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Bernie Sanders’s Five-Year War

How he lost and where we go from here.

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Bernie Sanders speaks at the Our Revolution Massachusetts Rally at the Orpheum Theatre on March 31, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts., Scott Eisen / Getty Images

One mild April afternoon in 2015, deep within the ideological dead zone of the second Obama administration, Bernie Sanders took a break from his Senate workday and stalked out to the lawn in front of the Capitol building. Unfolding a crinkled sheet of notes, the Vermont senator took less than ten minutes to tell reporters why he was running for president: Americans were working longer hours for lower wages, while the rich feasted on profits and billionaires ruled the political system. The country faced its greatest crisis since the Great Depression, he said.

Five years later, on an April morning in 2020, Sanders stood inside his home in Burlington, Vermont, and announced that he was suspending his second campaign for president. This race, like the contest four years earlier, had ended in defeat, and though Bernie gave an inspirational fifteen-minute speech — quoting Nelson Mandela and thanking supporters for their blood, sweat, tears, and social media posts — even a sympathetic viewer might wonder what, exactly, all this passionate effort had yielded.

Income and wealth inequality have soared to new heights; a billionaire sits in the White House, while the opposition party turns to its own billionaires for leadership; and the COVID-19 pandemic has left the United States not merely approaching its greatest crisis since the Great Depression but thoroughly immersed in it.

Sanders lost. He waged a five-year war against the billionaire class and the Democratic Party’s leadership — a war across six Aprils — and in the end, he was beaten on both fronts. Those of us who soldiered in Bernie’s beaten army must reckon hard with the nature and significance of this defeat.

The Sanders project was among the most significant left political events of the twenty-first century, linking for the first time minimal but foundational socialist demands to a base of millions in the nerve center of global capitalism. Its conclusive defeat this spring, amid an apocalyptic atmosphere of disease, depression, and unrest, offers enormous temptation for the Left to fall into despair.

Already, we have seen a range of broadsides against Sanders and the legacy of his campaigns, whether inflected by the far left, pleased to move on from a long detour into electoral politics; the liberal center, eager to submerge all possibility outside the present field of vision; or the traditionalist right, only too happy to proclaim a left-wing retreat from class to culture war.

The corporate press, meanwhile, has jumped at the chance to throw Bernie — and his insistent call for massive material redistribution, funded by corporate profits — straight into the dustbin of history. Even the mass protests over the police murder of George Floyd somehow became an occasion for the New York Times to announce the end of the Sanders era. “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One,” blared the headline, building off intersectionality theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s analysis that “every corporation worth its salt” has now surpassed Sanders in the battle against “structural racism and anti-blackness.” Goodbye Medicare for All, hello Jeff Bezos clapping back against “All Lives Matter.”

These are all artifacts of defeat. Sanders lost, and both his fair-weather friends and his permanent enemies are now eager to consign him to the grave. But neither a defeat at the polls nor a shift in the discourse is reason to abandon the essence of Bernie’s struggle. Mass protests against police violence and racism can only begin to realize their aims if joined to a broader, Sanders-style democratic movement — large enough to shape national politics and determined enough to challenge capital — capable of winning the material concessions necessary for a truly free and equal society.

An accurate balance sheet for the Sanders campaigns must have at least two columns: first, an accounting of achievement, substantial on its own terms and unprecedented in more than fifty years of US political history; and second, a reckoning with limits, which now, in the aftermath of 2020, appear both larger and more intractable than at almost any point since 2016.

To this accounting we can add a third column, on the prospects for future struggle — foreshortened in the present, blurry in the near future, but possibly brighter in the decades ahead.

I. Bernie’s Achievement: Two Lessons

When Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy in 2015, his press conference appeared on page A21 of the New York Times, far behind articles about the Obama presidential library, a testing scandal in Atlanta schools, and Martin O’Malley’s record as Baltimore mayor. This was no more than what was due for a candidate polling at 3 percent, in a newspaper that had not actually printed the words “Medicare for All” in the calendar year before Sanders entered the race.

From the perspective of 2020, it is difficult to remember the narrowness of the policy girdle that fitted American left liberalism in the years just before Bernie’s first campaign. As progressives like Keith Ellison, Michael Moore, and Susan Sarandon urged Elizabeth Warren to run for president, the Massachusetts senator appeared alongside Tom Perez at an AFL-CIO summit in January 2015. There, Warren won headlines for a “fiery” speech in which she denounced “trickle-down economics” and called for new financial regulations, the enforcement of existing labor laws, protections for Medicare and Social Security, and an unspecified increase in the minimum wage.

“The striking thing about this progressive factional agenda,” noted Vox’s Matthew Yglesias at the time, “is there’s really nothing on it that Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would disagree with.”

Today, that 2015 reform package sounds a lot like the Joe Biden 2020 platform, and no one, outside of a tiny caste of professional propagandists, affects to call it “left-wing.” Bernie’s five-year war, even in defeat, taught the American left two fundamental lessons.

First, it demonstrated that bold social-democratic ideas, well beyond the regulatory ambitions of Obama-era progressives, can win a mass base in today’s United States. An uncompromising demand for the federal government to provide essential social goods for all Americans — from health care and college tuition to childcare and family leave — stood at the heart of the Sanders project from beginning to end. Starting at 3 percent in the polls and conducting two presidential campaigns almost entirely on the strength of this platform, Sanders built the most influential left-wing challenge in modern history.

Yes, candidates from Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kucinich also supported single-payer health insurance, but their campaigns did not end with polls showing a newfound majority of Americans backing Medicare for All, let alone massive supermajorities among Democrats and voters under sixty-five. Yes, leftists from Michael Harrington to Ralph Nader had long declared that a bipartisan corporate class rules America, but they did not turn that insight into a political movement capable of winning primaries in New Hampshire, Michigan, or California.

Nor is the partial success of the Sanders campaigns merely a hollow “discourse victory.” It has presented concrete evidence for a proposition that mainstream political observers scoffed at five years ago, and that the American left itself had grandly announced rather than demonstrated: that “democratic socialism,” driven by opposition to billionaire-class rule and dedicated to universal public goods, can win the support of millions, not just thousands. Across the last half century, any activist with a bullhorn could proclaim this to be true, but Bernie Sanders actually fucking proved it.

Of course, as Bernie’s defeat makes clear, there is a vast gulf between winning exit polls and winning power. If the Sanders campaigns illuminated American social democracy’s unknown political resources, they also revealed, in a dramatic fashion, the determination of their opponents. This is the second practical lesson of Bernie’s five-year war: the unanimity and ferocity of elite Democratic resistance, not only to Sanders himself, but to the essence of his platform.

In its general outlines, this has been visible since early in the 2016 campaign, when Democratic Party officials, TV pundits, and prestige print writers — across an ideological spectrum, from centrists like Claire McCaskill and Chris Matthews to liberals like Barney Frank and Paul Krugman — universally scorned the Sanders campaign and its agenda.

Yet in other ways, the depth of Democratic opposition to Sanders was not obvious until this year, either to Bernie’s friends or to his enemies. Throughout February, as Sanders won New Hampshire and lapped the field in Nevada, panicked centrist commentators called on the remaining Democrats in the race to unite behind a single anti-Bernie candidate. But their palpable angst betrayed a near-universal belief that this would not actually happen. For “a critical mass” of Bernie’s rivals to withdraw at the last minute, reported the New York Times on February 27, “seems like the least likely outcome.”

We all know what happened next. Just three days later, on the evening before Super Tuesday, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar suddenly withdrew from the race and endorsed Joe Biden, joined by Beto O’Rourke, Harry Reid, and dozens more prominent Democrats and former Obama officials.

This great consolidation around Biden, following his victory in South Carolina, produced perhaps $100 million in “free” laudatory media coverage — more than Sanders spent on advertising all campaign long — compressed into a single weekend before the most critical election of the primary. The result was a Super Tuesday stampede for Biden, even in states where Sanders had led the pack only a week before, from Maine to Texas. It gave Biden a commanding lead that he never relinquished.

In retrospect, it may seem hopelessly naive for Sanders and his allies to have counted on an indefinite division of the Democratic field. Yet there is a reason that even Bernie’s most bitter enemies shared the same calculus, with dozens of party operatives telling the Times in late February that it might take a brokered convention to stop him.

After all, Buttigieg was proclaimed the winner in Iowa and finished a close second in New Hampshire; never since the birth of the modern primary system has a candidate with that profile quit the race nearly so early. Even as an ideological move to throttle the Left, the Biden coalescence had no precedent in its swiftness and near-perfect coordination. When Jesse Jackson briefly threatened to take the Democratic Party by storm in 1988, establishment rivals Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and Paul Simon all remained in the running until the end of March, when more than thirty-five primary contests were complete.

This time, the core establishment forces managed to clear the field after just four primaries, leaving just a single centrist alternative to Biden, the vain billionaire Michael Bloomberg. (Elizabeth Warren’s persistence in the race only helped the anti-Sanders effort, since she was somewhat more likely to siphon votes from the left than the center.) And after Super Tuesday, of course, Bloomberg promptly quit and endorsed Biden. Warren, when she left the race, would do Sanders no such favor.

Though, in many ways, the Democratic Party of 2020 is much weaker than it was thirty years ago — it controls eleven fewer state legislatures, for instance — the current Democratic leadership, in its influence over party politicians, is stronger than ever. Buttigieg, who had campaigned hard in Super Tuesday states — on February 29, he held the primary’s single largest rally in Tennessee — did not drop out because of a predictably poor showing in South Carolina. (Even there, he still finished ahead of Warren for the fourth consecutive race.)

Buttigieg abruptly abandoned millions of dollars of advertising and perhaps thirty thousand Super Tuesday volunteers because Barack Obama told him to — and because he knew that his own career prospects, in today’s Democratic Party, depend less on winning popular support in his own name than on gamely joining the team effort to halt Sanders and “save the party.”

The speed and thoroughness of this elite consolidation — which also made Biden an instant donor-class favorite — makes a mockery of the implausible idea, floated by some reporters and pundits, that Sanders blew a golden opportunity to win over the Democratic establishment through better manners.

Obama, Hillary Clinton, and their corporate allies — never mind the consultants, hedge fund managers, and tech CEOs who built “Mayor Pete” — did not capriciously decide to close ranks against Bernie because he did not make enough polite, endorsement-seeking phone calls after Nevada. Their profound ideological opposition to the Sanders project has been plain for a long time; what we didn’t know is just how rapidly and effectively that private opposition could be translated into public fact.

This hard lesson is not only enough to prevent anyone in the Sanders camp from looking for meaningful concessions from the Biden campaign; it underlines the sharp limits of any institutional politics within the existing Democratic Party. Whatever Democratic voters think — and most of them like Bernie Sanders and his platform — the dominant bulk of Democratic officials oppose them both with an organized vigor they seldom bring to combat with Republicans.

In 2016, Sanders won more than 40 percent of the primary popular vote but earned endorsements from just 3.7 percent of congressional Democrats (seven of 187 representatives). Against a far more crowded field in 2020, Sanders won the first three contests and around 35 percent of the vote, but got the support of just 3.8 percent of congressional Democrats (nine of 232). That is not a marker of institutional progress.

Even the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), whose cochairs gave Sanders a splashy endorsement, furnished more support for Biden (twelve members) than for Sanders (eight) before Super Tuesday. In the brief two-way contest between March 3 and March 17, Biden racked up twenty further CPC endorsements, compared to just one for Sanders.

In this critical respect, the institutional Democratic Party did not really “move left” at all between 2015 and 2020. Yes, various elements of the Sanders agenda have migrated onto party platforms and campaign websites, and some left-leaning policies, like the $15 minimum wage, have even been introduced at the state level. But in national politics, the line guarding the party’s left flank — a steel barricade that separates Obama-style kludge politics from Sanders-style demands for universal public health care, education, and family support — is now more heavily policed than ever.

This hard-won knowledge itself is a weapon against liberal elites who usually prefer to obfuscate differences rather than fight over them. “Bernie Sanders’s ideas are so popular that Hillary Clinton is running on them,” gushed Vox in April 2015. Of course, Democrats will peddle this message again in 2020, but for the millions of Sanders voters who have just watched the party establishment spend five years suffocating a platform of Medicare for All and free public college, it’s a much tougher sell.

The major achievement of Bernie’s five-year war, then, is an invigorated and a clarified movement for American democratic socialism — newly optimistic about the appeal of its platform, yet intimately aware of the power of its enemies. Sanders has left the Left in a stronger position than he found it, both larger and more self-aware, and far less tempted by either the sour futility of third-party campaigns or the saccharine cheerleading of party-approved “progressives.”

Yet this is where the real trouble begins. The Left, after Bernie, has finally grown just strong enough to know how weak it really is.

The essential problem, after all, is not that the corporate establishment commands Democratic politicians — it’s that it still commands most Democratic primary voters. Given a clear choice between Bernie’s demand for another New Deal and Biden’s call for a “return to normalcy,” about 60 percent of the Democrats who went to the polls apparently picked Warren G. Harding over Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The harsh truth, proved harshly across these six Aprils, is that a social-democratic majority does not yet exist within the Democratic electorate, never mind the United States as a whole. Sanders has given the Left new relevance in national politics, but to make the leap from relevance to power, we need to build that majority — and this is not the work of one or two election cycles, but at least another decade, and maybe more.

II. A Closer Look at Defeat

In 2016, Bernie Sanders led the largest left-wing primary campaign in Democratic Party history, winning far more votes and delegates than Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, or even the victorious George McGovern. He entered the 2020 race as a serious contender, not a long-shot underdog. In the end, however, Joe Biden beat Sanders with a voting coalition that both resembled and subtly differed from the coalition that propelled Hillary Clinton to the nomination in 2016.

A look at local results from the two elections suggests that Sanders was defeated by three key factors in 2020: First, despite a substantial effort, the Bernie campaign struggled to make inroads with black voters, which turned out to be a far more intractable problem than it seemed four years ago. Second, and relatedly, despite considerable success in winning working-class support compared to 2016 — mostly with Latino voters — the campaign failed to generate higher participation among working-class voters of all races. Finally, above all, Bernie was swamped by a massive turnout surge from the Democratic Party’s fastest-growing demographic: former Republican voters in overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and well-educated suburban neighborhoods.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

Struggling to Win Black Voters

After the 2016 campaign, in which Sanders’s struggles with black voters cost him dearly, the 2020 campaign made a range of well-documented efforts to court African Americans, in both substance and style. The goal, as Adolph Reed Jr and Willie Legette have argued, was never to win a singular, homogenous, and mythical “black vote” — but in order to compete in a Democratic primary, Sanders did need to convince a lot more black voters.

In 2019, the campaign released an ambitious plan to fund historically black colleges and universities; supported by scholars like Darrick Hamilton and leaders like Jackson, Mississippi, mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Sanders railed against the racial wealth gap and delivered substantive plans to close it. His campaign poured resources into South Carolina, which Sanders visited more times than Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren; Bernie himself went on The Breakfast Club and said his 2016 campaign had been “too white.”

None of it seemed to make an appreciable difference. In South Carolina, where Sanders won 14 percent of black voters in 2016, exit polls showed him winning 17 percent in 2020. In the state’s five counties with a black population over 60 percent, Sanders increased his vote share from 11 percent to 12 percent.

It was no better for him on Super Tuesday and beyond. In the rural South, from eastern North Carolina to western Mississippi, Sanders struggled to break the 15 percent threshold in majority-black counties. In some black urban neighborhoods, like Northside Richmond and Houston’s Third Ward, he made small gains on his 2016 baseline, occasionally winning as much as a third of the vote; but in others, like Southeast Durham and North St. Louis, Sanders fared even worse. On the whole, Biden clobbered him just as comprehensively as Clinton had four years earlier.

After 2016, it was still possible to argue, optimistically, that black voter preferences reflected Clinton’s advantage in name recognition and resources, along with Sanders’s need to focus on the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. All the best survey data showed reliable and enthusiastic black support for the core items on Bernie’s social-democratic agenda. With improved messaging and a more serious investment in voter outreach, surely an insurgent left-wing candidate could breach the Democratic establishment’s “firewall” and win a large chunk of black voters.

Bernie Sanders was not that candidate, either in 2016 or in 2020. But after years of struggle, it is time to revisit the assumption that superior policy, messaging, and tactics are enough for any insurgent to overcome black voter support for establishment Democrats. After all, Sanders is far from the only left-wing candidate who has struggled on this front.

In the 2015 Chicago mayoral election, Rahm Emanuel beat Chuy García with huge margins among black voters; the same pattern was visible in gubernatorial races in Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan, and New York, where black voters overwhelmingly backed Ralph Northam, Phil Murphy, Gretchen Whitmer, and Andrew Cuomo against progressive outsiders. In last year’s race for Queens district attorney, Melinda Katz barely edged past Tiffany Cabán with the strong support of black voters in Southeast Queens.

Nor have anti-establishment black candidates necessarily fared much better with black primary voters. Jamaal Bowman’s recent victory over Eliot Engel is a meaningful and inspiring win for the Left, but not many left-wing candidates have had the advantage of facing a severely out-of-touch white opponent in a plurality-black district. Far more often, under different circumstances, the result has gone the other way. In the 2017 Atlanta mayoral race, the business-friendly party favorite Keisha Lance Bottoms creamed Vincent Fort, who had been endorsed by both Bernie Sanders and Killer Mike. And in congressional contests from St. Louis and Chicago to Columbus, Ohio and Prince George’s County, Maryland, black progressive insurgent campaigns have failed to catch fire, with black voters ultimately helping establishment-backed incumbents coast to victory at the polls.

Black voter support for mainline Democrats is a broader trend in American politics — a trend approaching the status of a fundamental fact — and it cannot be explained with reference to Bernie Sanders alone.

After 2016, some argued that a clearer focus on racial justice and a concerted effort to woo activists might boost a left-wing campaign with black voters. But the 2020 race offered slim evidence for that proposition, either in Sanders’s performance or in the frustrations of the Elizabeth Warren campaign, whose platform included a prominent focus on black maternal mortality, grants for black-owned businesses, and targeted reforms to help “farmers of color.”

This rhetoric won black organizers in droves but hardly any black votes: among African Americans, exit polls showed Warren trailing not only Biden and Sanders but Bloomberg, too, in every single state, including her own. In North Carolina’s rural black-majority counties, farmers of color did not turn out for Warren, who actually received fewer votes than “no preference.”

Another popular view is that black voters have the most to fear from Donald Trump and the Republicans, and thus tend to favor moderate, conventionally “electable” candidates. But while concerns about electability surely played a key part in Bernie’s 2020 defeat, there is little evidence to suggest that it mattered more to black Democrats than white Democrats (if anything, polling suggests the opposite). Fear of general election defeat also cannot explain why black voters favored Joe Crowley over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Andrew Cuomo over Cynthia Nixon, or establishment leaders in other deep-blue areas where Republicans are banished from politics altogether.

Nor can the phenomenon be explained by actual ideological conservatism, or any real hesitance to get behind a politics of material redistribution. In fact, black voters support Medicare for All at higher rates than almost any other demographic in the country.

The institutional conservatism of most black elected leaders, on the other hand, continues to stack the deck against left-wing politics. Powerful black politicians like Jim Clyburn and Hakeem Jeffries, as Perry Bacon Jr has argued, support the establishment because “they are part of the establishment.” The Congressional Black Caucus has not tried to disguise its fierce hostility to left-wing primary challenges, even when the progressive challengers are black, like Bowman and Mckayla Wilkes, and the centrist incumbents are white, like Engel and Steny Hoyer.

Overcoming the near-unanimous opposition of black elected leaders is difficult enough, but the problem for left-wing insurgents is even greater: it’s hard to win black voters by running against a party establishment whose preeminent figure is still, after all, America’s first black president. In the age of Obama, as Joe Biden’s primary campaign showed, black primary voters may well be moved more by appeals to institutional continuity than either personal identity (as Kamala Harris learned) or political ideology.

After fifty years of living in a system where profound material change seems almost impossible — and black politics, like many other zones of politics, has become largely affective and transactional as a result — that feeling is understandable. Black voters, of course, must be a critical part of any working-class majority. But as long as every black political figure with significant institutional standing remains tied to Obama’s party leadership, and remains invested in using that tie to beat back left-wing challenges, anti-establishment candidates will face tough odds.

If there is hope for the Left here, it is that black support for establishment Democrats remains tenacious rather than enthusiastic — strong support from a relatively small group of primary voters. Campaign boasts and press puffery aside, there was no black turnout surge for Joe Biden. Across the March primaries, even as overall Democratic turnout soared in comparison to 2016, it dropped absolutely in black neighborhoods across the country.

In Michigan, Democratic participation bloomed by more than 350,000 votes but wilted in Flint’s first and second wards, where turnout declined from over 25 percent of registered voters to under 21 percent. Similar declines from 2016 were recorded in Ferguson, Missouri, in North St. Louis, in Houston’s Kashmere Gardens, Sunnyside, and Crestmont Park, and in Southeast Durham — even as statewide Democratic turnout soared in Missouri, Texas, and North Carolina.

This follows a pattern already evident in the 2016 general election, in which poor and working-class black voters — like working-class voters generally — appear to comprise a smaller and smaller share of the active Democratic voting coalition.

That is no consolation for Bernie Sanders, whose campaign was premised on its ability to help generate working-class participation in politics. But it does suggest that in some ways, the Left’s struggles with black voters are a specific symptom of a more general disease. The Sanders campaign, in both its remarkable strengths and its ultimately fatal weaknesses, illuminated the larger problem that has plagued left politics across much of the developed world: a failure to mobilize, much less organize, the majority of workers.

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