Crash, Bern

Crashing the Party: From the Bernie Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement BY Heather Gautney. Verso. Paperback, 144 pages. $16.

Fordham sociology professor Heather Gautney went to work in Bernie Sanders’s Senate office on an academic fellowship in 2012 and then signed up for his 2016 presidential campaign, ultimately playing a role in the Sandernistas’ wrangling over the party platform with Hillary Clinton’s DNC apparatchiks at that year’s Democratic convention. To say the least, aiming for a conciliatory note in the aftermath doesn’t interest her much. Especially when she goes prescriptive, reading Crashing the Party: From the Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement(Verso, $17) can feel like watching a bulldozer try to disguise itself as an ambulance.

Given her intentions, that’s not a failing; it’s a strategy. This is a vigorous book that revisits the 2016 election mainly as a framework to make Gautney’s case for Sanders’s brand of politics as the best if not only road map for progressives going forward. (In her view, if the Democratic Party’s institutional honchos don’t agree, then to hell with the Democratic Party, pretty much. It’s up to them whether they want to be a useful tool or just a bunch of tools.) Because every argument she advances is worth contending with, Crashing the Party is a reminder of one virtue of good polemical writing. Whatever its blind spots, it’s not equivocal—which is, too often, both Establishment parties’ idea of being vocal.

Gautney can’t resist reminding us of some of the more obvious differences between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, from fund-raising (his surprise flood of online small donors versus her reliance on super PACs and Silicon Valley corporate bundlers) to the way his accessibility to reporters contrasted with “Hillary’s impudent roping of them off.” But Gautney’s clear pride in being on first-name terms with “Cornel” (as in West) aside, campaign-trail vignettes aren’t her thing. Her animus against Clinton is also relatively depersonalized, which is another sign that she doesn’t want to be mistaken for someone refighting the last war.

Instead, Gautney sees Clinton’s campaign as the climax to the misguided priorities of a generation of “neoliberal” Democrats who pandered to Wall Street, dismantled welfare while backing mass incarceration, and embraced globalization without any qualms about either NAFTA's or the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s adverse effects on US workers—“effectively [removing] trade from the domain of workforce and labor policy,” she writes, quite accurately. They kept their progressive credentials in order by boosting racial and gender equality while, in Clinton’s case, all but openly “delinking” race and gender from “class-based inequality.” Hence the instant popularity of Sanders’s straight talk about income inequality as the defining problem of our time, drawing voters who were alienated from the system and undeterred by “socialism” as the reliable scare word it had been in US politics for decades.

In Gautney’s appraisal, “Class did end up as the fundamental organizing principle of US politics in 2016,” arousing “both a progressive turn in the person of Bernie Sanders and a degenerate right-wing hooliganism in the person of Donald Trump.” This is a flawed analysis, however. Trump did at least as well among affluent white voters as he did among working-class ones, making the obvious key word “white.” Gautney is an old-fashioned enough leftist to view “identity politics” as a distraction from economic issues affecting everyone across the board, but that leaves her ill-equipped to recognize that Trump’s victory was a triumph of identity politics at its most tribalist.

Not that she much wants to admit it, but class politics is identity politics as well. It’s the template for all the other versions, in fact, since it assumes that ideological clashes originate in inherently antagonistic self-definitions by diverse groups. At least since World War II, white working-class Americans have been averse to treating their economic status as their defining trait, because their orientation is aspirational instead. The worst-kept secret of American politics is that appeals to racism cater to this impulse.

The identity that blatantly mattered most to Trump’s wealthy and impecunious voters alike was their skin color, not their income level. Since Gautney’s argument amounts at the crudest level to maintaining that some kinds of tribalism are better than others—i.e., that Americans’ shared resentment of the 1 percent should outweigh all other conflicts—it’s no wonder that she’s at her most awkwardly defensive in dealing with Sanders’s failure to convert African American Democrats, among others, to his cause. He never did figure out how to make them understand that he was on their side, as opposed to wishing more of them were on his.

Nonetheless, Gautney is obviously right to contend that the astonishing near success of Sanders’s 2016 candidacy resurrected a once-fundamental but long since marginalized class dimension to progressive politics. The Democratic Party establishment is sure to do its best to ignore, then downplay, and finally demonize this phenomenon—at its peril. (The Kübler-Ross stages are as predictable as tic-tac-toe.) She’s at her best in elucidating the difference between the idealism inherent in movement-building and the practicalities of winning elections, no matter how unsurprising it is that her concluding chapter boosts Sanders’s own Our Revolution organization as a promising way to bridge that gap.

One question she’s reluctant to tackle, however, is whether Sanders-style politics can galvanize the electorate without a Sanders-style candidate—if not the man himself—doing the galvanizing. Gautney deprecates “cults of personality,” but how else would she describe his bedrock supporters’ zeal? Like it or not, Sanders and Trump both appealed to voters for charismatic reasons, not only—or perhaps even primarily—ideological ones. That’s why progressive Democrats, despite having the wind at their backs these days, are unlikely to prevail within their own party, let alone the electorate at large, until they find their next superstar.


Tom Carson is a freelance critic and the author of the novel Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).