Despite his crazy, radical political positions and his uninhibited, don't-give-a-hoot-who-I-offend old-white-male persona, he's been pulling in surprisingly huge crowds during his primary campaign rallies, and polling far more strongly than anyone expected. But given his likely hopeless weakness as a general election candidate, his party's establishment stalwarts have no intention of letting him win the nomination, and are busily maneuvering to try and stop him. So what, ultimately, will they do about...Bernie Sanders?
You would of course be forgiven for assuming that I was referring instead to Donald Trump, the Republicans' far more sensational and threatening version of the Sanders phenomenon. But the parallels between the two men serve well to highlight the striking contrasts between the states of the two parties.
As I've been saying for decades, the modern "left"-"right" partisan split in American politics began during the 1960s, when the middle class split into two halves: an affluent, college-educated white-collar "upper" half, and a less prosperous, less educated blue-collar "lower" half. The upper half allied with the poor and minorities to form the "new left", while the lower half allied with the wealthy to form the reconstituted "conservative movement". The battle between these two interlocking alliances dominated US politics for some thirty years, with sides lining up on partisan wedge issues in accordance with the coalition partner most invested in the issue.
On social issues, for example, the "left" embraced a social libertarianism that was anathema to generally socially conservative poor and minority constituencies, but eagerly embraced by the educated upper-middle class, who reciprocated by endorsing welfare, racial preference policies and other spoils lavished on the poor and minorities. Conversely, the "right" embraced a social and religious conservatism that sat poorly with wealthy conservatives, who were nonetheless placated by the alliance's endorsement of the low tax rates and business-friendly policies they were most interested in.
The boom of the 1990s brought about a shift in these coalitions: as I mentioned thirteen years ago, the poor essentially disappeared as a distinct class, as welfare reform and increased employment merged them into the lower end of the lower-middle class. Meanwhile, the upper-middle class acquired enough investment capital to cause their interests and those of the wealthy to converge. The result was a "left" that essentially represented, and reflected the interests of, the more affluent half of society, while the "right" reflected primarily the interests of society's lower half.
However, the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent weak economy have again rearranged the alliances somewhat, refocusing everyone's attention on bread-and-butter economic issues. The groups hardest hit by this economic downturn--minorities and white-collar workers in fields such as law, journalism, academia and (non-federal) government, including education--have been particularly active in pushing to preserve their once-comfortably-secure positions, recreating a kind of revised version of the old post-60s poor/upper-middle-class "left" alliance. This is the alliance that drove the election of Barack Obama as president, and has become, in effect, the Democratic party's "base".
Although its most conspicuous victories have been in the social policy realm--gay rights, for instance--it has used these social policy wedge issues primarily as a means to exert greater control over institutions and their vital resources. Academia, media, entertainment, government--all have been effectively overpowered, and their money and resources commandeered, by the Obama alliance for the furtherance of its own collective interests.
The old "right" alliance, on the other hand, has been far less successful at re-establishing itself. Its two main components--wealthy entrepreneurs and investors, on the one hand, and the non-minority blue-collar lower-middle class, on the other--are no longer content to trade off blue-collar social policy for wealth-friendly economic policy, now that economics has become paramount to both constituencies. Instead, they find their interests at cross-purposes, the business class seeking greater freedom from taxation and regulation, and the blue-collar class hoping for a more active government role in job creation.
The flash point of this conflict is the de facto "open borders" immigration policy which has been in effect for several decades now, due to persistent non-enforcement of immigration laws. To the non-minority blue-collar lower-middle class, open immigration is both an economic threat (in the form of job competition) and a cultural one. But it has also greatly benefited wealthy businesspeople, both as employers and consumers, by steeply reducing the price of unskilled labor.
Enter Donald Trump, a wealthy real estate mogul who has paradoxically won instant credibility as a representative of blue-collar Americans, first by promising to drastically curtail immigration, and second by embracing populist economic policies such as protectionism that focus on job creation rather than capital growth. A more threatening figure to the old "right" alliance between the entrepreneurial and working classes could scarcely be imagined. And his success bodes exceedingly ill for that alliance's short-to-medium-term health.
Bernie Sanders, in contrast, is--despite his ostensibly extreme socialist economic views--very much within the mainstream of the Obama alliance. There is no doubt that his brand of socialism would, in the extremely unlikely event of its implementation, end up being very friendly to the lawyers, academics, educators, journalists, government workers and minorities that make up the Obama coalition, since he fully embraces the policies of the Obama administration and the alliance it represents. Indeed, he's consistently been rather reluctant to challenge his putative primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, on policy matters, since she's also promising something more or less like a third Obama term. Far from threatening the Obama coalition, Sanders prefers to represent himself as the more trustworthy guardian of its principles, less likely to compromise them than a longtime inside operator like Clinton.
In practice, neither Trump nor Sanders has a realistic hope of winning his party's presidential nomination, since neither is nearly sufficiently skilled or polished enough as a politician to expand his own base into a majority coalition without alienating large chunks of it. However, while Sanders is actually salutary for his party, improving its general election prospects by allowing eventual nominee Clinton to pose as a bridge between the Democratic base and moderate independents, Trump represents a massive threat to the Republicans' November hopes. Should he decide to launch a third-party campaign, for example, he would likely have absolutely no difficulty peeling off enough votes to doom the GOP's chances utterly. (Indeed, the Democrats would be well-advised to bankroll that campaign themselves, should Trump balk at blowing his own cash on such a purely quixotic effort.) And even if he bows out gracefully, he may already have caused enough internal alienation between business and blue-collar Republicans to seriously erode at least one faction's turnout for any eventual nominee in the general election.
Of course, the GOP's problem isn't really Trump--it's the schism within its own ranks between its blue-collar and business wings. One way or another, they will have to iron out their differences and agree on a compromise they can both support, or else resign themselves to permanent minority status at least until the next major shakeup of partisan alliances.