What Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton Both Get Wrong About "the Establishment"

AP Photo/David Goldman

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles as Senator Bernie Sanders answers a question during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by MSNBC at the University of New Hampshire Thursday, February 4, 2016, in Durham, New Hampshire. 

Everybody knows "the establishment" is something you definitely don't want to be a part of. It's full of old rich white guys smoking cigars and laughing about their offshore accounts as they run roughshod over the interests of real Americans, twisting government to the rapacious ends of their cronies and benefactors. And that establishment will do its best to crush anyone who challenges its privileged position. On this, it has become clear, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders agree.

The trouble is that this picture doesn't actually describe the Democratic Party's establishment very well. On the Republican side, there's been a lengthy and bitter fight between a pre-existing party power structure and a well-represented insurgency, each advocating a different tactical course and each with the ability to harm the other. Even if we might disagree about exactly who's part of the Republican establishment and how useful the term really is, it refers to something real, and to a real conflict between two sides who see a different path to achieving their goals. But when Sanders and Clinton use the word, they do it in the same way that someone like Ted Cruz does; the only thing they seem to disagree on is whether only Sanders is removed from the establishment (his position) or they both are (her position).  

There was a critical exchange about this in last Thursday's debate, one that started when moderator Rachel Maddow asked Sanders about the fact that Clinton has many more endorsements from Democratic officeholders than he does. Here's where it went from there:

SANDERS: So, Rachel, yes, Secretary Clinton does represent the establishment. I represent, I hope, ordinary Americans, and by the way, who are not all that enamored with the establishment, but I am very proud to have people like Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva in the House, the co-chairmen of the House Progressive Caucus.

CLINTON: Well, look, I've got to just jump in here because, honestly, Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment.

They're both wrong, each in their own way. 

Let's start with Sanders. If he were to become president and attempt to enact his program, would he encounter fierce resistance from within the Democratic Party? Not really. His goals are shared by Democrats, even if there are some differences about what is actually achievable. Yes, he'd go farther than Clinton would, and there are longtime Democratic activists, operatives, and officeholders who might think his plans overreached. But they're liberals, and if Sanders could wave a wand and bring about things like free college tuition and a $15 an hour minimum wage, they'd be more than pleased. 

Obviously, Sanders has an interest in portraying himself as a rebel fighting powers-that-be in both parties, but on most issues it's almost entirely Republicans who oppose him. For instance, he says he won't appoint any Supreme Court justice who isn't committed to overturning the Citizens United decision that expanded the role of corporate and individual money in campaigns. Very anti-establishment, except Clinton has said exactly the same thing (and you might remember that the Citizens United decision concerned a group taking corporate money to air a film targeting a politician named Hillary Rodham Clinton).

This points to one of the problems with Sanders's broad critique of the political system, which is that he usually describes a picture of Washington in which Democrats and Republicans are joined together in a corrupt partnership that he will have to fight. There are ways in which that's true—both parties get a lot of money from corporate interests—but it's also true that there are profound and deep differences between the parties on issues, differences Sanders often waves away. Yes, Democrats and Republicans both get money from Wall Street, but consider the Dodd-Frank reforms passed in 2010. They were bitterly opposed by Wall Street, and they passed on almost pure party-line votes (three Republicans joined the Democrats in the House vote, as did three Republican senators). Ever since, Wall Street has tried to undermine the reforms, an effort which has been supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. Sanders doesn't think those reforms go far enough, but if he were president and he tried to expand them, he'd have the help of most if not all Democrats. And that would be true of the vast majority of the things Sanders would like to do: If he were president, he would be working with the Democratic "establishment" far more often than he'd be fighting it.

This came up before when Clinton got the endorsements of Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign. Sanders dismissed the endorsements because they came from "the establishment"—which, strictly speaking, was true. Those are longstanding organizations with deep ties in Democratic politics. And yes, that's part of why they endorsed Clinton (it's also because they think she's more likely to win). But so what? If Sanders becomes president, he'll be working with them on their respective goals of reproductive rights and gay rights. It isn't like he'll be fighting against them.

All that doesn't change the fact that Clinton too seems to accept the idea that "the establishment" is something bad and she doesn't want to be associated with it. But when she says that she can't be part of the establishment because she'd be the first woman president (and this wasn't the first time), it's absurd. Yes, it would be an enormously significant thing to have the first woman president. But that's not because it would strike a blow at "the establishment," it's because it has never happened before, and it's an important milestone in the progress toward gender equality. And as it happens, the Democratic establishment is full of powerful women. Is anyone going to argue that people like Nancy Pelosi (leader of Democrats in the House), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (chair of the Democratic Party), or Neera Tanden (president of the most important liberal think tank in Washington) are somehow part of an insurgent revolutionary vanguard because they're women? Of course not. 

Now here's the bad news: Even if both Sanders and Clinton claim not to be part of the establishment—him with somewhat more justification than her—neither one of their presidencies would affect that establishment much one way or the other. While you can scarcely run for office these days without promising to "change the way they do business in Washington," the truth is that nobody does, not even presidents, except in the tiniest ways. Clinton certainly won't; there's no single individual in Democratic politics who is more establishment than her, and she's spent decades figuring out how to master and use the system as it is to achieve her personal and policy goals. 

But Sanders almost certainly won't, either. Does anyone really believe that at the end of four or eight years of a Sanders administration, we'd have a Supreme Court that had remade campaign finance (and by the way, overturning Citizens United wouldn't be nearly enough to do it) so that the undue influence of those "millionaires and billionaires" would be but a memory; that corporate lobbyists would be unwelcome in the halls of Congress; that government's outputs would fully express the will and interests of ordinary folk; and that there would be no more party infrastructure that stays around even as governments change?

That doesn't mean that Sanders might not accomplish many worthy goals and move the country in a more liberal direction. He might. But if you're hoping for him or Clinton—or anyone else—to defeat "the establishment," in any meaningful way, you're bound to be disappointed.  

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