In the coming months there are going to be dozens of run-downs, explainers, and op-eds about what the Sanders campaign did wrong, what it should have done instead, and what lessons there are to be learned from the 2020 Democratic primary. They will be written by the same people who, despite getting everything wrong in 2016, are still paid six figures for their terrible opinions. The same people who told you that invading Iraq in 2003 was both justified and a good idea, who told you Trump would never win the 2016 Republican primary let alone the presidency, who told you that people love their employer-based healthcare and don’t want to replace it, will nevertheless be receiving healthy paychecks for their job of treating you like you’re a rube and a tremendous dunce incapable of applying even the most rudimentary level of critical thought.
What happened in the Democratic primary isn’t difficult to understand and you don’t need an Ivy-league pedigree to explain it. You don’t need the help of someone who’s been treating politics like a game of four-dimensional chess (a game they keep losing) instead of what it actually is, a ruthless zero-sum battle for the control of resources (a battle they keep losing). For all the gloss and dross that will be applied afterwards, the simple facts at the heart of the Democratic primary are easy to discern.
Bernie Sanders has said repeatedly that Democrats need to give people something to vote for, some appeal to their material conditions, something that they understand will make their lives less cruel and crushing. His campaign was based on this strategy, offering progressive policy plans that lacked the usual complexity of market-based neoliberal solutions. He pointed out obvious problems: wages remaining stagnant despite record profits at the top, people going bankrupt from student debt and medical costs, Wall Street profiting from undue influence in politics, looming environmental disasters, and the United States’ continual military involvement across the globe leading to the immiseration of vulnerable people both at home and abroad. To combat this he offered obvious solutions: more taxes on rich people, get rid of for-profit healthcare, enact student debt forgiveness, enact the Green New Deal, impose more restrictions on Wall Street, and stop funding proxy wars across all corners of the earth.
The Democratic Party “establishment”—shorthand for top party leaders, the Democratic National Committee, and their associated think tanks and lobbying groups—opposed these solutions. They made no secret of their staunch opposition to Sanders and his reforms, holding meetings with wealthy donors as early as April of last year to warn them what a Sanders candidacy could mean. Democratic operatives like David Brock, the same man who apologized to Sanders in January 2017 for the scorched-earth tactics he employed to eliminate the Sanders campaign, were very willing to go on the record about their intentions to form (another) anti-Sanders campaign. Neera Tanden, president of the largest liberal think tank in the United States, the Clinton-aligned Center for American Progress, has never hid her disdain and dislike for Bernie Sanders, his presidential ambitions, and even his staff. The lobbyists and insiders that make up the board and Super Delegates of the Democratic National Committee were very forthcoming about their desire to deny Sanders the nomination even if he were to receive the most votes.
It’s not a “conspiracy theory” to say the Democratic establishment was desperate to stop the Sanders campaign. This is not in dispute. That they conspired to stop Sanders is a plain fact visible to anyone who cares to look, because no attempt was made to hide it.
What happened next is also undisputed. The Sanders campaign achieved unprecedented levels of fundraising and unprecedented victories in early states, becoming the clear front-runner of the primary and scaring the hell out of the establishment as well as its supporters. Then another unprecedented event occurred: leading moderate candidates dropped out of the race just before the South Carolina primary and endorsed Joe Biden, a candidate who had thus far won zero states and whose campaign was running out of money and at serious risk of floundering.
Again: these facts are not in dispute.
This consolidation was the only thing that could have stopped Sanders and, coincidentally, the only thing that could have stopped Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination in 2016. With the field so divided no single candidate seemed able to overtake the only populist in the race, and so the Democratic Party (among others) finally did what the GOP failed to do four years ago: convince the other leading candidates to drop out and endorse the establishment choice.
In the near future we’re going to see a lot of people attempt to paint over these plain and simple facts, or re-arrange them, or simply hand-wave them away. Motivations will be obscured, what is obvious will be ignored, and you’ll witness several seemingly-intelligent people asking you to disbelieve your own eyes. You’re going to be subjected to several brain-melting opinions and in an attempt to inoculate readers we’ve decided to list the more popular ones, some of which are already surfacing in the media.
The Bernie Bros Were Too Mean
The “Bernie Bro” myth crafted by 2016 Clinton campaign operatives has been proven false on numerous occasions yet remains a popular canard on social media. The idea that the majority of Sanders’ supporters are disaffected white men persists—despite the notable fact that female supporters outnumber male supporters and minorities favor Sanders more than whites—simply because it has been a very convenient way to criticize the Sanders campaign. Likewise the notion that Sanders supporters are uniquely negative has also been popular, despite a study by computational social scientist Jeff Winchell of Harvard University showing that this notion is not supported by facts.
Naturally this didn’t stop media dopes like Jessica Tarlov, who is a young, white Manhattanite who contributes to Fox News, from suggesting that these young, white NYC Bros may be what costs Sanders the primary, nor will it stop other bad-faith actors from doing the same in the coming months. Beware liberal podcasts who tell you Twitter isn’t real life while out of the other side of their mouths tell you that the Bernie Bros on Twitter did too much harm to the Sanders campaign.
Bernie Sanders Didn’t Appeal To Me, A Republican Voter
This very specific form of concern-trolling reached new heights during the Democratic primary, giving us example after example of Republicans trying to warn their Democratic friends that Sanders couldn’t win over Republican voters. This idea, that Republican operatives are simply concerned for their Democratic rivals and don’t want them to hurt themselves, is insane on its face and should never be taken seriously. In no world does it make sense to ask vampires for their opinion on who ought to be the head vampire-slayer. Republicans, as a rule, don’t vote for Democrats and appeals to never-Trump republicans might be worth considering if there were more than two-dozen of them living outside of New York and DC. Also, note that this concern never goes the other direction—liberals are constantly expected to water down their goals in order to appeal to moderate republicans, but the reverse is considered a laughable idea.
Bernie Sanders Didn’t Appeal To Me, An Upper-Middle Class White Liberal
On its face this criticism isn’t as ludicrous as the previous entry, and may even seem insightful. This demographic was clearly Sanders’ weakest, and given its over-sized presence in the media it’s tempting to wonder if Sanders made a mistake in not crafting his message to win over suburban liberal voters making over $200,000 a year. Noah Berlatsky at The New Republic seemed to think so (though his complaint that deriding the “liberal elite” actually clouds Sanders’ message about class is a little strange).
Yet no one seems to be able to nail down how exactly Sanders could have appealed to these voters beyond “be less radically progressive”, a strategy embraced by Elizabeth Warren, who did indeed win over these college-educated upper-middle class white voters while simultaneously losing every other kind of voter. The lesson here seems to be that if you’re running on a message of radical and necessary change, watering it down to appease nervous white liberals leaves you with very little left at the end of the day. Do yourself a favor and don’t take advice from someone who came in third in her own state.
The Voters Decided, Not The DNC Or Party Elites
This reprise of uncountable 2016 primary op-eds will likely be the most prominent theme of Sanders campaign obituaries, and it asks you to swallow the biggest, dumbest lie of all: that voters are informed individuals immune from influence and making decisions based solely on policy proposals, and that the Democratic National Committee, party leaders, lobbyists, and media either don’t have or don’t exercise any influence over the Democratic primary and its voters.
The very notion that the people in charge of the party, the people who made the rules of the primary, the people national media outlets rely on for access—and, most importantly, the people whose bottom line would be most affected by a Sanders presidency—didn’t influence the primary itself is beyond naive. For over a year the party establishment has been, in full view of everyone, seeking a way to stop the Sanders movement. They made no secret of it—in 2016 former DNC chairman and current lobbyist/superdelegate Howard Dean openly admitted that superdelegates don’t “represent people”, noting that he wasn’t elected to his position and would cast his delegate vote however he pleased. In the days to come, many of these same people are going to ask you to believe that they didn’t do exactly what they wanted to do, what they told you they were going to do.
At the end of the day, any honest obituary of the Sanders campaign can be summed up as follows: despite his unprecedented success, or rather because of it, an unprecedented maneuver by the Democratic Party establishment and associated institutions defeated the most progressive Presidential candidate in half a century. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a fool or a liar.