In a sign of exactly what world we're living in, a Vine of Bernie Sanders' side eye was the most retweeted tweet during Sunday night's Democratic debate. There, it was the youthful and blandly futuristic Martin O'Malley who was irrelevant; Sanders, the throwback to the anti-corporatist liberalism of old, radiated a principled gruffness too authentic to be merely earnest, supplying a dose of earthy reality that social media often treats ironically but genuinely longs for.
Nobody, of course, genuinely longs for Hillary Clinton. This ought to be seen as more than the product of bias, but the signal of a much deeper political cancer — and the reason for Sanders' side eye perfectly captures why. Cornered in a losing fight, Clinton is utterly shameless in her counterattacks.
In this case, Clinton accused Sanders of undermining President Obama. Sanders had dared to say the obvious in 2011 — that Obama was systematically disappointing his own base — and, this cycle, he has had the gall to be honest again, about how far ObamaCare has fallen short of universal health care. These marks of coherence and courage Clinton recast in terms of the greatest sin in Clintonland: betrayal. Pungently enough, Clinton is convinced she can salvage her malfunctioning campaign by pandering this way to the same kind of black South Carolina voters she disgraced eight years ago, dispatching her husband to slither in and out of the trashiest kind of race-baiting innuendo.
Here as elsewhere, Clinton is buoyed by the knowledge that enough of the national media will portray her as wise and reasonable. If O'Malley offers an abortively postmodern vision of chipper neoliberalism and Sanders an almost premodern communitarianism, Clinton's brutalist, Brezhnev-like modernism is the political press' style of choice.
Exhibit A: for The New York Times, "it was enough to note Mr. Sanders's changes in policy" to leave Sanders "appearing frustrated." The Times joined with Clinton in pretending "[t]he competition to claim Mr. Obama's political mantle was the dominant theme of the night," when, in fact, the night's dominant theme was how Hillary Clinton is more than willing to wrap herself in the legacy of the man who politically crushed and sidelined her in 2008 — in order to crush and sideline a new competitor who is even more of a principled outsider than the first.
Then again, as observers have noted, Hillary Clinton has never, not once, won a competitive race. Her career is an inside job through and through — not because, as her enemies say, she was the beneficiary of political affirmative action, but because she rose to power in accordance with her fundamental vision of what power is and how it should be exercised.
Sanders, meanwhile (as media mainstreamers warn that even his plain victory last night might not be enough to win primaries) has drawn accolades even from non-Democrats, a veritable rainbow coalition of libertarians and others impressed with his firmness. "Does it say something about the country or me that the candidate I like best among both sides right now is socialist Bernie Sanders?" asked Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation and contributor to The Week. "At least the man speaks the language of justice, equality and in an unapologetic Brooklyn accent to boot!"
At a moment when Martin Luther King, Jr., is on many of our minds, Sanders' unbowed debate performance serves as a fresh reminder of the power of an individual who displays and defends honorable humanism in politics. To Hillary Clinton, it is anathema. If Democrats insist on making her their nominee out of some polluted sense of loyalty, it will eventually become anathema to them, too.