Tuesday night marked the most-watched Democratic Primary debate in history, with around 15.5 million viewers. This blew away expectations, and that’s not even counting those who accessed the feed online. But it’s not the most remarkable thing about this debate.
Right after the broadcast, as the pundits and spinners were telling us how to perceive what we’d just watched, nearly every talker gave the “win” to Hillary Clinton. And yet in those same post-debate moments, Bernie Sanders was running away with just about every metric of viewer interest and support.
Simply put, Clinton may have won the debate (according to Beltway pundits), but Sanders won the people.
One measure of interest is Google Analytics, which shows Bernie Sanders stomped the competition. Howie Klein points out in Down With Tyranny that “Sanders actually overpowered the long-term king of Google, Donald Trump. During the debate, Sanders continually attracted more Google interest than Trump.” His biggest spikes came with his intro, and then on his focused attention on Wall Street.
Polling and focus group data (see above DWT article) also shows Sanders dominating audience approval, while the commentariat and many average Joe’s alike gave the debate performance to Hillary. Bernie won support without winning the debate. How is that?
One explanation for this is what Joan Walsh writing for The Nation calls “the clash of two theories of change.” Sanders is an insurrectionist and Clinton is a reformer. While Sanders’ grumpy moral denunciations of Wall Street and billionaires aren’t the most elegant debate moves, they’re winning the hearts and minds of the American audience. Americans apparently have the ability to appreciate Clinton’s debate performance, and still be more attracted to Sanders’ message.
Clearly, America is ready for authenticity. Sanders has been true to his moral center for his entire life. He’s honest to a fault. Hillary was successful in the debate to the extent that she was able to make herself appear more Bernie-like. This means that Bernie Sanders — the social democrat — essentially set the terms of the first Presidential Primary debate. That’s pretty remarkable.
It was a feature, not a bug, of 90s-era Clintonian politics that moral leadership played second fiddle to winning political wars. “New Democrats” in the 90s ran from traditional Democratic values such as the perception of being liberal. The old Clintonian game of triangulation was to take all our issues “off the table” to the point where you could hardly recognize a Democrat from a Republican. Perhaps, Democrats in 2016 are tired of those old games. We’re stuck with repeal of Glass-Steagall, NAFTA and the end of Welfare as we knew it. These policies have made us weaker and we need to fix them.
A lot has changed since the 90s. Now everyone wants to be a Progressive and it’s just embarrassing to see dyed in the wool Centrists — school privateers for instance — try to claim liberal cred. After years of running away from progressive policy and rhetoric, pollsters are saying there’s strategic advantage in locating oneself left of the dial. Unfortunately, you can’t just declare yourself a Progressive and have it be so.
Being a Progressive means having a history of doing the work. It means eschewing the PAC money. You have to actually hold the establishment’s feet to the fire on matters of importance to the electorate. Predictably, those who declare themselves Progressives without having spent the political capital in meaningful ways, can expect to see their “trust” numbers go down. Hillary did herself no favors by declaring that she’s a “progressive who gets stuff done.” We all know that she’s hurriedly been putting a fresh coats of paint on many of her outdated policy stances. She was against gay marriage before being for it. She was negotiating for TPP before being against it. She was in favor of Keystone before deigning to announce her new position to us. She told Wall Street to “cool it” — really? It’s exhausting. And we get it. It’s the old triangulation calculus where you take substantive issues “off the table” by siding with the Republicans, and it’s just stinky, weak sauce right now.
When we voted Obama into office under the motto of “hope and change,” many were voting for an insurrectionist style of politics that would take Washington by the collar and shake some sense into it. Granted, the genius of this branding was its one-size-fits-all accommodation of everyone’s aspirations. After eight years of W we were okay with the vagueness of the motto, but we did expect more out of the relationship.
Many folks have forgotten this, but we expected to part of ongoing change through his Organizing For America structure that was to be a “revolutionary” pivot of campaign organizing assets into long-term policy-making ground troops. That this never launched was tragic. Stimulus, cap-and-trade and healthcare negotiations might have all gone down differently with organized people supporting them at every level, but we were cut off. My sense is that Obama obliged lobbyists while we got corralled in the veal pen. These were not good times.
Bernie Sanders is saying right up front that he won’t do that. He also saying that he won’t achieve his policy objectives without our help. He’s literally gaining support by telling us he won’t be successful without us. It’s working because we know it’s true.
It’s going to take more than a reformer with great administrative skills like Clinton, to turn our ship in the right direction. It’s going require a moral leader and super-organized people power.
And what I find incredible at this moment is that the American people seem up to the challenge. Americans are being asked, for the first time since John F. Kennedy, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” We’re not distancing ourselves ironically, or saying “well, maybe.” We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, and we seem to be saying “let’s do this.” We’ve just been waiting for the right person to ask us.
Brook Hines is a writer, photographer, activist and former alt-weekly publisher, as well as an award-winning advertising creative with more than 20 years’ experience crafting strategy in “words + pictures” for clients ranging from banking and financial services to radical nuns. She’s the Senior Political Correspondent for Progressive News Network, the Communications Chair for the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, Outreach Chair for the Orange County Democratic Party, and the 2015-2016 Co-Chair of New Leaders Council, Orlando Chapter.
All opinions offered here are her own, delivered from the perspective of social theory and cultural criticism. Political and media analysis through a progressive lens; owned by no one, and bound to piss everyone off, eventually.
You can easily find Brook Hines on Facebook and Flickr. Read all of Brook’s articles here.
These are her Italian Greyhounds, Trouble and Daphne. Daphne has proven you can teach an old dog new tricks, by introducing Trouble to the wonders of the dishwasher. “You mean you can lick these? That never occurred to me.”
“Stick with me old man.”