The Democratic Party is facing a serious existential question. And if the party doesn’t make the right moves in 2016 — if it doesn’t hang onto the Independent voters and first-time voters who are turning out in droves to vote for Bernie Sanders and other progressive challengers to the Democratic National Committee establishment — the Democratic Party seriously risks alienating an entire generation of voters.
A full 42 percent of Americans identify as Independents, according to a Gallup poll from earlier this year, as opposed to only 29 percent of Americans who identify as Democrats and 26 percent of Americans who identify as Republicans, marking the fifth year in a row that more than four in 10 adults identified as political Independents.
Those Independents are playing a huge role in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. They’re turning out in record numbers to cast votes in open primary states, and many of them are re-registering to vote as Democrats in states with closed primaries.
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So why are certain members of the Democratic establishment implying that Bernie Sanders doesn’t deserve to be the Democratic nominee, just because he’s been a long-registered Independent?
That sort of thinking from the Democratic establishment is incredibly narrow-minded. After all, what good could possibly come out of alienating Independents?
Can the Democratic Party really afford to cast aside Sanders’ supporters? Can it really afford to tell Independents that they are unimportant to the Party?
There’s no doubt that this primary has gotten tense, as both Sanders’ supporters and Hillary Clinton’s supporters have hurled caustic insults at each other on Twitter and around the internet.
Sanders supporters have accused Clinton of being owned by special interests, and Clinton supporters, in turn, accuse Sanders supporters of being politically naïve and embracing pie-in-the-sky policy proposals.
But the reality is that the people who are turning out to vote for Sanders — the people who seem to endlessly share Sanders memes online, the people who are turning out by the tens of thousands just to hear him speak — are mostly average, hard-working American men and women of all races and ethnic and economic backgrounds who are sick and tired of a rigged political system and a rigged economy.
What the Democratic Party needs to realize is that many of Sanders’ supporters are voting for the first time, whether they’re 18, 30 or 50 years old. And just as importantly, even if they have voted before, many of them are voting as Democrats for the very first time.
Many of them are just getting involved in this election because they’ve felt left out of US politics for years; they’ve seen that Washington, DC, is corrupt, they’ve seen that the federal government doesn’t work in the people’s interest. And, tragically, they’ve often been right about our government.
Back in 2014, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page published a study from Princeton University that looked into the state of US democracy. They didn’t find much evidence of a true democracy in the United States. Instead, they found that “when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”
Many Sanders supporters have been living in a political system for decades where their demands have been flagrantly ignored by the political elites of both parties. And now that they’re engaged, now that they’ve decided to rally behind a candidate with whom they passionately agree, they’re being told by establishment Democrats that they’re naïve, that they don’t understand how Washington works and that progressive ideas are impossible to get done.
These are voters who have been told for years to get out and vote, but now that these long-time Independents and first-time Democrats are voting for a candidate who is standing up to the economic elites and organized interests that have corrupted the US, they’re being told to go back home and shut up.
Ever since Al From’s bloodless coup of the Democratic Party in 1988, the economic elite in the US have had bipartisan representation, and now over 40 percent of Americans have rejected both parties because of it.
No matter who gets the Democratic nomination, the Democrats need the support of first-time voters and registered Independents to win the general election. And if the Democrats hope to take back Congress, they’ll especially need those voters to vote Democratic in down-ticket races.
The Democratic Party has an opportunity right now to create an entirely new generation of dedicated Democratic voters, much like FDR did in 1933, and Reagan did for the Republicans in 1981.
Sanders’ supporters can’t force the Democratic Party to embrace universal health care and tuition-free college; they can’t force the party to embrace expanding Social Security and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour; they can’t force the party to make overturning Citizens United and ending our dependence on fossil fuels into core parts of the Democratic platform. And they can’t cause a riot to force the Democrats to embrace a true progressive vision for America.
But they shouldn’t have to.
As Dick Gregory once told me, it’s not necessary to force people to agree at the barrel of a gun, because “when you’ve got something really good, you don’t have to force it on people. They will steal it!”
The Democratic Party should be getting it’s sticky fingers ready, because the enthusiasm around Bernie Sanders’ campaign is something really good, and it’s something that every Democratic candidate should want to steal if they want to win in November.