Bernie Sanders’s Five-Year War
How he lost and where we go from here.
One mild April afternoon in 2015, deep within the ideological dead zone of the second Obama administration, Bernie Sanders took a break from his Senate workday and stalked out to the lawn in front of the Capitol building. Unfolding a crinkled sheet of notes, the Vermont senator took less than ten minutes to tell reporters why he was running for president: Americans were working longer hours for lower wages, while the rich feasted on profits and billionaires ruled the political system. The country faced its greatest crisis since the Great Depression, he said.
Five years later, on an April morning in 2020, Sanders stood inside his home in Burlington, Vermont, and announced that he was suspending his second campaign for president. This race, like the contest four years earlier, had ended in defeat, and though Bernie gave an inspirational fifteen-minute speech — quoting Nelson Mandela and thanking supporters for their blood, sweat, tears, and social media posts — even a sympathetic viewer might wonder what, exactly, all this passionate effort had yielded.
Income and wealth inequality have soared to new heights; a billionaire sits in the White House, while the opposition party turns to its own billionaires for leadership; and the COVID-19 pandemic has left the United States not merely approaching its greatest crisis since the Great Depression but thoroughly immersed in it.
Sanders lost. He waged a five-year war against the billionaire class and the Democratic Party’s leadership — a war across six Aprils — and in the end, he was beaten on both fronts. Those of us who soldiered in Bernie’s beaten army must reckon hard with the nature and significance of this defeat.
The Sanders project was among the most significant left political events of the twenty-first century, linking for the first time minimal but foundational socialist demands to a base of millions in the nerve center of global capitalism. Its conclusive defeat this spring, amid an apocalyptic atmosphere of disease, depression, and unrest, offers enormous temptation for the Left to fall into despair.
Already, we have seen a range of broadsides against Sanders and the legacy of his campaigns, whether inflected by the far left, pleased to move on from a long detour into electoral politics; the liberal center, eager to submerge all possibility outside the present field of vision; or the traditionalist right, only too happy to proclaim a left-wing retreat from class to culture war.
The corporate press, meanwhile, has jumped at the chance to throw Bernie — and his insistent call for massive material redistribution, funded by corporate profits — straight into the dustbin of history. Even the mass protests over the police murder of George Floyd somehow became an occasion for the New York Times to announce the end of the Sanders era. “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One,” blared the headline, building off intersectionality theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s analysis that “every corporation worth its salt” has now surpassed Sanders in the battle against “structural racism and anti-blackness.” Goodbye Medicare for All, hello Jeff Bezos clapping back against “All Lives Matter.”
These are all artifacts of defeat. Sanders lost, and both his fair-weather friends and his permanent enemies are now eager to consign him to the grave. But neither a defeat at the polls nor a shift in the discourse is reason to abandon the essence of Bernie’s struggle. Mass protests against police violence and racism can only begin to realize their aims if joined to a broader, Sanders-style democratic movement — large enough to shape national politics and determined enough to challenge capital — capable of winning the material concessions necessary for a truly free and equal society.
An accurate balance sheet for the Sanders campaigns must have at least two columns: first, an accounting of achievement, substantial on its own terms and unprecedented in more than fifty years of US political history; and second, a reckoning with limits, which now, in the aftermath of 2020, appear both larger and more intractable than at almost any point since 2016.
To this accounting we can add a third column, on the prospects for future struggle — foreshortened in the present, blurry in the near future, but possibly brighter in the decades ahead.
I. Bernie’s Achievement: Two Lessons
When Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy in 2015, his press conference appeared on page A21 of the New York Times, far behind articles about the Obama presidential library, a testing scandal in Atlanta schools, and Martin O’Malley’s record as Baltimore mayor. This was no more than what was due for a candidate polling at 3 percent, in a newspaper that had not actually printed the words “Medicare for All” in the calendar year before Sanders entered the race.
From the perspective of 2020, it is difficult to remember the narrowness of the policy girdle that fitted American left liberalism in the years just before Bernie’s first campaign. As progressives like Keith Ellison, Michael Moore, and Susan Sarandon urged Elizabeth Warren to run for president, the Massachusetts senator appeared alongside Tom Perez at an AFL-CIO summit in January 2015. There, Warren won headlines for a “fiery” speech in which she denounced “trickle-down economics” and called for new financial regulations, the enforcement of existing labor laws, protections for Medicare and Social Security, and an unspecified increase in the minimum wage.
“The striking thing about this progressive factional agenda,” noted Vox’s Matthew Yglesias at the time, “is there’s really nothing on it that Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would disagree with.”
Today, that 2015 reform package sounds a lot like the Joe Biden 2020 platform, and no one, outside of a tiny caste of professional propagandists, affects to call it “left-wing.” Bernie’s five-year war, even in defeat, taught the American left two fundamental lessons.
First, it demonstrated that bold social-democratic ideas, well beyond the regulatory ambitions of Obama-era progressives, can win a mass base in today’s United States. An uncompromising demand for the federal government to provide essential social goods for all Americans — from health care and college tuition to childcare and family leave — stood at the heart of the Sanders project from beginning to end. Starting at 3 percent in the polls and conducting two presidential campaigns almost entirely on the strength of this platform, Sanders built the most influential left-wing challenge in modern history.
Yes, candidates from Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kucinich also supported single-payer health insurance, but their campaigns did not end with polls showing a newfound majority of Americans backing Medicare for All, let alone massive supermajorities among Democrats and voters under sixty-five. Yes, leftists from Michael Harrington to Ralph Nader had long declared that a bipartisan corporate class rules America, but they did not turn that insight into a political movement capable of winning primaries in New Hampshire, Michigan, or California.
Nor is the partial success of the Sanders campaigns merely a hollow “discourse victory.” It has presented concrete evidence for a proposition that mainstream political observers scoffed at five years ago, and that the American left itself had grandly announced rather than demonstrated: that “democratic socialism,” driven by opposition to billionaire-class rule and dedicated to universal public goods, can win the support of millions, not just thousands. Across the last half century, any activist with a bullhorn could proclaim this to be true, but Bernie Sanders actually fucking proved it.
Of course, as Bernie’s defeat makes clear, there is a vast gulf between winning exit polls and winning power. If the Sanders campaigns illuminated American social democracy’s unknown political resources, they also revealed, in a dramatic fashion, the determination of their opponents. This is the second practical lesson of Bernie’s five-year war: the unanimity and ferocity of elite Democratic resistance, not only to Sanders himself, but to the essence of his platform.
In its general outlines, this has been visible since early in the 2016 campaign, when Democratic Party officials, TV pundits, and prestige print writers — across an ideological spectrum, from centrists like Claire McCaskill and Chris Matthews to liberals like Barney Frank and Paul Krugman — universally scorned the Sanders campaign and its agenda.
Yet in other ways, the depth of Democratic opposition to Sanders was not obvious until this year, either to Bernie’s friends or to his enemies. Throughout February, as Sanders won New Hampshire and lapped the field in Nevada, panicked centrist commentators called on the remaining Democrats in the race to unite behind a single anti-Bernie candidate. But their palpable angst betrayed a near-universal belief that this would not actually happen. For “a critical mass” of Bernie’s rivals to withdraw at the last minute, reported the New York Times on February 27, “seems like the least likely outcome.”
We all know what happened next. Just three days later, on the evening before Super Tuesday, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar suddenly withdrew from the race and endorsed Joe Biden, joined by Beto O’Rourke, Harry Reid, and dozens more prominent Democrats and former Obama officials.
This great consolidation around Biden, following his victory in South Carolina, produced perhaps $100 million in “free” laudatory media coverage — more than Sanders spent on advertising all campaign long — compressed into a single weekend before the most critical election of the primary. The result was a Super Tuesday stampede for Biden, even in states where Sanders had led the pack only a week before, from Maine to Texas. It gave Biden a commanding lead that he never relinquished.
In retrospect, it may seem hopelessly naive for Sanders and his allies to have counted on an indefinite division of the Democratic field. Yet there is a reason that even Bernie’s most bitter enemies shared the same calculus, with dozens of party operatives telling the Times in late February that it might take a brokered convention to stop him.
After all, Buttigieg was proclaimed the winner in Iowa and finished a close second in New Hampshire; never since the birth of the modern primary system has a candidate with that profile quit the race nearly so early. Even as an ideological move to throttle the Left, the Biden coalescence had no precedent in its swiftness and near-perfect coordination. When Jesse Jackson briefly threatened to take the Democratic Party by storm in 1988, establishment rivals Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and Paul Simon all remained in the running until the end of March, when more than thirty-five primary contests were complete.
This time, the core establishment forces managed to clear the field after just four primaries, leaving just a single centrist alternative to Biden, the vain billionaire Michael Bloomberg. (Elizabeth Warren’s persistence in the race only helped the anti-Sanders effort, since she was somewhat more likely to siphon votes from the left than the center.) And after Super Tuesday, of course, Bloomberg promptly quit and endorsed Biden. Warren, when she left the race, would do Sanders no such favor.
Though, in many ways, the Democratic Party of 2020 is much weaker than it was thirty years ago — it controls eleven fewer state legislatures, for instance — the current Democratic leadership, in its influence over party politicians, is stronger than ever. Buttigieg, who had campaigned hard in Super Tuesday states — on February 29, he held the primary’s single largest rally in Tennessee — did not drop out because of a predictably poor showing in South Carolina. (Even there, he still finished ahead of Warren for the fourth consecutive race.)
Buttigieg abruptly abandoned millions of dollars of advertising and perhaps thirty thousand Super Tuesday volunteers because Barack Obama told him to — and because he knew that his own career prospects, in today’s Democratic Party, depend less on winning popular support in his own name than on gamely joining the team effort to halt Sanders and “save the party.”
The speed and thoroughness of this elite consolidation — which also made Biden an instant donor-class favorite — makes a mockery of the implausible idea, floated by some reporters and pundits, that Sanders blew a golden opportunity to win over the Democratic establishment through better manners.
Obama, Hillary Clinton, and their corporate allies — never mind the consultants, hedge fund managers, and tech CEOs who built “Mayor Pete” — did not capriciously decide to close ranks against Bernie because he did not make enough polite, endorsement-seeking phone calls after Nevada. Their profound ideological opposition to the Sanders project has been plain for a long time; what we didn’t know is just how rapidly and effectively that private opposition could be translated into public fact.
This hard lesson is not only enough to prevent anyone in the Sanders camp from looking for meaningful concessions from the Biden campaign; it underlines the sharp limits of any institutional politics within the existing Democratic Party. Whatever Democratic voters think — and most of them like Bernie Sanders and his platform — the dominant bulk of Democratic officials oppose them both with an organized vigor they seldom bring to combat with Republicans.
In 2016, Sanders won more than 40 percent of the primary popular vote but earned endorsements from just 3.7 percent of congressional Democrats (seven of 187 representatives). Against a far more crowded field in 2020, Sanders won the first three contests and around 35 percent of the vote, but got the support of just 3.8 percent of congressional Democrats (nine of 232). That is not a marker of institutional progress.
Even the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), whose cochairs gave Sanders a splashy endorsement, furnished more support for Biden (twelve members) than for Sanders (eight) before Super Tuesday. In the brief two-way contest between March 3 and March 17, Biden racked up twenty further CPC endorsements, compared to just one for Sanders.
In this critical respect, the institutional Democratic Party did not really “move left” at all between 2015 and 2020. Yes, various elements of the Sanders agenda have migrated onto party platforms and campaign websites, and some left-leaning policies, like the $15 minimum wage, have even been introduced at the state level. But in national politics, the line guarding the party’s left flank — a steel barricade that separates Obama-style kludge politics from Sanders-style demands for universal public health care, education, and family support — is now more heavily policed than ever.
This hard-won knowledge itself is a weapon against liberal elites who usually prefer to obfuscate differences rather than fight over them. “Bernie Sanders’s ideas are so popular that Hillary Clinton is running on them,” gushed Vox in April 2015. Of course, Democrats will peddle this message again in 2020, but for the millions of Sanders voters who have just watched the party establishment spend five years suffocating a platform of Medicare for All and free public college, it’s a much tougher sell.
The major achievement of Bernie’s five-year war, then, is an invigorated and a clarified movement for American democratic socialism — newly optimistic about the appeal of its platform, yet intimately aware of the power of its enemies. Sanders has left the Left in a stronger position than he found it, both larger and more self-aware, and far less tempted by either the sour futility of third-party campaigns or the saccharine cheerleading of party-approved “progressives.”
Yet this is where the real trouble begins. The Left, after Bernie, has finally grown just strong enough to know how weak it really is.
The essential problem, after all, is not that the corporate establishment commands Democratic politicians — it’s that it still commands most Democratic primary voters. Given a clear choice between Bernie’s demand for another New Deal and Biden’s call for a “return to normalcy,” about 60 percent of the Democrats who went to the polls apparently picked Warren G. Harding over Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The harsh truth, proved harshly across these six Aprils, is that a social-democratic majority does not yet exist within the Democratic electorate, never mind the United States as a whole. Sanders has given the Left new relevance in national politics, but to make the leap from relevance to power, we need to build that majority — and this is not the work of one or two election cycles, but at least another decade, and maybe more.
II. A Closer Look at Defeat
In 2016, Bernie Sanders led the largest left-wing primary campaign in Democratic Party history, winning far more votes and delegates than Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, or even the victorious George McGovern. He entered the 2020 race as a serious contender, not a long-shot underdog. In the end, however, Joe Biden beat Sanders with a voting coalition that both resembled and subtly differed from the coalition that propelled Hillary Clinton to the nomination in 2016.
A look at local results from the two elections suggests that Sanders was defeated by three key factors in 2020: First, despite a substantial effort, the Bernie campaign struggled to make inroads with black voters, which turned out to be a far more intractable problem than it seemed four years ago. Second, and relatedly, despite considerable success in winning working-class support compared to 2016 — mostly with Latino voters — the campaign failed to generate higher participation among working-class voters of all races. Finally, above all, Bernie was swamped by a massive turnout surge from the Democratic Party’s fastest-growing demographic: former Republican voters in overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and well-educated suburban neighborhoods.
Let’s take each of these in turn.
Struggling to Win Black Voters
After the 2016 campaign, in which Sanders’s struggles with black voters cost him dearly, the 2020 campaign made a range of well-documented efforts to court African Americans, in both substance and style. The goal, as Adolph Reed Jr and Willie Legette have argued, was never to win a singular, homogenous, and mythical “black vote” — but in order to compete in a Democratic primary, Sanders did need to convince a lot more black voters.
In 2019, the campaign released an ambitious plan to fund historically black colleges and universities; supported by scholars like Darrick Hamilton and leaders like Jackson, Mississippi, mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Sanders railed against the racial wealth gap and delivered substantive plans to close it. His campaign poured resources into South Carolina, which Sanders visited more times than Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren; Bernie himself went on The Breakfast Club and said his 2016 campaign had been “too white.”
None of it seemed to make an appreciable difference. In South Carolina, where Sanders won 14 percent of black voters in 2016, exit polls showed him winning 17 percent in 2020. In the state’s five counties with a black population over 60 percent, Sanders increased his vote share from 11 percent to 12 percent.
It was no better for him on Super Tuesday and beyond. In the rural South, from eastern North Carolina to western Mississippi, Sanders struggled to break the 15 percent threshold in majority-black counties. In some black urban neighborhoods, like Northside Richmond and Houston’s Third Ward, he made small gains on his 2016 baseline, occasionally winning as much as a third of the vote; but in others, like Southeast Durham and North St. Louis, Sanders fared even worse. On the whole, Biden clobbered him just as comprehensively as Clinton had four years earlier.
After 2016, it was still possible to argue, optimistically, that black voter preferences reflected Clinton’s advantage in name recognition and resources, along with Sanders’s need to focus on the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. All the best survey data showed reliable and enthusiastic black support for the core items on Bernie’s social-democratic agenda. With improved messaging and a more serious investment in voter outreach, surely an insurgent left-wing candidate could breach the Democratic establishment’s “firewall” and win a large chunk of black voters.
Bernie Sanders was not that candidate, either in 2016 or in 2020. But after years of struggle, it is time to revisit the assumption that superior policy, messaging, and tactics are enough for any insurgent to overcome black voter support for establishment Democrats. After all, Sanders is far from the only left-wing candidate who has struggled on this front.
In the 2015 Chicago mayoral election, Rahm Emanuel beat Chuy García with huge margins among black voters; the same pattern was visible in gubernatorial races in Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan, and New York, where black voters overwhelmingly backed Ralph Northam, Phil Murphy, Gretchen Whitmer, and Andrew Cuomo against progressive outsiders. In last year’s race for Queens district attorney, Melinda Katz barely edged past Tiffany Cabán with the strong support of black voters in Southeast Queens.
Nor have anti-establishment black candidates necessarily fared much better with black primary voters. Jamaal Bowman’s recent victory over Eliot Engel is a meaningful and inspiring win for the Left, but not many left-wing candidates have had the advantage of facing a severely out-of-touch white opponent in a plurality-black district. Far more often, under different circumstances, the result has gone the other way. In the 2017 Atlanta mayoral race, the business-friendly party favorite Keisha Lance Bottoms creamed Vincent Fort, who had been endorsed by both Bernie Sanders and Killer Mike. And in congressional contests from St. Louis and Chicago to Columbus, Ohio and Prince George’s County, Maryland, black progressive insurgent campaigns have failed to catch fire, with black voters ultimately helping establishment-backed incumbents coast to victory at the polls.
Black voter support for mainline Democrats is a broader trend in American politics — a trend approaching the status of a fundamental fact — and it cannot be explained with reference to Bernie Sanders alone.
After 2016, some argued that a clearer focus on racial justice and a concerted effort to woo activists might boost a left-wing campaign with black voters. But the 2020 race offered slim evidence for that proposition, either in Sanders’s performance or in the frustrations of the Elizabeth Warren campaign, whose platform included a prominent focus on black maternal mortality, grants for black-owned businesses, and targeted reforms to help “farmers of color.”
This rhetoric won black organizers in droves but hardly any black votes: among African Americans, exit polls showed Warren trailing not only Biden and Sanders but Bloomberg, too, in every single state, including her own. In North Carolina’s rural black-majority counties, farmers of color did not turn out for Warren, who actually received fewer votes than “no preference.”
Another popular view is that black voters have the most to fear from Donald Trump and the Republicans, and thus tend to favor moderate, conventionally “electable” candidates. But while concerns about electability surely played a key part in Bernie’s 2020 defeat, there is little evidence to suggest that it mattered more to black Democrats than white Democrats (if anything, polling suggests the opposite). Fear of general election defeat also cannot explain why black voters favored Joe Crowley over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Andrew Cuomo over Cynthia Nixon, or establishment leaders in other deep-blue areas where Republicans are banished from politics altogether.
Nor can the phenomenon be explained by actual ideological conservatism, or any real hesitance to get behind a politics of material redistribution. In fact, black voters support Medicare for All at higher rates than almost any other demographic in the country.
The institutional conservatism of most black elected leaders, on the other hand, continues to stack the deck against left-wing politics. Powerful black politicians like Jim Clyburn and Hakeem Jeffries, as Perry Bacon Jr has argued, support the establishment because “they are part of the establishment.” The Congressional Black Caucus has not tried to disguise its fierce hostility to left-wing primary challenges, even when the progressive challengers are black, like Bowman and Mckayla Wilkes, and the centrist incumbents are white, like Engel and Steny Hoyer.
Overcoming the near-unanimous opposition of black elected leaders is difficult enough, but the problem for left-wing insurgents is even greater: it’s hard to win black voters by running against a party establishment whose preeminent figure is still, after all, America’s first black president. In the age of Obama, as Joe Biden’s primary campaign showed, black primary voters may well be moved more by appeals to institutional continuity than either personal identity (as Kamala Harris learned) or political ideology.
After fifty years of living in a system where profound material change seems almost impossible — and black politics, like many other zones of politics, has become largely affective and transactional as a result — that feeling is understandable. Black voters, of course, must be a critical part of any working-class majority. But as long as every black political figure with significant institutional standing remains tied to Obama’s party leadership, and remains invested in using that tie to beat back left-wing challenges, anti-establishment candidates will face tough odds.
If there is hope for the Left here, it is that black support for establishment Democrats remains tenacious rather than enthusiastic — strong support from a relatively small group of primary voters. Campaign boasts and press puffery aside, there was no black turnout surge for Joe Biden. Across the March primaries, even as overall Democratic turnout soared in comparison to 2016, it dropped absolutely in black neighborhoods across the country.
In Michigan, Democratic participation bloomed by more than 350,000 votes but wilted in Flint’s first and second wards, where turnout declined from over 25 percent of registered voters to under 21 percent. Similar declines from 2016 were recorded in Ferguson, Missouri, in North St. Louis, in Houston’s Kashmere Gardens, Sunnyside, and Crestmont Park, and in Southeast Durham — even as statewide Democratic turnout soared in Missouri, Texas, and North Carolina.
This follows a pattern already evident in the 2016 general election, in which poor and working-class black voters — like working-class voters generally — appear to comprise a smaller and smaller share of the active Democratic voting coalition.
That is no consolation for Bernie Sanders, whose campaign was premised on its ability to help generate working-class participation in politics. But it does suggest that in some ways, the Left’s struggles with black voters are a specific symptom of a more general disease. The Sanders campaign, in both its remarkable strengths and its ultimately fatal weaknesses, illuminated the larger problem that has plagued left politics across much of the developed world: a failure to mobilize, much less organize, the majority of workers.
This is perhaps the central fact of transatlantic politics in the last fifty years. In his recent book, Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty offers an efficient summary of the basic problem: since the 1960s, left-of-center parties in Europe and North America have lost support from the traditional working class, remaking themselves into a “Brahmin left,” crucially dependent on the votes of professionals. (Conservative parties, though winning more working-class votes, largely remain under the thrall of a business-dominated “merchant right.”)
The causes behind this shift on the Left are disputed: Piketty, along with Jacobin and other socialist critics, blames globalized capitalism, the decline of organized labor, and the centrist policy turn of major party leaderships; many liberals, meanwhile — ironically joined by the “populist” right — tend to emphasize the sharpening cultural conservatism of ethnic majorities within the working class.
To the extent that Bernie Sanders aimed to reverse this global trend in the space of two presidential primary races, he failed. Yet the dynamics of that failure are more complex than most analysis so far has acknowledged.
Compared to 2016, the Sanders campaign in 2020 struggled with what pundits call “the white working class”: white voters without college degrees. Against Hillary Clinton, Bernie’s strength with this share of the primary electorate propelled him to victory in states like Indiana and West Virginia. But this spring, as many analysts have highlighted, Joe Biden turned the tables on Sanders and beat him outright in predominantly white working-class counties across the South and Midwest.
In retrospect, it seems clear that some of Sanders’s former strength in these areas owed to the particular conjuncture of the 2016 campaign. Low-turnout caucuses overstated Bernie’s actual rural support in states like Maine, Minnesota, and Washington; a deep hostility to Clinton, as some suspected at the time, seems to have boosted his vote total everywhere, and particularly in conservative regions like Appalachia, the Ozarks, and the Great Plains.
Bernie’s leading opponent in 2020 was much stronger on this terrain. Though Biden’s actual record in the Senate is that of an exemplary corporate neoliberal — apathetic if not hostile to working-class interests — some combination of age, guile, and good-natured imbecility have allowed him, even and perhaps especially in his declining years, to produce an effective impression of a vanished breed of New Deal Democrat, experienced enough to know his way around Washington but always willing to throw a punch for “the little guy.” In this respect, the Sanders campaign knew from the start that Biden would be a formidable rival for working-class votes, white and black alike.
But by far the most significant difference between 2016 and 2020 is the incumbent presidency of Donald J. Trump. Since the creation of the modern primary system, the presence of a rival in the White House has nearly always led opposition parties to pick nominees perceived as moderate and safely electable: Mitt Romney in 2012, John Kerry in 2004, Bob Dole in 1996, Bill Clinton in 1992, and Walter Mondale in 1984 all fit that mold. (The only partial exception is Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the incumbent president he faced, Jimmy Carter, was so weak that he could not even avoid a serious primary challenge of his own.) Apparently riskier candidates like Trump and Barack Obama, with more ambivalent relations to their party’s establishment, have flourished only in open-year elections.
The incumbent effect has hampered primary challengers for forty years, but never has it been stronger than in 2020, when a dominant majority of Democrats believed that beating Donald Trump was more important than all other issues put together. Even in 2004, much less than half of that memorably nervous Democratic electorate said that beating George W. Bush was so important.
Any attempt to explain Bernie’s defeat chiefly through the desertion of white workers must founder on the larger fact that Sanders lost ground to Biden with every group of white voters. (The richer the group, the more ground he lost — but more on this to come.) A general incumbent effect, as Dustin Guastella has argued in Jacobin, was far more significant than any specific question of campaign tactics or cultural signaling.
In fact, it is easy to overstate the scale of Bernie’s defeat among the so-called “white working class.” In virtually every state, Sanders did better with white voters without a college degree than with their better-educated counterparts.
In Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, California, Texas, Colorado, and Vermont, Sanders actually led or tied Biden among white voters without a degree. Everywhere, too, Sanders fared even better with white, working-class men, winning them outright in all of the above states, plus North Carolina, Tennessee, Maine, and Washington. In both Michigan and Missouri, Sanders trailed Biden among white men without degrees by less than 5 points — but Biden won women in this group by 17 and 30 points, respectively.
Bernie’s particular struggles with women — much more concerned with beating Trump than men, according to polls — further suggest that the decline in his white working-class support had less to do with culture or ideology than with a perception of electability.
A serious class analysis of the evolving Sanders coalition must also take note of the massive group Bernie brought into the fold this year — Latino voters, the fastest-growing portion of America’s working-class electorate. All over the greater Southwest, from the Rio Grande in Texas to California’s Central Valley, Sanders dominated the Latino districts that he had mostly lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016. In heavily Latino neighborhoods from East Los Angeles to Northside Houston, “Tío Bernie” often won more votes than Biden, Bloomberg, and Warren combined.
This was not a regional phenomenon, nor was it limited to Mexican-American areas. Sanders also won big with working-class Puerto Rican and Dominican-American voters in Holyoke and Lawrence, Massachusetts, as well as in Central American immigrant neighborhoods in central LA and Southwest Houston.
In nearly all these places, Sanders had to overcome the opposition of the Latino political class, which was scarcely more favorable to him than the black political establishment. By early March, Sanders had received just two endorsements from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; Biden had fourteen. Yet there is no such thing as a Latino Obama, and the institutional ties linking Latino voters to the Democratic establishment, we learned this year, may be relatively weak.
In the end, few elected Latino leaders delivered their constituents to Biden. Across four Southern California congressional districts represented by Lucille Roybal-Allard, Lou Correa, Tony Cárdenas, and Juan Vargas — Biden endorsers all — Sanders beat his multiple rivals with an outright majority of votes.
In numerical terms, Bernie’s huge gains with Latinos may well have offset the decline in his white working-class support. And given that Sanders won over these voters, in large part, by doubling down on the redistributive bread-and-butter issues that Latino voters prize most, it may well be that the 2020 Sanders coalition, though smaller than the 2016 version, was in fact even more fully grounded in the US working class. Certainly, given this significant shift, it is too soon to pen epitaphs to the possibility of class-driven politics within the Democratic Party.
Yet even this silver lining carries with it an inevitable touch of gray. Sanders won Latino-majority areas overwhelmingly, but mostly without increasing voter turnout. In Roybal-Allard’s working-class South LA district, which Bernie won with almost 57 percent of the vote — his single best congressional district in the country — almost ten thousand fewer voters came to the polls than in 2016. The same pattern held in many of Bernie’s strongest areas in Southern California. And across Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, and in Houston’s Latino-majority neighborhoods, Sanders won decisively, but overall Democratic turnout (as a share of registered voters) was either flat or declined from 2016.
This suggests that his campaign’s Latino outreach efforts were enormously successful in convincing 2016 Clinton voters to jump on the Bernie bus — an impressive feat on its own terms — but less successful in bringing new working-class Latino voters into politics. The other possibility, no more inspiring, is that the new Latino voters Sanders gained were offset by an equally large number of voters who dropped out of the primary electorate in 2020.
It is just one more enumeration of the elemental problem that confronts any effort to run left-wing candidates in the Democratic Party: the relative decline of working-class political participation — black, brown, and white alike.
From Patagonia to Halliburton
In the mainstream press, Sanders’s defeat in Michigan, the Waterloo of his 2020 campaign, was largely attributed to the desertion of the working-class voters who had propelled him to victory four years ago. Yet among Michigan voters making under $50,000 a year, he beat Joe Biden by 7 points — a larger margin than in 2016, when he beat Hillary Clinton by just 3 points with that same group.
Sanders was not defeated by lower-income voters at all, who gave him solid support in Michigan and elsewhere. Nor did the real hammer blow come from working-class or lower-middle-class voters of any kind. It came, with devastating force, from the rich suburbs.
In Detroit’s Wayne County, Sanders lost by almost the exact same margin as he had in 2016. In middle-class Macomb County, ancestral headquarters of the Reagan Democrat and the Obama-Trump voter, Sanders took a serious hit, losing by twenty thousand more votes than in 2016. But in the wealthy, well-educated suburbs of Oakland County — the richest county in Michigan — Bernie’s deficit swelled by fifty thousand votes.
A closer look at precinct results from three smaller Michigan communities illuminates this even more vividly. The two working-class wards of northwestern Flint, including some of the neighborhoods where children were notoriously exposed to lead in city water, are about 90 percent black. The northern seven wards of Bay City, near Saginaw, are about 85 percent white, but like Flint, the city has been punished by deindustrialization, and particularly by the decline of General Motors. Meanwhile, the prosperous Oakland County town of Birmingham — original habitat of ur-suburban homeowner Tim Allen — boasts median property values ($488,000) and income levels ($117,000) three to five times greater than Bay City or Flint.
All three districts are largely Democratic; all contain between 16,900 and 18,100 registered voters. In Flint’s northwestern wards, where turnout sagged, Biden actually won 600 fewer votes than Clinton received in 2016. In the northern bulk of Bay City — including the working-class neighborhood where Madonna Louise Ciccone was born to a GM employee — Biden picked up 300 more votes than Clinton, just enough to beat Sanders citywide. But among the tall backyard fences and expensive mega-garages of Birmingham, Biden picked up nearly 2,300 votes — more than enough to bury Bernie Sanders under a heap of luxury home improvement products.
This same pattern played out in every state and metropolitan area where a primary vote was held. From the beachfront retirement communities of coastal South Carolina to the colonnaded ranch manors of Contra Costa, California, wherever Democratic turnout climbed from 2016, it climbed highest in the wealthiest and whitest suburbs, which threw their collective weight against Bernie Sanders.
In North Carolina, where the total Democratic vote dipped from the eastern swamps to the western mountains, the rich suburbs of Raleigh and Charlotte saw 40 to 50 percent bumps from 2016. In Missouri, where the vote declined in Ferguson and the Ozarks alike, it climbed by 50 percent in the country club precincts of St. Louis County. And in wealthy Fairfax County, Virginia, the archetype of the Democrats’ twenty-first-century suburban strategy, the primary vote soared by 70 percent, with nearly a hundred thousand new voters joining the party of Biden.
In many areas, the power of the suburban surge was so great that even very small wealthy communities had a larger impact on the election than much larger working-class areas. In Massachusetts, compared to 2016, Sanders lost more votes to Biden and Bloomberg in just three fancy South Shore towns — Hingham, Duxbury, and Norwell (total population: 51,753) — than in all of Hampden County, home to the city of Springfield and its working-class suburbs (population: 466,372).
Last fall, with Elizabeth Warren leading Democratic polls, debate swirled over the role of so-called Patagonia Democrats: affluent liberals in deep-blue districts who had flocked to Warren’s planful policy agenda. Like many Sanders supporters, I was skeptical of the claim that such professional-class voters — whatever they told pollsters — could really serve as the electoral base for a redistributive agenda.
But in retrospect, neither Jacobin nor Vox anticipated the real story of the 2020 primary, which did not involve Warren-style liberals, but a much more conservative tribe of wealthy suburbanites — disaffected Republicans who, since the 2016 election, have thrown themselves whole into Democratic Party politics. All across the Sun Belt, from the defense contractors of Northern Virginia to the energy corporations of Texas and California, Joe Biden was boosted not just by Patagonia Democrats but by newfound Chevron, Raytheon, and Halliburton Democrats.
After 2016, the “Never Trump Republican” became a punch line on the Left — in a party where Trump enjoyed 90 percent approval, self-important critics like Jennifer Rubin and David Frum appeared to form an editorial page whose staff was larger than its readership. But in 2020, these neoconservative Never Trumpers had the last laugh. Craftily rebranded as “moderate” pundits, forgiven their cheerleading for the Iraq War, and handed outsize platforms in the liberal corporate media, it turned out that their true audience was not Republican at all, but affluent purple-state suburbanites, who shared both their cultural distaste for Trump and their material opposition to Sanders.
Though Democratic turnout rose everywhere in the wealthy suburbs, from Silicon Valley to metro Boston, a clear pattern was visible: the richer and more conservative the suburb, the more dramatic the increases. In Virginia, Fairfax County’s stunning 70 percent increase was surpassed by neighboring Loudon County — the richest county in the United States — where Democratic turnout nearly doubled from 2016.
Once again, the picture is most vivid at the neighborhood level. In greater Houston, Biden scored some of his most impressive gains in wealthy, traditionally Republican suburbs like Bellaire and West University Place, which flipped from Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and helped elect Lizzie Pannill Fletcher to Congress in 2018. Primary turnout in these areas doubled from four years ago, reflecting the success of Democrats’ concerted effort to retain Romney-Clinton voters.
And in relative terms, the most staggering turnout gains did not come in the Houston precincts Democrats won in 2016 or 2018, but in those that they lost. In the extremely rich and conservative oil-money districts of River Oaks, Afton Oaks, and Tanglewood — the neighborhood where Jeb and George W. Bush grew up — Democratic turnout often tripled, with nearly all of it going to Biden or Bloomberg.
Some of these voters, to be sure, only cast their ballots in an open Democratic primary because there was no competitive Republican contest on offer. (In that sense, the incumbent effect took another massive toll on the 2020 Sanders campaign.) And if Trump is convincingly repudiated in November, a fraction of these wealthy suburbanites may attempt to return to a chastened Republican Party.
More of them, though, seem likely to stick around as Halliburton Democrats. The suburban surge of 2020 fits into a larger pattern: in the Bush family’s historic Tanglewood precinct, Democrats won under 18 percent of the general election vote in 2012, but nearly 30 percent in 2016 and over 34 percent in 2018, with a higher share likely to follow in 2020.
In recent weeks, even as Democrats have sought to present themselves as the party of George Floyd, it is worth knowing that Houston’s River Oaks — home to Joel Osteen and former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling — now boasts higher Democratic primary participation than the Third Ward, where Floyd was born and raised.
In the United States, at least, the margin between Piketty’s “Brahmin left” and “merchant right” is rather blurry at the top of the wealth pyramid, and it’s getting blurrier. Not only do many merchant princes of the billionaire class — perhaps a majority, outside a handful of extractive industries — already lean Democratic; their corporate vassals, in prosperous metropolitan areas from Houston to Charlotte to Grand Rapids, are now trending Democratic, too.
This year, Halliburton Democrats may well have swung the election against Bernie Sanders. With their voices amplified by prestige media, and their votes eagerly courted by leading candidates, they helped make sure Democrats would emerge from the primary season as something closer to the party of Bill Kristol than the party of Krystal Ball. It is not likely that they will be going anywhere soon.
III. A Majority in Embryo
No doubt, there are tactical lessons to be drawn from the Bernie 2020 campaign, both in its achievements and in its possible missteps. Yet the major electoral forces that defeated Sanders at the polls — the establishment preference of black primary voters, the declining participation of working-class Democrats, and the mass arrival of rich suburbanites into the party — all predate Sanders and will likely live on beyond him, too.
What we learned over the course of Bernie’s five-year struggle is that a national presidential campaign, however successful in other ways, could not reverse or even arrest these trends on its own.
Sanders-style democratic socialism has not yet won a majority in the United States, either inside the Democratic Party or outside it. But not having a majority is no excuse for not building one. And while the Sanders coalition was not ready for victory in 2020, there are reasons to believe that his five-year war has put social-democratic reform on the path to a national majority in the next decade.
In both of his campaigns, Sanders won younger voters by historic margins, and he won them not with style or charisma but with perhaps the most brusquely ideological platform in Democratic primary history. His five-year struggle simultaneously reflected, galvanized, and shaped the worldview of an entire generation of voters — forging a new and serious bond between the material conditions of Americans under forty-five and the Sanders brand of “class-struggle social democracy.”
As Jacobin’s Connor Kilpatrick has argued, Bernie’s dominance with young voters is significant for at least two reasons that should shape left strategy in the 2020s. First, despite the understandable skepticism about “generational politics,” there is simply no precedent in US history for an ideological candidate winning younger voters on a scale like Sanders did — not George McGovern and certainly not Barack Obama, whose youthful support was much thinner and less evenly distributed. In the 2008 race against Hillary Clinton, Obama won voters under thirty in California by 5 points, and in Texas by 20 points. This year, against a larger primary field, Bernie won that group in both those states by at least 50 points.
In both his campaigns, Sanders won young white voters, he won young black voters, and he won young Latino voters — the latter group by outrageous margins (84 percent!) in states like California. Very probably, he won young Asian voters, young Muslim voters, and young Native voters with similar levels of enthusiasm.
Second, Sanders did not just win big with kids fresh out of school: across five years of campaigning, he showed persistent strength with middle-aged voters in their forties. Of the twenty states that conducted exit polls, more voters under forty-five chose Sanders than all the “moderate” Democrats combined (Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar) in sixteen of them.
In Missouri and in Michigan, he won voters between forty and forty-five outright. And in key states like Texas, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, where Bernie lost overall, he still managed to win voters under fifty by double digits.
Notoriously, these younger voters did not turn out in large enough numbers to help Sanders on Super Tuesday and beyond. But the media’s glib conclusion on this subject — that youth voting actually declined in 2020 — was based on flawed 2016 exit polls, whose methodology changed significantly this year, rendering crude comparisons about the shape of the electorate practically worthless.
In the context of rising overall turnout, it is almost certain that the absolute number of younger primary voters actually rose in 2020. (In South Carolina, where official state numbers have been released, more than forty thousand new voters under forty-five cast a Democratic ballot, and their turnout rate increased, too.) Though outnumbered by the surge of older, richer Halliburton Democrats, these new, younger voters flocked to Bernie’s standard to an extent that helped change the geography of his coalition.
Though Sanders struggled to win many of the rural areas he had carried four years ago, his strength in cities — and especially in younger, racially diverse, lower-income urban neighborhoods — actually grew from 2016 to 2020. With younger Latino voters now firmly in his coalition, Bernie not only swept the barrios of East LA, he won overwhelming victories in the mixed, immigrant-heavy precincts of San Diego, Denver, Seattle, and Las Vegas.
Sanders showed similar strength in younger, lower-income urban areas all over the country. In the majority-nonwhite ninth ward of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, Bernie won an absolute majority. In smaller cities across the Northeast and the Midwest, his support was undiminished, if not enhanced from 2016 — with younger urban voters helping Sanders in the early states and beyond, from Portland, Maine, to Duluth, Minnesota.
Although easily dismissed by critics as a phenomenon of the “gentrifier left,” latte-swilling graduate students did not power Sanders to victory in working-class cities like Manchester, New Hampshire, or Brownsville, Texas. A much broader group of younger and disproportionately urban voters, who make far less money and own far less property than the Democratic electorate as a whole, formed the core of the Sanders coalition.
Working-Class Politics Can Still Be the Future
Across the world, from Norway to New Zealand, as working-class parties of the Left have given way to their Brahminized descendants, the scope and the horizon of left-wing politics have changed. Less interested in transformative economic redistribution — and far less capable of delivering it, anyway — contemporary progressives have put their faith and their energy in a range of other projects, from environmentalism to questions of cultural representation.
Yet socialists like Bernie Sanders understand that few of these struggles for justice can be won, in any meaningful or lasting way, if they are not accompanied by a large-scale transfer of power and resources, won by a determined working class.
All by itself, Bernie’s five-year war did not succeed in reanimating twentieth-century class politics. But if there is any hope for a return to the electoral alignment that produced every major social-democratic reform in history — uniting a diverse working class around pressing demands for redistribution — it lies with the cohort of Sanders voters under age forty-five.
Not only do two-thirds or more of these younger, poorer Americans support Medicare for All, wealth taxes, and other significant reforms — they have shown, in two different primary campaigns, that those fundamental redistributive commitments are strong enough to guide their voting choices. This is not yet a socialist majority, but it is, perhaps, a socialist majority in embryo.
And even as the US population ages, this embryonic majority grows every year, and within every demographic. Despite the folklore about voters growing more conservative as they age, the academic consensus is that ideological preferences are, in fact, quite stable over time. Older millennials, locked out of an increasingly unequal economy, do not appear to be moving to the right. The supermajority that demands national health insurance today, we can bet, will demand national health insurance tomorrow, too.
If Bernie Sanders was not fated to be the Abraham Lincoln of the twenty-first-century left, winning a political revolution under his own banner, he may well be something like our John Quincy Adams — the “Old Man Eloquent” whose passionate broadsides against the Slave Power in the 1830s and 1840s inspired the radicals who toppled it a generation later.
Over the next decade, this embryonic majority faces at least two considerable challenges. First and most pressing, it must face off against its principal antagonist within the primary electorate: the older, wealthy, and ever-growing coalition of Fairfax and Halliburton Democrats, whose votes party leaders continue to court with gauzy patriotic rhetoric and concrete promises of tax relief.
In the short term, the most promising avenue for attack is in the scores of mostly urban legislative districts, from Los Angeles to Denver to San Antonio, where younger voters predominate, and where Sanders outpolled all of his centrist rivals combined. Recent left-wing insurgent victories in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, and New York suggest that there is more room for democratic-socialist politics to grow in cities across the Northeast, too.
Even in the short term, though, younger urban districts alone will not be sufficient for Sanders-style left-wingers to outvote Fairfax Democrats within the party caucus — much less to wield meaningful fiscal power in larger state governments or in Congress.
And in the longer run, a laser-like focus on extremely liberal urban districts on the coasts — an electoral map that follows Brahminized progressives wherever they go — risks accelerating the Left’s drift away from the fundamental questions of class power and material redistribution.
For some Brahmin activists, this is precisely the point: a retrograde focus on class has prevented progressives from understanding that their natural base lies with white-collar suburbanites, who already share liberal cultural politics. “I can take someone who is deeply concerned about patriarchy and I can make them understand how patriarchy intersects with capitalism,” argues Sean McElwee, “much more than I can take someone who’s mad because GM took their job away and make them understand socialism.” The broader decline of working-class participation in politics may even be something to celebrate, from this angle, if it turns more congressional districts from red to blue.
Sanders had a different theory, and his campaigns assembled a different coalition, centered on younger, lower-income voters from Brownsville to Duluth. In 2020, that working-class coalition was not enough to win the Democratic nomination. And no, Sanders did not manage to turn history on its head and bring the vast reservoir of alienated, apolitical workers back to primary politics.
But by 2032, today’s Bernie voters under fifty will likely represent a majority, and certainly a plurality, within the party electorate. What sort of left will be there to greet them? Will it be a thoroughly post-Sanders progressive movement, whose priorities are defined by social media discourse, billionaire-funded activist NGOs, and a friendly working relationship with the corporate Democratic Party?
Imagine Sean McElwee giving a keynote address at the Walmart Center for Racial Equity — forever.
Or will it be a political left that continues the work, to borrow from Lincoln at Gettysburg, that Sanders has thus far so nobly advanced? A left grounded in class politics, and aimed fundamentally at majority-building demands for material redistribution — health care, education, jobs, and family support for all, paid for by the rich? The future is still unwritten.