Why Bernie Won the California Primary

Bernie Sanders didn’t win California because it’s a liberal bastion and he's “extremely liberal.” He won it because the state’s working class is tired of the bipartisan, pro-corporate agenda that threatens to transform California into a social dystopia — and they’re ready to fight back.

A voter fills out a registration form at a polling station in City Hall in San Francisco, California, on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty

Bernie Sanders emerged from Super Tuesday in stiff competition with the freshly and begrudgingly coronated Joe Biden. At the time of this writing, Biden has officially garnered sixty-five more assigned delegates than Sanders, and centrist pundits are eager to broadcast Biden’s victory.

But given that over four thousand pledged delegates attend the convention and a candidate needs nearly two thousand to win on the first ballot, sixty-five is a negligible delegate lead. Additionally, the Super Tuesday results are incomplete. Hundreds of delegates from California have yet to be assigned, and California went decisively for Bernie.

Any commentary that downplays Bernie’s victory in California is disingenuous. California contributes the greatest number of delegates to the nomination process by far, with over 10 percent of pledged delegates in Milwaukee this summer. Clocking in at 415, California gets 141 more pledged delegates than the next most delegate-rich state, New York, which yields 274.

If all delegate math makes your head spin, ignore it and focus on the main takeaway: California is a huge deal, and Bernie winning the state by a significant margin is a major electoral coup, potentially offsetting his losses on the Eastern seaboard and in the South. Bernie is the co-frontrunner, and California is why.

Many conservatives and liberals alike will see Bernie’s victory in California as inevitable, despite his loss there in the 2016 primary. Those who view Bernie as a garden-variety lefty and who imagine California as dominated by left-wing counterculture will see nothing out of the ordinary. In Texas I grew up hearing that California is “like a bag of trail mix, full of fruits and nuts.” Of course a socialist would win a place like that, right?

But to believe that Bernie won California because Bernie is very liberal and California is a very liberal-minded state is to misunderstand the nature of both the campaign and the place.

For starters, the first half of the equation is all wrong. Bernie Sanders does not represent an extreme version of liberalism, but rather a departure from liberalism’s tradition of attempting to locate compromise between the ruling class and the working class on terms the former can tolerate. Instead, Bernie’s campaign is reviving the idea that the working class must advance its own interests against the interests of the ruling class. A central idea of his candidacy is that in order to win things like health care and housing and education for all, the superrich are going to have to make significant sacrifices for which they will not be compensated. This notion cuts against the governing philosophy of the Democratic Party in California and across the nation.

The second assumption is also a myth. California is not a bastion of the Left. There were famous left-wing student protests at Berkeley in the sixties, but don’t forget that they were crushed violently by then-governor Ronald Reagan. While countercultural and left-wing tendencies have flourished in their backyard, California’s economic elite have long run the show, and they have always successfully conscripted politicians who will keep their taxes low, their profits high, and the rabble at bay. California’s wealthy have been innovators in austerity: the state’s notorious 1978 Proposition 13 is “arguably the most famous and influential ballot measure in the nation’s history,” having “spurred an anti-tax movement across the country.”

Today, California is the world’s fifth-largest economy. Nearly 160 billionaires live in California, the highest concentration in the country. But the wealth is unequally distributed, yielding the fourth-highest economic inequality ranking in the nation. While the state’s wealthy exploit tax loopholes to keep their fortunes to themselves, the state’s public education system deteriorates, its homelessness crisis grows, and its cost of living spirals out of control. Conservatives often point to the state’s abundant social problems as evidence that left governance spells ruin, but they miss the mark: California has these problems because it looks more like the Republican Party’s ideal society, economically speaking, not less like it.

California simultaneously has a higher GDP than Britain and more homeless people than anywhere else in the nation. Coupled with the skyrocketing costs of living in California, particularly of housing and public college tuition, this in-your-face inequality has created an appetite for change among ordinary Californians.

The proof was in the pudding. On Tuesday, Bernie won 43 percent of votes cast by people without a college degree, compared to Biden’s 28 percent. Young people and Latinos make up a major swath of California’s working class, and they broke overwhelmingly for the Vermont senator. Bernie got 55 percent of the Latino vote, compared to 21 for Biden, and he captured 72 percent of the 18–29 vote, compared to Biden’s abysmal 5 percent.

It’s far too simplistic to say that Bernie won California because he’s a left-wing candidate and California is a left-wing place. On the contrary, Bernie won California precisely because its working-class residents are tired of and ready to reject the bipartisan pro-corporate, pro-austerity agenda that threatens to transform the state into a social dystopia.

“It seems somehow absurd, but it is nevertheless a fact,” said the writer Morrow Mayo of Los Angeles, though it may be said of the entire state, that the “smiling, booming, sunshine City of Angels has been the bloodiest arena in the Western World for Capital and Labor.” Not only was Bernie’s California victory critical for him electorally, but it signals a political shift, a blow against capital and a victory for labor.

While conservatives have long called California socialist, in reality it’s never come anywhere close. Today it appears that millions of Californians wouldn’t mind changing that.