Understanding why populist fires are still 'Berning'

PHILADELPHIA — Wearing a big smile and a one-piece jumpsuit made out of fabric decorated with Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden faces an uncertain path Bernie Sanders vows to go to 'war with white nationalism and racism' as president Biden: 'There's an awful lot of really good Republicans out there' MORE images along with a campaign sign Oscar Salazar strode confidently down Broad Street heading towards City Hall for a protest rally.

“My support still remains with Bernie Sanders,” the 21 year old Westchester, New York native and college student said. He added that their cause to have Sanders as the nominee is not unrealistic, nor outside of reality, despite the fact that Sanders handed the nomination to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Fighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate Progressive Democrats' turnout plans simply don't add up MORE at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday evening.

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He doesn’t see his unwavering support as childish or immature. He stresses that because of this movement away from the establishment, he has got his entire family involved in politics, registering some who have never voted before.

“I mean that is part of fulfilling the dream right? To participate, to be heard. Yes I understand that he did not win, but I also understand that the system stacked the odds against him,” he said.

Salazar said that is the rub that history will never know.

On Tuesday evening, Sanders' name was barely mentioned outside of the roll call vote — as if he never existed — when Clinton clinched the nomination. After a tearful moment when Sanders read the final delegate count from his home state of Vermont, many of his delegates exited from the convention hall in a demonstration against the moment.

Actress and progressive activist Susan Sarandon wept when Sanders gave his speech the night before — yet exited before he was done, leaving a cryptic “I’m done” tweet as she made her way across the convention floor in a somber, but dramatic fashion.

“I’m just not there yet."

Chaos in the hall and in the endless, enormous street protests have been the defining moment of excitement at this event — the energy has clearly been against Clinton not for her — largely because of the revelations that the party establishment had conspired against Sanders.

In 2008, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDick Cheney to attend fundraiser supporting Trump reelection: report Forget conventional wisdom — Bernie Sanders is electable 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care MORE faced a similar dilemma with unhappy Hillary supporters in an equally contentious primary cycle — but there is a striking difference: Clinton’s supporters were loyal to the party, Sanders supporters are not.

We are facing a fascinating moment in American politics, where comments and warnings from the establishment like, “If you don’t vote for Hillary Clinton, you are giving your vote to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPossible GOP challenger says Trump doesn't doesn't deserve reelection, but would vote for him over Democrat O'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms MORE” doesn’t make people get in line.

In fact, it repulses them because it is the kind of party loyalty that movement voters do not respond to well.

When challengers run against incumbents, there is an expectation that the party committee is going to be in the tank for the incumbent, such as with Carter/Kennedy in 1980 and Bush/Buchanan in 1992.  

But, in an open seat race, there is a sense that the party committee will remain neutral. 

“The Sanders voters already believed that the weight of the party establishment through the super delegate process tipped the scales for Clinton,” said Bruce Haynes, a GOP political consultant at Purple Strategies. “Now with the email leak they believe they have their smoking gun that the party committee itself had their thumb on the scale,” he said.

And that seems very different than Obama vs. Clinton, when the insider lost, and Trump vs. the GOP field, when all the insiders lost. 

That is an important distinction Haynes said.  

“It really doesn’t help to think the outsider won the last one in my party, and now I look across the aisle and see that the outsiders won this time in the other party; Why did we lose?” he said.

It doesn’t make sense to them.

That also likely impacts perceptions of fairness on their side of the fence, said Haynes of their thinking. They (the establishment) got their way, we didn’t.

When they see the emails and they think they know why they didn’t get their way. All things being equal, they’d have won like Obama and Trump.

But all things were not equal after all, said Haynes.

Analysts and pundits can’t view this from the perspective of an experience elite, says Haynes. “Yes, its emotional, but it is also driven by what they see around them.”

Maybe to people who have seen 30 years of campaigns their expectations are unrealistic; but to them they feel legitimately suppressed and disenfranchised by a process they believed worked to shut them down.  

Movements come and go in American politics. Typically they last two election cycles, then people go back to their party of origin. It happened with the “Free Silvers” the “Golds” the 20th Century progressives, the Temperance movement, as well as modern day Occupy and Tea Party movements.

Yes, this too will pass. But everyone should understand that populism is not ideology. It is energy, easily manipulated, rarely satisfied; but erupts always during great structural change in the economy and security.

Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. Contact her at szito@tribweb.com.


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