Bernie’s Campaign Strategy Wasn’t the Problem

With Bernie Sanders now out of the race, commentators from left and right are finding fault with the campaign itself, arguing that there was too much class politics or not enough. But the problem wasn’t Bernie’s campaign strategy — it was the full force of the Democratic establishment that so effectively consolidated against him.

Bernie Sanders greets supporters at the conclusion of a campaign rally in the Central Mall of the Utah State Fair Park March 2, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

When it comes to political campaigns, all obituaries are also autopsies. In taking the measure of the campaign, commentators inevitably try to determine what was responsible for its demise. Bernie Sanders’s recently concluded campaign is no exception. As various political camps have begun putting forward their assessment of it, they have also attempted to diagnose what went wrong.

But in doing so, commentators have hardly acted like medical inspectors, carefully weighing the evidence to determine a cause of death. Instead, their conduct has more closely resembled that of an ancient haruspex, the Roman officials who divined the will of the gods from the entrails of sacrificed animals. Even across political divides, the method is strikingly similar — examining the campaign’s remains, they pronounce that their respective gods have been angered and must be appeased.

For liberals, the god in question is a politics of identity. They see Bernie’s attempt to run a campaign based on working-class demands and working-class power as a nostalgic attempt to revive class politics in an era that has left them behind. For today’s liberals, politics are now based around identity groups. Some of these groups, like liberal college-educated suburbanites, were ready for Bernie’s policies but rejected his vision of politics. If Bernie’s agenda is to succeed, they say, it must come to terms with the death of class politics.

But liberals aren’t alone in seeing the campaign’s demise as the result of self-inflicted wounds. An analogous narrative has also come from within the camp of Bernie’s supporters. Here it has taken the shape of an argument that Bernie simply didn’t go far enough. In particular, a number of people have argued that he should have attacked Joe Biden much harder, making the case that Biden will lose to Donald Trump just as Hillary Clinton did.

Both of these perspectives converge in arguing that, with relatively minor adjustments (albeit in opposite directions), Bernie’s campaign could have triumphed. Yet this position drastically understates the obstacles to social-democratic politics that Bernie’s defeat revealed. Though his extended campaign (from 2015–20) has helped the Left take a giant step forward in the United States, it has also quite clearly revealed some of the most serious obstacles to further left advance. It is only by taking those obstacles seriously that their challenge can be met.

Party Over Class

Liberals have argued that Bernie’s defeat is the defeat of an entire theory of politics. Vox’s Zack Beauchamp and the prominent Elizabeth Warren supporter David Atkins made this case last week in two pieces that converged in the essence of their argument. Bernie’s theory of politics, they argue, was based on the Marxist argument that workers have certain class interests, and that by speaking to those interests, he could win the campaign. The problem, for Beauchamp and Atkins, is that people don’t actually do politics like this. Instead, people’s political activity flows from their identity. Affluent, college-educated liberals are happy to support redistributive policies because their identities are based around political liberalism, even if their taxes might go up. Similarly, working-class whites embrace a conservative culture that is hostile to government intervention, even though they themselves might benefit from such intervention.

The prescription that follows from this is that Bernie should lean into the culture war and embrace liberal partisanship. Instead of doing things like going on Fox News and making the case for redistribution, he should be going on MSNBC and talking to Chuck Todd about Trump’s connections to Vladimir Putin. While Bernie may not be able to draw in new voters by speaking to their class interests, he can successfully push redistributive policies by speaking to the partisan identity of Democratic primary voters.

While this argument is not devoid of insights, its obituary for class politics is premature. At the very least, when websites read by (and whose advertisers are patronized by) college-educated liberals make the case for the political importance of college-educated liberals, it’s hard to dismiss Karl Marx’s dictum that “social being determines social consciousness.”

More fundamentally, however, these pieces adopt a myopic view of the political theory that grounded Bernie’s campaign. While they are correct that it centers on class conflict, both Beauchamp and Atkins treat Bernie’s class politics as being fundamentally about winning an election. But the politics at the heart of the campaign — the need to build a mass working-class movement to challenge the power of the billionaires — was never first and foremost a vision of winning an election. Its horizon was always larger, concerned with how to pass far-reaching redistributive policies. Bernie took as his starting point that any president is going to face determined opposition from the ruling class, and that mass mobilization from below is the only way to overcome that opposition.

The electoral theory that Beauchamp and Atkins criticize is a downstream consequence of this basic theory of politics. Their mistake is to treat the fundamental politics of the campaign as merely a device to win an election, instead of a necessary consequence of building the kind of coalition that will be required to pass policy for the working class. You can’t govern without being elected, though, and in the course of their critique of the campaign, Beauchamp and Atkins make some telling points that socialists can’t afford to ignore, which we’ll return to below.

But a little consideration of American political history makes it quite clear why you can’t simply swap out a mobilized working class for middle-class liberals and expect the same policy results. Put simply, there has not been significant policy change in the United States that has passed in the face of determined opposition by corporate America. When major reforms do happen, it is because working-class struggle has convinced at least some of the ruling class that reform is an acceptable price for social peace.

Incremental, targeted expansions of the welfare state have occurred, of course, from Bill Clinton’s Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid. These kinds of programs incur little resistance from the ruling class as a whole, though obviously, conservative think tanks oppose them loudly. At times, the ruling class is willing to support even much more ambitious policy agendas, like Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty or the creation of Medicare. These measures have all been meaningful reforms that have dramatically improved the lives of millions of working-class people. But what’s key is that the politics of all of these reforms confirm the thesis that policy in the United States is driven by the preferences of the corporate rich.

Today, there is no appetite for sweeping reforms like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal among the American ruling class. While in the 1960s, with a wary eye on civil rights insurgency, ruling-class institutions like the Ford Foundation promoted innovative initiatives in social policy, the ruling class of today is far less adventurous. Policies like Medicare for All or a full-employment Green New Deal will find only determined opposition from the Business Roundtable or the Brookings Institution. If these policies are to be enacted, it will be because a working-class insurgency has convinced at least some sectors of capital that they are worthwhile compromises.

This is why Bernie’s campaign prioritized mobilizing working-class voters. The idea that an electorally viable coalition could be created by bringing in working-class voters is a further development of this basic theory of American politics. If the theory is true, then it’s plain why Bernie couldn’t simply pivot to middle-class progressives. Even if doing so were to get him elected, he would be in no position to resist the corporate onslaught against his agenda.

While Beauchamp and Atkins portray the Sanders campaign as attached to a romantic vision of politics at the expense of getting things done, their own implicit theory is itself a romanticization of the brutal realities of power in American politics. Partisan identity is indeed a powerful force in contemporary politics, but only because it operates within confines already established by the dominance of the rich. Against their opposition, it can accomplish little. There is no path to the Sanders agenda that does not run through a radicalized working class.

Populism Over Party

Within the Bernie camp, the suspension of the campaign, and even more so Sanders’s subsequent endorsement of Joe Biden, gave way to internal finger-pointing, hurt feelings, and allegations of betrayal. The central argument is that Bernie lost because he refused to go far enough in challenging Biden. He then proceeded to turn over his endorsement without forcing any concessions on policy or personnel. Finally, he distanced himself from those supporters who refuse to endorse Biden, saying that it is “irresponsible” not to support the Democratic nominee in the general election against “the most dangerous president in modern history.” Among the more bitter lines to emerge from this narrative, some have claimed that Bernie is “trashing” and “shaming” his supporters, and is a “hypocrite” who has “harsher words for his supporters than he did for Joe Biden.”

Of course, there’s a grain of truth to the argument that a stronger contrast with Biden would have been beneficial to the campaign. But the difference between “beneficial” and “winning” is considerable.

This interpretation gets it wrong on two fronts. First, it underestimates the “concessions” that Bernie’s campaign has already won, by mobilizing millions of young, working-class, oppressed people into political activity, and shifting wholesale the national discussion. Previously fringe social-democratic policies, like Medicare for All and free public college education, now have majority support. Within the context of a public health and financial disaster, the mainstreaming of these ideas couldn’t come too soon. Bernie’s campaign can and should be used as a launching pad to further these demands.

Bernie has always had an insider strategy, and his endorsement of Biden really should not have come as a surprise to anyone. But it’s hard to overstate the extent to which Bernie’s campaign explicitly took on the Democratic establishment, including by name: Joe Biden.

By refusing to make nice with the Democrats’ donor class, he repeatedly highlighted whose pockets Biden and other candidates were in. By refusing to equivocate on issues like Medicare for All, a $16 trillion investment in a Green New Deal, national rent control, and tuition- and debt-free college education, he highlighted the gulf between him and his opponents. And, say what you will about his reticence to wage a scorched-earth campaign, but it’s not a coincidence that his top advisers and the most visible positions within his campaign were filled by people that pushed hardest to the left.

The vitriol aimed at Bernie by the mainstream media and the talking heads, even while he played a “nice” insider game, gives some indication of why he may have been reticent to hit too hard — particularly as the Sanders campaign was all too aware of the need to expand its base of support. Opposition from the Left is always cast as “negative,” while mainstream vilification of left-wing candidates, including comparing them to a lethal virus, is par for the course. Anyone that participated in the third-party campaigns of Ralph Nader two decades ago can attest to the marginalizing and disorganizing dangers of a post-campaign backlash in which a candidate and their supporters are castigated and derided for years.

Second, this argument naively assumes that, with a tweak of this or that facet of his campaign, victory and political power were there for the taking. The reality is that, as fumbling as the Democratic establishment was for the first months of the primary, the corporate elite of this country had no intention of allowing a non-corporate candidate to skate across the finish line without serious intervention. A few phone calls from Barack Obama, who had made his Bernie-blocking intentions clear from the start, sufficed to pull the moderate ducks in a row.

More important, despite majority support among the Democratic electorate for many of Bernie’s policies, when the establishment spoke, the party’s voters listened. In assessing our movement’s strengths and weaknesses, we have to come to terms with the fact that the leadership of the Democratic Party still has legitimacy, and that there is no comparable counterweight. It’s true that a small and very formidable group of social democratic legislators is growing. But we still face an uphill battle within enemy territory of a corporate party.

This is why we faced the seemingly paradoxical reality of exit polls that showed voters supporting Bernie’s platform at the same time that they voted for Biden. Fear of Trump proved greater than a confidence that we can win a progressive agenda. “The political program,” Dustin Guastella wrote, “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.” Biden won the “electability” argument because the establishment and their media mouthpieces declared it so, and the electorate believed them.

Finally, activating new, marginalized voters — particularly young people, poor people, and people of color — is a critical but difficult task. And it’s especially so when the organizations of the Left are not yet large enough or rooted enough to have proven our ideas impactful in practice. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argued, “People with the most to gain by the numerous programs proposed by Mr. Sanders have also been the most disappointed by politics.”

Dynamics of Defeat

Both the liberals and the populists argue that if the Sanders campaign had pivoted in the directions they advocate, it could have won. Such a view dramatically underestimates the obstacles that his campaign confronted. At the same time, it must be said that many Sanders supporters (this article’s writers very much included) also underestimated those obstacles, particularly in the week after Sanders won the Nevada primary and looked, for a brief moment, unstoppable. At this point, accurately assessing those obstacles, and developing strategies for overcoming them, is of the utmost importance for the Left.

Two key mistakes stand out. First, much of the Left overestimated Bernie’s support with rural white voters coming out of the 2016 primary. People often pointed to him winning every county in West Virginia as evidence of his ability to bring in white working-class voters. Yet, as Beauchamp points out, it now seems that much of this vote was driven more by antipathy toward Hillary Clinton than any particular affinity for Sanders. To be sure, it was a historic moment when Sanders proved that being an open socialist was no obstacle to winning huge numbers of votes among more conservative Democratic primary voters. However, these voters were not brought into Sanders’s camp in any durable fashion, and they were perfectly happy to support Joe Biden.

This mistake led to the second, which was an overestimation of Bernie’s ability, as a popular politician, to compete with the weight of the Democratic establishment. The Democratic Party functions as a network of institutions, from think tanks like the Center for American Progress, to elected officials, to media like MSNBC. Together, these institutions deliberate over what path the party will follow. Much of this deliberation happens while primary elections are still distant. By the time the small group of primary voters start paying attention, these institutions function to give them cues, such as endorsements from elected officials, as to who they should vote for.

Of course, people don’t always take these cues. The Republican electorate famously disregarded them completely to nominate Donald Trump. And sometimes, the cues aren’t particularly strong, or they are divided, as was the case this year. According to Five Thirty Eight’s “endorsement primary” tracker, by the time of the Iowa caucus this year, Joe Biden had less than half the party support that Hillary Clinton had amassed at the same point in 2016. Nervous about Biden’s ability to campaign, the party held off on going all in behind him, and the resulting fractured field allowed Bernie to win the first three contests.

However, after Biden’s campaign finally showed signs of competitiveness by decisively winning South Carolina, the cues from the party were unambiguous. And unlike Republican voters in 2020, Democratic voters listened. Concerned above all with defeating Donald Trump, Democratic voters took the message from a rapidly unifying party consolidating around Joe Biden.

In the absence of alternative political institutions, it should not be surprising that Democratic primary voters rely on the party itself to provide them with guidance on electability. This is, after all, supposedly one of the party’s jobs. In reality, the party’s judgments about electability are themselves filtered through the interests of the class that funds or controls the institutions that comprise it, which helps explain why it failed to see just how despised Hillary Clinton was, even by Democratic primary voters, in 2016.

Bernie’s personal popularity, and the even wider popularity of his message among Democratic primary voters, were no match for the united party establishment. In the wake of his defeat, it is clear that while his campaign was a tremendous step forward for American socialism, victory in the primaries will require institutions that are currently far beyond the capability of the American left. Institutions like unions, that can both provide deliberative space and send cues, need to be built up to push back against the message of the party elite. Similarly, leftist media will need levels of circulation that far outstrip what they have achieved so far. The liberal center won because of its institutions, and it is only with institutions of its own that the Left will be able to beat it.

The Road Ahead

Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination for president twice. But in the span of five short years, he transformed American politics. Through his campaigns, he championed the plight of the country’s working class, talked openly about capitalism and class struggle, and called out our enemies by name: the billionaire class, the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, fossil fuel companies, and the military-industrial complex. Millions of people not only voted for him on the basis of those ideas, they also gained confidence in a movement for a better world. We have, in Bernie’s words, “won the ideological battle,” in so many significant ways.

In no small part due to his campaigns, a majority of young people in the United States favor socialism over capitalism, hundreds of democratic socialist campaigns have won local and national elections, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has grown to become the country’s largest socialist organization since the 1930s. That all this has happened in the context of a historically weak and disorganized Left speaks to how powerful a role Bernie’s political revolution has played.

What the autopsies of Bernie’s campaign miss is that this success is more surprising than his loss; an open democratic socialist came this close to winning the presidency of the United States. The campaign’s defeat has also exposed our collective weakness, and it points to the need to deepen our organizations, institutions, and reach. The political tide is still at our backs to organize for desperately needed measures like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and a rejection of American militarism. And if we seize those opportunities, we can use those struggles to advance the movement for democratic socialism and build our long-term strength.