We Lost the Battle, but We’ll Win the War
The Bernie Sanders campaign fell short. But it assembled a coalition that, if expanded only slightly, can reshape American politics for generations to come.
Twenty years ago, back during the last summer of the Clinton presidency, Joe Rogan appeared on Bill Maher’s late night talk show Politically Incorrect. He was joined by Harry Belafonte’s daughter Shari, a visibly drunk actress named Kari Wuhrer, and Socialist Party presidential candidate David McReynolds.
Early on in the program, McReynolds laid out his ambitious platform, citing Nordic social democracy as a model for justice in America. But it quickly became clear that he was really there to play whipping boy.
“Your platform would wreck America,” as Maher put it. “You say you want a thirty-hour workweek?” (The studio audience exploded with applause here.) “$12 minimum wage.” (Once again, the crowd went wild.) “Hold your applause, babies!” Maher then rattled off the rest: “Six weeks paid vacation. Free college. Free mass transit. Free legal services. Free health care. Free day care.”
The panelists were not impressed, with Wuhrer going full Fox News on Reynolds: “My ex-husband would love this, Bill. He could make that dent in the couch even bigger!” she said, giggling. “The lazy people still get to be lazy!”
But no one was more alarmed than Joe Rogan. “Somebody’s gonna have to pay for everything in the end,” as Rogan put it. McReynolds explained, yes, that’s true — and that he intended to steeply raise taxes on the wealthy in order to do it.
Rogan’s eyes bugged out. “More than 48 percent?” McReynolds nodded. “That’s crazy! You want more than half?!” Rogan threw up his arms. “Where’s Steve Forbes when you need him?” Wuhrer, stroking Rogan’s arm, added: “He’s busy working.”
McReynolds though was unfazed. In a booming, stentorian voice he made his case, laying out corporate CEO-to-average-worker income disparity all while Rogan fumed, Maher scoffed and Wuhrer cackled. But McReynolds — who died in 2018 — stayed cool, asking Rogan, “Do you really think that Dick Cheney earned his $20 or $30 million retirement?”
“Who cares about Dick Cheney?!” Rogan screamed. “If you want more than 50 percent taxes I’m going to kill you!”
Twenty turbulent years later, Joe Rogan — now one of the most influential media personalities in the country — would effectively endorse the program he once mocked. And this time, under the candidacy of yet another crusty, septuagenarian socialist who loves to thunder about free health care, Nordic social democracy, and CEO-to-worker income disparities.
Life comes at you fast. But when it comes to American politics in the twenty-first century, it’s much closer to warp speed. Social-democratic policies, like Medicare for All, which were considered fringe in the Clinton years now have majority support. And while the Left remains disappointed by the outcome of the primary, there is little cause for pessimism.
That so much has changed not only in last twenty years but the last five — much of it due directly to the movement around Bernie Sanders — suggests that after decades of the End of History, the massive ocean-liner that is political common sense is, remarkably, reversing course — slowly, in terms of an internet-led information age, but lightning speed by any historical metric.
And if the Left is to take advantage of this fact, it requires a sober assessment of where our strengths and weaknesses lie.
“Shoulda Been Nicer!”
Sanders dropped out just today, but the campaign autopsies began weeks ago. And much like in 2016, they’re not very convincing.
After Sanders won the Nevada primary, a wide range of national polls showed Bernie with a double-digit lead over the Democratic field. Nor was it clear, despite much media speculation, that Bernie’s support had anything like a hard “ceiling.” Even after the South Carolina primary, one survey showed Sanders leading Biden in a head-to-head race, 52 percent to 48 percent, among registered Democrats.
Then, in a single unprecedented twenty-four-hour period, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar suddenly withdrew and endorsed Biden, joined by Harry Reid, Beto O’Rourke, and a cavalcade of congressional Democrats. The establishment had spoken, and the choice was made — a clear signal had been sent to nervous Democratic voters. Within a week, Biden’s national support surged by 25 percent.
The incredible speed with which Sanders’s polling lead was reversed — not by the entry of a dynamic candidate but the public moves of the party elite — makes a very strong case that as long as the leadership was personally opposed to him, he was never going to win.
The Discourse Liberals accept this version of events. And they all seem to agree on where it went wrong for the Sanders campaign: “Bernie shoulda been nicer!” This is, of course, a line beloved by Vox writers — it justifies their own adoring relationship with that same party.
The naivete is stunning — as if the legislators holding together the vast corporate networks funding their party (and their reelections) would have thrown in their lot with Sanders if only he’d gotten them Hamilton tickets or texted them on their birthdays.
For a decade now, Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement turned the tide for Biden, has taken more money from Big Pharma PACs — hands down the biggest spenders on Capitol Hill — than anyone else in Congress. We’re supposed to believe a Christmas card from that industry’s biggest threat could’ve overruled more than a million dollars in Clyburn’s campaign chest? The wildest Bernie-bro fantasy doesn’t come close to this level of delusion. But make no mistake, it’s a cultivated delusion. For Discourse Liberals, it’s taken a lot of grooming to get them to this special place.
But the leadership’s campaign to stop Sanders began years ago. And it started with the Resistance.
The media and the Democratic establishment’s obsession with Russiagate — from the first frenzy over the “pee tape” to the impeachment hearings themselves — has of course failed to remove the president from office. But it did leave the Democratic primary electorate with a single priority: stop Trump at any cost. Unfortunately, that cost turns out to be the nomination of a conservative Democrat in severe cognitive decline all during the midst of a global pandemic. And if that wasn’t enough, he also now faces a credible accusation of sexual assault.
Turning the Democratic party into an anti-Trump coalition helped stamp out just enough of Sanders’s appeal to mainstream Democratic primary voters — after all, if you’re convinced you’re facing an-all powerful menace, and the only army that can beat him is the Democratic Party, well, why wouldn’t you listen to the generals of that army?
For the first time, “electability” (where Bernie was almost always just behind Biden) trumped “issues” (where Bernie thrives). And it was the successful result of an official strategy to neutralize Sanders’s appeal that began even before Clinton’s loss. In other words, “Stop Trump” did work — and it will have worked even if Biden loses to the president.
But let’s take the liberals seriously on the whole “be nicer” thing. The only situation in which more “niceness” from Bernie might have possibly played a decisive role was if the party elite had been divided, as it was in 2008. When Obama challenged Hillary, the race wasn’t between an outsider versus the establishment — after all, it was Harry Reid who encouraged Obama to run. It was a split in that very establishment, a situation in which Obama’s personal relationships with party officials probably did help turn the tide.
But with Sanders, it never even came close to that. There was no split. According to multiple reports, Obama just picked up a phone.
I have no love for Hillary Clinton. But when she said “nobody likes” Bernie, what she was actually saying was, when it comes to who’s in power, there is no Sanders wing of the party. And she’s right.
Rep. Barbara Lee, who was at the small 2014 dinner in which Sanders first plotted his run for the presidency, endorsed Kamala Harris early on. Rep. Raul Grijalva, who backed Sanders in 2016, went for Warren this time. And Warren, who Sanders publicly begged to run in 2015, not only failed once again to endorse his campaign but even went as far as to quasi-#MeToo him on a public stage. Then, after suspending her own campaign, she stayed quiet — except for an MSNBC interview about the viciousness of Sanders’s supporters.
And those were his friends in the party.
In other words, there is a left wing of Democratic voters — a thriving one, in fact. But there is no actual left wing of the Democratic Party in office.
The Power of Disciplining Politicians
There’s another valuable lesson going forward: the dreaded PMC Wars of 2019? Yeah, sorry — the Warren-skeptics were right, and even then, we were far too tolerant.
Not that meaner tweets or angrier think pieces could have done much about it. With no formal party-surrogate structure, there was no way to discipline Warren for staying in long after she’d lost any viability.
The Democratic establishment however had no such problem — in a single weekend, it had lined up almost every candidate in the race behind Biden. They hold both carrots and sticks — and they don’t even need to mention the latter. We however have neither. Even Bloomberg, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, quickly fell in line like a good little soldier. He didn’t think of pulling a Ross Perot.
That Warren refused to attack Biden throughout her campaign, the man whose awful bankruptcy bill first led her into politics, was a fact no commentator thought worth mentioning in all this. We did hear a lot, however, about atrocities such as the tweeting of snake emojis by Sanders supporters.
Her staying in the race certainly damaged the Sanders campaign — perhaps fatally so. That a mega-wealthy donor was able to use her zombie campaign as a way to knee-cap Sanders at the last minute suggests the real utility of her run all along.
Like Ross Perot with Bill Clinton, the Bloomberg spoiler factor was a gift from above — but it was one that Sanders couldn’t exploit, thanks in large part to Warren. It very likely cost him critical Super Tuesday states. While a better performance there might not have won the nomination, it might have bought Sanders another month of viability before we hit the great COVID-19 freeze. And then, who knows what could’ve happened.
Those who look at the round of endorsements which instantly jolted Biden back to life and claim that this proves the party leadership is still firmly in control are correct. But not how they mean. And possibly, not for much longer.
The fact that Bernie and Biden have very similar net positive ratings from most Democratic voters, especially the black voters who helped push Biden to the front, makes the whole race an even more useful experiment to test this theory.
Sanders as a candidate is a force of nature. Like a sharpened blade, he is ideology and program before he is even a human being. “I don’t like to talk about myself,” as he’s fond of saying.
Unlike Obama, those who support Sanders are not doing so because he wrote a beautiful memoir or gave a soaring national speech. Bernie is the furthest thing from an Aaron Sorkin protagonist. Beneath the rock-hard exterior, he does have his quirky charms and undeniable warmth. But they’re qualities (“Yeah, good. Okay.”) appreciated only by those who already like him for his program and ideology.
With Biden, there’s no great narrative to the guy — sorry, Amtrak Joe. But neither is there much of an ideological appeal either. As for the most consequential decisions in American politics over the past several decades, Biden’s been on the side of disaster every single time, almost to the point of absurdity — cuts to our meager welfare state, the coronation of a far-right Supreme Court Justice, anti-crime legislation that horrified even the Reagan administration, the bankruptcy bill that made it impossible for working families to discharge debt and, of course, the ongoing disaster and mass human suffering that was the Iraq War.
And even if we want to say his nomination is the result of that undeniable backslapping, “malarkey” charisma of Biden the human being, it’s an open secret that that human being is rapidly nearing his end.
The Democrats rallying around Biden today remind me of Leatherface’s family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — the scene where their wheelchair-bound, centenarian grandpa tries to whack a young woman over the head like he did in his prime. They’re all holding her down for gramps, but the mallet keeps slipping from his grip, and they keep having to hand it back to him. If it wasn’t so disturbing, it might almost be funny.
It’s a useful farce for our purposes, though. What Biden’s nomination suggests is that, for the time being — and no matter how popular Sanders’s program may be — a plurality of the current Democratic primary electorate cares more about who the party establishment is backing than any political program. Just as long as that candidate has a pulse.
But this is a situation that is rapidly changing, thanks to generational turnover. Even if some of us are skeptical of that fact, I can assure you that the Democratic leadership is not.
The Generational Gap and What It Means
Liberal social scientists like Ruy Teixeira and John B Judis have been gushing about the booming Millennial demographic for years, starting with The Emerging Democratic Majority in 2002. And after the mass enthusiasm of that demographic helped propel Obama to power, Teixeira and Judis were vindicated.
But it didn’t turn out how they expected.
After Obama left office — and after overseeing the historic collapse of his party — that same demographic revolted against the President’s first chosen successor, in a Democratic primary against a Vermont socialist. And then four years later, they revolted against a half-dozen candidates in the exact Obama mold: Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and — with particular loathing — Pete Buttigieg. And that was after each one of these politicians received glowing press coverage, round-the-clock hype, and even the best Obama veterans to staff their campaigns.
Finally, those Millennial ex-Obama voters revolted against Barack’s very own vice president, who won the Michigan primary but lost everyone under forty-five years old.
The Millennials did rise, as Judis and Teixeira said they would. Not for Obamaism, but for Sanders’s democratic socialism. And now, they have an entirely new generation slowly but surely entering the electorate — Generation Z — who polling suggests are even more pinko than their older brothers and sisters. And that was before the COVID-19 crash.
Jacobin readers are no doubt skeptical of anything that smacks of “generational politics.” But we can only ignore the numerical evidence for so long. It’s clear now that the generational divide, when it comes to political ideology, is starker than it’s ever been in modern history. And when we talk about “young voters” in 2020, we’re not even talking about the youth anymore.
Born in 1981, I’m pushing forty, married, with one kid and another on the way — not exactly a spring chicken these days. At my age, in the late 1980s, Baby Boomers were writing middle-aged memoirs, looking back with distant fondness on their long-vanished youth. And while the vast majority of people my age don’t write and edit socialist magazines (let alone read them), they do wildly support the candidacy of the best known democratic socialist in the world. Yeah, it’s pretty weird.
In the Democratic primary, Sanders is unquestionably the majority preference of everyone under forty-five — not twenty-five. That’s not some novelty. Even George McGovern, supposedly the candidate of young boomers (and nobody else), only won that demographic by 52-46.
To believe that Millennials and Zoomers will suddenly drastically change their ideology is to ignore decades of social science which clearly suggests that political ideology hardens in early adulthood and stays that way for life. The only possibility for a mass Millennial and Zoomer defection would be a sudden new economic boom akin to the postwar golden age.
But that looks unlikely — the future of capitalism in America is almost certainly low growth and rising inequality. In other words, a continuation of the same circumstances that molded this new coalition in the first place. Their demands, unlike the 1960s rights revolutions, are almost entirely structural. So unless these structures change for the better — universal health care, full employment, and a mass economic leveling — their commitments are likely to remain rock solid.
Latinos for Social Democracy
While Sanders’s strength with Zoomers and Millennials was expected, the Latino tide seems to have taken even his own campaign by surprise — except for the charming Chuck Rocha, of course.
In 2016, Sanders lost that demographic, the largest nonwhite ethnic group in America, to Hillary Clinton. But in 2020, the tables turned dramatically leading to crushing victories in Nevada, Colorado, and California. With six other competitive candidates on the ballot, Sanders won just under 40 percent in LA County alone. While he narrowly lost Texas, he handily won its enormous number of Latino voters.
But what’s interesting is how little Sanders’s strength here counts among both the media and the party elite, despite Latinos being almost the sole driver of America’s increasing racial diversity. As Nate Silver recently tweeted on Biden’s strength with black voters in South Carolina, “It’s almost as though the two 90%+ white states that voted first weren’t representative of the broader electorate.”
And yet, the third state, Nevada — which is demographically much more representative of the country at large than South Carolina — simply doesn’t count at all.
So why is a booming, nonwhite, disproportionately working-class demographic of such little importance to the Democratic Party?
When looking at voter demographics, it doesn’t make any sense. While African Americans are a little over 12 percent of the country, roughly 18 percent of Americans are Latino. But when you look at the politicians who’ve successfully built a home in the party leadership, suddenly it makes complete sense.
There simply is no institutional grouping of Latino politicians in the Democratic Party. There is, however, an enormous African American political brokerage network firmly placed within the leadership — the Congressional Black Caucus is easily among the most powerful organizations in the party. Because of the strength of this network, the Democratic Party elite cannot afford to ignore the will of black voters — nor can they afford to ignore the politicians who can be counted on to deliver their votes.
But when it comes to Latino voters, the embarrassing truth is: it certainly can.
While black Democrats liked Sanders’s program even as they went for the candidate openly hostile to most of it, there’s no institutional force capable of delivering Latino voters to the leadership’s chosen candidate. Just look at how the anti-Sanders attacks by the leadership of the Culinary Workers Union blew up in their faces — it didn’t keep their Latino members from overwhelmingly caucusing for Sanders.
But it’s different with black voters. They aren’t suspicious of the establishment; they trust it — and across two election cycles, that trust has outweighed their support for Sanders’s program. They rightfully credit the party with winning civil rights reforms and electing the first black president — both of which events are still within living memory.
The Associated Press article on Jim Clyburn’s endorsement makes this process clear, leading with an anecdote about a seventy-six-year-old African American voter in South Carolina running into Clyburn at a funeral.
“I need to know who you’re going to vote for,” she asked.
Clyburn whispered back, “Joe Biden.”
The AP goes on to quote a public-relations consultant, a Millennial named Antjuan Seawright who, at thirty-five-years-old, is already a senior advisor for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee:
In our community, as African Americans, we’ve always had a history of hearing from people who have been chosen to lead us … This example of Jim Clyburn is no different. There’s a reason why I think God preserved him for this moment.
The evidence is overwhelming that Latino Americans are now up for a social-democratic insurrection. But without firm political networks in the party leadership, that rebellion is likely to fall upon deaf ears.
The Future Is Ours — But Only If We Start Laying the Ground for It
In Cixin Liu’s global sci fi sensation The Three Body Problem, scientists discover that an advanced alien civilization has its eyes on conquering Earth — in fact, they’ve already managed to sabotage our best defenses. They’re almost certain to win. But their warships won’t arrive for another four centuries.
At first, the scientists are despondent. Total extinction of the human race is very likely. But when they realize just how arrogant their all-powerful enemy is — not even bothering to hide their plans, even mocking us — Earth’s scientists and military leaders quickly launch their own project to fight back. For them, the moment of truth is nearly a half-millennium away and yet, without question, mobilization begins immediately. What else are they going to do?
For us, our showdown is only twenty years away — tops. Without working-class institutions that can plan beyond electoral struggles, the Left today is pretty bad at this kind of long-term thinking. But we’re going to have to start getting good at it right now.
Yeah, Millennials and Zoomers are, apparently, a natural fit for our project. And there are in fact a ton of them. But the worst thing we could do is to use that as an excuse to turn inwards and forget about reaching older workers — “OK Boomer” is not a politics. Not only do older workers have a direct interest in our project as well, but unlike most of our cohort, they show up and vote. And they will for many years.
Instead of waiting around for the Squad to take the lead, we should take a closer look at where Sanders ran strongest this time and start turning those votes into political power. And the first step should be organizing the Latino-dominated communities in the west who went wild for the democratic socialist.
In a seven-way race, Sanders won nearly 40 percent of LA County voters — over 50 percent in some congressional districts — yet there are no outspoken Berniecrat officials representing them. Why the hell not? If we can get a Sanders elected to the Senate in Vermont, what about New Mexico, or Colorado, or Hawaii? Why isn’t the House of Representatives teeming with Berniecrat congressmen from the west and southwest?
We know what gets people moving — Jobs, Medicare, College, and Childcare for All. And yet with Joe Biden’s coronation, it’s clear the party leadership isn’t much interested in any of this.
That gulf between what people want and need and what the Democratic Party leadership can offer is our only hope. That promise, and not wild schemes for apocalyptic rupture, is what got us this far in such a short time. More than a century later and it’s still tough to beat peace, land, and bread.
As one of my heroes the late great Alexander Cockburn once put it at the peak of the Bush years:
You have to take the long view sometimes. Supposing we’re in the Roman empire in 300 AD . . . We’ve seen there’s a future for secular leftism in the Roman empire . . . Actually if you took the long view people would say “these people were completely insane in the third century.” Cause there’s centuries of not exactly radical advance ahead of them. But were they wrong to say I think we can nationalize land, release all the slaves, and build a communal society in northern Tuscany?
That vision took half a millennium to become reality. And even after it did, it certainly left a lot to be desired.
Even at my most pessimistic, I’d say we’re looking at no more than twenty or thirty years max for a decent social-democratic project to truly take hold of American life. Like the Second Avenue Subway line, it’s already kicked off in fits and starts over the decades. We just have to finish the job.
So, dry your eyes, Bernie bros. For the first time in decades, the future is bright.