To change the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders' supporters should learn from evangelicals

Instead of threatening the party establishment that thwarted them, they could quietly take it over — as Christian conservatives did to the GOP.
Image: Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Campaigns Across Michigan Ahead Of Primary
Supporters listen to introductory remarks before a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on March 8, 2020.Brittany Greeson / Getty Images
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By Joshua C. Wilson, associate professor of political science, University of Denver

If, as seems likely in the wake of the results from Tuesday’s Democratic primaries and caucuses, the Democratic Party eventually decides that former Vice President Joe Biden should be the one to face President Donald Trump in the November election instead of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., democratic socialists and progressives within the party who backed Sanders should, instead of threatening to burn down the party establishment that resisted them for years, look to their political antithesis — white evangelicals in the Republican party — for how to remold it in their own image.

While it is possibly hard to imagine today given their contemporary power within the Republican Party, white evangelicals spent their first rough decade as an insurgent outsider group fighting against a party establishment that sought to block their meaningful inclusion. Prominent conservative actors who should have been their allies within the GOP, such as Barry Goldwater, expressed open contempt for this new group and its leaders, calling them “a bunch of kooks.”

They arguably only came together as an identifiable political entity within the party in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan helped their formation through his first successful presidential race, but he largely paid only lip service to their interests once in office. His successor, George H. W. Bush, both defeated a formative movement leader — Pat Robertson — to secure the party nomination, and was more notably uncomfortable with the Christian conservative movement than Reagan, fostering mutual mistrust between the movement and the party.

How, then, did white evangelicals come to be the “life of the party,” as they are popularly and academically recognized today? While people within the movement were disappointed when Bush defeated Robertson, and some leaders within the Christian right have overtly threatened the Republican Party establishment, neither ever abandoned the GOP. Rather, white evangelicals used what had been built in early campaigns to continue their work to get to the party’s control center — ultimately becoming one of the controlling factions within the Republican Party.

Sanders and his supporters, meanwhile, have taken both his failure to secure the nomination in 2016 and his lackluster results against Biden in 2020 as an attack by the “Democratic establishment” against their “revolution.” But such an attitude fails to recognize how change and building lasting political power have worked in modern U.S. political parties: instead of threatening to destroy the party that resisted them, white evangelicals took it over by building it up — and Sanders Democrats could do the same.

White evangelicals represent only 15-20 percent of the total U.S. population, but they represent approximately 25 percent of voters in recent elections — meaning that Republicans can count on them to turn out in election after election and to vote for the Republican candidate.

More importantly in understanding their political power, though, is that they have come to control important positions within the Republican Party. Less than 15 years after their arguable creation as a faction within the party, the Christian right controlled the majority of the Republican Party’s central committees at the state party level — part of the definition of a political party’s “establishment.” In 2016, white evangelicals not only showed their support for the party through an unprecedented 81 percent of their votes, but they also turned out in the form of party volunteers — something that they have been doing since they first entered the political arena.

Looked at collectively, white evangelicals have taken over the party from the inside out.

It might be hard for Sanders’ supporters to acknowledge it but, as the recent primary results and polling have shown, they are still a minority within the party — just as white evangelicals were within the GOP. But, because of their enthusiasm and numbers, a coalition of Democrats is assuredly trying to figure out how it can hold onto these movement voters while having Biden lead the Democratic ticket.

That gives them power — if Sanders’s supporters can act like white evangelicals and conduct a silent revolution by serving the party that they ostensibly oppose.

American political parties are internally diverse groups and, as such, they are regularly subject to conflicts as their various constituent parts are often in tension with one another. They are always looking to expand their coalitions and to find needed resources — both financial and in terms of volunteers to knock on doors, phone bank and get voters to the polls. As new groups get added to parties’ coalitions, new conflicts can emerge.

The way to power, then, is to recognize that parties always need more resources and that they will inevitably bend to accommodate the groups who provide them. Internal constituencies can thus gain power by offering not only voters, but also volunteers, organizers and leaders who help serve the interests of the party as a whole.

It was by meeting these standing needs that white evangelicals were able to go from being “kooks” to arguably controlling the party. And it’s by meeting those needs that Sanders Democrats can likely go from being “a cult” that leaves party stalwarts like James Carville “scared to death” to being the faction that party leaders feel it necessary to bend over backwards for.