X Close

Bernie’s failure is a lesson for the Left As both Labour and the Democrats have found, their target voters are just not as radical as they thought

Farewell, then, Bernie. Credit: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Farewell, then, Bernie. Credit: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images


April 17, 2020   6 mins

Mid-February feels like a long time ago. At the time Covid-19 was, at least in Britain, a peripheral concern which might — if worst came to worst — lead to restrictions on mass gatherings and international travel. Few expected Britain and large swathes of America to be fully locked down for weeks and months at a time.

Another assumption widely held just two months ago was that Bernie Sanders was set to win the Democratic nomination. As I wrote at the time, following the Nevada caucus in which Sanders triumphed, the campaign of his nearest rival Joe Biden appeared to be “visibly flailing”. Indeed, a Democratic Party voter had made headlines by asking Biden bluntly during an event in Nevada “What the hell is going on with your campaign?” This seemed to capture the prevailing mood.

The answer was, in fact: quite a lot, it just hadn’t fed through into the results yet. Once the nomination process became a one-on-one contest after Super Tuesday, Biden thrashed the Vermont senator, leaving Bernie trailing by 311 delegates. There was no coming back after that and Sanders consequently dropped out of the race for the nomination. In the space of just two months the contest was turned upside down, so that it is Joe Biden who will now take on Donald Trump in November’s election.

So how did Sanders sink so rapidly from the favourite to dropping out of the race altogether?

First, it is worth highlighting where commentators went wrong. We put too much stock in the results coming out of states such as Iowa and Nevada while underestimating just how poorly Sanders would do in delegate-rich Super Tuesday states like Texas and Virginia. Of course, I was not alone in getting it wrong before Joe Bidden “shocked the world” on 3 March.

Leading statician Nate Silver had predicted that Sanders “has by far the best chance of any candidate to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president”; the Guardian’s Richard Wolffe had predicted that “Bernie Sanders is cruising towards the Democratic nomination; while ITV’s Robert Moore had suggested that Bernie “is already the clear favourite to win the Democratic nomination and within ten days he may become unstoppable”.

There were more concrete reasons why the Sanders campaign tanked after winning Nevada, however. For one thing, Sanders provoked unnecessary headlines for the wrong reasons after praising literacy campaigns in Cuba under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know?” Sanders said in an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes. “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?” Sanders added, rather unhelpfully.

When criticised for the remarks, the senator doubled down, telling a town hall audience in South Carolina that “truth is truth”.

Predictably this went down badly with the Democratic establishment, and not without cause. Many of Cuba’s schools were built using prison labour and the dictatorship’s literacy programme is rather less impressive in a context where the state decides what a person can and cannot read. This isn’t Cold War propaganda: outside the fringes of the far-Left the argument about the Cuban regime — good or bad — was settled half a century ago. Sanders looked like a political dinosaur.

Moreover, Sanders’ comments about Cuba were foolish from a purely pragmatic point of view, spooking moderate Democrats as well as Latino voters in states such as Florida, where a third are of Cuban origin. Sanders relied upon Latinos for early campaign wins in states such as Nevada, but following his — albeit tempered — praise for Castro there was little hope of Latino voters coming to the rescue in Florida. Rather unsurpisingly, polling showed that Sanders fared worse among Cubans than among other Latinos.

Sanders is not an apologist for dictatorship — his Cuba comments were prefaced by a rejection of the island’s authoritarian system. But his poorly calibrated statements reflected the politics of many of the people he surrounded himself with. To nominate a candidate with this weakness when the cost of failure was another four years of Trump would have been a huge gamble for more centrist Democrats. Ultimately, it was a gamble they weren’t willing to take.

The real problems with the Sanders campaign were largely of a more domestic aspect, however. In 2016 Sanders did well with white voters without a college degree, but this time around he did far less well, with Biden having a comfortable lead over Sanders among this section of the electorate in Michigan. In hindsight, it looks as if many of the 2016 white non-college educated voters who flocked to Sanders were motivated more by animosity toward Hillary Clinton than genuine enthusiasm for the Vermont senator.

Much like the Corbyn campaign in the recent UK General Election, the Sanders team was banking on a surge in the non-voter and youth turnout. Presented with a genuine alternative, those who would normally stay at home during the election cycle would be enthused enough by the radicalism on offer to actually get out and vote. Or so the theory went.

Unfortunately for Sanders and his team this failed to transpire. Indeed, the failure on the part of Sanders to expand the Democratic base was apparent even while Sanders was romping home in New Hampshire and Nevada. Young voters made up a smaller share of the primary electorate than they did in 2016 in every primary state apart from Iowa.

Much of the fallout from Sanders’s campaign defeat has focused on his failure to win over African-American Democrats. The argument goes that Sanders’s emphasis on class politics has little appeal to those for whom identity is a bigger driver in terms of voter loyalty than social class.

There is some truth to this. In South Carolina black voters backed Biden over Sanders by 61% to 17% according to network exit polls, and this gap — or something close to it — was replicated in other primary states. Because the first three states in the nomination race did not have many black voters, so this consequently created a false impression of how Sanders would perform as the contest progressed.

That Sander’s poor performance among black voters was due to his “class reductionism” is probably exaggerated, however. Indeed, this is a convenient criticism for affluent liberals who feel more comfortable with a form of identity politics that seeks to push what the black American scholar Adolph Reed has termed “a particularist, elite-driven politics”. As Reed puts it:

“Class reductionism, again, is a myth. But like other myths, it reveals a great deal about our deeper systems of belief. Even if it tells us nothing about the people who are accused of it, it tells us a great deal about the accusers — the professional-managerial guardians of elite discourse.”

Sanders’s more significant mistake was arguably to continue to run on an independent ticket and rally against the Democratic establishment. Sanders’s outsider status had served him well — until it didn’t. This was especially true in terms of Sanders’s offering to black voters. As Zack Beauchamp has written for Vox, affiliation to the Democratic Party is “understood among African-Americans as a vital part of being committed to racial progress and in-group solidarity”.

In other words, Sanders’s positioning as an outsider may have been his undoing not only among more centrist Democrats, but also among black voters.

His failed campaign holds lessons for progressives of all stripes. Both Corbyn and Sanders have placed their hopes in a forlorn belief that disenfranchised non-voters would break the habit of a lifetime and turn out to vote when presented with a “genuine alternative” (as their supporters are fond of saying).

It is an assumption built on a hackneyed and romantic view of the working class: once a politician emerges who represents their real interests, they will invariably slough off apathy and dash to their nearest polling station. This theory has been found wanting in both the United Kingdom and the United States in recent times. Non-voters tend — as you’d expect — not to vote.

Nor are young ethnic minorities all wildly left-wing, which seems to be a prevailing assumption among the Left on social media platforms. Material interests matter to voters, but they are one factor among many. Group identity is important too.

The fondness among supporters of both Corbyn and Sanders for authoritarian “anti-imperialist” movements is also extremely off-putting for moderates. Corbyn was viewed as a terrorist sympathiser on the doorstep last December, while Bernie’s comments about Castro, albeit more forgivable than many of Corbyn’s dalliances, will have spooked many potential voters. And for what gain? If the Left is to move forward it needs to drop such illusions and rid itself of this Achilles’ heel.

Following the stalemate in Iowa, it was hoped that Sanders would reach out to the Democratic mainstream, to return to the fold, and adopt a more conciliatory tone. Instead he gave his usual stump speech, positioned himself as the consummate outsider who would take on the ‘Establishment’ (read: the Democratic establishment) and ‘the 1%’. But by this point that strategy had outlived its usefulness.

And like Corbyn here in Britain, Bernie Sanders discovered that there is only so much traction to be had in running against the mainstream — at some point you must join it.


James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.

J_Bloodworth

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

16 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

I have been following all of this very closely, and this account generally accords with a lot of the commentary emanating from the US. It is certainly true to say that banging on about Cuba it not a good idea, especially when you need to win Florida. Indeed, it suggests that Sanders is probably quite dim and not a good politician.

Not mentioned is the fact that one of the reasons Sanders lost support among the ‘working classes’ is that he embraced open borders to appease AOC and The Squad. In the past he had (correctly) stated that mass immigration damages the wages and conditions of working class Americans.

Also, a lot of left-wing US commentators such as the excellent Jimmy Dore think that Sanders should have run as an independent, and dissociated himself from the preternaturally corrupt Democratic establishment, which is really no different to the Republicans in that it is hand-in-glove with Wall St and the large corporate donors. As in the UK, the party that is supposed to represent the working classes has abandoned them.

perrywidhalm
perrywidhalm
4 years ago

This author does not understand American politics. It was always going to be crazy ole’ Joe Biden. Even with his clear case of dementia, it was always going to be Joe Biden. At his core, the ignorant, arrogant Joe Biden represents Democrat Corporate America just as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Biden was pre-selected. Although, when President Trump gets finished with Biden during the debates, Trump will get re-elected in an electoral landslide.

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
4 years ago

A lot of my Americans friends who would usually vote Democrat simply laughed at the idea of a Sanders candidacy and saw it as a straight win for Trump. They’re none too keen on Biden either.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Try to find Paul Joseph Watson’s Creepy Joe Biden video, if they allow you to find it. I literally had to cover my eyes as he more or less molests young girl after young girl. Creepy Sleepy Veepy Joe…

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
4 years ago

You know I think it is helpful to understand left-wing politics at two levels.

First, there is the simple appeal to tribal loyalty — “what about the workers!” — and the promise of loot and plunder.

Second is the moral, religious aspect: the promise of a perfect world of equality and safety and the stigmatization of skeptics as heretics.

The first level is where the old working class and current marginalized groups live. The second is where the “educated Gentry” lives.

David Parry
David Parry
4 years ago

Capitalism is predicated on loot and plunder.

Rafael Aguilo
Rafael Aguilo
4 years ago

Let’s talk about something that the writer doesn’t even address: The “progressive” Left has been selling one thing that has proven false, time and again: Government IS the answer to everything.

Sanders camp, and his followers, were selling the Utopian BS that there’s actually a “Free Lunch” for their followers. The rich would pay for it. The part they NEVER spoke about was that the wealth they wanted to give away would not last forever, and would have to be “replenished” somehow. Given that scenario, who in its right mind would want to keep producing a wealth that would be taken away to pay for this “free lunch”? Hell, I would want some of that “Free Lunch” too, since I don’t have to pay for it.

While he had celebrated in the past the leadership of the former USSR, Cuba, and Venezuela, Sanders was trying to convince the Democrat electorate, that the “Socialist” model he was pursuing was that of the Nordic countries. He kept doing this even after the Danish Prime Minister Lars LÞkke Rasmussen, completely debunked this “wool over your eyes” narrative by stating: “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy,”…

The biggest mystery is that while it has pushed the “America sucks”, and everyone except us are just a bunch of racist, xenophobic, (feel free to fill the blank) uneducated rednecks, NOT ONE of the non-white, or female candidates in the Democrat Presidential candidates field received voter support to remain in the race.
The Democrats decided to stay with the SAME type of candidate they, and ESPECIALLY the Squad, had taken care to fully demonize all along: An OLD, WHITE man, Washington Establishment lifetime politician. So much for inclusion and diversity. The Democrats proved that they don’t believe in what they were selling, not even the African-American, or Latino voters. This makes me wonder why the Democrats don’t call “racists” all of those voters that supported Biden. Yes. I know, the term is “pragmatic”.

David Parry
David Parry
4 years ago
Reply to  Rafael Aguilo

Labour produces wealth, not big capitalists or landlords.

Adrian
Adrian
4 years ago
Reply to  David Parry

Labour will dig a hole in the ground and fill it in, day after day, whether a socialist or a capitalist is telling them to do it.
Only a working market economy will refuse to pay for it.

David Parry
David Parry
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian

Affirming the consequent fallacy. Pointing out that not all labour creates wealth does not suffice to establish that it isn’t labour that creates wealth.

Also, there isn’t anyone directing anyone else’s labour in an actually socialist economy. People have sovereignty over their own labour. That’s the point.

David Parry
David Parry
4 years ago
Reply to  Rafael Aguilo

Also, it’s funny how there’s always a ‘free lunch’ for the rich under capitalism.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago

The last sentence is all very well, but some of the most effective politicians in both Britain and America have been those who successful changed what was “mainstream” in politics. Primary examples would be FDR and Attlee, who, at slightly different times, established a left-leaning consensus that lasted 35 years in each country; and Thatcher and Reagan, who shifted mainstream political discourse dramatically to the right.

It also seems clear that a number of right-wing figures have achieved dramatic success in recent years in many countries running from outside what is generally accepted to be the mainstream. Donald Trump is evidently not a mainstream politician. As far as today’s politics is concerned, is not the real question why right-wing populism presently has so much more extensive an appeal than left-wing populism?

David George
David George
4 years ago

“a lesson for the left”
Don’t need no stupid lesson when you know the answer to everything.
Just ask Owen Jones, he’s figured out that they were right all along; it was the idiot voters that were wrong.

Stewart Ware
Stewart Ware
4 years ago

Who is this person Albert Tempered?

Peter Ryan
Peter Ryan
4 years ago

I think it’s very easy to look back and say why exactly ‘I’ got something wrong with a great multitude of reasons. Say, in 2016 I predicted that the 2016 referendum would see a last minute few point switch to Remain on a heuristic of the perceived-to-be-safer getting a final surge – I think in retrospect I simply applied the rule of thumb from some situations too sweepingly. I was saying to my friends back in Iowa & NH days that Sanders couldn’t win, just by looking at the numbers of left-wing support compared to moderate. The case that moderate candidate supporters would suddenly switch to Sanders over another moderate seemed tenuous to me. The moderate support was split – and I think the bigger factor wasn’t what Sanders said in this interview or that, but that the moderates needed to trickle down into 1 candidate. (But it was only after South Carolina that I was confident in saying it would be Biden (obviously not that impressive, i.e. if one reckons it has to be a moderate and the other moderates have dropped out…).)
I appreciate the lessons for the left details though (as a soft-left man myself)

John Fulchester
John Fulchester
3 years ago

The lesson I learned from both Corbyn and Sanders is different: it doesn’t matter how popular they are the right wing establishment that dominates their respective parties will do anything and everything to make sure a left wing candidate fails. They would genuinely rather lose an election than allow for a left wing candidate to win. Everything else is immaterial.