Even following Hillary Clinton’s historic victory in the primaries, there are some among the most radical Bernie Sanders supporters – let’s call them Sanderistas – who would actually like to see Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. Their “logic” is as follows: If Clinton wins, Sanders becomes just another loser. The Sanderistas become marginalized. And their leader’s quest for a political revolution ends with the election of yet another centrist “establishment” Democrat.
However, if Trump beats Clinton, Sanders will claim to become the titular leader of the Democratic Party, pointing to early polls showing that he would have beaten Trump, though these polls signify little about how he would have done in an actual head-to-head contest. (In my opinion, he would have suffered a devastating defeat comparable to those suffered by other left-wing candidates such as Walter Mondale (1984) and Michael Dukakis (1988), though nothing is predictable with Trump as the Republican nominee.) Moreover, were Clinton to lose, Sanders’s influence would increase within the party – and around the country – because the Sanderistas would take credit for Clinton’s defeat and insist that without them the Democrats can’t win a general election.
Other Sanderistas have put forward a more destructive rationale. As one of Sanders’s most prominent surrogates, the actress Susan Sarandon explained, “[S]ome people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in, things will really explode.”
Sarandon, who made the same case for Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election (and look how that turned out), is not the only Sanders supporter who feels that a Trump presidency could be the catalyst for the leftist political revolution promised by Sanders and his surrogates.
These hard-left radicals, just like their anti-establishment counterparts on the extreme Right, believe that the nomination system is rigged if they do not get their way.
Ultimately, it’s unsurprising that Trump has seized on that sentiment and invited them to join forces in the quest for a revolution: “To all of those Bernie Sanders voters who have been left out in the cold by a rigged system of superdelegates, we welcome you with open arms.”
As she struggles to unify the Democratic Party, however, Clinton should be wary: Any effort to embrace the Sanderistas will backfire.
They won’t vote for her anyway, unless she goes so far Left as to fall off the political cliff. As CNN recently reported, “Sanders has inspired a movement, but it’s unclear whether he can control it. Or if he wants to... [M]any [of his supporters] insist they will not fall into line behind Hillary Clinton... They are taking seriously Sanders’s call for a political revolution, complicating any hope for quick unity with Clinton.”
One such Sanderista is quoted as saying, “You can’t expose the corruption of the political system and then expect us to get behind that same political system.” Another threatens that “[i]f Bernie Sanders does not walk out of that thing as the nominee, we can guarantee you from that point on we’ll start the de-registration of the Democratic Party. They have a choice to make.”
Even if some Sanderistas were to rally to Clinton, their votes in swing states would not be enough to have a meaningful impact on the general election, especially in comparison to the support she would lose in the political Center, which has little appetite for revolution. Moreover any appeasement of the far Left will be welcomed by the Republican Party, which now fears that its centrist wing will defect in large numbers, and vote for Clinton, because its members regard Trump as something of a kook. If Clinton embraces the Sanderistas, these voters will view the election as a contest between the kooky Right and the equally kooky Left. Given that choice, they will prefer their right-wing kook to the leftwing kook.
This is not to say that Clinton should not consider supporting reasonable programs just because they were advocated by Sanders.
She already has, and should continue, talked about reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, raising the minimum wage, rethinking trade agreements, holding Wall Street accountable, making college more affordable and other domestic economic fixes.
She staked out that territory in her speech on Tuesday night and she should continue to try to appeal to reasonable Sanders voters, especially among the young.
However, there are two particular areas where the Sanders program would endanger Clinton’s electoral prospects. The first is domestic: She should not adopt Sanders economics of spending more than a reasonable budget would permit. Adopting pie in the sky proposals that would add trillions of dollars to the budget and dramatically increase the national debt would be a gift to Trump. Americans don’t want to be debtors who mortgage their children’s future. We want reasonable spending that we can afford.
The second gift to Trump would be in the area of foreign policy, particularly with regard to the Middle East. Were Clinton to move away from support for Israel, it could hurt her electoral chances in several swing states.
Americans in general admire and support Israel.
The don’t want a president who would parrot the views of radical Israel-haters such as Cornel West and James Zogby who falsely accuse Israel of being an apartheid state that sets up concentration camps and aims to annihilate Palestinians. Even many of Sanders’s young supporters, some of whom are critical of certain Israeli policies, especially with regard to the settlements, do not want the US to adopt the West-Zogby anti-Israel approach.
Sanders received his support from young people for his domestic policy, not his foreign policy (about which he knows little). He wandered into the morass of Mideast politics only to satisfy his hard-left supporters who think in absurd packages: If you support the environment and higher minimum wages, then you must oppose Israel. That’s not the way centrist and independent voters think, and Clinton must reject that kind of radical “intersectional” thinking if she is to beat Trump in the fall.
So let Hillary be Hillary and not become Bernie.
Let her look for guidance to the successful centrist politics of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, rather than the failed revolutionary screeds of Bernie Sanders, Cornel West and Susan Sarandon. We are a centrist nation that has thrived without the turmoil that extremes – both left and right – bring to politics and governance. We don’t want to emulate Europe and South America, which often alternate between socialist and nationalist regimes – between the Red and the Brown. If she gets too close to the hard-left politics of Sanders’s most extreme “Bernie or bust” zealots, she may get burned in the general election – and so will our nation.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus and author of
Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law.