The story arc of the whole Bernie phenomenon rests on what seems like a major contradiction. Sanders defied expectations with his success when he ran against a highly competent establishment candidate in 2016, Hillary Clinton, who had enormous support in the media and within the party. But he performed much worse in 2020 against a significantly less daunting rival, Joe Biden, despite having the force of an entire national movement behind him. In other words, the growth of Bernie’s “movement,” far from benefiting his candidacy in 2020, may have instead been his greatest disadvantage. While a vote for Bernie in 2016 was a vote for Bernie, in 2020 it was hard to divorce the candidate from “the Left” that had ballooned in the intervening years—loudly citing him as their inspiration, making up much of his activist base, and influencing his messaging and policies.
At issue here is not simply another chapter in the interminable debate between warring progressive factions about the importance of identity versus class, though this conflict has continued after Bernie dropped out. The liberal faction claims Bernie’s defeat as evidence of the failure of Marxist class politics, while writers at “movement” organs like Jacobin magazine retort that the Left’s visions of class war were such a threat that its triumph was inevitably thwarted by the elite corporate Democratic establishment. Both of these are based on the delusional premise that the Left in 2020 was a tribune of the material interests of the American working class.
For years, polling data has been telling us very clearly that the vast majority of the public is to the left of the status quo on matters of economics and to its right on matters of culture. The Left is incapable of absorbing this truth, because to do so would mean genuinely putting the will of the actually existing American working class first—instead of trying to ride them to power in the interest of waging a vindictive culture war. As an old-fashioned social democrat who relentlessly hammered the importance of taking on Wall Street, promised greater infrastructure spending, opposed wasteful military interventions, and offered refreshing skepticism of both identity politics and free trade agreements, the Bernie of 2016 still had the qualities that enabled him to appeal to constituencies beyond the activist Left. Bernie 2020, inextricably linked to this increasingly domineering activist Left, atrophied votes because of it.
The primary cycle was, above all, a resounding defeat for left-wing factions animated principally by parochial culture war obsessions. While Joe Biden won in states he didn’t even campaign in—and where he had zero paid advertisements or staff—Elizabeth Warren suffered crushing losses most at odds with expectations, including in her own state. Amazingly, exit polls show that she lost to Biden even among voters with an advanced degree—in Massachusetts! Sanders campaigned with an entire movement behind him, the biggest activist and volunteer network on the ground in American electoral history, and raised more money in just the month of February ($47.6 million) than Biden spent in five months combined. In South Carolina, the site of his most fateful loss, Sanders actually spent more than twice as much as his next-closest rivals—Biden and billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.
From Beto O’Rourke’s headline-making “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15” proclamation, to Cory Booker speaking in badly accented Spanish, to Julián Castro promising free abortions for transgender women, to Elizabeth Warren claiming she was victimized by Bernie’s sexism, the candidates that played most to identity suffered the biggest losses—even with everything else in their favor, from corporate donors to flattering media coverage. The hotly anticipated TV debates were a boon to younger, more telegenic candidates like Kamala Harris, who ambushed Biden in an attempt to depict him as an old man clueless on race and gender. This sneak attack was the high point for Harris—at least according to adulating media observers who favored her for the nomination, on the ground that she embodied what the standard-bearer for the modern Democratic Party should putatively “look like.” The broadside she unleashed on hapless Joe effectively amounted to an admonition that “I’m not saying you’re a racist, but. . . .” This caused the left-liberal punditocracy to swell with glee, and Harris rose briefly in the polls. Her gains, however, were concentrated among white liberals, and southern black voters later told focus groups that they found Harris to be cynical and distasteful. Not long after, she too collapsed. In the end, the most popular candidates by far were two “old white guys”— Bernie and Biden. While those who fully embraced the new politics of identity-scolding were flatly rejected, Bernie sat uncomfortably between these two worlds—never quite woke enough to satisfy the outermost circles of the activist Left, but different enough from his 2016 self to turn off many erstwhile supporters.
The cultural pathologies endemic to the present-day American Left created a set of conditions whereby Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the lighting-rod freshman congresswoman from New York City, could somehow become the most sought-after “progressive” endorsement in the entire country—presumably on the blinkered assumption that she could use her fearsome social media clout to tip electoral outcomes. In reality, “AOC” is only a nationally known political figure because she won a single low-turnout primary race in Queens and the Bronx over a sclerotic incumbent, thanks to a few thousand Twitter-conscious gentrifiers who populate Astoria. From this, many in the media drew the fallacious conclusion that the AOC style of politics is both culturally ascendant and electorally popular. That it was she who the Sanders brain trust chose to dispatch to Michigan ahead of that make-or-break primary shows how painfully aloof the campaign ultimately was.
While Sanders and many of the liberal candidates were ceaseless in courting the activist Left, Biden’s approach to such people was described by the Washington Post as “the most standoffish of any Democrat with a shot at victory.” He simply skipped events with professional progressive networks like Indivisible and the Center for Popular Democracy, ignored interview requests from Medicare for All activists, and pretended like he never received questionnaires from the ACLU—all while being denounced by the Green New Deal pressure group Sunrise Movement and dismissing immigrant rights activists like Movimiento Cosecha. As it turns out, this was a sound strategy: it was better politically for Joe to stay snugly in bed than interact with these organizations.
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