There will be plenty of obituaries written about the 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and mine is just another. But as a liberal that’s essentially committed to the Democratic Party, I want to offer a point of view that is unbiased from a degree of bias.
The reasons why Sanders lost are not very complex. In fact, if anyone truly paid attention to the campaign, the Democratic nomination was always Joe Biden’s to lose. Despite being perceived (and hyped up) as such, this was never a wide-open nomination contest.
So what are the reasons why Sanders lost the nomination? Despite the fact that Biden lost the first three primaries; despite the fact that Biden had a severe deficit in fundraising; despite the fact that sexual harassment claims got some degree of amplification this time around; and despite the fact that Sanders had overwhelming support from the progressive wing? There are three distinct reasons why.
The Democratic Party as an institution
The Democratic Party is the world’s oldest active political party, forming 196 years ago by Andrew Jackson supporters with an ideology that would be best described today as right-libertarian. Throughout its history, it has transformed from an agrarian, racist, and conservative party to a multicultural, pluralistic, socially liberal and progressive party. Despite the numerous party systems in American history, the ideological war that shaped the New Deal era, and catastrophic electoral losses, the party has endured.
Center-left voters, older liberal voters, and minority voters are more likely to respect the Democratic Party as an institution in itself rather than a conduit for political personalities. In other words, unlike the Republican Party, Democratic-leaning voters are less likely, in my view, willing to view the candidate to be bigger than the party.
Most Sanders’ supporters are committed Democrats — he did represent the direction that they wanted the party to go in. For what its worth, a good majority of them will end up voting for Biden in the general election. However, Sanders never completely respected the party as an institution — for his personal reasons, he never joined the party even though he had no issue with utilizing the party’s apparatus in both his congressional and presidential campaigns.
I think the “Sanders is not a Democrat” argument probably resonated more than most of his supporters realize. Twitter, where his most vocal supporters coalesce, is not an accurate representation of the Democratic Party or the national electorate as a whole; being that, his support was probably overrated. Sanders’ brief front-runner status was not because voters were buying into Sanders from a policy and personality standpoint, but because voters had their confidence understandably shaken with Biden, especially after less than rousing debate performances and his well-known gaffes.
In other words, Democratic primary voters always wanted Biden — for many, he represents the good that the Democratic Party stands for as an institution despite his flaws. I also believe that Biden benefitted more than Sanders from what has essentially been an unspoken reassessment of the Democratic Party by many voters — not perfect, but better than the Republican Party when it comes to governing.
The Echo Chamber
Sanders voters are younger, more technically- and socially-savvy. Unsurprisingly, Sanders supporters amplify themselves heavily on social media, especially Twitter.
However, the throaty support for Sanders creates an echo chamber that probably led to a perception that he had more support than he really did. The Biden Surge was probably one of the most remarkable turnarounds I had ever seen in my lifetime of following politics. Democrats had lost a lot of confidence in Biden; by the time he decisively won in South Carolina, the perception changed.
I remember telling a friend that even though Biden was down 2 points in Texas leading into Super Tuesday, I predicted that Biden would be carried to a narrow victory here — he won the state by roughly 4 points. The next few contests turned into a stunning rout.
If you only paid attention to just social media, which by whole has been less enthusiastic about Biden than either of the populists (Sanders and Trump), you would have never seen this coming. But yes, there is a vast swath of voters that do not talk about politics on social media; that do not think about politics day in and day out; and will prefer familiarity and comfort over a political upheaval that might be too aggressively left.
Sanders’ support was concentrated, not broad. To Sanders’ credit, he was going to campaign as himself and either succeed or fail as himself and not anything else. Refusing to moderate — or compromise — some of his more audacious positions such as the elimination of private insurance in favor of the most generous single-payer healthcare system humankind has ever known at this point endeared him to his supporters but made other voters uncomfortable.
I think Sanders basked in the support that he got from his echo chamber — hell, any populist does, just look at Trump. However, it is the quieter voters that decide elections — especially voters that make their decisions based upon who they can and cannot live with being in power. The echo chamber may have amplified Sanders’ support, but I think it also brought on a degree of hubris. He relied too much on an us-versus-them populist message; but instead of “them” being limited to the virile right-wing enablers of the incumbent, he also included any Democrats — moderate and liberal — that did not accept his worldview. Sanders’ supporters picked up on that and echoed that rhetoric tenfold. It cost him big time.
Misunderstanding the 2020 Election
Above all else, Bernie Sanders misunderstood that the 2020 election was not necessarily about policy and ideas.
This election is shaping up to be another major sociopolitical statement — steady, human, and trusted leadership versus combative, petty, and incoherent authoritarianism. For what its worth, all presidential elections are sociopolitical statements, but there’s a level of partisanship in this country that arguably has not been seen since the Civil War.
Democrats, for the most part, value good functioning government over ideologically driven government. That’s why Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer never embraced the obstructionism against Trump that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell waged against Barack Obama. I believe that Democratic voters are more pragmatic and much more tolerant of incrementalism than the contingent of Sanders’ supporters.
Sanders and his supporters reasoned that the loathing of Trump, his administration, and his policies by half of Americans suggests that the country was aching for sweeping left-wing reform. This was not the case. I don’t blame them for believing as such. These voters have a sense of urgency and rightfully question the resistance of the American political system to embrace the full-throated social democracy found in some countries in Europe (even if they skip over the trade-off being a generous welfare state in exchange for lightly regulated economies, but I digress.)
Biden is not nearly the policy wonk that Sanders is, but Biden made a very reasonable bet —this election was about the soul of the country in regards to the type of leadership and government this country wants. Despite a campaign platform — that is, if you actually go to Biden’s site and read his policy proposals — that combines mainstream liberalism and progressive social democracy — Biden opted to challenge Trump on a referendum of leadership, preparedness, and character, rather than on ideas and policy. He believed that’s where most Democratic voters are — and he was right.
As anxious and as passionate as Sanders’ most vocal supporters are, the Democratic voting base at large is not ready to embrace left-wing populism. From a personal viewpoint, I think Sanders created somewhat of a conundrum — that is, he fostered an unrealistic expectation among his supporters about how much of his ideas could come to fruition in a representative democracy.
Even if Sanders managed to win the presidency, I think that his supporters would be ended up roundly disappointed and perhaps even much more bitter than they are feeling now. Why? Because it’s going to potentially take a generation and the development and maturing of a new voting coalition to bring about the sweeping change that Sanders campaigned on and — quite frankly — may not even live to see come to fruition given how many years away it realistically is.
Ultimately, the 2020 Election was going to be decided by what Americans as a whole could live with. Could they live with another four years of Trump? Or is Trump’s first term enough for Americans? The advantages that Trump had over Clinton has essentially evaporated — if Americans are ready to move on from Donald Trump, then Americans will move on from Donald Trump: policies or ideas, be damned.
Am I a Sanders fan? Not really. His ideas aren’t completely terrible, even though I question the scalability and stability of most of them — mostly because of the political and cultural potholes that they would be invariably exposed to. I also do not like the fact that he ran a campaign of us-versus-them populism and tried to push himself as being bigger than the Democratic Party.
I remember a hashtag of some sort that was floating around Twitter a few weeks back that tried to push Sanders as the modern-day Frankin Delano Roosevelt. Sure, you could say that there are many elements of New Deal liberalism in Sanders’ platform, especially in regards to the level of government interventionism that he advocated for. However, FDR was a ruthless and tactical politician who was willing to wield his power by any means necessary — that’s simply not Sanders.
But Democratic politicians as a whole since FDR were never able to become bigger than the party. This is even true as the country’s most popular politician — active or retired — in Barack Obama is still unquestionably the leader of the institution that is the Democratic Party. Unsurprisingly, the party as an institution — from the power brokers to its most loyal voters — wasn’t interested in an insurgent non-Democrat in Sanders. This point may infuriate Sanders’ supporters; however, if Sanders was an avowed Democrat, then I would probably not have written this obituary on his campaign.