Bernie Sanders may no longer be a serious threat to Hillary Clinton’s nomination bid, but he and his supporters could still wreak havoc on the Democratic Party this fall. Had Sanders won the nomination, he would likely have been demolished in the general election, as were liberals Michael Dukakis and George McGovern. The difference is Sanders is much further from the party’s center than those two candidates were. Sanders’ far-left followers would have been marginalized because the Democrats can win only as centrist liberals, not as far-left radicals. But now that Sanders appears to have lost the nomination, his power and that of his supporters, will likely increase — Clinton needs people who “feel the Bern’’ to sign on to her cause. That will empower not only the real progressives who have been supporting Sanders, but also the repressives who falsely hide their true anti-liberal views under the ill-fitting cloak of progressivism. These repressives have little tolerance for differing viewpoints and seek to shut down speakers who refuse to toe their politically correct line.
Clinton would be smart to resist the temptation to move to the left once she has secured the Democratic nomination. Despite her refusal to use the label “liberal,” that’s in fact what she is: a centrist liberal who rejects revolution and the radical dismantling of imperfect institutions, such as Obama health care. Like her husband, she should stay in the liberal center, both on domestic and foreign policy issues. That has always been the winning strategy for Democrats, and the Sanders’ brush-fire should not change that successful approach.
If Clinton feels the need to move to the far left, she may succeed in the short run in keeping some Sanders’ supporters from staying home on Election Day, but she will risk alienating centrist, independent, and undecided voters, who determine the outcome of most national elections. In any event, it is likely that most Sanders’ supporters will come out and vote for Clinton, though some who want to shake up the system may support Trump. Far-left zealots, who hate liberals even more than they hate conservatives, may stay home, but their numbers are relatively small, despite the loud noises they emit. Moreover, there is nothing Clinton could do to satisfy the far-left repressives who want to overthrow existing institutions and suppress speech they deem incorrect. These intolerant extremists reject the “politics of respectability” that demands that respect be accorded even to those with whom they disagree.
It is important to understand that the differences between Clinton and far-left Sanderite repressives are not merely matters of degree on many important issues. They are matters of kind. Clinton wants realistic improvements in existing institutions, such as health care, capital markets, banking, the military, our education system, and other structures. Sanders and his far-left followers want revolutionary dismantling of these and other existing institutions. His most radical supporters want even more revolutionary structural changes that would destabilize and weaken our nation. It’s not that Sanders is an idealist whose ideas are good but unrealistic, and Clinton a pragmatist whose ideas are compromised with Sanders’ ideals. Clinton is right and Sanders is wrong on many key issues over which they disagree. And Clinton should stick to her guns.
Mainstream American voters want evolution, not revolution. They want stability, predictability, and gradual improvements. They don’t want to see the United States emulate Europe, where the political pendulum often swings widely between the left and the right and where extremist parties of both the far left and far right are growing in influence. They prefer narrower pendulum swings of the kind seen when first President Clinton (my electoral hope is showing) replaced the first President Bush.
Democracy thrives at the center and suffers when extremists are not marginalized. History has shown that nations caught between the brown of far-right extremism and the red of far-left extremism often choose poorly and suffer grave consequences. Moreover, our system of checks and balances and tripartite division of powers works best when both parties move away from extremes and closer to the center.
Although today’s voters are no more extreme than voters in the past, our primary system rewards both Democratic and Republican extremists. The general election, on the other hand, rewards centrists who promise improvement and stability.
Sanders’ victories in several state primaries and caucuses may put pressure on Clinton to select as her running mate someone to her left whose views are close to those of Sanders and his base. That would be a serious mistake. In the general election, her Republican opponent will attack her for being too far left, too liberal. If that attack resonates with independents, union members, and undecided voters, she could lose. Clinton’s vice presidential choice should be a solid, centrist, trusted figure who comes from a swing state and can appeal to ethnic minorities.
In other words, she should pick the kind of person she would have picked, and campaign for the policies she would have advocated, had Bernie Sanders never entered the race.
Otherwise she may get burned in the general election.
Alan M. Dershowitz is professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and author of “Taking a Stand: My Life in the Law.’’