David Sirota: The Tyranny of Decorum Hurt Bernie Sanders’s 2020 Prospects

David Sirota, a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign, argues that a key mistake of the campaign was Sanders’s refusal to more forcefully articulate the contrasts between his record and Joe Biden’s.

Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally on March 8, 2020 in Grand Rapids, MI. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

If you’ve read the autopsies of the Bernie 2020 campaign in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, Buzzfeed, or CNN, you’ve probably read a version of a story that goes something like this: pollster Ben Tulchin, co-chair Nina Turner, and I were fire-breathing monsters aggressively pushing Bernie to “attack” Joe Biden. Bernie refused to do it, and that’s why Bernie lost.

There are some nuggets of truth in here, but there’s also some fiction. So it’s worth separating the facts from the fantasy, in order to understand a huge-but-little-discussed problem plaguing the Democratic Party that I call the “tyranny of decorum.”

I’ve known Bernie Sanders for twenty-one years. He’s been a hero for me. I deeply respect his life’s work, and he remains an inspiration to me — and no amount of post-election gossip, punditry, or backbiting will change that. Working on his campaign was a great honor, and I’ve thanked him and so many others for that experience.

What follows are some frank takeaways from the campaign. We did not run a perfect race — and having worked on both winning and losing campaigns, I accept my share of responsibility for that. Lord knows I was hardly perfect, and from the very beginning until the very end, I’ve taken my share of criticism. But I believe that we have an obligation to look back on the painful past, to learn lessons for the future.

A Thing That Is True: We Pushed, With Some But Not Enough Success

Yes, it is true: a small group of us with many years of campaign experience pushed Bernie to sharply contrast his own progressive record with Biden’s record of working with Republicans against the Democratic agenda. I’ve been on seven underdog challenger campaigns in my life and won a few of them.

This is campaigning 101: you contrast, or you lose. And with Biden, the contrast was particularly stark.

While Bernie was fighting to stop the Iraq War, Biden helped the GOP pass the Iraq War resolution and vote down Democratic amendments to that resolution. While Bernie was fighting to stop the 2005 bankruptcy bill, Biden helped the GOP pass the legislation that could now crush hundreds of thousands of Americans during the coronavirus recession.

While Bernie and the late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone were pushing a bill to lower the price of prescription drugs and prevent profiteering off vaccines developed at taxpayer expense, Biden was helping Republicans kill the initiative. And as I told MSNBC, while Bernie was fighting to protect and expand Social Security, Biden was helping echo the Republican argument for cutting Social Security.

Even though Biden at times pathologically lied about some of these facts (at one point he actually insisted he didn’t help write his own bankruptcy bill!), this record is verifiable. It is not in dispute. A group of us believed it was important for this record to be spotlighted — because it was good strategy and good for democracy.

We didn’t push Bernie to “attack” Biden in some sort of vicious way. We pushed him to instead simply and very explicitly cast the primary as a choice between a vision of progressive change, and Biden’s promise to his donors that “nothing will fundamentally change.”

To his credit, Bernie at times worked with us and embraced the strategy. When he did, it was successful — see his Social Security contrast with Biden in Iowa and his contrast with Wine Cave Pete in New Hampshire.

At other times, though, the campaign backed off and did not seize opportunities to explicitly and continually spell out big differences between the candidates.

Ultimately, Biden was able to avoid having to constantly try to explain his offensive record. Instead, he was allowed to depict himself as a safe, electable “unity” candidate.

Was it fun to always be one of the people pushing the campaign to be more aggressive and also eating shit on Twitter for supposedly being “toxic” for simply tweeting a few videos of Biden pushing some grotesquely retrograde policy? No, it was not fun. I have more gray hair and less stomach lining because I pushed. I’m no hero or a martyr, but I can tell you it was awful, excruciating, and heartbreaking.

But it was necessary.

A Thing That May or May Not Be True: Winning

Would we have won had we consistently contrasted with Biden? If we’re going to play shoulda-coulda-woulda, I’d love to say yes. However, I can’t say that with total confidence, because there are so many variables and because Biden was an extremely powerful primary candidate, even if he may not have seemed like it to the average onlooker.

Let’s remember: in the last sixty-five-plus years, no current or immediate past vice-president has ever mounted a serious run for president and not successfully secured his party’s nomination at least once. That obscure stat evinces a core truth: if given the choice, voters of both parties almost always opt to nominate people who were a heartbeat away from the presidency. (Incredibly, with all the talk about “electability,” they have done this even though vice-presidents don’t have a great record in general elections.)

As a former vice-president who once bragged about being one of the most conservative lawmakers in the Senate, Biden had the support of much of the corporate-aligned party establishment, as well as the billionaire class that correctly saw Bernie as an unprecedented existential threat to their economic interests.

That establishment may be weaker than ever, but it is still enormously powerful, especially because so much of the media often echoes its objectives.

Some examples: CNN likened Bernie to coronavirus. MSNBC ran an all-out campaign against us. Self-described “fact-checkers” insidiously obscured the facts and deflected criticism of Biden’s very clear record. And as Politico reported, “Biden enjoyed nearly $72 million in almost completely positive earned media” in the pivotal days leading up to Super Tuesday.

Maybe a sharper contrast could have overcome this, maybe not. I’m not sure.

I am confident, however, that a stronger contrast would have at least put us in a better position to survive when Beto, Klobuchar, and Wine Cave Pete all fell in behind Biden to help him seal Super Tuesday.

In the absence of a tough critique early on, and with no day-to-day focus on his record, Biden was able to solidify an “electability” argument he didn’t deserve or earn.

According to exit polls, Biden was able to win the largest share of Democratic voters in fifteen states who said health care was their top priority, even though a majority of Democratic voters in those states said they support replacing private insurance with a government-run plan — a position Biden opposes.

Biden won Midwest states that have been ravaged by the trade deals that he himself supported.

Biden even won the most Democratic voters in eleven states who said climate was their top issue, despite his far weaker climate plan.

By the time our campaign was finally comfortable consistently making a strong case against him, it was after Super Tuesday — and it was too late.

A Thing That Is Dangerously Untrue: Contrasts Are Bad

If you’ve read this far, I know what you are wondering: what explains Bernie’s resistance to more sharply contrasting with Biden?

In my opinion, three things, with the third being the most problematic for the future:

  1. Bernie is a deeply principled lawmaker, but he is not a scorched-earth politician and never has been. Since he was first elected to a public office, his approach is one that seems defined by a belief that to make real change from the outside, you must push hard, but always maintain one foot inside the power structure and not try to burn it all the way down. The calculation is that if you are too adversarial against the establishment, you will be instantly marginalized, depicted as irrelevant and disempowered. (Side note: as the primary results show, the problem with this theory is that even if you are nice and don’t go scorched earth, the power structure has other ways to defeat progressives.)
  2. As he himself said, Bernie likes and respects Biden. I personally don’t believe that affinity is justified, considering Biden’s legislative record, but I’m not going to litigate that point. It is what it is.
  3. The Democratic Party has manufactured a culture that creates the conventional wisdom and perception that any efforts to contrast opponents’ records from the left in a primary is “negative” and therefore destructive.

That culture, of course, is the structural factor that will last beyond the Bernie campaign, and it is a huge problem. It is a new tyranny of decorum that aims to convince voters to value etiquette, pleasantries, and party unity over everything else — even their own economic interests.

Let’s remember: we have just experienced modern history’s first contested Democratic presidential primary in which the candidates declined to seriously criticize each other in any kind of sustained way.

There were certainly momentary flash points, but compared to past primaries, this was a muted affair. If you somehow think this primary was uniquely “negative” because Bernie once in a while gently mentioned Joe Biden’s vote for the Iraq War, you are apparently Rip Van Winkle waking up from a fifty-year slumber.

You somehow never saw Democratic ads against Howard Dean in 2004, you never saw Hillary Clinton ads depicting Barack Obama as corrupt, and you never heard Obama’s ads and speech portraying Hillary Clinton as a puppet of corporate lobbyists.

The opposite dynamic defined the 2020 primary. As the health care industry ran ads vilifying Bernie’s signature Medicare for All plan, and as a super PAC aired ads suggesting Bernie couldn’t win a general election, the tyranny of decorum dominated the candidate discourse.

Anytime Bernie so much as made a passing mention of one of Biden’s bad votes, there were overwrought accusations that Bernie was “going negative” and handwringing warnings about the “perils of going negative,” with Team Biden shedding crocodile tears about “negative attacks.”

This transparent bullshit soon became attacks on staffers who dared to point out flaws in Biden’s record. Turner and press secretary Briahna Gray were routinely demonized on social media, and I myself was labeled a toxic “attack dog” for the high crime of periodically tweeting links to Biden speeches in the Congressional Record.

This attempt to scandalize policy criticism supposedly reflected heightened concerns about “electability,” the idea promoted by Democratic politicians and pundits that sharp contrasts might weaken the eventual Democratic nominee against the existential threat of Trump.

Yet history argues exactly the opposite: tough, brutal primaries often end up battle-testing nominees and making them stronger (see: President Barack Obama). In the same way the minor leagues can prepare players for the major leagues, brutal intra-party contests subject the eventual standard-bearers to training, and they also suss out potential weaknesses at an early point when a party can still make a different nomination choice.

By contrast, primaries dominated by demands for “good decorum,” “unity,” and “decency” create coronations — and coronations run the risk of creating nominees who are not adequately road-tested and who are only publicly vetted in the high-stakes general election, well after the party could have made a different choice.

That is where we are now: a tyranny of decorum has given us a presumptive nominee whose record hasn’t been well scrutinized or challenged.

One Last Thing That’s True: Contested Primaries Are Good

Now, it’s true: Democrats’ cries of “you’re being too negative!” — and all the overdramatic fainting spells about tweets to C-SPAN videos — did work in the primary. The tactics successfully scandalized any legitimate scrutiny of Biden’s record, to the point where mild criticism of specific votes was instantly depicted as a substance-free “controversy” about tone.

But those same cheap tactics — the screaming about negativity, the whining, the fainting spells — are not going to work when Donald Trump spends a billion dollars on negative ads hammering Biden’s votes for NAFTA and the bankruptcy bill, votes that Biden could have been better prepared to deal with had they been litigated in the primary. He may still be able to defeat Trump (and I’ve said I hope he does), but the comparatively soft primary did not strengthen him for the general election.

Looking ahead beyond 2020, we can’t allow this stifling worship of decorum to define Democrats’ political culture. We must remember that intra-party contrast is good in primaries.

Hillary bashing Obama was good. Obama bashing Hillary was good.

The same goes for down-ballot races: Ned Lamont running a tough primary against Joe Lieberman was good. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ending Joe Crowley’s political career was good.

The 2020 primary was pleasant, civil, and polite — and that’s bad.

We’re in the midst of unpleasant, uncivil, and impolite emergencies that threaten our country and our planet. A global pandemic won’t be stopped by niceties. The corporations profiting off the healthcare crisis won’t be thwarted with good manners. The fossil-fuel giants intensifying the climate cataclysm won’t be deterred by gentility. And elections will not be won by prioritizing good decorum over everything else.

In short: preventing a real contrast and a real conflict over ideas only serves the establishment and its politicians, who know that scrutiny will weaken their power to decide nomination contests and control the future.

But winning nomination contests without real vetting not only serves corporate power, it also jeopardizes that much-vaunted quality that parties claim to care so much about: general election “electability.”