The Effort To Stop Bernie Sanders
Following the initial 4 primaries, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, it seemed as though Bernie Sanders was poised to power his way through to seizing the Democratic Party nomination. Then, just a day before Super Tuesday, the Democratic Party establishment mobolised quickly around Joe Biden. The former Vice President had poor showings initially, but staged a 'comeback' of sorts in South Carolina, winning the state by virtue of deep-rooted support among the majority-black voting base. A strong Biden performance in the state really wasn't a surprise to anyone, but what followed was.
Instead of surging ahead, gathering momentum from these significant victories in states with historic voter turnout numbers, the campaign rolled into a brick wall on in South Carolina and things only got worse. Super Tuesday ended up being a rout, severely weakening the movement and indicating that the Democratic establishment was in fact capable of resisting the Sanders campaign.
In the weeks and months that followed, things only got worse. The coronavirus pandemic began to spread throughout North America, disrupting primary votes and reducing turnout. Sanders opted to pivot his campaign to pandemic relief, participated in one modified debate with Joe Biden, and announced the suspension of his campaign on Wednesday, April 8th. Sanders remains on the ballot, although Biden now effectively runs unopposed.
The end of Bernie Sanders' second presidential campaign is unfortunate, especially given the current circumstances: a global pandemic is crushing a rotten, sclerotic society, plunging millions into unemployment and bringing most of industry to its knees. In a time where America needs another FDR, it is a tragedy that his closest modern equivalent has exited the presidential race. His campaign was far from perfect, but it felt like he had a legitimate shot at winning the nomination. The way the door was slammed shut so quickly, after such a strong opening performance, is tremendously disappointing.
There were a number of factors that lead to Sanders' downfall in this race, and I think it is imperative to learn from this. I think Sanders is a powerful force for good in politics, and I thought his agenda was something America sorely needs, but to act as though his campaign didn't have flaws — or make missteps along the way — is a mistake that serves no one. These are some of the concerns I had.
Not Mean Enough
One of the more frustrating narratives around Bernie Sanders is that he is some sort of overbearing, extroverted asshole who is always looking for a fight. This could not be further from the truth, people just misread his mannerisms and empassioned dialogue — along with his disinterest in hollow pleasantries — and assume the worst. Sanders is far less confrontational than he is portrayed, and to his detriment,.
Sanders refused to directly attack Joe Biden, even going as far as to reprimand a campaign surrogate who published and well supported article about the former Vice President's manifestly corrupt dealings. Even when he is combative, Sanders tends to speak broadly, rarely signling out targets except in the most egregious circumstances. It's been Sanders lifelong stated ethos that he prefers to focus on policy achievements and eschews verbal sparring for the most part.
While I can respect Sanders for his committment to his ideals, it is a poor strategy in politics. Extending far too much good faith to his detractors proved costly and gained him absolutely nothing. Sanders has consistently demonstrated far more respect for his adversaries than they deserve.
Crowding In The Left Lane
This is a much more difficult issue for a campaign to solve, but Sanders could have done more. Elizabeth Warren's affect on the race was significant — albeit incredibly overstated in many regards — and definitely ate into Sanders' support. It would be wrong to assume that the majority of Warren supporters would have sided with Bernie had she not been in the race, but she did split the ranks among progressives. This is not to say that Warren cost Sanders the nomination, but her presence in the race had an effect.
The other candidates, save for Amy Klobuchar — whose gimmick was saying "no" to any progressive measures and throwing sundry objects at staffers — purported to support Medicare For All, despite not actually supporting Medicare For All. Going back to the first point, Sanders' distaste for confrontation, this allowed his message to be undermined to the point that even voters who believed in Medicare For All were voting in droves for Biden, who even as recently as the end of March claimed he would veto such legislation if it were to come across his desk as President.
Sanders' refusal to make clearer the differences between himself and the Democratic party allowed voters to assume he wasn't that much different from the other candidates. The exclusively negative coverage of Sanders, combined with a mistaken view that every candidate more-or-less supports the same things, made it easy for Sanders to lose support from persuadable voters in my estimation. Despite using the language of revolution, Sanders did not do enough to differentiate himself and thoroughly define the Democratic establishment he was competing against.
This also goes back, at least in part, to the first point. The amount of negative coverage Bernie Sanders received was truly breathtaking. One would be naive to have expected anything less than a full-on assault by a media class with a vested interest in keeping the nomination away from Sanders, but watching it play out was still borderline surreal. Sanders did call this out to some degree, noting that in between segments of debates about universal healthcare would be billions of dollars in ads from pharmaceutical and health insurance companies, but that was about it.
As much as the endless parade of negative articles, the excoriation of his supporters (the mythical Bernie Bros of Twitter), what likely hurt Sanders the most was the dearth of positive coverage. In what world does a candidate who wins the first 4 primaries not end up the nominee? Well, apparently in a world where the media barely even acknowledges any of these victories. The average voter is not some ultra tuned-in political Twitter junkie, they take their cues from the establishment media and people around them. Bernie was never given the blessing of this establishment and that meant the voting base — the people who simply defer to popular consensus without much if any actual investigation — didn't even consider Bernie, even if they support his entire platform.
Bernie is nothing like Donald Trump, no matter how many specious thinkpieces get written proclaiming just that. People still balk at the idea of a (alleged) billionaire being the working class candidate, fighting against the The Establishment, but Trump easily managed this by pointing out who The Establishment was and viciously attacking it. Trump fought back, nullifying most criticism against him, even when it was valid, and was able to paint himself as the outsider. Conversely, Bernie ate a lot of shit and complained far less than any reasonable person would have.
In this regard, I think Bernie might have been in a catch-22, if only because Democratic voters overwhelmingly trust the media compared with conservatives — maybe it would have just alienated him further. That being said, a Sanders campaign making a sustained, pointed critique of the media might have done a lot to attract those vaunted swing voters. The whole Sanders movement was built on the notion of mobilising people who don't normally vote and standing up to corporate media is a way to do that, I believe. Bernie needed to go full insurgent here.
I think Bernie Sanders did a lot of good things with his campaign. His pivot to coordinating and fundraising on behalf of pandemic relief efforts was commendable, the complete opposite of Joe Biden and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in their decisions to encourage in-person voting until as recently as last week. Polling stations in many primary states have reported confirmed COVID-19 infections in poll workers, while many locations were closed and voter turnout was as low as 3% in Wisconsin. I don't find it a stretch to consider Sanders' concession to be the result of the DNC showing a willingness to execute hostages.
That Sanders yields to Biden just as America is assailed by health and economic disasters that only the former's policies — and, let's be honest, general inclination — are suited to the task of handling them. Disregarding the flaws of Joe Biden as a presidential candidate — and they are numerous as they are significant — there is also the reality that his 50-year career in politics has been spent architecting the failed state which we now see crumbling under its own weight. I see absolutely no reason to believe Joe Biden and his cabinet would handle the crises of 2020 any better than he and Obama dealt with those of 2008.
The progressive movement needs to take to heart the lessons of this campaign. The harsh reality is that the left wing of politics is not ready for prime time. The conservative movement is the most organised and powerful in politics, followed by the neoliberal centrists who comprise the average person's idea of the left. The centrists have been able to successfully stifle and defeat the left wing at every opportunity — frustrating proof they possess at least some institutional competence — but continue to be repeatedly poleaxed by modern conservatives. It's an infuriating dynamic to witness throughout one's life.
Even if Bernie had won the nomination and the presidency, that was just step one in a long-term project. That project remains viable, but we've seen the enormity of the task at hand. Defeating the establishment from within any system is a huge task; there is a reason they're The Establishment — these are powerful individuals who will stop at nothing to protect their interests. It took billions in attack ads and PAC funding, Michael Bloomberg spending a billion of his own money, Obama calling in favours to get Amy Klobuchar and Pete Butegieg to drop out and endorse Biden, hostile mainstream media, Elizabeth Warren as a Trojan horse, a shady voting app, questionable vote tallies, voter disenfranchisement and endorsed voting during a pandemic, but they finally got him.
If nothing else, the sheer enormity of the opposition to Sanders and his basic ideas — that are so non-radical that Dwight D. Eiseinhower wouldn't have even blinked at them — of human dignity should tell you all there is to know about how important the fight is. Even though Sanders himself has been spurned by The Establishment, we live in a world that never needed his policies or vision more. Sardonic, that.
Published: April 10th, 2020.