Why Bernie lost

The US Democratic party’s presidential primaries were wrapped up in record time this cycle, with Joe Biden winning enough delegates back on ‘Super Tuesday’ (March 3rd) to put him in a near-insurmountable lead over the brief frontrunner and candidate of the left, Bernie Sanders.

With Mr Biden being opposed to medicare for all, and having an at best ‘mixed’ record on race, it will now be at least another four years before progressives have a shot at putting their agenda on the presidential ballot -though it is important to stress that all anti-Trump sections of american society must vote in the most effective way possible to prevent the re-election of the President.

The efforts of the two Bernie campaigns have not been in vain however, the Democratic party is now largely accepting and tolerant of socialists. With arch-liberals in the congress like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, now freely working with representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and others who would've likely been deemed “too radial” as partners a few years ago. This is partly a coalition of necessity; the Democratic party now knows it will have to unite both the centre and left traditions in US politics to overcome the structural and institutional power of the US right. Sanders greatest achievement may yet have been securing the latter as an equal partner in that coalition.

That being said there were a litany of mistakes made by the Sanders campaign and the movement supporting him more widely, that future progressive campaigns must learn from if they seek to win in the American system. Here are just a few.

#1 The unwillingness to play dirty. Out of all the advanced democracies, campaigning in US elections must be the most mud-filled and bitter. Especially in American Primary elections where candidates must fight for the attention of the most hyper-involved hardcore partisans in every precinct. Sanders memorably tried to raise the level of debate in 2016, once decrying on the debate stage, to great applause from Hillary Clinton, questions relating to an email scandal surrounding her that had been hyped up by the Republican-Fox news nexus of right wing pundits. Sanders was undoubtedly right on the issue - it was a faux scandal of little importance - but he was engaging in terrible politics in the cause of advancing his agenda.

In 2020 Sanders largely continued this pattern. Being excruciatingly amicable even when making criticisms of other candidates, even in ‘attack’ ads. This, combined with a bloated field of contenders, allowed Biden a clear path to ride through the debates largely undamaged. Being seen as a reputable and legitimate figure in the running for the Democratic nomination, when his past positions and votes should have long precluded any lay left wing or liberal Democrat from being able to support him. Progressives do not have billionaire funded pacs to point out the shortcomings and near-corruption of other candidates, they must use what platform they have to do it themselves.

#2 An unfinished coalition. Winning elections in a country as large and diverse as the US is above all about coalition building. The Democratic party is made up of five main groups; black voters, hispanic voters, the establishment, left-liberal ideological voters, and young people. Sanders performed extremely strongly among left-wing voters enthused by his domestic agenda, completely dominated the opposition among young people across all races, and in a change from 2016 performed extremely well among the growing Hispanic community, placing an emphasis on his pro-immigrant stance that helped him win the politically important states of Nevada and California. Among black and establishment oriented voters however - he performed extremely poorly, and while Sanders was unlikely to ever seek establishment support, his lack of outreach into black southern communities in particular, is what ultimately set his campaign on the path to failure.

#3 Progressives were divided. America, somewhat like Britain, has a limited number of people within the population that are realistically going to ever vote for a lefitist government. This is not to say that this number cant be increased over time, just that there is no time in one election cycle to completely turn around 100-years of anti-socilist talking points being propagated into every facet of discussion within the society. This makes it absolutely critical that there is no split in the left vote at election time. Biden understood this well in , using connections, influence, and perhaps promises, to pressure all other centrists out of the race by Super tuesday. Leaving an effective 2 -1  split among the remaining major candidates (Warren, Bernie - Biden) in relation to their ‘side’ of the party.

It is plausible that had there not been so much antagonism between the ‘bernie bros’ and Warren, that she may have dropped out, endorsed Sanders, and kept Super Tuesday - and likely therefore, the rest of the race - competitive for another two or three months. We will never definitively know, but the tragedy of 40-45% of Warren supporters having a preference for Biden over Sanders is an indictment of the left’s ability to get on and coalesce. Any future candidate must command a degree of left unity and stamp out infighting within their campaign structures.

One thing to add- it is of course a legitimate view that Bernie’s victory was always going to be impossible, given his politics, given the wealth and power stratification within the United States, given the dire state of modern political education and antiquated voting systems (just look at the Iowa Caucus) within that country. But that does not preclude US progressives from trying, even to simply legitimate their views within the broader population, or even just to show the establishment of the Democratic party that they need their votes and must cater - to some extent - to their interests. As Sanders says, the revolution must go on; “not me - you!”.

Ben Lockley

24 Jun 2020

POLSIS in Colour /

Why Bernie lost