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Democratic Insiders Are Right to Be Afraid of Bernie Sanders

Party elites and big donors aren’t afraid of Bernie Sanders losing to Trump. They’re afraid he’ll win.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Grand Park on March 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama / Getty

In 2016 the most frequent objection to Bernie Sanders’s candidacy from leading Democrats arguably concerned his electability. Sanders, proclaimed an army of insiders, pundits, and party apparatchiks, simply couldn’t win a general election against Donald Trump or any other would-be Republican nominee — especially compared to the eminently electable Hillary Clinton. Proponents of this narrative tended to dismiss a great deal of evidence to the contrary: from the size, energy, and dynamism of Sanders’s crowds to the deluge of opinion polls suggesting that there was a very real possibility Clinton might lose to several of the GOP’s prospective nominees and that Sanders could win.

However party elites may have felt about Sanders’s chances in 2016, his momentum ahead of 2020 is fast becoming impossible for them to deny. Earlier this week, an Emerson College poll showed him leading all other Democratic candidates, with most trailing far behind. A more important measure, however, is probably his fundraising returns — which not only outstrip his rivals’ but include a huge number of small donations from a much larger pool of contributors. Sanders’s adeptness at taking his message to hostile territory, evidenced by a successful appearance at a Fox News town hall event this week, only adds to the overall impression.

In a different political cosmos, Democratic insiders might be overjoyed to see a popular frontrunner generate so much enthusiasm so early in the race. Recent reporting from the New York Times, however, suggests party elites are already plotting against Sanders, complete with secretive dinners featuring players from throughout the Democratic establishment and the donor class:

The matter of What To Do About Bernie and the larger imperative of party unity has, for example, hovered over a series of previously undisclosed Democratic dinners in New York and Washington organized by the longtime party financier Bernard Schwartz. The gatherings have included scores from the moderate or center-left wing of the party, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader; former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., himself a presidential candidate; and the president of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden.

The report, a near-perfect distillation of Democratic insider culture and elitism at their very worst, suggests the party’s corporate-friendly faction fears a repeat of what Republican apparatchiks experienced in 2016:

From canapé-filled fund-raisers on the coasts to the cloakrooms of Washington, mainstream Democrats are increasingly worried that their effort to defeat President Trump in 2020 could be complicated by Mr. Sanders, in a political scenario all too reminiscent of how Mr. Trump himself seized the Republican nomination in 2016.

Nowhere in the aggrieved musings do any of the figures quoted seem to have asked themselves why Vermont senator’s message is catching on. The fact is, it’s hard to imagine a better illustration of Sanders’s diagnosis of American politics than party elites and donors meeting at secret dinners with the explicit aim of tilting the primaries in their favor before a single vote has been cast.

The report gives the distinct impression party insiders’ main objective has more to do with maintaining control of the Democratic Party and keeping its policy agenda as nonthreatening to business interests as possible than it does with removing Donald Trump from office. The outcome big donors and party elites fear most of all, it seems, is a populist candidate defeating the familiar cavalcade of conventional, corporate-friendly politicians and going on to win the presidency.

From health insurance giants to defense contractors to tech monopolies, the Democratic Party has long embraced corporate America and the rigged policy agenda its oligarchs demand. Bernie Sanders’s momentum represents a threat to their way of doing politics. Powerful actors invested in the status quo are right to be afraid: afraid, that is, that he’ll win.