The Democratic Party is in trouble. Politically, philosophically, spiritually, demographically. Bernie Sanders won’t save the party or win the presidency. But he is setting the scene for the party’s reform and renewal.
John the Baptist was a terrible candidate to lead a religious revolution. He was a wild-eyed radical who seemed to be crazy. His people skills needed work. But his cause found a much better spokesman and leader, who took it to the next level. And then some.
When you think carefully about the party and its recent Presidents and leaders, you look hard for real radical inspiration. Bill Clinton was affable and politically adept, but his was the politics of radical compromise, to the point of digging a rut in the middle of the road that invited neo-conservative disaster and greed. Barack Obama was genuinely inspirational, and has helped the cause of humane Americanism as much as politics would allow. But circumstances and inclination led him to solid pragmatism.
One problem with pragmatism is that it makes a terrible anthem and cause. Another is that it allows all sorts of accommodations that look to the would-be believer like nothing but surrender.
That’s where Bernie Sanders and John the Baptist come together. When the stakes are high, and the troubles are deep, that’s when you have to invoke big visions. That’s what gets people who have fallen into both practical and spiritual malaise to answer the call and start working for real change.
There are few in the Democratic Party willing or able to do this. Whether or not Hillary Clinton wins the nomination or the election, it is not her. If she wins the nomination but loses the election, the party will do some typical superficial soul searching. If she wins both, she may consolidate her power, and the power of the establishment, but the Congress will be even less effective than it is now.
Either way, it is possible that Bernie Sanders is unleashing something bigger than the Clintons or any tepid self-inquiry the party may pretend to engage in. He may not be heir to the spirit of Bobby Kennedy, but he might as well be saying this:
“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
When Bernie Sanders is done with this election, another Democratic reformer and revolutionary will come along, and another. At that point, if we are lucky, millions of previously unengaged and disappointed people may come to the party dreaming and asking “why not?” And Bernie, like John the Baptist, will have prevailed.