball the Convention organisers would be willing to play to ensure that the nomination of Hillary Clinton went off smoothly.
Bernie Sanders was not unaware: he understood both how much his campaign for the Democratic nomination had won, and how much could be lost if the Convention descended into factional chaos. Like so many other delegates, he was also all-too-aware of the dark shadow Trumpism was casting over America. Having achieved all that was possible in the prevailing political climate; all that was attainable; he was ready to endorse Hillary as the “next best” presidential candidate to himself.
Hillary, too, knew what was at stake. She also understood that enduring revolutions are built out of compromises – not barricades. As she reflected in her acceptance speech:
“When representatives from 13 unruly colonies met just down the road from here, some wanted to stick with the King. Some wanted to stick it to the king, and go their own way. The revolution hung in the balance. Then somehow they began listening to each other … compromising … finding common purpose. And by the time they left Philadelphia, they had begun to see themselves as one nation. That’s what made it possible to stand up to a King.”
What we will discover over the next 100 days is whether sufficient Americans have mastered enough of the art of the possible to resist the blandishments of a man who would happily crown himself America’s first king in 240 years.