Jeff Stein · Monday, December 26, 2016, 9:15 am
Bernie Sanders has identified the cancer he thinks is coursing through the Democratic Party’s bloodstream. In speech after speech, the Vermont senator has gone after the party’s donor class — and its hold on politicians — as the central impediment to both a more populist Democratic Party and its electoral success.
“I believe strongly that the party must break loose from its corporate establishment ties,” Sanders said in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the election. “We must have the courage to take on the greed and power of Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.”
Sanders’s argument has a lot going for it. Hillary Clinton campaign’s spent much of the summer fundraising with super-elite donors, and ignored the union organizers in the Rust Belt in a way that backfired spectacularly. The WikiLeaks emails revealed that conservative donors like Israeli hawk Haim Saban were closely involved with the Clinton team’s policy shop. Her campaign was certainly to the right of Sanders’s, which relied on an unprecedented grassroots fundraising effort.
But a report published last week by the think tank Demos appears to complicate this story. The research suggests that one of Sanders’s goals — to free the party of its elite campaign contributors — may actually be at odds with his other plans to move the party to the left.
The study found the party’s voters are actually to the right of its elite financial backers on some key issues. If you could erase the donors’ influence, the Democrats might actually move right — not left — on causes like climate change and banking regulation.
Where donors do pull the party to the right is on questions of taxes and budgets. Breaking free of elite donors may moderate Democrats’ far-left stances on some social and environmental issues, but doing so would also free it to make the populist, class-based “soak the rich” appeals that Sanders sees as essential to the party’s future.
Wealthy campaign donors move American politics to the right overall
Demos analyst Sean McElwee is clear that his main takeaway from the study is that overall, across the entire political spectrum, money in politics shifts policy to the right.
“The core takeaway here is that these donors are much more conservative than the population,” he says.