Culture Watch: The Follies and Foibles of Democrats on the Campaign Trail

April 20, 2016
By Jo Tavener

I was reminded of the huge gaps in my knowledge of the political game with the outcome of the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Here is what I noticed.

Super Delegate Power 

Despite the overwhelming popular support for Sanders, the allotted number of delegates was tied by super delegates. The possibility of Hillary winning the nomination without a popular majority turned my view of party politics on its head. I knew that political parties had agendas and bowed to donor class wishes, but I had not conceived of them as bureaucratic institutions with agendas that cared more about their own survival than that of their membership. I failed to realize how much the parties had to lose if the field opened up. Their power over legitimating contestants, their ability to favor one candidate through debate scheduling, their use of super delegates, especially among Democrats, to maintain party control led me to realize that the two party system is so interwoven with how politics works that I am at a loss to see how real structural reform is possible by electoral means.

 Party Loyalty Reigns

Such thoughts changed my understanding of endorsements as well. The reason for the Hillary endorsement by so many politicians appears to have as much to do with keeping the Party, to which they owe their status and power, in the driver’s seat as to the power of the Clinton machine or her personal attributes. Bernie Sanders’ populist campaign threatens to overwhelm the Democratic status quo and undo Bill Clinton’s moving it to the right. (After Reagan and Bush 41, the need to partially undo the legacies of FDR and LBJ was good for the Party if not the American people, as we see now with the Crime Act of 1994 or the repeal of Glass Siegel.) Why else would someone as upstanding as John Lewis attack Bernie Sander’s civil rights record in the way he did. It was an attack on character and credibility.

Media Partisanship

I’ve also noticed on MSNBC, which is tied in many ways to the Democratic Party, not only are surrogates from each campaign given equal time but they are also include in discussions with NBC pundits. Not only do such conversations provide cover for the agendas of the Party as well as the candidates, it also keeps the discussion within acceptable perimeters by always providing partisan points of view. Only once have I seen such surrogate positions dismissed out of hand. Not surprisingly it was on “Morning Joe” when Howard Dean dismissed the talk of disarray in the Hillary campaign as “just Washington talk” and a former Republican operative-turned- journalist tried to dismiss the power of Sander’s message by suggesting that ‘revolution’ is always an easier sell than reform. Joe Scarborough shot them both down but then again, he is an avowed conservative with little skin in the game regarding the future of the Democratic Party.

True Feminism

I am continually amazed by how intelligent, far-thinking men and women betray their values when they enter the political arena. I have always respected Gloria Steinem for her feminist activism and Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for her ability to rise so far in a man’s world. When they put their feminism at the service of a political campaign, however, they betray principles that are so central to the struggle, namely respect for the choices women have made to survive and grow in a man’s world. I understand why Hillary can’t stop talking about herself and her credentials given the vicious attacks against her, especially when she was First Lady. I also understand why in the current conjuncture young women are able to believe in the feminist strain of the Sander’s campaign. To hold up one person as the ‘true’ feminist because she is a woman is to take identity politics to a place that turns it toxic.


Finally, there is the ‘war of the narratives.’ While Democrats congratulate themselves on civility, unlike the Republicans who seem to enjoy knock down fights and battles at the OK corral, the controversy over who is progressive or establishment, who can change the system in the face of Republican opposition — both important issues — has resulted in mischaracterizations, and actual falsehoods. Oddly, it has turned Sanders into Obama. Sticking to issues, Sanders refuses to respond personally to Clinton’s mischaracterizations regarding healthcare, guns and compromise. It reminds me of President Obama during his first term when he kept on giving into Republicans to arrive at consensus. It never worked; he learned his lesson. Though Hillary wraps her arms around Obama, it is Sanders who may end paying Obama’s price for his stance.

Jo Tavener is a member of the editorial collective. A founder of New York Radical Feminists in the 1960s, she went on to teach film and then critical media and cultural studies at various universities in New York City and here in Pittsburgh.


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