Elegy for Bernie? Not quite yet: Sanders 2020 poses a conundrum Democrats must solve

Can Bernie still win in 2020? Maybe not — but without his issues, his voters and his movement, Democrats are doomed

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published August 25, 2019 1:30PM (EDT)
 (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

Bernie Sanders’ 2020 trajectory doesn’t make much sense. That is, it doesn’t make sense to those people who still believe they know “how things work” in American politics — the people who haven’t absorbed the central lesson of the last three or four years, which is that nobody knows how anything works.

According to the “I’ve got this figured out” crowd, Sanders was a semi-irrelevant figure in the 2020 race. He was too old and too weird. He had bitterly divided the Democratic Party in 2016 and had — in some obscure way — helped elect Donald Trump. His supporters were entirely bearded young white men in Brooklyn, Portland and Ann Arbor, not-so-subtly contaminated by racism, misogyny and various kinds of unexamined privilege. Both his personality and his policies were well outside the acceptable range, and would send “suburban moderates” and “Obama-Trump voters” — those objects of bottomless Democratic lust — screaming back into the toxic cult of You Know Who.

Bits of that may be true. Some of the rest of it is understandable. I won’t dispute that the obnoxious online behavior of a fair number of Sanders supporters has alienated many mainstream Democrats, especially older feminist women who were all-in for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In fact, in historical terms that feels like a fatal flaw running through the entire Bernie enterprise: No Democrat can possibly be elected president without the enthusiastic support of middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated white women, a group that would probably agree with Sanders on policy about 90 percent. (Yes, Bernie-stanners, there has been plenty of bile and vitriol coming back in the other direction. But I see no point in airing that out, do you?)

But a lot of that analysis is also flat-out false, including the overarching conclusion that Bernie Sanders is not an important factor in the 2020 race. He is older than either Joe Biden or Trump, but appears far more vigorous and alert than either of them. He remains second to Biden in most Democratic primary polls, neither surging nor declining much while other candidates go through their exceedingly minor boom-and-bust cycles. Remember when your friends were confidently aboard the Pete Buttigieg juggernaut, for five minutes? Remember when Kamala Harris set Biden on fire that one time, and looked like the tough-as-nails leader who would prosecute Donald Trump for everything? Those were good times. Well, neither of those people has cracked double figures in any major poll this month.

No, polls should never be treated as gospel — although after Labor Day, we can put aside the argument that it’s too early for polling to mean anything and that at this point in whatever-year Samwise Gamgee or Toad the Wet Sprocket was leading and you don’t see them on the dollar bill, do you? Anyway, the fact that Sanders appears to have around one-fifth of the Democratic vote locked down is not the important part. The important part is how he has done that and who those people are, and the fact that Democrats probably can’t win without Sanders’ issues and Sanders’ voters — and that if they try to ignore those issues and snow those voters, they will definitely pay the price sooner or later.

The important part is, honestly, really obvious part and we don’t say it enough: Bernie Sanders and his supporters have driven the Democratic Party to confront issues and policies and internal conflicts it had deliberately avoided for an entire generation. He may never become the Democratic nominee or the president — indeed, both of those outcomes remain unlikely. But his legacy will go beyond the inevitable renaming of the Burlington airport and whatever federal building exists in Vermont. He has dragged universal health insurance and a living wage and the crushing unfairness of student debt and the Green New Deal and the general rapaciousness of late-stage vulture capitalism into mainstream political discourse, against the vigorous pushback of nearly the entire elite class — and has made clear that most Americans agree with him, and not with them.

Furthermore, the always-dubious premise that Sanders’ supporters are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male has been exposed as a blatant falsehood. A recent Pew Research survey suggests, in fact, that Sanders has the most diverse supporter mix of any 2020 candidate: Slightly more than half are people of color and slightly more than half are women, which is a combination no other candidate can claim. 

His supporters are not just disproportionately young (which we all understood) but disproportionately working-class and disproportionately non-college-educated. According to the Sanders campaign, the No. 1 occupation among his 750,000 or so individual donors is teacher. The No. 1 employer among his donors is Walmart, with Amazon, Target and UPS not far behind. (No other candidate comes within 300,000 of that donor number.) The early-campaign assumption that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were competing for the same left-progressive voters also appears untrue: In general terms, Warren dominates among affluent, educated, middle-aged white people who identify as “very liberal,” while Sanders dominates among left-leaning people of color, lower-income white folks and younger voters.

To say this again even more clearly, I’m not arguing that Sanders is likely to win the Democratic nomination. Whether his negatives are “perceived” or not, they exist. Despite his shambling campaign and erratic public statements, Joe Biden retains a significant lead in most primary polls, as well as in head-to-head, swing-state polls against Donald Trump. Which should definitely not be viewed as significant 14 months ahead of the general election — but the entire Democratic electorate is driven by Trump-centric fear and PTSD, and there’s not much you or I can do about that. 

In terms of primary-season arithmetic, Biden’s advantage among African-American voters — a core Democratic constituency whose support is essential to victory, and who dominate the Democratic electorate in several crucial Southern states — is even more important. Bernie Sanders is in fact well-liked and well-respected in the black community, according to favorability surveys, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to win their votes in large numbers. (Salon’s Chauncey DeVega wrote an excellent primer on this question earlier this year.)

For either Sanders or Warren — who have different but aligned hypothetical paths to being the last non-Biden candidate in the race — that’s an extremely steep hill to climb. (It might be steeper for Sanders, because of the aforementioned “white women problem.”) A Bernie victory might require the primary-season equivalent of drawing an inside straight in one of Donald Trump’s casinos, although you’d have to say — in a bit of a 2016 flashback — that the prospect doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it did even a few weeks ago. Recent polls show a tightening three-way race overall, and suggest that Sanders may be leading Biden in New Hampshire (which he won convincingly in 2016).

So I’m not, like, “Watch out for Bernie, y’all,” because it’s not as if anyone even remotely associated with left-liberal politics doesn’t know he’s there. People are completely freaking obsessed with Bernie Sanders, sometimes to the level of batshit-craziness — people who love him, people who can’t stand him, people who are kind of whatever-neutral about him … except, wait, there are no such people.

I’m also not claiming that there’s an anti-Bernie conspiracy in the mainstream media, designed to drive down his poll numbers and crush his chances. It’s unquestionably true that Sanders’ 2020 campaign has been subjected to an almost hilarious series of slights, oversights and distortions: Polls that list him third when he finished second, headlines that omit his name and focus on candidates with far less popularity, news stories and analyses and panel discussions that lean hard into the argument that he is fading or failing or no longer relevant.

None of that requires a conspiracy theory, because the anti-Sanders bias in the media is baked into the pie, and has a more or less “innocent” explanation. There was no need for a nefarious conference call in which the corporate overlords at CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times agreed to order their minions to take out the dangerous socialist. 

First of all, many people in the mainstream media just don’t like Bernie Sanders, for personal, professional and political reasons. He is undeniably a gruff, irascible person who doesn’t kiss up to reporters in off-the-record conversations, and who generally views the large media corporations as his adversaries. You can argue that’s not good strategy, and that it has permanently alienated a significant number of mainstream liberals who might otherwise be willing to consider him. But I don’t think you can argue that Bernie’s view of the media is categorically false.

Sanders also represents a wide range of policy positions that remain outside what many or most commentators and reporters view as responsible, mainstream politics — despite mounting evidence that actual voters do not share that view. It’s funny how the head-to-head polls that show Biden defeating Trump are seen as evidence of electability, while similar polls that show Sanders defeating Trump are seen as something else — snowflake-driven flukes that fail to anticipate how badly the Trump war machine will eviscerate the socialist, or whatever. (Whereas bumbling, grasping, terminally vague Joe Biden is somehow considered a fearsome opponent.) 

More to the point, mainstream journalists are like magpies, easily distracted by shiny objects and ever-eager to disobey Joan Didion’s famous dictum to “observe the observable.” Bernie Sanders wasn’t supposed to be the story of 2020: This was the Year of the Woman or the Year of Generational Change or the Year of Getting Back to Normal or the Year of Some Other Narrative That Explains Everything. At various moments, Buttigieg and Harris and Biden and Beto O’Rourke and whoever the hell else — there have been longing glances cast at Howard Schultz and Amy Klobuchar and John Hickenlooper and Steve Bullock — have appeared to supply “news hooks” for such narratives.

In that context, it was easy to sideline Sanders and his supposed “bros” to the margins, not quite out of malice — although, OK, there was some of that — but because, ha ha, we did “socialism is back” already and that didn’t happen, so that’s boring and let’s move on. Laziness and Trump-trauma took over and a whole lot of people in the political and media class neglected to observe the observable facts. 

Those facts are that Bernie Sanders has built and nourished an important, likely transformative, political movement. He stands for critically important policies that the Democratic Party must engage, even though it conspicuously doesn’t want to. He represents a rising progressive generation that it desperately needs — but that also threatens the party’s governing assumptions and institutions on a fundamental level. Democrats almost certainly won’t nominate him, but they can’t possibly win without him. Leading Democrats and their supporters in the media — guardians of a regular-order politics that no longer exists — keep hoping that if they close their eyes Bernie Sanders will go away. It’s not working.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir