This is the problem with Bernie's revolution: How one down-ticket election in Wisconsin shows the flaw in his political movement

A far-right judge was elected to Wisconsin's Supreme Court -- partly, it appears, with the help of Bernie voters

Published April 7, 2016 3:24PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Mike Blake)
Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Mike Blake)

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

Let’s take one last look at Wisconsin, where, I’m told, the Bernie Sanders Revolution scored a decisive electoral victory in this very important state.

"Justice Rebecca Bradley was elected Tuesday to a 10-year seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, defeating state Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg in a bitter, highly charged race."

In case you are unfamiliar with this judicial race, here is a quick primer: Rebecca Bradley is a conservative jurist and favorite of Gov. Scott Walker who once served as president of the Milwaukee chapter of the Federalist Society and belongs to the Catholic legal group St. Thomas More Society. (That would be the same group responsible for that spiffy hat deceased Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia wore to President Obama’s first inauguration, which is still probably the least offensive of its actions if you are the type of person who would prefer conservative Catholic theology not be applied to major legal decisions.) And that’s before we get into Bradley’s college writings that, among other things, referred to AIDS patients as “degenerates,” while opining that “homosexual sex kills.”

Kloppenburg was the more liberal candidate, an appeals-court judge who, in her last run for the state supreme court in 2011, refused to take special-interest money. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had encouraged their supporters to turn out to vote for her in Tuesday’s election. At stake was the size of the partisan split on the court, which has been one of the more divisive and bitter fights of the Walker era.

So while the revolution might have scored a large victory for Sanders on Tuesday, there are two important caveats: (1) It did very little in terms of cutting into Clinton’s overall delegate lead. The numbers are still against Sanders for the rest of the race, and “momentum” is an overrated concept in primaries. (2) Wisconsin Republicans might have scored the biggest win of the night by keeping the state Supreme Court ideologically divided in favor of conservatives. This is no small thing in a state that an ultra-conservative governor has spent the last few years turning into the Koch brothers’ wet dream. Bradley’s term is for 10 years, so assuming she serves all of it, she’ll outlast a Sanders or Clinton presidency.

Now, I’m bringing this up because of a small tumult that was circulating on the Internet yesterday. There was some grumbling, based on early exit poll numbers, that indicated a fair number of Sanders voters (and a smaller number of Clinton supporters) went for Bradley. Needless to say, leftists voting for a revanchist conservative is a huge surprise. So how accurate was this claim, and does it tell us anything about the state of the Sanders revolution?

Exit poll breakdowns from Tuesday show that just under 10 percent of Sanders voters cast a ballot for Bradley, while 11.5 percent did not vote in the judicial election at all. Among Clinton voters, just under 4 percent went for Bradley, while just over 4 percent did not vote for either judge at all. Some very rough back-of-the-envelope math based on vote totals says that yes, those votes would have swung the election to Kloppenburg, if about two-thirds of the Bradley- and non-voters had voted for her. (And again, this is very rough math sketched by a guy who had to repeat Algebra.)

So what explains the large numbers of Bradley votes from Sanders supporters? Here are a few possibilities:

  • The candidates’ names were listed without a letter indicating party affiliation next to them, since the election was officially nonpartisan. In that case, a lot of people might have just punched a name without knowing anything about the candidates.
  • Wisconsin was an open primary, so some conservatives could have voted for Sanders just to mess with Clinton, then further down marked their ballots for the conservative judge. Mischief-making by partisans is always a danger with open primaries.
  • This was a general election stuck on a day that was otherwise thought of as a primary, which likely depressed turnout.

With all of those caveats, I do think this is one more piece of evidence that Sanders’s theory of political revolution as a model for this election is falling short. The model rests on millions of disaffected and previously un-engaged voters being so energized that they will turn out to vote for change in the form of one Bernie Sanders. But as we have seen throughout the primary season, if raw vote totals are an indicator, this is simply not happening. In Wisconsin, the Republican primary saw about 100,000 more voters than the Democrats. And this is in a state that, while it has taken a hard conservative turn in recent decades, has still voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in every general election since 1988.

But even beyond that, there is another point that has always been the flaw in the Sanders model: It does liberals no good to turn out all these voters for a presidential election if they are not going to educate themselves about who else on the ballot they need to vote for.

Let’s say this judicial election had been held in November, with a Sanders ticket inspiring even more voters to come to the polls. The judicial candidates still would not have had party affiliations next to their names due to the allegedly nonpartisan nature of the election. So there is a good chance Rebecca Bradley would still have been elected even if Bernie Sanders won the presidency on the same ballot.

We constantly hear that Democrats have a problem getting voters to come out for midterms, and that this failing has helped lead to the most conservative, wingnuttiest House of Representatives in history, to say nothing of the Senate. So the question of increasing off-year election turnout is an important one. But just showing up every other November won’t be enough if the goal is to increase progressive governance across the board.

In other words, if you’re not paying attention to anything beyond the top of the ticket, you’re doing revolution wrong. Change in our political system takes place only with sustained civic engagement. Such engagement would indeed be revolutionary, but I see no evidence as yet that Sanders’s rhetoric will achieve it.

By Gary Legum

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Bernie Sanders Dem Primary Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Scott Walker Wisconsin Wisconsin Primary