Let me state at the outset that I don’t like Bernie Sanders and haven’t since the 2015 primary. The only positive memory I have of him is when a bird landed on him. For a brief moment I understood why other people my age like him so damn much. I’m writing this at a cross-roads wherein I’ve embraced Joe Biden as our Democratic candidate along with about 2/3’s of the party’s voters. Within that bloc are a very large number like me who are well aware of Biden’s flaws and vulnerabilities. At the same time, Bernie is under-performing his 2016 numbers and has no shortage of flaws and vulnerabilities.
The purpose of this essay is to articulate for myself and others a gut feeling that Bernie’s problems are more easily fixed than Biden’s. I think there’s a short window for Bernie to ‘pivot’ to a more inclusive message and persuade a majority of Democratic voters that they’d rather send Bernie off to a general election showdown with Trump than Biden.
I think it begins with admitting failure. Democratic Socialist Political Revolution (DSPR), the ‘revolution’ the Sanders campaign invokes constantly, is failing as an electoral strategy in part because the allies and voters Bernie would need to both get elected and implement any of his Big Ideas understand it but don’t like it. For Bernie to win these voters (without Biden stumbling), I argue that he needs to start running as a more ‘normal’ politician. You’ll see when I’m finished that I don’t mean ‘banal’ or ‘moderate,’ per se, but a flawed politician who should spend more time convincing people that he’s a safe pair of hands as POTUS.
What does DSPR look like to ‘us’ and why don’t we like it?
Democratic Socialist Political Revolution
The basic premise of the Sanders campaign is that running a candidate promising All of The Good Things will inevitably generate a groundswell of support in the form of activists, volunteers, and voters that will easily elect someone long decried ‘unelectable’ by the establishment to office. The DSPR tide of bodies going to voting booths to get what they didn’t know they could have will ensure large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to pass legislation the ‘Establishment’ either doesn’t want to see passed or thinks too unrealistic. The movement will ensure that elected officials in the party will stay in line and even Republicans might soon cower at their might.
The first problem with DSPR is that it confuses two very different things: diagnosis of problems and policy prescriptions. There is wide and deep consensus between liberals and the left that healthcare, the cost of upward mobility, climate, and inequality are the top issues of our time. There is far less agreement on what the prescriptions should be and which proposals are ‘realistic.’ Instead to focusing on GOP obstructionism, Sanders and his movement divide the political world into “us vs them” categories where a lot of Democrats are derided as an Other ‘them.’
- People who understand what the movement is about, broadly agree with the goals, so naturally support the candidacy.
- People who don’t understand the movement, broadly agree with its goals, and don’t support Sanders yet because they’ve been misinformed
- People who do understand the movement, don’t support Sanders, so are either corrupt or want the world to be a bad place.
Biden consolidated the vote of people who belong to a fourth category that DSPR refuses to acknowledge: people broadly sympathetic to the goals but don’t think Sanders is the best vehicle to reach those goals and/or disagree with his prescriptions. Sanders is running a campaign that rhetorically puts Trump and Biden (+ their voters) in the same category in an election where 65% of Democratic voters say beating Trump is their top priority. Sanders is convinced the path to victory is finding and converting more Category 2’s, but let’s survey why people like me who consider themselves ‘progressive’ are in that fourth category.
Problem A: The Revolution Succeeds
For the vast majority of Democratic voters, DSPR sounds a lot like a vision of Sanders and his base doing to the Democratic party what Trump did to the Republican party. While acknowledging the Democratic party isn’t perfect, the consolidation around Biden on Super Tuesday is nearly irrefutable evidence that Democrats have no interest or appetite in blowing the party up like Republicans did in 2016. A lot of the Biden consolidation and insane performance on Tuesday was a collective inoculation to prevent a split mainstream vote allowing an outsider to hijack the party with just 30-40% of the vote.
Rallying behind septuagenarians should be embarrassing for both factions. An important difference between Biden and Sanders is that only the former is replaceable without the coalition falling apart. To put it plainly: the Sanders campaign right now looks like a far left populist movement centered around a cult of personality. That’s a bad look and the Democrats who see it for what it is have no interest in replacing a Trump cult of personality policed by right wing enforcers with a Sanders cult of personality enforced by ‘dirtbag left’ Chapo types glorying Saint Bernard and shouting ‘cuck!’ at people who don’t ‘bend the knee’ to a DSA takeover of our party.
‘NatSec Dems’ like me have enough evidence to think Sanders wants to withdraw the US military footprint globally, not just the Middle East. His trade instincts are also similar to Trumps. Sanders’ derision for the ‘Democratic establishment’ already making clear that his cabinet would be populated with fringe ideologues… then he endorsed Cenk Uygur and brought Marianne Williamson in as a campaign surrogate.
Problem B: ‘Revolution’ LOL
Poll numbers and voting results show that Sanders simply hasn’t persuaded enough natural allies that the only way save the planet and fix American healthcare is to elect a revolutionary government headed by a geriatric. The first test to the Democratic Socialist Political Revolution (DSPR) theory of change is winning the primaries. Sanders is consistently under-performing his 2016 numbers in 2020, which seriously undermines Sander’s core electability argument (the ‘revolution’ itself will defeat Trump). Throughout February Sanders & Co were arguing that Sanders should automatically get the nomination if he can only bring in a plurality of delegates.
Let’s move on and assume he wins office. We envision Shouty Angry Old Man getting into the White House on the thinnest of electoral margins and immediately hampered by a GOP majority Senate. ‘Posts as Praxis’ isn’t going to conjure the largest structural change in American governance since the New Deal into existence. We see in him the very real possibility of a left-wing Trump or Duterte without the authoritarianism, nepotism, or cruelty. As in just another pathetic septuagenarian populist unable to pull off even a fraction of the change they promised, blaming everyone else for their failures, and surrounded by trolls that harass everyone who points out his failures.
Imagining Bernie Without the Revolution
Some have argued that the likely failure of a Sanders Administration to do anything ‘revolutionary’ is a good reason to support Sanders. It would get the Young Left inside the tent, have them “piss out (at R’s) instead of in (at D’s)”, and have them relearn the lesson about how difficult substantive political change is that most of us had to learn in the early Obama years. Additionally, he has a legislative history that shows more outreach and compromise than his campaign rhetoric. That would be a persuasive argument if Bernie himself would substantively engage discussing the premise.
The Bernie we have now comes across as unrealistic, uncompromising, and unprepared for what the job actually is. His campaign rhetoric makes us think a vote for Bernie is a vote for four more years of a new old white man railing against imagined enemies, blaming secretive corrupt cabals for his policy failures, and sabotaging negotiations on deals that deliver ‘half a loaf.’ Even if he wanted to compromise, his Bernie supporters insist that anything short of the campaign’s current platform will kill the planet and deprive people of healthcare.
Right now, Sanders loses credibility every time he claims his ‘revolution’ can and will beat Trump if enough of us just give him our votes. The same rhetoric that’s kept his movement energized has hit a ceiling and is mostly serving to alienate potential supporters now. It is an objective fact right now that there is less appetite in the electorate for a Democratic Socialist Political Revolution than they thought. The first step towards pivoting is humbling admitting that the ‘political revolution’ he promised hasn’t materialized. From there, make the case that Sanders would still make a better POTUS than either Biden or Trump even without this mythical political superpower.
What becomes of socialism and revolution? First he would need to sharply break with what his worst supporters openly say and what we assume he believes: beating Trump in 2020 is more important than electing someone with a democratic socialist agenda. For the most part he would just talk about it less. His democratic socialism recedes to what most people already assume it is: a system of values, beliefs, and priorities. He would need to make clear that a Sanders vote isn’t a vote for socialism. Stop trying to convert voters to democratic socialism (or that they already are socialist but don’t know) and instead persuade people to be comfortable with a democratic socialist as their president. Maybe use messages along the lines of “a democratic socialist is a Democrat with bigger dreams.”
The pivot I envision would be to Sanders needs to convince skeptics that he understands that his Big Ideas are goals that will be extremely difficult for anyone to achieve in the short-term. He would transition to message that sounds more like 2008 Obama, reframing his movement as an invaluable asset hungry for change but numerically insufficient to overwhelm the obstacles other Democrats see. Acknowledging that critics were largely right about how difficult his agenda would be to pass within the next five years leaves no room for the current moral grandstanding on issues like healthcare and the environment.
Instead of attacking Biden’s health and climate plans as death sentences, Sanders should highlight Biden’s history of folding too early and making bad deals. Sanders is an extremely good position to argue that he’ll fight harder than Biden and come back with better progressive ‘wins’ if he can convince voters like me that he’s open to comprise. The pivot should also lay off rhetoric attacking the “Democratic establishment.” Convince skeptics that a Sanders Admin will work with (and compromise with!) anyone sharing the same progressive vision for America’s future. At least nod an acknowledgement that only one or two of his Big Ideas agenda items stand a chance of passing in his first term and prioritization will be an inclusive group effort. In the meantime, his first year would mirror Trump’s vigor in creatively undoing his predecessors legacy.