There is no better place to start than the bad news.
Bernie Sanders had a bad night last night. Of course, it doesn’t mean we stop campaigning or that we write premature obituaries. It does, however, give us a chance to take stock of where we are, what the last five years have taught us, and what might happen after July, regardless of the outcome.
The bad news is that the Democratic Party isn’t going anywhere. The belief that Joe Biden’s nomination portends the imminent collapse of the party should be rejected. Some on the Left are insisting a crushing defeat by Donald Trump would mean the party’s disintegration. This misunderstands American parties and their resilience. The Democratic Party is the oldest party in the world — it has survived the Civil War, decades of political wilderness, two World Wars, and twenty-three presidential defeats (more than any other party), and it still commands about 12 million more members than the Republican Party and regularly wins the popular vote in national elections. Consider also that these four years out of power have only strengthened the party’s fundraising operations, with the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) raking in more than $12.1 million in January, smashing its previous record.
To put this in perspective, Bernie Sanders has won around 5 million votes in the primary thus far — no mean feat, but only a fraction of those voters would ever consider “leaving” the Democratic Party and voting for a third party. Yet even if all of them did, it would mean the Democrats would still have 7 million more members than the Republicans.
The truth is, unfortunately, the Democratic Party can make do without its left flank, and they would happily see the Bernie supporters exit so they can continue to consolidate their upper-middle-class constituency. Biden’s strong success among suburban voters reinforces the notion among party elites that — like the 2018 midterms — they can shuffle in white-collar professionals to replace disaffected blue-collar workers.
Could we have prevented this? What went wrong? I think most of Sanders’s current struggles are owed to structural factors beyond his (or anyone’s) control. The Democratic establishment learned the lesson of the 2016 Republican primary and succeeded in getting candidates to drop out and coalesce around Biden in remarkable speed right before Super Tuesday.
The move gave Biden an unprecedented level of “earned” media, with Uncle Joe carrying an estimated $70 million in completely positive television coverage on every major news network in the country.
To put that in perspective, Mike Bloomberg’s media-driven campaign spent over $200 million in advertisements since November. Biden captured 35 percent of that total in just two days.
Second, the party’s relentless “Stop Bernie” campaign did hurt him in areas where state parties still command votes. Jim Clyburn’s Biden endorsements proved that the establishment still has legitimacy in the South, and it is enough to hurt insurgent candidates.
Third, it is an incumbent election year, which means a few things. First, incumbents win elections. Since 1900, fourteen presidents have sought reelection, and only four have lost (I don’t count Gerald Ford, because he didn’t win an election to begin with). And since the neoliberal age, only one has lost his reelection bid. So again, even if the Democrats lose badly, it likely means they won’t reflect too much on why they lost — after all, the party elites would prefer being the opposition party to Trump over being the governing party under Bernie.
But what’s also important here is that, because incumbents win elections so frequently, many working-class voters just stay home in these elections. The pattern of political life for most young workers has suggested that — barring a major recession or war — the sitting president will get reelected.
Bernie Sanders’s bet on new and infrequent working-class voters may have been made more difficult by voters thinking that the reelection of the incumbent is inevitable. In fact, Bernie’s army never showed up. The campaign’s heavy focus on turning out the youth vote proved ill-conceived, with youth turnout dipping below 2016 levels.
Sanders’s strategy to overwhelm the electorate with a voter surge failed. Instead of Bernie’s mobilized base flooding the polls, it was Biden who rode the turnout wave. There was a genuine voter surge on Super Tuesday, and it’s likely there was one last night as well, but that surge was not driven by workers or young people. Instead, it was driven by upper-middle-class moderates (the very group that already dominates Democratic primary elections).
Indeed, nowhere was this voter surge greater than in Fairfax County itself, with Virginia posting a nearly 70 percent increase over 2016 Democratic primary turnout where over 51 percent of voters had at least a bachelor’s degree.
Of course, defeat is demoralizing. The Brahminization of the primary system, the increasing challenge of mobilizing working-class voters, the toxicity of the Democratic Party “brand,” and the overwhelming influence of money and media in elections can make it seem like there is no path forward for the Left. That frustration will play out in the weeks and months ahead. There will be lots of finger-pointing and finger-wagging among our corner of the political world; there will be myriad diagnoses of Sanders’s current weakness; words like “racist,” “sexist,” and “xenophobic” will be thrown around a lot.
And, of course, there will be some wacky proposals that promise us a shortcut to power. Sectarians will encourage everyone to funnel their rage into ill-fated third-party efforts, and some will demand an insurrection at the Democratic National Convention. Chaos on the Left will unfold as the Democratic Party marches blissfully into a general election they will likely lose — and Sanders supporters will almost certainly get blamed for that loss. Not much will come from any of that, save for a few new social media brands and a lot of bad press.
Many readers of this magazine were politicized in 2016, and most of their political lives have been wrapped up in Bernie Sanders’s political fortunes. It might feel like a lifetime of work has been wasted on the one chance we had to win. That’s to be expected, but it’s also a hyperbolic reaction. The truth is that the Left loses much more than we win. Yet, despite our challenges, I’m confident that the road ahead of us provides ample opportunities to build on what we have learned.
Now, the Good News
In five short years, Bernie’s campaigns have punctured the neoliberal political consensus with an egalitarian platform, a realistic strategy, and majority support for his ideas. I’m not going to cheerlead or sugarcoat a defeat by redefining it as a victory, but we should recognize that the past five years of “Sandersism” represents a genuine leap forward in politics in the United States, a leap that dwarfs the past half-century of liberal stupidity and backwardness.
In other words, in five years, we’ve moved forward fifty. Today’s commonsense political demands are, almost unthinkably, democratic socialist demands. Demands that insist on major state intervention in the economy, demands that are redistributive and universal. The regulation of production, distribution, and consumption for social ends through democratic means is now, finally, considered normal for many — if not most — voters. That’s pretty remarkable.
What’s more, all this happened without any real organizational strength, with every major media network against us, without any corporate sponsors, and with the labor movement on life support.
Yet because it was a real leap, there is a big gap between the popularity of the Bernie platform and the actual institutional capacity to carry it out. This can help explain why many voters in the South — and a strong majority in Michigan — say that they support Medicare for All and Joe Biden. The political program is running well ahead of the institutional strength of the populist or democratic socialist left. It is not a contradiction for voters to believe in our ideas and still think that the establishment is a more legitimate and effective governing force.
Let’s be honest: in a country where democratic socialists have only won 0.01 percent of elected offices, and we have only seriously competed in two election cycles, even voters who are with us on the issues have a real reason to wonder if our side is capable of governing.
So, What’s Next?
Our big task now is to maintain the bread-and-butter demands as leading political ideas while we fill in the capacity to actually win them. We should use the experience of the Elizabeth Warren campaign to reinforce the fact that “activist demands” and identity posturing are not harmless add-ons to a working-class program but actively harmful. And, instead, we should continue to popularize a program of big bold demands for universal public goods that can win a majoritarian coalition.
In the short term, this means that the best practical activity we can do is to resume Medicare for All campaigning with gusto. Regardless of who is president, American workers like single-payer insurance, and our health care woes are not going anywhere.
In the medium term, we have to run congressional candidates — and in order to win, we have to concentrate our efforts in the Southwest. Bernie’s strength in Southern California, Nevada, and Texas suggests a real future for congressional insurgencies there. These states also (excepting California) have relatively weak partisan identification and Democratic state parties, meaning the influence of the institutional party might be more easily overcome. But in order to succeed, the post-Bernie organizations need to combine their efforts and unite around select congressional and state legislative races to start to build a real bloc of lawmakers.
This is doable, but it requires rejecting the fantasy that now is the time we all throw ourselves into third-party work or militant protest activity. Let’s not make the same mistake that the New Left made. I understand how psychologically difficult that is, and I’m sure many Sanders supporters are ready to move to the desert and start a commune. I wish there was an easier way forward and that we could tear up our voter registrations, but the truth is, there is nowhere for us to go.
The Democratic ballot line affords us legitimacy and access to a mass base, and we cannot afford to abandon the tactic of using it because we are upset with the party. We will always be upset with the party, because it is not our party.
Yet if we continue to build our institutional strength, we have the future. I am certain of it.
The New Right has no ideas, and even the two ideas they do have are weak: a vague “industrial policy” that has no chance of winning in their own party, and the constant screeching to restrict immigration that has no chance of abetting working-class concerns about health care, trade, automation, retirement security, education, and more. Of course, they can win an election on those ideas, and probably a few more, but what is Tucker Carlson’s answer to Medicare for All? How can these hucksters ensure wage hikes without infuriating their donor class and corporate sponsors?
Everywhere in the world, the far right is proving an unstable governing force, and voters are taking notice. Meanwhile, the young left is learning lessons and thinking much more about how to win. The emerging majority consensus is that the state must play a major role in the economy and that the people responsible for preventing the government from doing just that are the very rich.
Not a bad haul for five years.
This doesn’t mean that we will automatically win — far from it; we need to adjust our message and rhetoric. We need to shed the more fringe parts of our platform, and we need to focus heavily, almost singularly, on the bread and butter. We also need to win union support for our candidates, and that might mean not contesting in elections where labor has friends. And, of course, we need candidates. Real candidates; charismatic, principled, and serious candidates who come from the working class.
Yet when you put it this way — one foot in front of the other — it is doable; so, despite the outcome last night, our work continues today.