Why did Bernie lose?

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Credit: Weaverphoto

I’ve spent my entire politically sentient life thinking about and studying theories of radical change. It is not an emotionally rewarding undertaking. Most of it is spent investing oneself in an idea whose promise is fleeting (developing the perfect protest model!) or banking on the revival of something that feels far gone (militant sector-wide organized labor!). Hopes are dashed all the time; the power of capital feels impenetrable. Bernie Sanders provided that rarest of things for me: an answer.

Sanders demonstrated clearly that the anticapitalist left has a real way to effect change in American political life right now. That it’s possible for the left to make inroads in the two-party system, and that it’s possible to engage in high-level electoral politics without entirely defanging oneself. Sanders didn’t win the presidency, but he came astonishingly close, and in the process he reshaped the Democratic party platform and fueled the rise of an exuberant left-wing bloc in Congress that advocates for taxing the hell out of the rich, Palestinian liberation, and seriously reckoning with climate catastrophe.

Sanders radicalized a significant swath of the citizenry more efficiently than any other leftist movement or uprising in recent memory.  I hope it’s evident for many generations to come that the left should not ignore the electoral sphere or make third party bids but compete with Democrats in contests where they can launch viable challenges. Developing a radical wing of the Democratic Party and competing directly for the presidency is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to building a fundamentally more just society. But it’s not a small one, and it could potentially be a very big one.

That all being said, Sanders lost — and eulogizing is not the best way to build on Sanders’s work and legacy. What’s needed is a careful and honest evaluation of what did and didn’t go right in this presidential bid. So far it’s not clear that’s happening.

It’s understandable that activists and commentators on the left are sad about Sanders ending his five-year campaign for the White House. But some of it is veering close to tantrum-throwing. The most troubling phenomenon is the stream of complaints that the Democratic primary was rigged, and that the party establishment was unacceptably vicious and unfair in its fight against Sanders.

I’m honestly surprised by these accusations. I have seen no credible reports or evidence of vote-rigging in any nominating contests, nor do I think pulling off something so complex and difficult-to-cover-up as stealing an election is something state parties are competent or ideologically monolithic enough to carry out. Super-delegates did not sway voting in the race, due to post-2016 rules changes. There were almost too many debates this time around compared to 2016, and the terms for entering the debate were sensible (with the exception of the eventual move to ensure the inclusion of Bloomberg later on, which ironically backfired for him). Some pundits have painted the moderate consolidation around Biden before Super Tuesday as shady or inappropriate, but in reality it was just smart politics — the left should hope to develop that kind of discipline next time a Warren-Sanders type dilemma arises.

Winning elections in America is an ugly business, and treatment of Sanders in this primary season did not strike me as uncommonly nasty. Political parties routinely use voter roll purges, voter caging, deceptive robocalls, and racist and misogynistic advertising to gain advantage over their opponents. The red-baiting against Sanders was underhanded and in bad faith — but what else did you expect? I didn’t consider it as disturbing as Clinton campaign’s leaks of photos of Obama in Somalian garb in 2008.

Sanders had a decent shot this time around: he had exceptional favorability ratings, huge name ID advantage, and he had plenty of cash — but he didn’t win enough votes. That’s what it comes down to.

Why Sanders lost will be debated for months and years to come. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

Sanders only had one speed as a rhetorician

Sanders’s unchanging views, laser focus on the same set of themes, and famous disinterest in talking about anything other than power and policy bestowed him with an amazing asset that underpinned his high favorability ratings: the perception of being an honest politician. Even Republicans terrified of his big government promises regularly admitted they saw him as a true public servant.

This tendency also has its costs in a highly competitive election. Sanders showed almost no ability to effectively deploy stories, data, arguments and narratives that responded to the contingencies of world events and the currents of the election cycle. (As an example, my mom told me that she really wanted to give Bernie a chance during the post-coronavirus debate, but found that she wasn’t comforted by his brusque tone and his usual hammering away at Medicare-for-all, a policy she’s heard about for half a decade.) In debates and speeches, Sanders rarely dialed down his anger, showed nuance or revealed his true emotional depth. He only reluctantly talked about how his personal story explains his views and would shape his leadership style. Personally, I share Sanders’s preference for sticking to policy, but the world we live in cares about other qualities of a politician as well.  

In his 2016 run, Sanders’s demonstrated that plainly owning his radical ideology didn’t kill his candidacy, and in many ways strengthened it in time of rising populism. But in order to seal the deal — especially in an era of crisis when many voters were fixated on feeling safe about “electability” — Sanders needed to be a far more multidimensional orator to win over skeptics.

The political revolution theory didn’t pan out

Sanders’s strategy for winning the election was a mass mobilization of his base and disaffected and first-time voters, fueled chiefly by Americans who most badly needed the revolution — the young and the working class. But that didn’t work out.

In general in the first several nominating contests — where Sanders performed his best — he was only narrowly winning first-time voters, he wasn’t driving higher turnout overall, he wasn’t capturing regional upticks in turnout, and there wasn’t a discernible youth surge.

Then on Super Tuesday, where Sanders effectively lost the primary, the numbers were damning. New York‘s Eric Levitz broke it down well:

The candidate of the multiracial working class beat the polls — and overcame his rival’s massive financial advantage — by achieving record turnout through the mobilization of first-time primary voters.

But that candidate turned out to be Joe Biden.

According to exit polls, the former vice-president won non-college-educated whites in Old Dominion by a 42 to 34 percent margin, and working-class African-Americans in a landslide. Meanwhile, turnout in Virginia nearly doubled between 2016 and 2020, and Biden won a slim majority of first-time Democratic primary voters.

These trends were not uniform across Super Tuesday states. But Biden won working-class Democrats in more states than Sanders did, and Uncle Joe tended to do better where turnout was higher. At the same time, the Sanders campaign failed to translate four years of movement building — and more financial resources than any rival but Bloomberg — into higher youth turnout than it had inspired in 2016. In the senator’s home state of Vermont, voters under 30 comprised 10 percent of the electorate Tuesday, down from 15 percent four years ago.

The failure of young voters to turn out was probably the most predictable. While Sanders’s lock on the youth vote was the most symbolically powerful asset of his campaign, his reliance on it was always his biggest electoral liability, given historical trends.

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Source: US Election Project

While Sanders became a big part of Gen Z / millennial identity and social media presence after 2016, that crowd did not deliver the goods at the polls.

Targeting new and disaffected voters was also a huge gamble. It’s inherently risky to bet on winning by relying on people who are new or establishment-skeptical or resource-poor voters. Mobilizing this set is by definition harder than mobilizing voters familiar with the electoral process (from registration deadlines to how to navigate a caucus) and with greater resources to actually make it out to cast a ballot (time, access to transportation, daycare for children, etc.).

Messaging that focuses on working class concerns isn’t enough. When you’re talking about communities that are effectively disenfranchised by structural and economic factors, voter mobilization operations might be coming too late in the pipeline for a candidate to funnel them into the electoral process. (This is a place where traditionally organized labor would play a huge role in community organizing and developing a positive political program before any election.) An electoral strategy that centers on attracting non-organized working class people is always going to burdened by a resource-based Catch-22: poor Americans lack the very resources to vote for the policies that would allow them to vote in the first place.

This doesn’t mean giving up on this as an electoral strategy, but it means looking closely at how to improve it in the long run. It should also give pause to Sandernistas who say they “don’t need” to build coalitions with ideologically adjacent voters like Warren supporters .

Trouble with the “black vote”

For the second primary season in a row, Sanders got completely rocked by the establishment candidate among black voters.

The reason I put black vote in quotes is because black voters are treated as a monolith by mainstream pundits when a) black voters are not in any way ideologically homogenous b) black voters aren’t, as the casual use of the term sometimes implies, voting based purely on “black concerns.”

Sanders did make sincere and sustained efforts at outreach to black voters with his staffing, surrogates, and policy emphases, but it didn’t work for him. He still got clobbered by Joe Biden among black voters all over the country, and it was decisive over and over again in the South.

But it’s important to note that Sanders performed much better with black voters outside the South than in the South, and most black Democrats under 30 supported Sanders.  That’s a clue that perhaps the underlying issue here is a struggle to win over conservative and moderate voters.

In the South — where black voters often constitute a plurality or majority of the electorate — Democrats are more moderate and conservative than outside the South, more religious, and more likely to view working with the Republicans who dominate their region as something that’s achieved by staking out centrist positions.

On top of ideological trends, there’s the issue of party affiliation. Vox‘s Matt Yglesias has argued that Sanders’s hostility to the party apparatus likely alienates a lot of moderate black voters:

The problem extends beyond outreach strategies to the fundamental content of Sanders’s political message. As political scientists Chryl Laird and Ismail White show, black Democrats are, on average, less left-wing than white Democrats. At the same time, for historical and sociological reasons that Laird and White explore in their excellent new book Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior, black Democrats have warmer feelings toward the Democratic Party as an institution.

To summarize the story extremely briefly, most white people are Republicans. Those who are not Republicans have made a very conscious ideological choice to reject conservative ideology, creating a largeish bloc of voters who — like Sanders himself — are left-wing but cool on the Democratic Party. By contrast, black people who participate in black institutional life — who attend black churches, have many black friends, live in black neighborhoods, etc. — tend to have a strong affirmative attachment to the Democratic Party, even as their policy views are diverse.

The essence of Sanders’s message is that progressive-minded people need to overthrow a corrupt Democratic Party establishment in order to remake it in a more ideologically rigorous direction. This is just antithetical to the main currents of black opinion and the main modes of black political engagement.

Consequently, despite years of earnest striving to win over black voters, Sanders ended up over the weekend speaking to a room full of white people in majority-black Flint, Michigan.

I don’t have any answers at the moment, but I think that discussion of the left winning “the black vote” needs to be placed in geographical, ideological, material and political cultural contexts to be of any use. “Just find more black surrogates and talk about criminal justice” is degrading to both black voters and the left.

The absence of a popular front with Warren

Sanders and Warren had a non-aggression pact that held together for most of the primary season but unraveled right before the nominating contests actually began, and that probably hurt Sanders.

The Warren campaign’s leak of the conversation in which Sanders allegedly said a woman couldn’t win against Trump — which, by my lights, was a clearly coordinated campaign effort since it involved four sources from a highly disciplined campaign — was a desperate maneuver that did not benefit Warren, but likely made more of her serious supporters more hesitant about pivoting to Sanders. (A quick note on the ethics of the move: I think if Warren truly felt that Sanders was out of line in that conversation, she should not have allied herself with him and brought it up at the beginning of 2019 in a nuanced, constructive and contextualized manner; the last-ditch leak, bereft of context, right before the contests began, struck me as a cheap move to use against a politician she shared so many views with.)

I don’t know who is to “blame” for failing to develop a stronger alliance between the two, and it’s possible that their pact was always bound to fail because Warren saw herself as on a fundamentally different path despite their overlapping visions. But if things had gotten less ugly between the two, and Warren had folded and endorsed Sanders early in the race the way that the moderates did with Biden, that could have given Sanders a substantial boost.

But it wasn’t just about the candidates — it was also about their supporters. As I wrote in my last newsletter, I do think that a toxic Sanders culture online was a real problem and likely hurt Sanders’s ability to attract Warren supporters at later stages in the race. I also don’t buy the idea that it’s purely a media phenomenon or that “nobody is on Twitter,” something I touched on in my last newsletter and my piece for GQ:

Exit polling from several states indicates that 10-20 percent of primary voters follow political news through Twitter. Not all those people are likely to be plugged into the exact corners of Twitter that experience or discuss the issue of rancorous Bernie supporters. But income and education trends on Twitter suggest there is a disproportionate amount of Warren-friendly users on Twitter in general.

We know that there are many Warren supporters online who have complained about venomous Sanders supporters and explicitly cited it as a reason that they’re reluctant to or opposed to backing Sanders. There’s also been reporting that suggests this set is turning people away from his candidacy. “Lots of people at Warren and Pete town halls I talked to were weighing a Sanders vote but said they were turned off by the culture and crowds,” Sam Stein, the politics editor of the Daily Beast, tweeted in February. When I wrote about the issue as a liability for Sanders’s ability to expand his base, I saw some former Sanders supporters online explain that it’s why they migrated to Warren. “Bernie Bros definitely pushed me to the Warren camp,” tweeted Twitter user Meerenai Shim, whose bio says she lives in Campbell, California, and noted that she voted for Sanders in 2016.

There’s plenty more to discuss, but those are some thoughts that are top of mind.

If the left wants to keep up the momentum and improve itself, it needs to reckon with this loss rather than pout, to be introspective rather than fixate on scapegoats. While mainstream liberal media was indeed unethical in its approach to covering Sanders, the primary race was probably as fair as any contest of the kind will get.

This essay was featured in my politics newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

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