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“Bernie Slanders:” How the Democratic Party Establishment Suffocates Progressive Change

Party elites tarnish Sanders’ proposals unjustifiably to rule out his policies.

March 24, 2016

Party elites tarnish Sanders' proposals unjustifiably to rule out his policies.

The Democratic Party establishment has recently found itself discomforted by Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign to return the party to its modern roots of New Deal social democracy.

The establishment’s response has included a complex coupling of elite media and elite economics opinion.

The exercise is aimed at promoting an image of Sanders as an unelectable extremist with unrealistic economic policies.

The response provides a case study showing how the “Democratic” establishment suffocates progressive change.

Every progressive knows about the opposition and tactics of the Republican Party. Less understood are the opposition and tactics of the Democratic Party establishment. Speaking metaphorically, that establishment is a far lesser evil, but it may also be a far greater obstacle to progressive change.

Gunning for Sanders

The elite media’s response was captured in a snapshot report by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR). It showed that the Washington Post ran 16 major negative stories on Sanders in 16 hours, shortly before the Michigan primary.

The headlines were particularly hostile. That matters greatly, since only 40% of the public reads past the headline. That makes the headline as important as the substance of the story.

Unfounded economic criticism

Economic policy has been the core of Sanders’ campaign, which caused Paul Krugman of The New York Times to jump into the fray in defense of elite opinion.

For years, Krugman has mockingly used the term “very serious people” to attack Republicans opposed to President Obama’s policies. Now, he unironically revokes the credentials of all who do not support Clinton by declaring:

“every serious progressive policy expert on either health care or financial reform who has weighed in on the primary seems to lean Hillary.”

Regarding Sanders’ opposition to neoliberal trade agreements, Krugman writes:

“In this, as in many other things, Sanders currently benefits from the luxury of irresponsibility: he’s never been anywhere close to the levers of power, so he could take principled-sounding but arguably feckless stances in a way that Clinton couldn’t and can’t.”

The slamming of Sanders has also been joined by a gang of past Democratic appointee Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers.

In an open letter co-addressed to Senator Sanders, Messrs. Kruger, Goolsbee, Romer and Tyson mauled a favorable empirical assessment of Sander’s economic program conducted by Professor Gerald Friedman.

Without any detailed independent assessment, they simply declared the assessment unsupported by the “economic evidence.”

The attack on Friedman’s was then continued by Justin Wolfers, via one of his regular New York Times opinion pieces. His accusation was that Friedman was wrong because the economic gains from Sanders’ fiscal stimulus program would die back when full employment was reached and the stimulus withdrawn.

Wolfers is co-editor of the prestigious Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. It is therefore not without irony that a recent issue of those Papers contained an article by elite Democratic economists Larry Summers and Brad DeLong.

Summers and DeLong pointedly argued that a large negative spending shock can permanently lower output. Friedman simply reversed that train of thought and argued a large positive spending shock can permanently raise output and growth.

There is legitimate room for intellectual difference. What is so stunning is the tone of the critique and the fact it sought to diminish an important policy (fiscal stimulus) just because Sanders was using it to his political advantage.

Given their elite professional standing and easy access to elite media, these attacks quickly ramified into national policy discussion circles, illustrating how the elite media/elite opinion nexus works.

Defending the status quo

The slamming of Sanders reflects an unwavering commitment to defending the status quo – even though that status quo may be failing the majority of Americans.

The defense usually begins with insinuations of extremism, then mixes in charges of lack of qualification and realism, and ends with assertions of un-electability. It is applied in both political and public intellectual life.

The un-electability charge is presented in a three step process: Americans will not elect extremists; Sanders is an extremist; ergo, Sanders is unelectable.

The problem with this niftily crafted insinuation is it lacks foundation. Polls show Sanders beating all the potential Republican nominees, and beating Trump handily.

The third charge is lack of qualification. The reality is Sanders has a 50-year history of political involvement.

He has worked his way through the political ranks serving people, served as Mayor of Vermont’s largest city, then Vermont’s representative in Congress where he co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and after that he became a Senator for Vermont. That seems to be exactly the career and CV a President should have.

Downsizing expectations

Lastly, Sanders has been dismissed as selling unrealistic pipe dreams. Social Security would be a pipe dream if we did not already have it; so would Medicare and public education too. There is a lesson in that. Pipe dreams are the stuff of change.

Rather than an excess of pipe dreams, America’s current dismal condition is the product of fear of dreaming. Perversely, the Democratic Party establishment actually does the Republicans’ job — downsizing economic and political expectations.

Senator Sanders aims to upsize expectations, which is why he has been viewed as such a threat.

November will be a time for Democratic voters to come together to stop whoever the Republicans nominate. In the meantime, there is a big lesson to be learned.

Today, the Democratic establishment has used status quo defense mechanism to tarnish Bernie Sanders. Tomorrow it will, once again, use it to rule out progressive policy personnel and options.

Progressives must surface the obstruction posed by the Democratic Party establishment. Primaries are prime time to do that, which means there is good reason for Sanders’ campaign to continue.


Democratic Party actually does the Republicans’ job -- downsizing economic and political expectations.

Senator Sanders aims to upsize expectations, which is why he has been viewed as such a threat.

The slamming of Sanders reflects an unwavering commitment to defending the status quo.