Why Bernie Lost
By Phillip | 4/10/20
Bernie Sanders ran twice for president and lost both times. He is 78 years old and his future in politics is uncertain. Now more than ever, Democratic Socialism is being considered a way to make society more equal, and yet now more than ever, voters sought an alternative to Bernie.
My image of Bernie will always be of him at a podium on stage in front of thousands of people screaming and holding signs. Or maybe him at a debate, wagging his finger, huffing, shaking his head, or throwing his hands up. Bernie Sanders is a radical who inspires and fights.
Bernie Sanders is purposefully inflammatory. He insisted on calling himself a socialist, running as an independent, and tearing down the establishment. Long before radical progressive issues were acceptable, Bernie based his political identity around them.
When I think about why I (and many liberal media members and academics) chose Elizabeth Warren over Bernie Sanders, I think that one of the reasons was that he subconsciously scared me. Bernie spoke in violent terms of revolution and class warfare. He was obviously angry and attacked institutions that have benefitted me. This fear caused massive negative press against Bernie: one anchor compared his win in Nevada to the Nazi’s invading France.
Now I realize that Bernie, himself, wasn’t angry, he was angry on behalf of millions of Americans. He was angry on behalf of the 45% of Americans who don’t own stock and were more concerned about stagnant wages than the S&P 500. When politicians touted rising stock markets and GDP over the past 10 years, these men and women shook their heads. Bernie was angry on behalf of young people, who had worked for years to recover from the 2008 financial crisis only to be hit with another recession. In reward for being financially screwed by boomers, millennials have been given the monumental task of saving humankind from burning through global warming, being taken over by AI, or self destruction with biological or nuclear weapons.
Bernie counted on a young, working-class coalition of 30% of Democratic primary voters carrying him through a divided field, with the rest of the electorate eventually consolidating behind him. The first part of the plan worked for a while until the second part of the plan happened for another candidate. In Michigan, which Bernie won in 2016 and lost by 16% in 2020, he won voters with incomes under $50,000 by 9%, however these voters only made up 31% of the electorate.
Why did Bernie lose? One explanation is that ties of class are not as powerful as other ties. The class revolution that Marx believed was inevitable has not yet materialized. Poor voters in the south who benefit the most from Democratic policies overwhelmingly back Republican candidates. Enticements of material gains have not been as alluring as the feeling of belonging through Nationalism or the resentment felt when making society more equal makes you less privileged.
Bernie was reliant on these working-class voters who would directly benefit from his Democratic-Socialist policies. When these voters turned to Joe Biden instead (perhaps because of the emotional bond of suffering that Joe has forged or the extreme focus on electability), Bernie faltered. When young voters did not vote in the huge numbers that Bernie predicted, his campaign was doomed. Bernie’s anger and determination on behalf of young people was uniquely inspiring to many of my peers, but most young people did not get to the polls. Many of my non-political friends forgot to vote, didn’t know how to, or didn’t care. Although these problems were masked before South Carolina and Super Tuesday, Bernie failed to convert his early victories into broader support because of his radical message and combative messaging.
Some people argue that Bernie won the “idea” primary by dragging the Democratic platform far to the left from where it was during Obama’s presidency. The problem is that Bernie lost the “real life” primary. Without a worker and youth coalition (the two groups that benefit the most from his agenda) around progressive issues a broad Democratic-Socialist agenda is impossible. And if Bernie Sanders’ couldn’t create a new New Deal coalition, then the question remains: who can?
“Slowly at first, then all at once.” Few people openly disagree with the scientific fact of global warming, yet startlingly little has been done about it. Coronavirus exposes vast inequality, yet congress passes only temporary quick fixes. The reality is that the progressive coalition that Bernie envisioned didn’t emerge, and his anger, although justified, prevented him from branching out.